COLOMBO (AFP) – As a defeated Mahinda Rajapakse slunk out of Sri Lanka’s presidential palace, the astrologer who counselled him to call a disastrous early election was gloomily packing his bags on the other side of town.
“Not all of Nostradamus’ predictions have come true either,” said Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena as he reflected both on the fate of his vanquished boss and his own reputation as a seer.
“There was only so much I could do to help him win, maybe five per cent. But you must have luck to be the president.”
The 63-year-old Abeygunawardena has been avoiding the media since last Thursday’s election, his reputation having taken a pounding from veteran leader Rajapakse’s defeat to his rival Maithripala Sirisena.
During his increasingly authoritarian rule, the president became hugely reliant on his astrologer’s counsel and even timed the announcement of the snap election after consulting Abeygunawardena.
On voting day, Rajapakse appeared oblivious to his impending demise by declaring he was headed for “a resounding victory”.
While the outcome spelt the end of Rajapakse’s decade in power, it was also a disaster for Abeygunawardena who had been lavishly rewarded by the man he calls “Our Sir” after advising him for 32 years.
In an interview with AFP, the normally ebullient Abeygunawardena admitted he was trying to keep a low profile for the moment while confident that the setback would not lead all his followers to desert him.
“I am avoiding talking to people, especially the media, but I have a big following and they will not abandon me,” he said in a phone interview from his home in the coastal city of Galle.
Abeygunawardena said he had tried to console Rajapakse after the outcome became clear in the early hours of Friday, before his old boss made his pre-dawn departure from his official residence in Colombo.
As Rajapakse made his exit, Abeygunawardena had to hand in the keys to a grace-and-favour bungalow in another part of the city. He also lost his limousine, chauffeur and vacated his seat on the board of a state-run bank.
Back in Galle, Abeygunawardena tried to put a brave face on his demise, insisting that he always knew Rajapakse was doomed to lose – but didn’t have the heart to tell him.
“If I did not tell him he was going to win, he would have been psychologically shattered. His defeat would have been much worse,” he said, saying the outcome had been written in the stars.
“In this case, the opponent’s horoscope is more powerful than that of Our Sir.”
Such foreboding was not in evidence at 1.04pm on November 20 when Rajapakse signed the decree for an election after Abeygunawardena had advised that it was a particularly auspicious moment.
The election did not have to be held for another two years although conventional wisdom at the time was that Rajapakse was likely to cruise to victory over a divided opposition.
But Rajapakse was blindsided by his then health minister Sirisena’s sudden defection to the ranks of the combined opposition, only hours after the two men dined together.
Abeygunawardena became tearful when pressed on the outcome, saying he carried out traditional rituals to ensure Rajapakse voted at the right time while looking towards the chosen direction to ensure victory.
Even though he claims to also be a friend of Sirisena, Abeygunawardena admitted that he had not seen the defection coming.
If Abeygunawardena did indeed foresee Rajapakse’s defeat, his reluctance to break the bad news might have stemmed from the fate of one of his colleagues who was arrested and thrown in jail in 2009 after publicly predicting that the president would lose the following year’s election.
Abeygunawardena is swift to claim credit for predicting Rajapakse’s victories in both the 2005 and 2010 elections but says no astrologer can ever be 100 per cent right, even the 16th century French seer Nostradamus.
“It is just not possible, otherwise I could just pay the 75,000 rupees ($570) deposit to run for president as an independent and go on to win the presidency,” he said.
“You have to give us at least a five per cent margin of error.”
And Abeygunawardena denied simply telling Rajapakse what he wanted to hear, claiming that he had warned him not to accept the chair in office of the 53-member Commonwealth whose summit he hosted in Colombo in 2013.
The last chairman before Rajapakse was Julia Gillard who was unseated as Australia’s premier after hosting the same event in 2011.
“That office is a crown with thorns. I told him not to take it,” Abeygunawardena said. “See what happened to Gillard? The same thing happened to Our Sir.”