Neutrality now is too little, too late | Sunday Observer

Neutrality now is too little, too late

Elections bring out the worst in politicians; they can also bring out the best in them. What it has brought out in President Maithripala Sirisena is the unexpected. With a presidential election looming in five weeks, President Sirisena made a surprising announcement this week. The President has decided that he would be ‘neutral’ during the upcoming election.

The declaration came from the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Dayasiri Jayasekara who said that the President’s decision was made in good faith and was aimed at ensuring an election that was both fair and peaceful. It was also necessitated by the fact that the President held the Defence portfolio, Jayasekara said.

In order to do so, the President would be temporarily stepping down as Chairman of the SLFP. The ‘acting’ Chairman would be Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, an academic who is not a politician who served briefly as the party’s General Secretary prior to Jayasekara.

Ironically, this statement was made at the same time as the announcement that the SLFP, after weeks of dilly-dallying, would be supporting the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, disregarding the fact that the SLPP ignored its request to change its candidate’s symbol.

This begs the question, what exactly does the presidential announcement mean, in practical terms? One major advantage for the President is that he wouldn’t have to mount the same platform as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and exhort voters to vote for the latter, when he did quite the opposite four and a half years ago, asking voters not to vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa. His excuse would be that even if the SLFP was endorsing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy, he is no longer its leader!

This is of course in contrast to what the President said four years ago, at the 2015 general elections. That was when the President made an unusual ‘address to the nation’ and declared in no uncertain terms that even if the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), of which the SLFP was the main constituent party, won the election he would not be appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

A few weeks ago, when negotiations were on between the SLPP and the SLFP, SLFP stalwarts such as Jayasekara were making rude noises to the effect that it commanded a million votes in its vote bank without which Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not be able to win the election. The key to that vote bank, they argued, was to change Rajapaksa’s symbol.

Now, the SLFP has capitulated without a whimper and all its parliamentarians are scampering to get in to the good books of the Rajapaksas. Even Duminda Dissanayake, thought to be one of the few who opposed the Rajapaksas, was singing their praises at the SLPP’s inaugural rally in Anuradhpaura this week. The only person missing from the ensemble was Kumara Welgama.

The announcement that President Sirisena would stay ‘neutral’ is also a tacit acknowledgment that, until now, he was not neutral. In fact, that was the undoing of his Presidency and that is the reason why he cannot even contemplate running as a candidate from the SLFP.

Memories of Sri Lankan voters are notoriously short, but most of them will still remember candidate Maithripala Sirisena. He ran against the candidate put forward by the SLFP-led coalition and won on the strength of votes which came mostly from the United National Party (UNP). Strategically, there was nothing wrong with that.

No one would have faulted President Sirisena had he opted to remain ‘neutral’ after his election to the highest office in the land. One could hardly expect him to be a dyed in the wool UNPer, having been involved with the SLFP since the age of seventeen and having been its longest serving General Secretary.

However, after being elected on an anti-SLFP mandate, President Sirisena sought and assumed the leadership of the SLFP which was grudgingly conceded by Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was because Rajapaksa himself had introduced a clause dictating that, should an SLFPer become President, he or she would lead the party- a ploy designed to extricate the SLFP from Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Had President Sirisena been ‘neutral’ from the outset, he would have been much more respected than he is today- and perhaps even had a chance of running for re-election. That way, he could have kept the UNP on the straight and narrow and continued his battle against corruption that occurred during the previous regime, which is what his entire campaign was based upon.

The President did try to keep the UNP on a leash time and again- as he did when there was an attempt to re-appoint Arjuna Mahendran as Central Bank Governor- but he ignored the excesses of his predecessor. In fact, he surrounded himself with some of the previous regime’s most duplicitous Rajapaksa acolytes, the likes of Thilanga Sumathipala, S. B. Dissanayake and Jayasekara, the former duo being accommodated on the National List when they had been voted out by the people.

With such personalities forming his inner circle, any tinge of neutrality was lost. The President moved into top gear instead, in his quest to get in to the driving seat of the SLFP. Perhaps President Sirisena believed that, being Executive President and having the luxury of being able to distribute Cabinet ministries, SLFPers would desert the Rajapaksa bandwagon and gravitate towards him.

They did, but only for a brief period because they found co-existing in the same Cabinet with UNP colleagues stifling. President Sirisena’s own style of government, blowing hot and cold in his relationship with the UNP, criticising it publicly at times and then lambasting the Rajapaksas at other times left him increasingly isolated, with more and more of his parliamentarians leaving him and joining Rajapaksa’s newly formed SLPP.

Now, the damage has already been done. The President has lost his chance to become a statesman. The SLFP is in shambles and is unlikely to ever become the force it once was. Rajapaksas are eyeing another go at government. To become neutral now is too little, too late.