Can Kumara Welgama Change His Fortunes?

September 17, 2018

By Rasika Jayakody

Kumara Welgama, a die-hard Rajapaksa supporter and a senior member of the Joint Opposition, sparked a fierce debate last week when he expressed strong sentiments against his own boss former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Hitting out at a statement Rajapaksa delivered in India, Welgama said thePresidential candidacy should not be restricted to one family as there were many seniors - outside the Rajapaksa family circle - who could be considered for Presidency.

There are two ways of looking at the Welgama saga - the bright, optimistic way and through a more realistic lens.

As many analysts have pointed out, the Joint Opposition's presidential candidate will have a clear edge at the next election, especially in light of their party’s performance at the last Local Government polls. For this reason, it can be presumed, its Presidential candidate may attract vilification by various propaganda arms of the government, and there may also be attempts to entangle him with corruption and criminal investigations in the run up to the election.

It is all too evident that the UNP's strategy for the next Presidential election is not to play to the party’s own strengths, but to the weaknesses of the opponent.  This is one reason why the Joint Opposition must not be in a hurry to make grand announcements about its Presidential candidates and their credentials. However, many JO Parliamentarians have already jumped the gun, allowing the government propaganda machinery to devise tailor-made counter-campaigns for JO presidential aspirants.

The best way to reverse this situation and protect JO’s presidential aspirants from here onwards would be to create confusion over the matter on the collective mind of the public.  Speculations on Basil-Gotabaya acrimony as well as rumours on in-fighting among the Rajapaksas for presidential candidacy and Kumara Welgama's occasional jibes at the Rajapaksa brothers could together orchestrate this confusion and protect the JO Presidential candidate until his moment arrives.  

For a Rajapaksa loyalist, this is a bright and an optimistic way of looking at the current situation.

However, the second, and more realistic way of looking at it would be to perceive it as a subtly brewing dissension within the Rajapaksa camp against the seamless family-centrism espoused by the former President.

Welgama, a man known for his outspoken and irreverent behaviour, represents the old-guard of the SLFP, who have served former Presidents Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. They were members of the party from before the Rajapaksa era and therefore, their loyalty to Rajapaksa cannot be likened to a blank cheque.

The recent concerns Welgama raised drove this point: “It was this family rule that cost Rajapaksa his job in 2015. The former President placed his family above everything else and as a result, many ministers were disheartened. Even those who supported overtly were unhappy with the state of affairs in the government. Our party belongs to everyone and only one family cannot claim ownership to the presidential candidacy,” he said, adding that there were other seniors in the party, outside the Rajapaksa family circle, suitable for the presidency.

“We have to understand that J.R Jayawardena did not willingly give presidential candidacy to his successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did not willingly nominate Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Presidential candidate,” Welgama said, indicating that the Joint Opposition would not be hesitant to take a strong stand if Rajapaksa attempted to keep Presidential candidacy within his own family.

“We should not forget that Maithripala Sirisena left our government and contested against us as he was not given the rightful place within the administration,” he said, asking if,  with his current attitude, Rajapaksa was trying to create the situation for another Sirisena to rise again.

Welgama – a seasoned campaigner, has been in politics for over three decades. He was also Rajapaksa’s first choice for the Opposition Leader’s post when the latter fell out of power in January 2015. It did not, however, materialize and the post fell in the hands of Nimal Siripala de Silva, who later joined the government. When TNA Leader R. Sampanthan became the Opposition Leader, Welgama aligned himself with the Pro-Rajapaksa camp at the expense of his SLFP ranks and positions.

Perhaps Welgama now thinks it is the right time to aim for the stars – the presidential candidacy of the Joint Opposition. If, by some chance, former President Rajapaksa allows his party to select someone outside the family circle, Welgama will certainly be a strong contender for candidacy - perhaps alongside Dinesh Gunawardena. It is clear as day that Welgama is attempting to have a crack at this opportunity.

Welgama’s statement is also a manifestation of the sentiments of the SLFP old-guard who have sided with the Rajapaksas out of sheer desperation. While they know that they have to piggyback on the popularity of the Rajapaksas, they are also reluctant to sacrifice their own personal goals to fulfil the family-centric needs of the former President. These conflicting interests among members of the same camp have now sparked a potential flashpoint.

What this crystalizes is that the JO, despite its win at the Local Government election, may not have a smooth ride into its Presidential election campaign which is due in 15 months. They will have to balance many players with conflicting interests and ambitious personal goals and hidden collateral agendas. What this means, for the public, however,  is that there will never be a dull moment in the run-up to the election.


© 2019 Asian Mirror (pvt) Ltd