September 29, 2022

Pakatan better look to Sri Lankan politics and learn

5 min read

IT WAS December 2014, and I was on holiday with my family in Sri Lanka.

As we toured the historic city of Galle, suddenly, the security forces started to lock down part of the town.

Upon enquiring, we realised that then-president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa was making a campaign stop in what was shaping up to be a very intense campaign against his ally-turned-foe Maithripala Sirisena.

Some background is helpful at this point. Rajapaksa defeated the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Elam (LTEE) after a 30-year long and awfully bloody civil war.

Rajapaksa was seen as a hero, but he was also becoming increasing autocratic and intolerant towards Sri Lanka’s Muslim, Tamil and Christian minorities.

Despite winning the battle against LTTE, there was lingering unhappiness over Rajapaksa’s leadership style, allegations of corruption and nepotism, a massive influx of Chinese investment and deteriorating state of ethnic and religious relations.

The opposition to Rajapaksa was, initially, hapless. They could not agree on anything and there was a deep-seated rivalry amongst them.

But after much intervention, they decided to come together by fielding a common candidate against Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential election. They kept their candidate’s identity a secret and at the right time, the opposition revealed Sirisena as their candidate who had defected to the opposition to be its “common” presidential candidate.

It was high drama, and when the results of the election were announced in early January 2015, Rajapaksa lost and everyone was shocked. Many expected him to stay on extra-constitutionally, but he did not.

He relinquished power and Sirisena was sworn in as president.

Sirisena then appointed Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister, who was part of then-opposition (now governing) alliance. A slew of reforms followed including strengthening checks and balances that were removed by Rajapaksa, and judicial independence was also restored.

Amendments were made to the Sri Lankan constitution to fetter the powers of the president and augment that of the prime minister.

It was a new dawn for Sri Lanka, and everyone was happy. Foreign observers immediately started to flock to Sri Lanka and were full of praise of this new government.

But Sirisena and Wickremasinghe could not get along. There were internal troubles amongst the governing coalition, but they were always passed off as “growing pains”.

Also, the government lost its reformist zeal, the economy worsened, and then Sri Lanka was devastated by the Easter terrorist attacks.

Things came to a head in late October 2018. Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and appointed his former rival Mahinda Rajapaksa as the PM. This was a volcanic U-turn by Sirisena.

The whole country was shocked.

Wickremesinghe holed himself up in the palatial prime minister’s residence, while Rajapaksa took the oath of office.

However, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka stopped him and declared Wickremesinghe’s sacking unconstitutional. Sirisena and Rajapaksa had no choice but to accept that decision.

Things were never the same after that and the anti-Rajapaksa coalition fell apart.

Just last week, Mahinda’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka.

Sirisena did not seek re-election and Wickremesinghe resigned as Prime Minister. Gotabaya then selected his brother, Mahinda as Prime Minister.

As a Sri Lankan friend of mine put it, things have come full circle in Sri Lanka. Now, this is something Malaysians can relate to as well.

Pakatan Harapan came together because they wanted to save Malaysia. In order to save Malaysia, they had to overthrow Najib and Barisan Nasional.

In order to overthrow Barisan, Pakatan made many sweeping promises, so much so that many Barisan voters also voted for them. But beyond overthrowing Barisan, many wondered will they be able to govern?

Before the last general election, Pakatan’s Prime Ministerial candidate Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad promised to hand over power to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim within two years or so, but that looks more and more remote now.

In the aftermath of assuming power, Pakatan announced many reforms to our social, economic, political and legal system. Most of them have not materialised.

And instead of reforms, we see an open fued between and within Pakatan parties.

Now, does not all of this look and sound eerily familiar. It is as though what happened in Sri Lanka between 2015 and now is happening in Malaysia as well.

After overthrowing the enemy, friends turned on themselves. Instead of running the country, they are running each other down.

All of this hullabaloo is happening against a backdrop of a slowing economy and worsening race relations.

In 2018 local election in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa’s’ party trounced Sirisena and Wickremesinghe’s parties (they had broken up by then). Just 15 months after winning the general election, Pakatan was also trounced by Barisan in the recently concluded by-election.

And what has Pakatan’s response been to the Tg Piai loss – more dithering, attacks against one another, clandestine meetings and policy inertia.

There are uncanny parallels between our experience with Pakatan and Sri Lanka’s with Sirisena.

In the case of Sirisena, the promise of reform and renewal was cannibalised by the pursuit of power, politicking and internal bickering.

In Malaysia today, PKR is at war with itself. The deputy president has not attended a party meeting over a year and is openly canvassing against his party president. Also, how it is normal for the deputy president of PKR to quietly meet with opposition MPs?

Amanah is facing turmoil, albeit on a smaller scale, where most of its elected representatives have lost in the party polls.

Bersatu is stable because they have Dr Mahathir, but beyond that, it is still a very new party without functioning political machinery as evidenced in the Tg Piai by-election.

DAP, the old warhorse of Pakatan, faces external challenges as it undergoes an excruciating “break-up” with the Chinese community because it is seen an arrogant and out of touch.

The story of Pakatan, hitherto, is one of wasted opportunities and squandered goodwill. There is so much they can do, but they seem so intent on doing so little.

I believe Dr Mahathir knows this better than anyone else. As he tries to steer this unwieldy bunch, the Prime Minister knows he is the number one man and holds all the cards.

So the expected Cabinet reshuffle will shock everyone out of their comfort zones much like the one the previous Prime Minister did in the middle of 2015. This mid-course correction maybe the only thing that can save Pakatan.

So Pakatan better look to Sri Lanka because if things do not change, we may see the past become the future once again.

And it seems more likely than not because as Pakatan’s loses its mojo, Barisan is regaining it fast.

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