Government Braces For Showdown; JO Limbers Up
It looks as if the government had come to terms with the fact that it cannot go on postponing the provincial council polls till the cows come home. Both the UNP and the SLFP have gone into overdrive to impress the electorate with what they call mega development drives. Besides, everything is now in place to make the wheels of justice spin; the newly established High Courts will start trials against the grandees of the previous dispensation. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may not see eye to eye on many issues, but they are girding up their loins to launch a frontal attack on the Rajapaksas’.
Divided as the National Unity Government may be, the UNP and the SLFP are united in their efforts to hold the Joint Opposition (JO)/the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at bay. They have adopted a multi-pronged strategy to recover lost ground. The SLFP and the UNP are all out to launch as many development projects as possible before the next PC polls so as to be able to propitiate the resentful public whose frustration found expression in a massive protest vote against the government, at the last local government polls.
Having suffered a disastrous electoral setback, the SLFP and the UNP, while taking on the Rajapaksas’ jointly, seem to think that united they will fall, and divided they have a better chance of improving their performance at a future election. They have launched two separate development programmes with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spearheading them. They have already embarked on their presidential election campaigns and are trolling for votes to all intents and purposes.
The UNP under the current leadership has, for once, made a serious effort to win back the rural voters. Its support base is fast shrinking at the village level, where it used to be strong under its former leaders who consolidated their power in both urban and rural areas and turned the Grand Old Party into a political juggernaut.
The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a master strategist who knew how to win elections, realised the importance of mobilizing the rural folk. He launched the Gam Udawa (Village Reawakening) programme which became a huge success politically. He also sought to compensate for the loss villagers had suffered due to the collapse of small scale, rural based industries due to the advent of the open economy in 1977. He set up garment factories to provide jobs to the rural youth. The present-day UNP is apparently trying to do something similar through its Gamperaliya project in a desperate bid to arrest the rapid erosion of its vote base.
Premadasa choose words carefully in naming his projects. But the choice of Gamperaliya as the name for a rural development project calls its proponents’ wisdom into question. They may have sought to jazz up the project with a catchy name, borrowed from Martin Wickramasinghe’s famous novel, but their effort has come a cropper.
“What’s in a name?” one may ask, arguing that what really matters is the government’s ability to bring about rural development. One has a point, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Suffice it to say Gamperaliya is not a patch on Gam Udawa.
Not to be outdone, President Maithripala Sirisena has launched his own rural development programme, which he has named ‘Grama Shakthi’. It at least has a decent name. His problem, however, is that the UNP has control over the public purse. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has recently written off loans up to Rs. 100,000, given to women in drought-hit areas; political mileage from this move will accrue to the UNP and not to the SLFP.
The President is busy marketing the Moragahakanda Project. He seems to have taken a leaf out of his former boss, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s book. The Rajapaksas’ gained political mileage out of virtually anything. They invited the public to visit the Hambantota Port while it was under construction and made a grand show of filling it with sea water. Thousands of people visited the site though there was nothing much to see except steel and concrete. President Sirisena has done likewise. Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, giving a media conference to announce the Moragahakanda-Kalu Ganga reservoir water filling ceremony urged people to visit it before it was submerged.
The invitation to the water-filling ceremony describes the Kalu Ganga reservoir as being six times bigger than the Parakrama Samudraya built by legendary king Parakramabahu the Great. It also boasts that not even ancient kings who were great builders of tanks conceived the idea of damming the Kalu Ganga reservoir, the implication being that President Sirisena has achieved a greater feat than even great kings.
Many Sri Lankan leaders have the habit of comparing themselves with Sinhala kings.
The JO limbering up
The JO/SLPP led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has a firm hold on the rural electorate, is planning to step up its anti-government protests. It has had to postpone a march in view of the GCE A/L examination to be held next month. The next few months are likely to see a spate of protests as the JO has to keep the morale of its supporters from sagging and unsettle the government, which is preparing for a counterattack.
The JO is wooing the urban voters. One of the main reasons for Rajapaksa’s defeat at the last presidential election was his failure to win over the urban middle class and the youth. In fact, his style of governance alienated many voters with enlightened views and attitudes, especially young professionals and students. They constituted the vanguard of the yahapalana movement which propelled the UNP-SLFP combine to power. The SLPP is trying to cater to this segment of the electorate with the help of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Viyath Maga project.
Gotabaya’s strength is his ruthless efficiency. Paradoxically, it is also his weakness. The SLPP’s success at the next presidential election hinges on its ability to repackage Gotabaya and market him as a messiah capable of bringing order out of chaos. Social stability is a prerequisite for the accumulation of capital and, therefore, Gotabaya, who has a reputation for taking firm decisions and actions, has the potential to win over a section of the UNP’s upper-crust voters. Or, at least, that is what the SLPP and the JO think.
In a dramatic turn of events replete with irony, former Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera (SLFP) made quite a stir in Parliament recently by complaining of what he called a sinister move to oust President Maithripala Sirisena by constitutional means. He claimed that a provision had been smuggled into the draft Constitution to enable the Prime Minister, the Speaker and the Opposition Leader to get together and remove the President from office. He named and blamed three members of the Steering Committee of the Constituent Assembly for the ‘conspiracy’, but they have vehemently denied the allegation.
It is ironical that Dayasiri, who together with 15 other SLFP ministers, strove to oust Prime Minister Wickremesinghe through a vote of no confidence, albeit in vain, is now complaining of a plot to remove the President. He would not have made that serious allegation on the floor of the House without President Sirisena’s knowledge. He did not furnish evidence to prove his claim, but the fact remains that there is no love lost between the UNP and the SLFP and the possibility of the two parties conspiring against each other cannot be ruled out.
That President Sirisena tried to remove PM Wickremesinghe in the aftermath of the local government polls debacle is only too well known. But for the precautions the UNP had taken, through the 19th Amendment, against such a move, he would have got rid of the PM. The UNP is acting with restraint in spite of all provocations because it does not want to rock the boat at this juncture. It wants to keep the present government intact until the next national level election. It is capable of mustering a simple majority in the House on its own by engineering some crossovers from the SLFP, but the JO/SLPP will get a turbo boost if the present government collapses. The UNP is playing its cards well.
TNA’s hurry and UNP’s worry
The TNA is trying to make hay while the sun shines. It is demanding that a new Constitution be enacted before the next election. This demand is seen in some quarters as a move to help the government postpone the PC polls further, but it is consequent to the TNA’s fear that the ongoing constitution making project will not survive a change of government.
The UNP is in a dilemma. The future of the constitution making project is uncertain without the JO’s backing. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the media on Wednesday that the SLFP had not decided whether to support the ongoing moves to scrap the executive presidency or not. This makes matters worse for the UNP.
If the UNP succeeded in its endeavour to enact a new Constitution acceptable to the TNA, by any chance, the question of enlisting the TNA’s support at a presidential election would not arise. The President would not be elected directly by the people if the country reverts to the Westminster system, and there would be a backlash from the voters who are opposed to devolving more powers and appeasing the TNA in such an eventuality. If the UNP’s constitutional project fails, which is very likely, then it will face difficulties in securing the TNA’s support at the next presidential election. The TNA has reduced itself to a single-issue party due to its overconcentration on devolution, if not federalism, and it will be left without anything to flaunt at the next election unless more powers are devolved to the periphery; it also runs the risk of other parties eating into its vote base, which has shown signs of shrinking if the outcome of the Feb. 10 mini polls is any indication.
The next few months are going to be eventful with all major parties going all out to woo the electorate in view of the PC polls. Will the PC polls be held early next year as expected? The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is given to lateral thinking and without an iota of shame. Therefore, it is capable of concocting excuses for delaying polls if it is not confident of facing them. But no government can shore up its electoral fortunes by postponing elections.