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On the Sarath Fonseka Factor
2009-11-01
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Col. R. Hariharan, writing in the Daily Mirror, wonders if Sarath Fonseka’s strategic ability (so much in evidence during the humanitarian mission to liberate the North and East from the grip of terrorism) would help him in deciding on a political future.

It all boils down to what Sarath Fonseka wants. Does he want to become President of Sri Lanka? Does he want to help Ranil Wickremesinghe become President of Sri Lanka? Does he hate Mahinda Rajapaksa so much that all he wants is to see the man defeated at the next Presidential Election? Does he want to ‘play safe’ and opt for a Parliamentary seat and perhaps a Cabinet post?

The talk in the street is certainly not about the highly admired ex-Army Commander settling for a Cabinet post. It is about his presidential ambitions or at least how he may or may not impact the denouement of the political equation in a presidential election which most believe would be held early next year.

Speculation regarding the General ditching his fatigues and entering the down and dirty of electoral politics has been in the air for quite some time and was further fuelled by a speech he gave in the USA this week hinting that he would if required do so ‘to serve the people’. That’s political-speak and a typical testing of the waters.
Common candidate
Two possible scenarios: Sarath Fonseka as the Common Candidate of the Opposition (CCO) and Sarath Fonseka contesting along with Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe (and half a dozen absolutely-no-hopers).

Either way, he cannot win, but he has a better shot as the CCO for obvious reasons. In the CCO scenario, nevertheless, he cannot expect anything more than lukewarm support from Ranil Wickremesinghe whose political future, already quick ill, would die pretty fast if Fonseka were to win. The question then is, ‘Can the CCO beat Mahinda Rajapaksa?’ The political reality whether we like it or not makes the President odds on favourite to win a second term.

The Constitution, the powers it bestows on the incumbent, flawed institutional arrangements that allows for gross abuse of state resources and a manifest apathy and/or helplessness on the part of the general citizenry to counter these anomalies and neutralise these inherent advantages will naturally work against Fonseka. The the UPFA and the President enjoy wide support throughout the country has to be factored in. Rajapaksa may not be as popular among the minority voters as he is among the Sinhalese, but this does not necessarily translate into possible frenzied support for Fonseka either, especially considering that he has been loose-tongued about them whereas the President has been guarded.

In a face-off between these two candidates who both have strong nationalist credentials, Rajapaksa would win for several reasons. Yes, he cannot play the ‘I did it’ card since Fonseka will claim the same. Even if we were to assume that this becomes a non-factor, history does not exactly favour Fonseka. To begin with, although the military is in a sense political, a military leader is not seen as having strong potential to be a decent politician.

JVP backing

Fonseka, as CCO, will have the backing of opposition parties but principally the JVP. Here we have to remember that the JVP today is not what it was when it got involved in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign. Today it has been reduced to a rump. It was crippled by serious split in the party and lost its most articulate communicator. Tilvin Silva’s party has been stripped of its frills and is feeling quite naked. It badly needs a lift and Sarath Fonseka is big enough to give the little guy a leg up, I suppose.

Tilvin might want to make Fonseka believe that it’s all out of unbridled love, but Fonseka is a smart man and will understand that Tilvin loves Tilvin and not Sarath. In politics one has strange bedfellows, so this bedding with Tilvin business is quite ok I believe. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself had lots of bedfellows, decent chaps rooming with sycophants, opportunists, rogues and all kinds of other weirdos. Nothing wrong in Fonseka submitting to that kind of political reality.

The question is, what does he gain? Here is a much-admired General, a man who made a huge difference in the battlefield, a hero whichever way you look at him (unless you believe Prabhakaran was a liberation fighter or that his cause and method were both just). Contest, and he loses it all.

Soiling medals
Contest as a third candidate and it is a different story. That would mean that Fonseka has resolved himself to the ignominy of finishing a distant third and further soiling his medals just so that Ranil Wickremesinghe can have a better chance at defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa. He could say that he is willing to make such a sacrifice because the regime is anti-people or something like that. On the other hand, he has to recognise that it will mean in real terms that he is supporting the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He will remember the Millennium City betrayal. He will recall the CFA and how it had a direct bearing on the casualties his troops suffered over the past three years. Opt for this, and he would be saying ‘That’s ok brother, all forgiven and forgotten’. Well then, he could have said the same thing to Nadesan, Pulidevan and Prabharakan and others.

One could make the argument that whoever benefits or suffers from his entry is not Sarath Fonseka’s concern. But that’s at the risk of sounding very naïve about the ground situation. The better argument would be that while Ranil Wickremesinghe has a bad track record, Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t really have a great one either (the execution of the war, it could be argued, had more to do with Fonseka than Mahinda and Gotabhaya – a weak argument of course). This is true. And that’s the tragedy of our political reality.

Exceptional soldier
This is clearly Sarath Fonseka’s political moment. An exceptional soldier, a patriot of the highest calibre, is said to be contemplating things. Let us wish him wisdom and let us hope that he realises that he may just be getting ready to squander all the honour and glory that accrued to him on account of successfully executing the offensive to rid the country of terrorism.

His ‘strategic ability’ may come into play if he wants to win the Presidency. On the other hand, before he employs this ‘advantage’, he has to exercise reason to make sure that grudges he entertains on account of being slighted (real or imagined) does not cloud his thinking. He has to figure out a viable pathway to advance in the political firmament if that is his wish. His greatest virtues in this regard would be his love for this country, his discipline and unrelenting determination; his greatest enemies would be arrogance, ego, the avenging sentiment and ambition that sit outside the parameters of the possible. I salute him and hope he makes the correct decision.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com


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