12 January 2015

How Maithripala Sirisena became First Citizen

He was one of the few seniors in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to openly back Mahinda Rajapaksa when the latter first ran for President in 2005.  Although by dint of seniority, popularity within the party, dynamism and energy, and proven organizational skill he ought to have been in the running for the post of Prime Minister whenever it was considered ‘up for grabs’ (i.e. after a Presidential or General Election), he was overlooked in favor of others. 

One reason was what could be called the D.B. Wijetunga Principle.  ‘DB’ was picked as PM by Ranasinghe Premadasa after the latter succeeded J.R.Jayewardene as President in 1988.  It was believed that Premadasa didn’t want to be overshadowed by equally dynamic and popular leaders such Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake.   ‘DB’ was aging.  Safe.  Chandrika Kumaratunga’s choice of Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s persistence with Wickramanayake and later opting for another ‘vintage’ party man, D.M. Jayaratne are all seen as leaves out of the Premadasa book. 

However, as the longest serving General Secretary of the SLFP, Sirisena had the keys to the party machinery and the network of organizers.  He had standing.  He was respected.  He was loyal to his leader, until the end. 

So when he broke ranks, he wrecked the political equation.  Whereas in 2010 Sarath Fonseka was expected by some to split the Sinhala vote, the man didn’t have a party and party still counted.  In this instance, Sirisena’s decision to challenge Rajapaksa with the support of the main opposition, the tacit support of the JVP and the special skills of Rev Athureliye Rathana and Champika Ranawaka of the JHU amounted to a challenge that had a much better chance than in Fonseka’s efforts five years previously. 

The rest, as they say, is history.  Let's recap, though. 

The moment Mahinda Rajapaksa used the two-thirds majority that the United People’s Freedom Alliance enjoyed in Parliament to get the 18th Amendment passed and thereby secured the constitutional right to go for a third term, it was clear that an election will be held towards the end of 2014 or at the beginning of 2015.  The ‘early call’ was predictable, considering possible regime/incumbency-fatigue as the term dragged on. 

The question was, who would stand up to a popular President, a man during whose tenure a 30 year long armed conflict was brought to a close and who had a lot of development to show.  It was not easy.  Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition, would have been ‘obvious choice’ except for his poor record in major elections and the calories he has had to keep burning to keep rebels in his party at bay.  An outsider was tried in 2010.  Sarath Fonseka was bested and by a massive margin.

Five years later, under different circumstances with war-victory more of a ‘thing of the past’ a similar candidate might have made a run, but Fonseka’s experience meant that there wouldn’t exactly be people fighting to be that candidate. 

The idea of a ‘Common Candidate’ was in the air for several months. Ven Madoluwawe Sobitha Thero, with his tireless campaign to abolish the executive presidential system was a name that was discussed.  Karu Jayasuriya, who shared the Thero’s sentiments and was seen as a unifier who could obtain the support of the JHU and JVP, was another ‘possible’.  Shirani Bandaranayake, the ‘Ousted CJ’ as well as her predecessor the inimitable Sarath N Silva were also talked of as potential Common Candidates.  No one thought, ‘How about Maithripala Sirisena?’

Today there are many who claim to have been instrumental in getting him to contest.  One thing is certain.  Rev Athureliye Rathana firing some salvos and the JHU leaving the Government with absolutely nothing to fall back on (there was no ‘candidate to support’ at the time, and anyway elections had not even been called) infused some courage into the broader opposition.  Chandrika Kumaratunga, for all her flaws (she was a big liability during the campaign with the venom she spouted being antithetical to the ‘compassion’ line that underlined the Sirisena campaign), probably gave Sirisena that little extra boost of courage to say bye-bye to the leader he once loved and clearly admired.  Whether or not the 'international community' had a say in the matter, we don't know.  It is hard to purchase Dayan Jayatilleka's tale about political lost-causes such as Rajitha Senaratne and Mangala Samaraweera doing the moving and shaking.  The conspicuous absence of the Saravanamuttus and Jehan Pereras in the whole drama should indicate that what we saw is what we got, nothing more nothing less.

 But it finally came down to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP.  Only Ranil (given the UNP constitution and given his personality) could decide whether or not Sirisena would be a viable candidate.  Tellingly, Sirisena had to wait until the UNP’s Working Committee had pledged to support him to announce his candidacy.

Then other pieces fell into place.  Key individuals crossed party lines.  The JVP offered de facto support by telling people not to vote for Rajapaksa.  The SLMC and other key figures in the Muslim community offered support.  The TNA likewise pledged the Tamil vote. 

Then came a hard fought campaign.  The incumbency edge had to be nullified.  The abuse of state resources, an unfortunate ‘given’, had to be met with that much more effort.  Not all of it came from concerted, well-planned marshaling of resources.  The work of volunteers, almost all operating on their own and in small groups the ‘high command’ probably knew nothing about, counted.  It all came together. 

The rest, as they say, was history.



DIL said...

All said and done but where does that leave the country? People will have democracy but what else? An unstable government, stalled development, high debts to pay and probably all sorts of unrest down the line. We know the slow pace of RW & Co, and JHU will squabble with commissions and omissions with no interest in rapid development. Wishful thinking!!!

Nuwan said...

Whatever happened, it was well executed campaign compared to 2010. After winning election after election for so long, minds of the people were condition to believe that MR was unbeatable. It was hard to find a person who believe MR would loose. I think JHU made a big difference too. MR lose one of his main weapon; nationalism. JHU expose how he faced the war and how his administration engaged in corruption. JVP contributed well too. MS would not have won with just minority votes. They got a huge chunk of MR's base. Youth were more energized and rallied for a change. All came together in a perfect storm to make unthinkable happen to unseat a person who was widely believed to be invincible in Sri Lanka politics.