The secret of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s enigmatic smile


Today, February 13, 2010, 1.38 pm, as I write my regular column, my thoughts go to two days. November 18, 2005 and January 27, 2010. Two days. One individual: Ranil Wickremesinghe. Two personalities: Candidate Ranil of 2005 and Candidate-backer Ranil of 2010.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was not a happy man on that November day in 2005. He didn’t attend the meeting called by the Elections Commissioner to announce the result. He seemed quite the sour loser. Fast forward to January 2010; the man is full of smiles. Graciously conceding defeat and lukewarm in his support of moves to challenge the result.

Ranil Wickremesinghe saved himself a lot of blushes and many bruises, both ‘inevitables’ had he chosen to take on Mahinda Rajapaksa. He let Sarath Fonseka take the hits. Indeed he got a bonus when Fonseka shot his mouth and showed he was about spit and froth than substance. Fonseka got just 40% of the vote. Ranil got more than that in 2005, as number and percentage. Quite a few would have asked themselves the following question, ‘what if Ranil had run…?’ The man probably knew the answer and knew also that close-but-no-cigar is hardly a consolation prize when it comes to a winner-takes-all presidential election, so let us not engage in conjecture.

As I said, ‘no bruises’, no despondency, no defeatism to weigh him down and therefore a better frame of mind when it comes to the other gruelling fight, the Parliamentary Elections. There was only one issue he had to resolve: symbol. Elephant or swan was the choice and the choice would be a reflection of how Ranil and the UNP wished to be positioned vis-à-vis Sarath Fonseka and the JVP.

The most important difference between a presidential and a parliamentary election as far as Ranil is concerned is that the former throws up a winner (Executive President) while the latter dishes out consolation prizes (Leader of the Opposition, Member of Parliament, possible Member of Parliament should anyone who got more preferential votes resign or die). It is therefore ok to throw someone like Fonseka to the lions knowing well that he would be devoured but that is not an option in a General Election. If Ranil chooses to go with the ‘Swan’, he would essentially be offering either the Prime Minister’s post or that of the Leader of the Opposition to Fonseka (most likely the latter). He didn’t gamble anything away when he thrust Fonseka into a dog-fight with Rajapaksa, but it is unlikely that he would take any chances with the post of Opposition Leader.

The secret...

This is the logic of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s actions since January 27. First, he conceded victory to Rajapaksa, essentially pinning ‘has-been’ on Fonseka. Then, armed with convenient numbers from 2005 and 2010, he says ‘Elephant’. This time the party has to accept. Fonseka has proved he would be a huge liability to the UNP’s chances and could very well determine the margin of defeat.

The other problem with the ‘Swan’ is that the Swan will not be green, it will be green and red, meaning that contesting under that symbol would amount to inviting the JVP to prey on the UNP’s vote base. The significance of the 2004 elections and the SLFP-JVP breakdown of MPs could not have been missed by Ranil or the UNP. A grand opposition coalition might save the JVP some blushes but Ranil knows that there is a qualitative difference in bedding with someone in a losing cause such as the recently concluded Presidential Election and an exercise that has some consolation prizes.

It is in this sense that the Government has willingly or unwillingly helped Ranil Wickremesinghe sort out a thorny issue. Sarath Fonseka is such a loose cannon, possibly a threat to the Government (he is privy to sensitive information and who knows, even information that could embarrass key members of the political leadership of the UPFA) but most certainly a threat to the nation given global political realities and the ability of spoilers in the international community to undermine the post-war development thrust. An arrested Fonseka is also a headache since it gives rise to legitimate questions such as ‘Why under the Army Act?’ that the Government has to contend with as well as patently illegitimate ones by the crudest and most despicable thug nations of the world that cannot be brushed aside easily.

All this doesn’t bother Ranil Wickremesinghe of course. The man is not interested in national security and wouldn’t give a hoot about turning back all the victories scored in the battlefield as long as his little nest continues to be feathered. No wonder he’s smiling.

What does this leave Fonseka with? Nothing. When you bet your all and lose, you are left with just that. Nothing. Nothing at all. In my view he was railroaded into this by Mangala Samaraweera and the JVP; Ranil and the UNP going along, maintaining appearances, biding their time. They’ve essentially dumped him like a hot potato. They know that Sarath Fonseka’s political worth for the UNP was zilch on January 26, took a negative turn when he was talking about contesting the General Election under the Swan symbol and that after he was arrested the balance sheet showed the following: Fonseka = a useful political slogan that will have to be shared with the JVP. Indeed it is more useful to the JVP than to the UNP for that party sorely needs to sustain some kind of agitation just to remain in the news. Bad news, but news nevertheless. Like the LTTE.

Parliament is dissolved. What will happen to Fonseka and Fonseka-related protests and other kinds of agitation? He is not big enough a platform for anyone, the UNP or the JVP, to run an entire campaign on. All the ‘Release Fonseka’ posters are going to be pasted over by the Niroshan Padukkas, Thilanga Sumathipalas, Duminda Silvas and other moneyed candidates trying to get into parliament. Fonseka will be lucky if any of his campaign-buddies remembers him a few weeks from now.

One thing is sure. Ranil Wickremsinghe is giving Mona Lisa a stiff fight.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com

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