The Rajapaksas are now a house divided

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By Kassapa

Often, when governments fall, the defining blow comes from within. That is exactly what is happening to the government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa where brother Mahinda Rajapaksa is Prime Minister.

For decades, the secret of the success of the Rajapaksas was the unity within the family. Mahinda was the ambitious one. Gotabaya operated on the sidelines until 2019. Basil was more interested in being the king maker behind the scenes. Though the eldest, Chamal was the most mild-mannered and arguably the least ambitious, they all worked together and it didn’t seem to matter as to who was in charge.

Not anymore. Chamal hasn’t been heard of since the previous Cabinet resigned en masse. Reportedly, he was upset that he was ‘dumped’ from the new Cabinet. Basil too was unceremoniously got rid of in the wake of the unprecedented financial crisis he presided over. His silence since then is deafening.

Now, the two remaining siblings are at each other’s jugulars. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to remain as Executive President for the remainder of his term, despite the calls for resignation which are being repeated throughout the country, so brilliantly crystallized in three simple words: ‘Gota go home’.

Fortunately for him, he is protected to a certain extent by the Constitution. If he doesn’t resign, the only option to remove him would be to impeach him, a tedious process in which the onus is on the opposition to produce a two-thirds majority in support of an impeachment, while at the same time ensuring that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena entertains such a motion.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure as Prime Minister is more fragile. A simple majority in Parliament could oust him, although that would still require the votes of some MPs from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). However, ever the fighter, the Premier has vowed to stay on in his post.

The family tug-of-war has now spilled into the open. The first signs that something was seriously amiss came in the form of letters publicized by SLPP stalwarts, calling for the Cabinet to resign to make way for an ‘interim’ government. They came from former minister Dullas  Alahapperuma, recently appointed minister Nalaka Godahewa and parliamentarian Charitha Herath.

Of note is the fact that these are individuals who command some respect within the ruling party because of their track record or professional standing. A careful reading of their letters reveal an interesting common theme: they all call for the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as well. That, surely, is no co-incidence.

Even if, hypothetically, these three individuals felt the Premier and the Cabinet should resign and came to that conclusion of their own volition and independent of each other, it is extremely unusual for them to go public with their letters and call for the dismissal of their own Prime Minister, who was twice elected President, and is still arguably the most astute politician in the country.

Faced with this prospect, Mahinda Rajapaksa has begun his own defence of his position. To be fair, the initial call during the current wave of protests was for ‘Gota’ to ‘go home’ while much vitriol was also heaped on Basil Rajapaksa. Later on, it grew to encompass anyone tainted with the Rajapaksa name and thus included Mahinda Rajapaksa as well.

Now, Mahinda has begun gathering his troops. He met with provincial councillors who gave him a rousing endorsement. His attempts to meet with SLPP parliamentarians and formally get their support didn’t end with that degree of success. He has also met with selected Buddhist clergy. In a newspaper interview he claimed he continues to command the support of a majority in Parliament.

In the same interview, Mahinda Rajapaksa has made an observation that is telling. “The masses are not protesting against me,” he has said. What he has left unsaid is the obvious- that the masses are protesting against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “Why should I resign when the public are protesting against Gotabaya Rajapaksa” appears to be the question that he is asking.

Ironically, what has saved Mahinda Rajapaksa thus far is the opposition. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has commenced the signing of a No Confidence Motion (NCM) but has clearly run into some roadblocks.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), for instance, says it will not support a NCM unless the ‘rod map’ following a successful NCM is determined. Therein lies the problem: while the SJB, TNA, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) all agree that a NCM would be the first step in getting rid of the Rajapaksa regime, they also have no clue as to what would happen next.

There has been much talk about bringing in constitutional amendments to reduce the President to a ceremonial Head of State and drafting professionals into the interim Cabinet, but how exactly this would be achieved and, most importantly, who would head an ‘interim’ administration and be its prime minister has not been agreed upon. The likes of Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe are certain to be contenders. Without a clear determination of these details, such plans will be doomed.

However, what is interesting is that the once invincible unity among the Rajapaksa brothers appears to have been shattered. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not hear of resigning, nor will Mahinda. Even more alarmingly, each appears to be willing to sacrifice the other, so they could survive in the position they occupy. That is a first for the Rajapaksas.

It will be recalled that, at the outset of all these issues, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sacked Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, he did so because they said they will not remain in the same Cabinet with Basil Rajapaksa. Given a choice between losing Basil Rajapaksa and the Weerawansa Gammanpila duo, the President decided that blood is thicker than water and opted for the former.

Now though, when his own job is on the line, the President thinks otherwise. He appears to be willing to work with an interim government for the rest of his term, without brother Mahinda as Prime Minister.

The Rajapaksas are now a house divided- and a house divided cannot stand.

-This article was originally featured on counterpoint.lk

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