The danger of Basil Rajapaksa’s rule by proxy

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ast week, I wrote that the fate of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government would be placed at the mercy of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a Rajapaksa fiefdom and a grotesque caricature of the old Sri Lankan politics before the ‘Aragalaya’. SLPP is now a discredited and spent force, yet still wields the overwhelming Parliamentary majority. The irony of this arrangement is that after Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to resign as prime minister due to mass protests, he and the siblings would still rule by proxy.  Now, it appears that the real puppet master is brother Basil, who probably has more reasons to keep Ranil guessing than any other member of the old guard. 

Last week, Basil showed his hand and aborted Ranil’s plans to appoint Rohini Kaviratne, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SBJ) MP as the deputy speaker through a multi-party consensus. If appointed, she would have been the first female MP to hold the office, a historic feat that would also have been a face-saving for the SLPP to concur. Kaviratne’s name received the endorsement of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Dinesh Gunawardene, SLPP stalwart informed the party meeting that the president wished Rohini Kaviratne be the consensus candidate for the post. Her appointment would also have signalled a semblance of unity within the parties in Parliament.
However, Basil Rajapaksa had different calculations: Under his orchestration, the SLPP nominated Ajith Rajapaksa, an SLPP MP as the party’s nominee for the post of deputy speaker. He won the contest, obtaining 109 votes against 78 by Kaviratne.

Basil’s salvo shattered any notion that his brother Gotabaya is comfortably in control of the SLPP. As it appears, not only Ranil, the president himself is at the receiving end. As the last man standing of the Rajapaksa family, President Gotabaya appeared to have decided to sacrifice the long nursed dynastic ambitions of the family in exchange for a few more months in the office and thereafter a face-saving way out.

Basil Rajapaksa, the most controversial member of all Rajapaksas may be the one who would lose the most if the status quo is changed.  A free reign provided to the government would see fast tracked investigations and legal action against many allegations of corruption that Basil is accused of.  Servile judges have so far given him a leeway. Attorney General had withdrawn a litany of cases against the Rajapaksas and their acolytes. So much so, the main witness of the Malwana mansion, over which Basil and Thirukumar Nadesan are charged under the anti-Money Laundering Act, recanted his statement given to a lower court.

But, now even the Rajapaksa holdouts in the judiciary and the bureaucracy are feeling the winds of change. If the peaceful protests were not enough for course correction, violent flare-ups of public anger seemed to have done the trick.  However, Basil Rajapaksa seems to think that he could slow down, if not hold back the tide. 
That is a risky gamble, not just for him. The remainder of the legitimacy of the very institution of Parliament would be at risk if he holds the government hostage using the parliament majority of the SLPP.  

The coming days would be eventful. The 21st amendment to the Constitution was expected to be presented to the Cabinet last afternoon. The new amendment would restore the 19th amendment, effectively empowering the independent commissions, and reinstating the National Audit and Procurement commissions. A provision of the new amendment would also reinstate the ban on dual citizens holding elected office. Basil Rajapaksa would be the first casualty if or when it becomes law.

The Pohottuwa as a whole enjoys an overwhelming majority in Parliament, but not all SLPP MPs are at the beck and call of Basil. If the total number of MPs who voted for Ajith Rajapaksa (109) is a gauge of Basil’s strength that is not enough to defeat the 21st amendment in a Parliament vote. Given the arithmetic, the faction loyal to Basil may not try to defeat the bill, but try to soften and probably delay it, and obtain concessions from the government in exchange for their support.

A Basil Rajapaksa orchestrated defeat of the 21st amendment would have far-reaching and fatalistic consequences in terms of the credibility of Parliament. Pohottuwa MPs who have had their houses torched once, would be twice shy to court a flare up of public anger.

The ineligibility of Basil Rajapaksa to hold public office under the 21st amendment may not necessarily erode his hold on a numerical majority of the SLPP MPs. The common denominator of the SLPP is servile loyalty to the Rajapaksas. 

Its MPs, especially the most sycophantic ones believe in miracles of the Rajapaksas making a political comeback. Thus, Basil whether or not he is in Parliament would be a puppeteer to be reckoned with. The main concession that he might be interested in is the continuation of the privileged status quo he enjoyed Vis a Vis the legal actions. 
That is a red rag to the bull for the anti-government protestors who want expedited legal action against the Rajapaksas. During his previous term as the Prime Minister of the Yahapalanaya, Ranil Wickremesinghe was soft on the Rajapaksas. This time around though he has little room for maneuverer. The majority of Sri Lankans are not just sceptical but contemptuous of him.  One way for him to garner some degree of credibility would be by implementing some of the immediate democratic reforms. That also raises the prospect of future disagreements between his government and the Basil Rajapaksa faction in Parliament.

 This can also provide credence to Samagi Jana Balawegaya’s narrative. It’s (and the JVP’s) continued refusal to take part in an all- party government is reeking of self-interested political calculations. Yet, its refusal could appear more authoritative and credible, if Ranil is continuously dragged by the foot of SLPP. As much as Basil might want to make it hard for the government, Sajith and the SJB stalwarts want to see it fail. 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa should leave the office in due time, but his leaving would not solve the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Nor would the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Sri Lanka needs a semblance of political stability for it to solve the pressing economic problems, starting with, being in a credible position to proceed with debt restructuring negotiations.

A government held hostage by the Parliament majority of Basil Rajapaksa faction would not appear as a credible partner for the international financial institutions and foreign governments. Nor would Sri Lankans, sick and tired of the corrupt old status quo would tolerate its continuation by proxy. In such an eventuality, scores would be settled outside Parliament. No one should aspire to get there!

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