Mahinda is still a popular politician among the people, as you could tell from the big rally in Nugegoda yesterday. The problem is that he’s just not very popular in his own party. If he wants to be Prime Minister, that’s a problem.
The Nugegoda rally saw about 20,000 people and made for some impressive drone photography, no doubt. If you look at the stage however, there were zero decision-makers from the SLFP. Unless Mahinda swings like 90% of the SLFP to his side then all his agitation will just fracture that party and strengthen its opponent, the UNP. Ranil is probably loving this.
This is Mahinda’s power and his impotence. He remains a personally popular politician (47.6% of the country voted for him), but he’s politically impotent outside of the Presidency. The only thing a politician out of power can hold onto is the party, and he doesn’t have that.
The people most prominently on his side are not SLFP. Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Dinesh Gunawardena are basically from parties of one, or one dude and their bros. From the actual SLFP you had, most prominently, Kumara Welgama and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. That’s not enough.
The SLFP is headed by President Sirisena and Nimal Siripala de Silva is the Opposition Leader. Those and a few others are the actual decision makers. Sirisena is obviously not on team Mahinda and it’s not clear why de Silva would want to demote himself. Indeed, it’s not clear why anyone in the SLFP would want Mahinda back, purely out of their own self interest.
Mahinda in power was like a big Prado parked in front of the SLFP gate. Nobody else could move.
Any SLFPer was in line behind Mahinda and then his son, and all the real power was with his family. They also had to get in line behind UNPers who had crossed over and were given most of the prominent Ministries. The SLFP was nominally in power but actually marginalized under Mahinda. That’s why Sirisena broke-off. He had no future under Mahinda and leaving seemed worth the risk.
You can see Mahinda’s actual political support from the make-up of the Nugegoda Rally. It’s led by a bunch of smaller parties (members of the UPFA) and a few SLFPers. People like Wimal and Udaya are loud but they’re not SLFP. They actually don’t get to decide anything.
That said, politicians do bend to political will, and if there was a mass movement supporting Mahinda, they would swing. However, given natural polarization in the country, Mahinda’s support is a maximum of 60%. I certainly don’t think he has that level of voter support today. He just polled 47.6% a month ago and it’s not like he won the war again last week.
If Mahinda wants SLFP politicians to flip against their own interest, he’d really need to stage a peoples-power revolution across the country. While he’s still able to pack Nugegoda, I don’t think he can do that, and certainly not with the numpties he had on stage. Also, if he does a less than 100% job of it, he’d just break the SLFP and make Ranil happy. It’s a really tough angle. Nearly impossible, honestly, but in Sri Lankan politics one must always caveat that with ‘who knows’.
The more probable situation is where President Maithripala decides to screw Ranil and the UNP and himself appoints Mahinda as Prime Minister. That would unify the SLFP completely, screw over the UNP (good times) and have a good shot at winning the election. This situation remains improbable, however, because Sirisena would cripple himself by letting Mahinda back into power. If Mahinda got elected with popular support as PM and Sirisena is committed to abolishing the Executive Presidency, he’s very quickly in a situation where he’s Mahinda’s bitch again. With Ranil as PM he actually has a lot of leverage.
Why He Probably Won’t Come Back (Now)
In reality, I don’t think Mahinda has that much popular support. Sirisena won 51.3% in an election where Mahinda was cheating (using state resources, media, etc). In a fair election Sirisena could have polled up to 55%. Mahinda was the first incumbent to lose the Presidency ever. The institution is such that you have to really be unpopular to lose.
I also think that people don’t want to go back, politicians and voters alike. We’ve seen all the waste and incompetence in plain light and there were a whole bunch of douchebags (in the foreign service, appointed to heads of state companies) that everyone was happy to see go. Mahinda ran the government like a mafia and relied on personal/war popularity to get a pass. I don’t think the SLFP or the people want that anymore. Also, people don’t like to go backwards in general.
None of this, of course, means that the UNP will will the general election. There’s actually a lot of factors favoring the SLFP. Mahinda just isn’t one of them.