Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has abandoned his idea of sending a separate delegation to represent him at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva which is to take Sri Lanka’s case of war time accountability on March 20. Instead, one delegation agreed on by both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena and led by Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana would be sent to articulate Sri Lanka’ stand in the backdrop of the UNP government agreeing to co-sponsor the 2015 resolution on alleged war crimes. However senior SLFP MP Dr Sarath Amunugama, who is currently sitting in the Opposition, would be included in the official delegation as the special representative of President Sirisena. Earlier this week it was declared by President Sirisena that he would send his own three member team to speak against the UNP regime’s decision to co-sponsor the 2015 UNHRC resolution.
Meanwhile, with the UNHRC resolution figuring as one of the key topics within Sri Lanka that could influence the Sinhala majority vote at the Presidential elections (as well as parliamentary and provincial council elections) this year, President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and ex President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) is on the brink of striking up a strategic alliance propped up by their common penchant for toeing an opposite line to the pro Western UNP. Official talks between the two parties are currently being held this week but there appears to be no change in the general decision by the SLPP to go with former war winning Defence Secretary and younger brother of the former President, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as Presidential candidate.
Both the SLFP and the SLPP members want the alliance, political sources point out, stating that the SLFP knows it is on a weak footing, having abjectly lost last year’s local government election to Rajapaksa’s SLPP and further destabilized by a significant number of SLFPers crossing over end last year to the fledgling party of the ex President. It is pointed out meanwhile that the SLPP would want to contest elections with the SLFP because it would not want to risk some of its potential votes being swung towards the SLFP by traditional voters of that party. With the SLPP unlikely to get the Muslim and Tamil vote in bulk it would strategize to maximize getting the Sinhala vote, analysts point out. However the bargaining clout in affiliation with the SLFP rests with Rajapaksa’s SLPP. President Maithripala Sirisena who contested the January 2015 Presidential election on the UNP ticket with his then campaign based fully on anti Rajapaksa accusations may not even have the slimmest of chances of being accommodated by the SLPP as its Presidential candidate, internal sources point out.
“If Sirsena is accommodated as Presidential candidate of the SLPP it may be a serious liability for the party. The voters may have better memories than politicians,” an analyst quipped while political sources say that master strategist of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa is vehemently against the idea of Sirisena as candidate of his brother’s party. “This is completely understandable because Sirisena has proven to be untrustworthy twice over,”a source close to the Rajapaksas said. First he was one of the closest confidante of Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was President and was a senior SLFP member. Then he crosses over to the UNP, with no prior warning, and notably just after a brotherly hopper dinner with the former President and begins his Presidential campaign by unprecedented mud slinging at Rajapaksa. Thereafter, three years into his marriage with the UNP he lets down the UNP leader who enabled him to become President and sacks him from his post of Prime Minister and joins again with Mahinda Rajapaksa! The former President may have seemed to re-embrace Sirisena with open arms, despite all the previous insults, but Mahinda Rajapaksa is a seasoned and shrewd politician who, along with his brothers and sons who are all part of politics, never forgets. Reportedly the Rajapaksa family is vehemently against the idea of Sirisena being the SLPP’s Presidential candidate and Basil Rajapaksa is taking the lead in this stand.
Several senior SLPP members, the former President and Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself had on several occasions within the past two years confirmed that he will be SLPPs Presidential candidate, with this being re-affirmed by Gotabhaya himself last month. Recently the former Defence Secretary told journalists that his Unites States citizenship would not be a problem as he had no doubt that it would be withdrawn as per his request. The 19th amendment to the constitution brought about in early 2015 introduced the clause that no Sri Lankan holding citizenship of another country could contest to become the President. One of the antagonisms the Rajapaksas have against President Sirisena is that he was one of the main architects of the 19th amendment and seen then as having introduced it to ‘keep the Rajapaksa’s out of politics.’ The 19th amendment prevented a President from serving more than two terms and decreed that no member of parliament or President aspirant could be citizen of another country while the age of 35 was made to be the minimum age of a Presidential candidate. The Rajapaksas feel that these were brought about to ensure that Mahinda Rajapaksa who has served two terms as President cannot contest again, and to keep Basil Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who are both US citizens away from politics as well as prevent son of the ex President, Namal Rajapaksa who is below 35 years from contesting the Presidency in the immediate future. All this has not stopped resonating in the minds of the Rajapaksas, political sources affiliated with them point out, confirming that all these points have been raised in recent meetings within the SLPP. Thus the nomination of President Sirisena’s name as Presidential candidate of a unified SLFP and SLPP remains largely a distant fantasy although President Sirisena seems to still believe in it.
Meanwhile, since his SLFP withdrew from the coalition government formed with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP last October, President Sirisena has become increasingly sensationalist, declaring the death sentence for drug dealers, taking on a strident nationalistic anti Western line by blaming the UNP regime for siding with the international community and jeopardizing the good name of the Lankan military. His declarations that he will be sending a separate team to take an opposite stand to the UNP at the UNHRC sessions is also seen as a populist stance.
He had in the past months strongly criticized and at times prevented the UNP’s attempts at honouring the commitments made at the 2015 UNHRC. Although in February 2019, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe submitted a Cabinet paper to establish a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence, President Maithripala Sirisena stalled it receiving Cabinet approval by requesting more time to make his observations. Also notably, at the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, President Sirisena insisted that Sri Lanka does not require ‘foreign interference or threats,’ alluding to the UNHRC Sri Lanka co sponsored resolution.
In this backdrop observers point out that a tying up between the SLPP and the SLFP for the upcoming Presidential election may affect Sri Lanka’s internal stability and Sinhala-Tamil relations in general as the two parties may step up an ultra nationalist line. There is already alarming signs of unrest in Northern Jaffna with university students openly supporting the LTTE and calling for international war crimes investigations.
The actual direction of the SLFP – SLPP tie up and their policy based reaction to the renewed international calls for war crimes is likely to determine Sri Lanka’s immediate political future.