Sri Lanka Crisis: For Rajapaksa Brothers, It’s a Game of Who Blinks First

Amid the political whirlpool, the two brothers are engaged in their own little contest of one-upmanship.

8 min read

Sad but true: from projections of an ‘Arab Spring’ to ‘Orange Revolution’, the peaceful public uprising in Sri Lanka for the exit of the ruling Rajapaksa brothers is now drifting towards a no-brainer end. Gathered at capital city Colombo’s Galle Face Green (GFCG) beachfront for over three weeks, day and night, rain or shine, the protests no more make it to the headlines, even nearer home in India. Nor has the nation’s unprecedented economic crisis found enough space in TV talk shows through these three-plus weeks.

The truth is that after protesting for the imminent exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, neither the political Opposition nor the ‘people’s movement’ is anywhere near their collective goal. It all now depends, almost exclusively, on either one or both the Rajapaksas’ will to exit, or the much-anticipated ‘divine intervention’ in the form of the mainline Sinhala-Buddhist clergy issuing an unprecedented diktat.

The diktat, if issued, will ask the Rajapaksas to quit and the Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party and the rest to take the lead in forming an ‘interim government’ (but would it be under President Gotabaya?). In between, there is the little game of one-upmanship that the Rajapaksa brothers are playing between themselves, with Mahinda coming on top in every round, till now.


Gotabaya Understands the Game

Yet, if Colombo is bustling with street protests, that too on a Sunday, it’s not because of the mass movement demanding the imminent exit of the ruling Rajapaksas. Instead, it was because of the May Day celebrations, which is still a big event in the country.

The Rajapaksas have stopped issuing the customary May Day messages as President and Prime Minister, respectively. Neither participated in any rally called by their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party. In their place, senior minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who is also the Leader of the House in Parliament, addressed the party’s May Day rally, declaring that they still had a parliamentary majority.

This was so even when local media reports claimed that earlier in the day, PM Mahinda had told President Gotabaya that the latter had the constitutional power and authority to form an alternate government with a new Prime Minister – and that he would abide by the decision.

Mahinda's message should not be misread, as has been the done by many in the last few weeks, as one of compliance: “I have the parliamentary majority. If you still want, you have the constitutional power to sack me, and I would have no option. But you have to bear all the consequences, legal and political…” Gotabaya understands it better than others.

Why the Deadlock?

Unlike what international media had predicted and Colombo’s diplomatic community had possibly hoped, the anti-Rajapaksa people’s movement did not inspire similar protests outside of Colombo’s right, liberal, urban middle class. The fear of anticipated violence, identified at times by some political players without justification, was also a dampener in the ‘Sinhala South’.

The Colombo middle class has anyway been against the socialist plank that the SLPP’s parent organisation, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), also represented. More importantly, they have been traditionally anti-Rajapaksa since Mahinda became President for the first time in 2005. That is not to say that the rest of Sri Lanka is with the Rajapaksas. But in the absence of a mass movement elsewhere, the Colombo-centric people’s uprising has come undone.

The reasons are not far to seek. On the one hand, the SJB opposition wants both the Rajapaksas out but won’t take the lead in defeating either of them through a no-trust vote in Parliament. It is the only constitutional means available to them. Mass protest, ‘right to recall’, et al, sound euphoric as new democracy definitions, but they are also esoteric – unachievable, to put it straight.

The SJB has only 54 out of the 113 MPs required in the 225-member Parliament to get rid of the Prime Minister and his team. For the President, they need a two-thirds majority, ie, 151 MPs, for impeachment. They do not have the numbers for the simpler option, so impeachment is out of the question at present.


A Case of Tail Wagging the Dog

In his May Day speech, the party’s Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presential polls to Gotabaya, reiterated that they were neither greedy nor in a hurry to grab power. The party does not want a situation in which the tail is wagging the dog. And this is truer when the long list of tail-enders are from the ideologically opposite, left-leaning parties, who would contest everything West, including funds and investments, when the nation’s precarious economy needs them the most.

These left MPs, who have broken away from the government, form three distinct groups and a total of 40 MPs. They had partaken from the Rajapakasas’ cup of power and pelf until the other day. Sajith Premadasa has the support of his party and MPs, and will not compromise their long-term credibility by taking one false step in the nation’s momentous hour.

Some in the Opposition would also like the Rajapaksas to solve the economic mess they have caused before exiting so that the Opposition could start with a near-clean slate. They are confident of winning both the presidential and parliamentary elections, held whenever due.


Naming and Shaming

For this reason, the SJB is not keen on moving a no-trust motion or getting it passed. Instead, they are focusing on a constitutional amendment for stripping the Executive Presidency of much of its powers, which were restored by the Rajapaksas in 2019. This is also the line of other diverse parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the left-leaning JVP, with 10 and three members in Parliament, respectively. Smaller parties tied to the SJB hold almost similar views.

If, however, the SJB leaders declared over the weekend that they would also move separate no-trust motions against the President and Prime Minister when Parliament reconvenes this week, it is mainly to ‘expose’ those opposed to the people’s will. Their ‘naming-and-shaming’ game won’t work if they don’t have the numbers. And they won’t have the numbers if they are not going to form a new government.

Incidentally, Parliament will have to re-elect a new Deputy Speaker after the incumbent, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, quit when his party walked out of the government in the pack of 40 MPs. In practical terms, that should settle the numbers game. However, if there is a no-trust motion, that is likely to take precedence over other legislative work, and that will be the clinger then.


Nobody Wants a Lame Duck

Before the economic crisis engulfed the nation in one big, swift move, the Rajapaksas – and there were one too many of them – were all at it together. At the first signal of the economic plight becoming a political crisis, all other Rajapaksas, starting with the most controversial of them all, then-Finance Minister Basil R, quit, along with the rest of the Cabinet.

The purported idea was to give President Gotabaya the freedom to appoint a ‘national government’ or an all-party interim government, pending fresh parliamentary polls, under a new Prime Minister. The 40 rebels/independent MPs will be the worst-hit lot if this does not happen, as Mahinda as Prime Minister could have most of them disqualified as MPs through courts, if he had the numbers.

Through the whole crisis, Mahinda has been bowling one googly after another at his younger brother, albeit challenging him to appoint a new ministry without him. Mahinda’s May Day message to Gotabaya sums it up all: “Sack me if you want, but I will prove my majority in Parliament. If not, I will grab the Leader of the Opposition post from SJB’s Sajith and make it difficult for you.”

In the normal course, a non-Mahinda government with a parliamentary majority should have the SJB and Sajith’s support. This would imply that Gotabaya would have only about a dozen MPs as his loyalists, unless he is willing to break the public vow to have a smaller team owing to the economic crisis.

With two more years to go for his term’s end, Gotabaya would not want to go down in history as an ‘impotent President’, which is worse than being a lame duck. Nor could the nation’s economy suffer such a deadlock in addition to what it’s facing already.

That's the reason for all these attempts to have Mahinda on board, for a project in which he (alone) would be the ‘sacrificial goat’ – so that the 40 ‘rebels’, or a majority of them, could return to serve another Prime Minister with Gota having the SLPP’s two-thirds in Parliament.


Sri Lanka's Economy Has Become a Basket Case

In all this, the worst-hit entity is the common man, as also the nation’s economy. Already, very few nations, such as neighbour India and ‘friend’ China, have responded to Sri Lanka’s wild cry for economic assistance. Once-helpful Islamic nations are unmoved, possibly owing to the Rajapaksas’ anti-Muslim politico-administrative legacy nearer home. But there is no guarantee that they would return if there is a change of guard.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given a qualified nod, with restructured debt repayment, tax regimes and social protection as pre-requisites. But the IMF, the World Bank and the West, all want to know whom they should talk to in the government, and whom they should not talk to. There is no clarity as of now.

Today, Sri Lanka is a ‘basket case’ in economic terms. It is going to take at least a decade for the nation to recover from the current situation, which can only worsen during the short and medium terms. And the political uncertainty is making the nation look even more non-serious about its priorities.


The Sinhala-Buddhist Clergy Can Do More harm Than Good

Now, if the Sinhala-Buddhist clergy, call it the ‘Maha Sangha’ or the Forum of Prelates, or whatever, were to intervene politically, it is going to cause more harm than good. They have since issued an ultimatum for Prime Minister Mahinda to quit, but it is yet to be acted upon. Already, the minorities in the country and the ‘international community’ (read West) are unhappy with the role of religion in Sri Lankan politics and the Constitution.

Incidentally, the Catholic clergy, which had worked for Gotabaya’s election and is now working against this government over the lackadaisical response to the 2019 ‘Easter bomb blasts’, joined a May Day Colombo discourse with Buddhist monks, wanting Mahinda’s exit in particular.

The monks alone had gathered at the capital’s Independence Square a day earlier with the same agenda, and most participants were identifiable as ‘anti-Rajapaksas’. The Church, in turn, had also shared the seafront space with other protesters, prominently in the company of Muslims, who also offered their prayers there in the fasting month of Ramzan.

Yet, possibly living in the past, the Buddhist clergy should ask itself: what if their diktats have no takers?

In their respective May Day rallies, the SJB and the JVP reiterated their resolve not to be involved in an interim government, as indicated by the Sangha Sabha meeting in Colombo a day earlier. It is a cue big enough for the Rajapaksas, jointly and severally, despite Gotabaya being seen as a ‘better’ Buddhist than most.


Did the Opposition Not Consider the Consequences?

Does the threat that the Prelates’ “blessing would then become a curse” imply mobocracy that would force ministers and MPs to resign? That would be an even sadder day for the Sri Lankan democracy. After Parliament, the Supreme Court is the best arbiter of constitutional norms and possibilities. But no one, including the anti-Rajapaksa civil society, seems to want to risk that course.

All this leaves the nation with one question: why did the Opposition, starting with the SJB but including multiple other anti-Rajapaksa forces, start this mess in Parliament and outside without studying the consequences? And what if the original SLPP returns minus Mahinda as Prime Minister and with his consent? That would only make Gotabaya stronger. On the political front, that is the crux of the matter. But there are no convincing answers, yet. Is anyone out there listening?

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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