The road to Lankan presidency

It’s going to be testing times for Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, now the presidential nominee from the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and a president-in-waiting.

Not only he is coming up against a tough opponent in the likes of Ranil Wickremesinghe, himself a former prime minister and leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP) but he also would have to watch his back making sure President Chandrika Kumaratunga doesn’t pull the rug under his feet at the last minute.

The road to the presidency has been tough and a long and winding one for the veteran southern politician. Rajapakse deserves a lot of credit for sticking with the SLFP through thick and thin despite many attempts to oust him from the party in his 38 years with the SLPF.

Political analysts said Rajapakse went through many hardships and faced many obstacles after his entry into politics including being imprisoned on September 27 in 1985 for political reasons. In March 1992, he led the opposition on a massive non-violent protest march against a bloody government crackdown against leftwing rebels in which several young, innocent youth were hunted and killed.

Perhaps the most difficult part of his political career – outside the reign of terror in the 1988-1990 period – was when his buddy, Anura Bandaranaike, brother of President Kumaratunga, quit the party and joined the UNP.

President Kumaratunga gave Rajapakse the prime ministerial post after the April 2004 election. The president agreed not because Rajapakse was her choice but because the JVP was pushing for another nominee – former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadi-rgamar. Kumaratunga, not happy at the JVP joining up with the alliance and worried that a JVP-favourite as PM would increase the Marxists’ control in the government, used Rajapakse to checkmate the JVP. Rajapakse was still a prime minister only by name with another powerless ministry – highways – given to him.

Kumaratunga tried her best to scrap the presidency through constitutional amendments — to prevent Ranil Wickremesinghe a chance to be president — since she couldn’t contest a third term, but all these moves failed. Two months ago when the JVP quit the government in a dispute over the controversial joint mechanism agreement with the LTTE, a rejuvenated UNP — now the largest party in parliament — laun-ched a massive campaign to demand that presidential polls must be held this year. Ranil was also named as the party’s presidential candidate, mounting more pressure on Kumaratunga to declare her candidate.

Be that as it may, last week Kumaratunga — realising that Rajapakse was a better candidate that Anura — gave her assent to the PM as the presidential nominee while also announcing that her brother would be the PM in a future SLFP government. Political analysts also believe the prime minister is preparing a powerful campaign and could be a formidable opponent for Wickremesinghe and even win. The only way his campaign and successful road to presidency could be scuttled is if Kumaratunga changes course and doesn’t support him to the hilt.

Samath, a freelancer, wri-tes for THT from Colombo