On December 18, Sri Lanka saw yet another example of the truism that Tamils in the nation will be given short shrift in any political arrangement. That day, in a bizarre move, Karu Jayasuriya, the Speaker of the Parliament, named hard-line Sinhala majoritarian leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Leader of the Opposition. The position was held by R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) who has been fighting a relentless battle for the rights of the Tamil people.
In the fight to restore democracy in Sri Lanka following President Maithripala Sirisena’s October 26 decision to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and appoint Rajapaksa in his place, Jayasuriya had stood his ground despite enormous pressures and inducements (“Democracy in peril”, Frontline, December 7, 2018). He conducted two votes of confidence in the House with guile, tact and a lot of spunk and outmanoeuvred Rajapaksa and Sirisena. In doing so, he denied Rajapaksa the legitimacy of parliamentary approval for his prime ministership. In short, in the fight between two Sinhala politicians, Jayasuriya upheld the lofty principles of probity, accountability and fair play and saved the day and democracy in the country.
However, when it came to a Tamil and a Sinhala in the matter of appointing an opposition leader, it appears that Jayasuriya threw out of the window the book on the best democratic practices. Unseating Sampanthan was wrong legally and morally. “Sri Lanka now has two opposition leaders,” said Sampanthan, even as he occupied the seat allotted to the Leader of the Opposition. Rajapaksa sat in a chair next to him. The Speaker did not announce that Sampanthan was being divested of the post; he merely said that Rajapaksa would occupy that post.
Going by the performance in Parliament from the time of the end of the Eelam war in May 2009, Sampanthan and the TNA actually constituted the opposition in Sri Lanka. Sinhala politicians, barring a few, have opposed the government. Even in the current scenario, a person who was unable to continue as Prime Minister suddenly changed his letter pad to that of the Leader of the Opposition, apparently with the connivance of the entire Sinhala-Buddhist establishment.
However, critics have questioned the move. In a letter to the Speaker on December 21, M.A. Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament, pointed out that “there is no dispute that the leader of the political party in opposition with the most number of seats in Parliament ought to be recognised as the Leader of the Opposition. However the question that now confronts us is whether the United Peoples Freedom Alliance [UPFA, whose leader is Sirisena] is a party in opposition.” Sirisena’s party had quit the ruling coalition on October 26, yet he remains the head of government.
“According to established parliamentary tradition, a party in opposition is one that does not participate in the government. The UPFA cannot be considered as a party in opposition since the leader of the UPFA is the head of government and the head of the Cabinet of Ministers. In addition, he also holds the portfolios of Defence, Mahaweli Development and Environment. Presently HE [His Excellency] Maithripala Sirisena holds the Ministries of Law and Order and Media also. In this context where the chairman of the UPFA is not only the head of government but also a Minister in the Cabinet with at least five Ministries under him, the UPFA cannot be considered to be a party in the opposition,” the letter says.
That is not all. “Three members of the UPFA crossed over to the government side yesterday. Previously another three members did the same. The Cabinet of Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers are yet to be appointed and I have information that at least two of the above six MPs have been named in the lists of Cabinet Ministers nominated by the Hon. Prime Minister. It is probable that more UPFA MPs will be accommodated as State Ministers and Deputy Ministers. There can also be more cross-overs of UPFA MPs to the government in the coming days,” Sumanthiran wrote. “In the totality of the circumstances stated above, it is submitted that UPFA can in no way be described as a party in opposition and consequently no member of the UPFA, in such capacity, can be appointed as the Leader of the Opposition.”
Even if this aspect could be overlooked, the fact remains that Rajapaksa had joined another party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), and this attracted disqualification. On November 11, 2018, a tweet from Rajapaksa’s official handle (@PresRajapaksa) announced that he had joined the SLPP: Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa today joined the #SriLanka Podujana Party (@PodujanaParty).
The Rajapaksas have now put forth a new argument: “Yes, they were joining the SLPP, but their membership was not confirmed yet.”
The TNA’s place
Significantly, amid all the drama, not many Sinhala politicians have articulated vehemently that an injustice was meted out to the TNA and to Sampanthan, the senior-most politician in Sri Lankan politics. Until he became the Leader of the Opposition, the 85-year-old Sampanthan lived in a tiny third-floor apartment—which did not even have an elevator—off Havelock Road. He is one of very few MPs who do not own a residence in the capital, Colombo.
The TNA was in the forefront of the movement to restore the rights of the legally elected government of Sri Lanka after the constitutional coup of October 26 and had put the interests of the country first rather than wait and watch while the leaders of the Sinhala majority fought it out. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) also took this admirable stand.
Both the TNA and the SLMC did not fall for the inducements offered by Rajapaksa and refused to back down from their demand that the President reappoint Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. In the view of the leaders of both these parties, a constitutional transgression had happened in their time and they were in a place to fight the transgression. And with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court acting in an impartial manner, the minorities made sure that Sri Lanka did not slip into an abyss of uncertainty.
One possible explanation for the Speaker’s action of making Rajapaksa the Leader of the Opposition could be the Sinhala strongman’s speech playing the ethnic card just before he “resigned” as Prime Minister on December 15. He accused the United National Party (UNP), to which Jayasuriya belongs, of being hostage to the TNA.
“A total of 117 MPs voted calling for Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe to be appointed as Prime Minister. Fourteen of those votes belong to the TNA,” Rajapaksa said in his address. “Even though the TNA also requested that Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe be appointed Prime Minister, on the same day, TNA parliamentarian Mavei Senathirajah made a special statement in Parliament on behalf of the TNA saying that though they voted for Mr Wickrermasinghe to become Prime Minister, they would not join the government and would remain in the opposition. So what has actually happened here is that the UNP, which has a minority position in the House with 103 seats, has been taken hostage by the TNA. If it does not adhere to the diktat of the TNA, the UNP can lose its parliamentary majority at any moment. The TNA now holds the remote control in Parliament,” he said.
He added: “Even though some have expressed the view that it will be possible to minimise the damage done by the UNP because the President is no longer with them, we must realise that there is much that the UNP-TNA coalition can do without informing the President. We should bear in mind that back in 2002, the then UNP government signed a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] without informing President Chandrika Kumaratunga” (translation from Sinhala by Colombo Telegraph).
It is clear that Rajapaksa is still playing the Sinhala versus Tamil card and trying to hold up the bogey of a possible revival of the LTTE. While two political observers in Colombo saw this as a desperate attempt on the part of Rajapaksa to shore up his base, they were not sure of the impact it would have on people in general. But the agenda appears to be clear: divide the nation again, in the name of Tamils and create a solid vote base of Sinhala people who will vote for Rajapaksa and his party in the next election.
President Sirisena, the primary actor in the drama that plunged Sri Lanka into uncertainty, made it clear, somewhat incredulously, that his actions were based on personal likes and dislikes. “I will not make him [Ranil Wickremesinghe] Prime Minister…. Not in my lifetime,” he asserted at a briefing for foreign correspondents on November 25, almost a month after he illegally sacked Wickremesinghe.
But after he ran out of options—his candidate, Rajapaksa, was voted out twice, failed parliamentary floor tests, and three court rulings—on December 16, Wickremesinghe was again sworn in as Prime Minister, a post from which he had not resigned. The Sri Lankan President’s about-turn was not out of character. Every action that he had taken since the day he dismissed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister had one objective: running for a second term as President. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe did not get along, and the only option for Sirisena was to rope in Rajapaksa, whose SLPP had made significant gains in the local body elections. Sirisena made Rajapaksa an offer he could barely refuse—the post of Prime Minister in return for allowing him to run for presidency when elections were due. The gamble of sacking the serving Prime Minister and replacing him with Rajapaksa did not work. In the 51-day turmoil in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa, who was poised to take the reins of the country again, could not muster the numbers in Parliament, and he watched on helplessly as his popularity nosedived.
On December 16, after the Supreme Court’s unanimous verdict, Rajapaksa stood alone and turned out to be the biggest loser in the drama that lasted two months. The 20th century’s “Sinhala hero” who defeated “terrorism” and freed them from the grip of fear of the Tamil Tigers had fallen. He had misread the pulse of the people and had tried to incite hatred against Tamils as a desperate last move. The move to become Prime Minister was surely a grave error of judgment. It is too early to tell whether the attempt to polarise voters will work for him or whether people will remember him for his brazen attempt to grab power, when they go to the polling booths the next time.