Sri Lanka’s opposition parties pulled off a political coup when the announcement was made to field Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate to face incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the snap presidential election in January 2015. A dictionary defines a coup as a “brilliantly executed stratagem.” It was also a surprise.
First, to the surprise element. Ever since the idea of holding the forthcoming presidential election in 2015 was mooted, the opposition parties, desiring to form a common platform to face the formidable Mahinda Rajapaksa, were debating the idea of a common candidate. There was hardly any agreement and several well-known names were proposed, but Sirisena’s name was not one of them. Nobody expected him to come forward because he was the General Secretary of the president’s party, the SLFP, and hitherto, at least publicly, did not demonstrate any resentment against the government. He was seen as one of the close allies of the president and his policies and in fact he defended the government until very recently. Therefore, his candidacy indeed was a surprise even to some of the movers and shakers of Sri Lanka politics. It seemed the president himself, with all the intelligence resources around him, was shocked by this move. The president’s men were targeting Ranil Wickramasinghe and Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. One newspaper aptly declared that “he (Sirisena) came out of the blue.” The surprise has the potential to jolt the overconfident campaign of the ruling party.
Now, to the question of strategy. The Sirisena candidacy is certainly a smart strategy adopted by the opposition parties because it has resolved several problems. Although numerous names were proposed and debated as a common candidate, nobody really had the approval of all major opposition parties and factions. This disagreement had the potential to spoil the idea of a common candidate and to force major parties to field their own candidates, which would have automatically ensured the victory of President Rajapaksa. Now it is certain that Rajapaksa will face a common opposition candidate.
On the other hand, the Sirisena candidacy has enabled several key political actors to support the common candidate. For example, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) would have found it difficult to endorse and support Ranil Wickramasinghe. Now, it is not impossible to forge an understanding at least with the JVP, who carry a lot of clout among the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency. Nevertheless, this is already a substantially broad alliance. If the architects of the new alliance can convince the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to join hands, it really has the potential to become a national coalition.
The TNA and SLMC have different issues in endorsing the Sirisena candidacy. The TNA and the Tamil people have never viewed Sirisena as a leader who could appeal to the minority communities. He was seen more as a Sinhala-Buddhist politician. Therefore, the Tamil support for Sirisena will not be automatic. It might need some convincing. It is here, Ranil Wickramasinge and Chandrika Kumaratunga, two of the main architects of the new alliance, could be of value. These two relatively have more sympathy among the Tamil community than Sirisena himself. Therefore, they could convince the TNA to support Sirisena, which would ensure a majority of the Tamil votes. On the other hand, in the last presidential election in 2010, the Tamils supported Sarath Fonseka, who led the war against the LTTE. Therefore, convincing the TNA to endorse Sirisena will not be too cumbersome.
From an electoral arithmetic point of view, fielding Sirisena as the common candidate should be depicted as a brilliant move. It is clear from the recent political developments that President Mahinda Rajapaksa does not have adequate support among the minority communities, especially the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims. This in turn makes him over-dependent on the Sinhala-Buddhist voters. He needs about 65 percent of the Sinhala votes to win outright. What the Sirisena candidacy does is, it makes a serious dent in this block of votes, because of his Sinhala-Buddhist outlook and SLFP affiliation.
First, most Sinhala people, even if they are not happy with the government policies and directions, do not want to vote for a candidate who does not appear to be standing up for the country and the interest of the Sinhala people. This was one of the reasons why the government was winning consequent elections. There were no alternatives for them in the opposition. Now, these people can vote for Sirisena because he is no less Sinhala-Buddhist than Mahinda Rajapaksa. Second, in the recent past, there has been a growing perception that the Rajapaksa faction has taken control of the SLFP by sidelining senior and longtime members and at the expense of original ideals of SWRD Bandaranaike, the founded leader of the party. Although this perception was troubling the regime for a while, no attention was paid due to the immense popularity and confidence of the president. Maithripala Sirisena seems to be giving voice and a platform for these concerns. He has already promised to rescue the party and return to the Bandaranaike principles. Therefore, he can also attract a segment of the SLFP vote, which again is basically Sinhala-Buddhist. The government should consider the Sirisena candidacy a serious problem primarily because it targets the very heart of President Rajapaksa’s vote bank. With the announcement of the Sirisena candidacy, the government lost the luxury of taking the election for granted.
The Sirisena candidacy also takes an important weapon out of the arsenal of the government. The government constantly and most effectively used a slogan of collaboration with the LTTE or the West to discredit political opponents. This worked well especially against Wickramasinge. The early indications are that the same line of attack will be mounted against Sirisena. His former colleagues in the government have already called him a part of “foreign conspiracy.”
However, the problem is that this slogan is not going to be that effective against Sirisena. The government therefore, will be forced to search for more credible allegations against the common candidate. On the other hand, allegations of corruption, mismanagement and authoritarianism, which Sirisena most probably will level against the government, would have more trustworthiness in the eyes of government critics because until last week he was part and parcel of the government. So, he knows.
The main slogan of the Sirisena candidacy so far is abolition of the executive presidential system, which obviously is crucial to address some of the democracy and good governance related issues in the country. It however, is not the primary concern of the ordinary voter. Corruption, cost of living and over accommodation of China could be some of the potent slogans against the government. The Sirisena candidacy could transform into a real challenge for the government if and when the new coalition takes up these issues as the primary slogan along with the agenda to reform the constitution.
Also, without a winning statistical formula, Maithripala Sirisena would not have accepted the call to contest as the common candidate. Unlike other possible candidates, Sirisena is risking too much by contesting the forthcoming election. History indicates that he could lose everything he has. Therefore, he should have been convinced according to a formula that he could win. His major challenge is to secure the whole of the UNP votes. He would need the unwavering support of the top as well as second tier leadership of the party.
In sum, despite the challenges, the Sirisena candidacy has the potential to narrow the margin of victory in a free and fair election. He has made the already tight election tighter. It is however, too early to predict a victory for Sirisena. The election result depends on how it is conducted and how the major candidates play their cards.