The Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon
Posted on November 3rd, 2018

Since January 9, 2015, we have been witnessing what is nothing short of a political miracle. A powerful President, defeated by a combination of local political parties and foreign interests defeated at a Presidential election through the manipulation of block votes. Having been first deprived of his presidency, within a matter of days he was deprived of the leadership of his political party as well. Thus over a short period of time, he was reduced from being the leader of one of the most powerful governments that this country has seen to the level of an ordinary citizen holding no elected post of any kind and having no political party. Yet the ordinary people of this country refused to give up on him.

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As the defeated Mahinda went back to his village in Medamulana to his ancestral home, the spontaneous crowd that had assembled in the compound of the house was angry and defiant. In the days that followed, the mood turned to one of unbearable grief, the crowd grew into a flood and a permanent queue two to three kilometers long formed outside his home in the Tangalle town. People from all over the country came in vans and buses to Tangalle to see him and for a while there was a whole industry where van and bus owners ferried people to see the fallen leader. For weeks and months after his defeat, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main occupation was to sit behind a desk at his Tangalle home greeting with clasped hands in the traditional manner, the thousands who filed past – each visitor being able to see him for just a split second.

In the meantime, in Colombo politicians loyal to the fallen leader were regrouping. Telephone calls were being exchanged, meetings were being arranged, the smaller political parties that were in alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party earlier led by Mahinda Rajapaksa had greater freedom of action than the MPs of the SLFP who were now under a new leader and under restraint. Within days, the nucleus of an opposition movement had formed. One major opportuinity left open to the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa camp by the defeat of January 2015 was that the country was left without an opposition. Since all those who had opposed the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had united to defeat him, they were now the governing party and the people perceived them as such. This left the opposition space open to Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists. It would not be incorrect to say that the latter had a monopoly over the opposition space, which was a great boon.

Mahinda Sulanga

What rapidly took shape was a people’s opposition from the ground level upwards. The first meeting of this nascent people’s opposition was held in Nugegoda forty days after the defeat and was led mainly by the smaller political parties with only one or two figures from the SLFP. But it had the blessings of a large number of SLFP politicians who sent their followers to the meeting. At that time, it was the best attended political rally ever held in Nugegoda and that was a clear indication that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not finished yet. In the weeks and months that followed, more rallies of the kind styled ‘Mahinda sulanga’ were held in Kandy, Ratnapura, Matara and Anuradhapura. With each meeting, more and more SLFP members came out into the open and declared themselves to be Mahinda loyalists.

The most important thing was that all the Mahinda Sulanga rallies were a case of staging Hamlet without the prince. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself never appeared on the stage and all that the people saw was a photograph of him. Yet they came in their thousands just to see the photograph of their fallen leader and to pledge their loyalty. That itself was a very unusual occurrence and probably unprecedented in the world. Usually when a fallen leader regroups, he has to lead the movement himself and give the people the assurance that he would lead them. In the case of the Mahinda Sulanga rallies, the most the assembled crowd got was to hear a message from Mahinda Rajapaksa read out to the crowd. The first time that Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared at one of these rallies was at the Matara rally where he did not get on to the stage but was seen on the ramparts of the Matara fort observing the unprecedented crowd that had assembled in Matara to demand his return to politics.

Though his detractors claim that all this was ‘orchestrated’ by the Rajapaksas, that was nonsense. The movement to bring him back into politics was spontaneous. Within weeks of the change of government when the new leader of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena summoned the local government representatives of the UPFA to the ‘Ape Gama’ auditorium, there was an open mutiny on the part of the local councilors who basically refused to accept the new leadership of the SLFP. On May Day in 2015, the SLFP crowds that were brought to Colombo by SLFP parliamentarians were seen everywhere except at Hyde Park where the rally was being held. This writer was at that rally and SLFP contingents that came down Darley Road in procession went off towards Town Hall without so much as a glance towards the stage where their new leadership sat. Some of those walking away from the SLFP meeting had made a bee line to the Mahinda group’s May Day rally in Kirullapone.

By the time, the Parliamentary election of August 2015 came around, it was obvious that the SLFP led UPFA was not going to get anywhere without Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Maithripala Sirisena, who had taken over the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa took a step backwards and bowing to popular pressure, he allowed Mahinda Rajapaksa to lead the campaign for the Parliamentary election. When it seemed as if Mahinda Rajapaksa would actually win the parliamentary election, and would have to be appointed as Prime Minister, the new leader of the SLFP President Sirisena played a dirty trick on him by publishing a letter just days before the poll saying that he would not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister even if the UPFA wins the election.

That was just 48 hours before the poll. To show that he meant what he said, President Sirisena sacked the General Secretaries of both the SLFP and the UPFA and appointed two of his loyalists to those posts. When this happened, the final rally of the UPFA was in progress just before the campaigning for the election closed. Needless to say the UPFA lost the election. Mahinda Rajapaksa became just an MP for the Kurunegala district in parliament. Two electoral defeats in one year after having led a government would have finished off any other politician. It is certainly true that the record for electoral defeats is held by Ranil Wickremasinghe and his party has not been able to get rid of him no matter what.

But RW clung to his party leadership by various subterfuges and strategems which saw multiple rebellions against his leadership and multiple splits in the UNP when those rebellions failed. In Mahinda Rajapaksa’s case, the defeat saw a reduction in the UPFA vote from 5.8 million to 4.8 million, but there was no rebellion against Mahinda. On the contrary, from the very next day after the 2015 parliamentary election, his followers regrouped and the bulk of the UPFA parliamentarians who were elected to parliament at the 2015 parliamentary election opted to remain in the opposition with Mahinda Rajapaksa – some 53 MPs who styled themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’.

The black hole

About six months after the the second defeat of 2015, when the newly formed ‘Joint Opposition’ held its first May Day rally in Kirullapone in May 2016, the crowd assembled dwarfed that of the ruling UNP. When this writer went to the Kirullapone rally and phoned a couple of friends to say that the crowd there was much bigger than both the UNP and JVP rallies combined, which I had observed before going to Kirullapone, nobody believed me. The crowd was not only huge, it was an angry, emotionally charged crowd and nowhere else had this writer seen people packed so densely together over such a large area. After the defeat at the 2015 parliamentary election, began a persecution of Mahinda loyalists such as this country has never seen. The new leader of the SLFP tried every trick in the book to break the resolve of the Mahinda loyalists within the SLFP and the UPFA.

Mahinda loyalists were removed one by one from the Central Committee of the SLFP and from party posts. When that did not work, Maithripala Sirisena took the drastic step of removing them from their electoral organizer posts. Being an electoral organizer is the lifeblood of an elected parliamentarian. That is what gives him the status of the main representative of his political party in a given constituency. Even under the proportional representation system, the importance of these constituency organizer positions had not diminished because the candidates got the bulk of their preference votes from the constituency assigned to them and a certain proportion of preference votes from other constituencies as well.

Thus this electoral organizer post was arguably the single most important position for a politician belonging to one of the two main political parties. In what can only be described as a political miracle, not one of Mahinda’s loyalists even flinched when they were deprived of these all important electoral positions. To turn your back on an established political party in that manner was tantamount to political suicide. From the time the UNP and the SLFP came into being six or seven decades ago, these two parties had dominated the politics of this country and one needed to be nominated through one of these two political parties and also to be in control of an electoral organizer’s position in order to win elections. To stand by Mahinda Rajapaksa when they were being deprived of these all important electoral posts and watch them being given to various upstarts was one of the greatest acts of political fortitude that one has witnessed in this country.

It was not just deprivation of their political positions that the MPs who stood with Mahinda had to face. Combined with their sidelining within the SLFP and being stripped of everything except their party membership, these politicians also had to face the worst harassment at the hands of the police and the law enforcement authorities that any opposition has had to face. Mahinda loyalists were hauled before various Commissions, courts and police units where there often were parallel investigations running into the same matter. The Mahinda loyalist MPs and even members of their families were subject to this persecution. In addition to being hauled before a commission of inquiry himself, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two elder sons were both remanded by the yahapalana government. Very few MPs in the Joint Opposition managed to avoid this persecution.

To have stood by Mahinda in the middle of all this, was political valor of epic proportions. That he could inspire such loyalty is what makes Mahinda Rajapaksa unique among the politicians we have seen in this country. Even in 2015 before the parliamentary election, after Maithripala Sirisena had seized control of the SLFP, there were discussions about those with Mahinda Rajapaksa forming a separate political party to contest the parliamentary election. But one of the reasons why everyone finally decided to contest together with the Sirisena led UPFA was because no one knew how the loyalty of the party members towards the established political party would play out at the polls.

One of the signs that these terror tactics were not working and that the people were behind Mahinda Rajapaksa regardless of political party loyalties was demonstrated by the Galle Face May Day rally of the Joint Opposition in 2017. That was by far the largest crowd to ever to attend a political event in this country. Later that year, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna was formed to contest the local government elections of February 2018. Even when the newly formed SLPP went to the local government polls, no one knew how the party loyalty factor would play out. No one knew whether the traditional SLFP voter would remain within the SLFP and UPFA without voting for the SLPP. The UNP was carrying out the propaganda that when the SLFP vote was split between the SLFP and the SLPP, the UNP would automatically come out on top.

Changing world history

At the time the local government elections were held, it was a manifest fact that the SLFP voters were divided at village level and the UNP was right to entertain high hopes. Nowhere in the world in any mature democracy which had enjoyed a system of representative government based on universal suffrage and a two party system had any new party challenging the established parties suceeeded and the SLPP was going to contest against the UNP and the SLFP in such unpromising circumstances. However when the votes were finally counted, the SLPP had done what was considered impossible. It had soundly defeated both the UNP and the SLFP and become the largest political party in the country. That was a watershed in the history of this country.

From that turning point until the next presidential or parliamentary election, there was only one trajectory that the country can take. The result of the February local government election is the single event that has influenced the politics of this country in the months that have followed. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there was a headlong quest from within both the SLFP and the UPFA to join up with the SLPP following the local government election. It would have been disastrous for the SLFP or the UPFA to go to another election without joining up with the SLPP. The attempt to get a motion of no confidence passed against Ranil Wickremesinghe was one step that was taken to bring the SLFP and the SLPP together in a united political endeavor. Even though that attempt failed, it resulted in the Joint Opposition’s numbers in Parliament going up by 15 MPs.

The fact that the President clearly was behind the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe drew a wedge between the SLFP and UNP partners in the government. It was no secret that in the event the Prime Minister was defeated through a no confidence motion, the President’s preferred candidate for the Premiership was the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. However, the latter had backed off, because he knew that the country was now in such a state that no one could turn things around. The news coming down the grapevine is that the President had then offered the position to Sajith Premadasa and Ranjith Madduma Bandra but they too had turned down the officer. As the rift between the Prime Minister and the president widened, another factor that entered the equation was the revelation by a police informer that there was a plot against the lives of the President and former Defence Secretary both of whom were being mentioned as possible contenders for the presidency against the UNP candidate next year.

For days, the TV channels were abuzz with claims and counterclaims being made about the existence of such a plot and the involvement of a police DIG with very high connections in the UNP. The final nail in the coffin of the UNP-UPFA coalition government was when someone in the cabinet leaked out the story that president Sirisena had said in Cabinet that the Indian intelligence agency RAW was engaged in a plot to assassinate him. This was reported in an Indian newspaper and led to a diplomatic issue between the two countries. It was in this context that President Sirisena’s UPFA left the government and with its exit, the government fell apart and Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Prime Minister.

This was an unexpected turn of events but perhaps not totally unexpected. Members of the President’s party had been angling for this since the local government election of February this year. This was coming sooner or later but it came sooner than most people expected. As the situation in the country deteriorated, the Joint Opposition had been calling for a parliamentary election or at least for the long postponed provincial council elections to be held. From the moment he took oaths as the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his followers have been insisting that this is not a government that was meant to rule the country but an interim arrangement until a parliamentary election is held and concluded.

After MR’s swearing in, we were able to witness another phenomenon that only Mahinda and no other leader would have been able to bring about. Even as members of the UNP and the Maithripala Sirisena faction of the SLFP were sworn in as ministers in the interim government, no member of the Joint Opposition joined the government. Even at the point of writing, the only member of the Joint Opposition in the newly formed government is Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. All the others are waiting for an election to accept ministerial office. The conventional wisdom is that the ministers in power have the edge over those who do not have ministries when it comes to an election. But the Joint Opposition knows that at the next election, the main factor that will decide whether one gets into parliament on the SLPP side is whether one is a loyalist of Mahinda Rajapaksa or not.

That is the Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon. Politicians who have been defeated have made comebacks. Two examples that readily come to mind are that of Winston Churchill in the 1950s and Indira Gandhi in 1980. The fact that Mahinda has sworn in as Prime Minister is not really a political come back. But it is clearly a soft opening for what is to follow. Even if the UNP manages to claw back a majority with the help of the TNA and the JVP, they will be fatally hobbled with the president being opposed to them. The only thing that they will be able to do in terms of wielding power will be to enjoy the perks of office for the remainder of the one year and few months they have until a parliamentary election can be called. A presidential election will be due before December 9, 2019.

The reaction of the man on the street to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appointment as Prime Minister said it all. There was a palpable feeling of relief in the country. The Gangarama Podihamuduruwo articulated this feeling well. If an election is held at this moment, there is little doubt that the group led by Mahinda Rajapaksa will sweep the polls which is why the UNP is not responding to the call that an election be called even though they have been demanding that Parliament be summoned after it was prorogued for a few days by the President.

One Response to “The Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    Bravo, Mr. Chandraprema, your article sums up the Mahinda Phenomenon and the Political Mood of the nation very well.

    Who says the majority of ordinary people of this nation are UNGRATEFUL and FORGETFUL? They will NEVER FORGET that Mahinda cared enough for them to take-on the world, defeat terrorism, reunify their Motherland, and bring UNPRECEDENTED DEVELOPMENT, National Progress and Economic Prosperity to them.

    The Foreign Engineered REGIME CHANGE that spewed FALSE Propaganda to capture power with the agenda of subjugating themajority Sinhala Buddhists of this country to a Foreign Yoke with a PARA-GATHI PUPPET AGA-MATHI as their willing instrument never commanded the support of the people after the Massive Bank Thefts and National Asset sales to foreign powers, and Constitutional Manipulations revealed their TREASONOUS duplicity.

    Our Motherland is now POISED AGAIN on the THRESHOLD of RESUMING ITS MARCH TOWARDS GREATNESS!

    This OBJECT LESSON that NOT ONLY THOSE BEARING ARMS are OUR Nation’s ENEMIES, but also that those PARA-GATHI LEADERS who SLITHER and HIDE AMONG the BUSHES pretending to be “Democrats” and “Human Rights Advocates” are PUPPETS of our ENEMIES, is CRYSTAL CLEAR NOW to our people. NEVER AGAIN will they be allowed to capture the reins of POWER through subterfuge!

    Those who NEARLY DESTROYED our Nation within 3 1/2 short years, should be BANISHED to the POLITICAL WILDERNESS for DECADES TO COME, and be PURSUED FROM PILLAR TO POST to make hem PAY HEAVILY for their TREASON & TREACHERY!

    JAYAWEWA DESHAPREMINI! BANGAWEWA DESHADROHINI!

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