Jumbos Jostle, GR Talks, BBS Head Thunders
Has Sirisena Let The Genie Out Of The Bottle?
The UNP has not decided on its presidential candidate yet though speculation is rife in political circles that it will be Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in keeping with the Sri Lankan tradition. Serving Prime Ministers have always contested presidential election in this country. UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya are also grooming themselves. Sajith makes no bones about his desire to run for President.
Speaking at a ceremony to mark the launch of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s biography, Khema’s Boy, in Matara, over the weekend, Sajith declared melodramatically that he was ready to serve the public 24 hours a day throughout the year. He also displayed his knowledge of economics, speaking about income disparities and giving some facts and figures in support of his arguments, which Samaraweera appreciated in his vote of thanks. It was obvious that the objective of the book launch was twofold; it was aimed at promoting Sajith as the UNP’s presidential candidate and Samaraweera as his running mate.
Ironically, it was about five years ago that Samaraweera was accused of having unleashed goons armed with kurundu polu (cinnamon sticks) to break up a protest march by UNP dissidents, calling for the ouster of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader. The attack was carried out while the procession of protesters was passing through the Matara town. Mangala came to be dubbed ‘the commander of the kurundu polu brigade’, as a result. Having defended Ranil to the hilt in that manner, Mangala is now promoting Sajith!
Ravi Karunanayake, who got back into the Cabinet thanks to last year’s constitutional coup, which enabled him to endear himself to PM Wickremesinghe by defending the latter despite rumours that he himself would defect, is attacking Sajith. He has gone so far as to question the educational qualifications of Sajith, who says he has passed out of the London School of Economics. He cannot be launching such scathing attacks on Sajith, unbeknownst to the PM.
Sajith has not taken it all lying down. He has fired a broadside at Karunanayake, without naming names, though. He has referred to the bond scams and the penthouse controversy. This shows that UNP heavyweights are ready to get down and dirty with each other at the expense of their party’s unity, which is a prerequisite for the success of its presidential campaign.
Speaker Jayasuriya has also launched a propaganda campaign to promote himself. Newspaper advertisements have appeared hailing him as a hero who defended the supremacy of Parliament and defeated the 2018 constitutional coup. The Maha Sangha has conferred another title on him. He is also in the good books of the western members of the international community.
Karu, however, is treading cautiously without antagonising anyone, but he, too, will come under fire in time to come if he makes known his presidential ambitions officially.
There have emerged three power centers in the form of the contenders for the presidential candidacy, in the UNP. Two of them are bound to fail to realise their dream of running for President and the intraparty rifts will weaken the UNP and weigh against its presidential candidate.
Who would be the PM in case Ranil succeeded in securing the executive presidency? Ranil has shown his hand albeit unwittingly. He has recently asked the Cabinet ministers to follow Lakshman Kiriella, who, he says, has no dealings with President Sirisena. In other words, Kiriella is about the only minister to have won the PM’s confidence. Ranil being Ranil will not forgive, much less promote, those who challenge his leadership. The UNPers who are trying to secure the party ticket to contest the presidential election know what is in store for them in the event of Ranil becoming the President. Therefore, they cannot be expected to throw their full weight behind him in the presidential race. This is the name of the game in politics. It became evident during the 52-day government last year that a section of the SLPP, supportive of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, did not want the Mahinda-Sirisena alliance to succeed, for if it had got cemented, Gotabaya’s chance of becoming the SLPP presidential candidate would have been ruined.
Some political observers are of the view that several prominent SLPPers even dissuaded a number of UNP MPs from joining the hurriedly formed Sirisena-Rajapaksa government, and that was the main reason why its plan to muster a working majority in the House went awry. Following President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ignominious defeat in the 2015 presidential race, his loyalists accused some members of his Cabinet of not having put their heart and soul into his election campaign; they did not want him to remain the President any longer as they thought they would be left without any opportunity to realise their presidential ambitions until they were too long in the tooth. In politics, everyone chooses to look at any issue through the prism of self-interest, which takes precedence over everything else.
Elvis Presley famously described ambition as a dream with a V8 engine. Dreams make politicians tick; even a newly elected local government councillor has a presidential dream.
The UNP presidential candidate will have his work cut out to carry the entire party with him.
JVP marches against UNP
The JVP has launched an anti-government protest campaign. It held a march from Kalutara to Nugegoda to drum up support for its no-faith motion against the government. It is likely to stage more such protests during this year in a bid to disprove the claim being made in some quarters that it is cooperating with the government on the sly.
The JVP usually improves its electoral performance during UNP-led governments, for it becomes the most vociferous critic of the policies of those administrations. It scored heavily from 2001 to 2004 under the UNP government, so much so that contesting the 2004 general election on the UPFA ticket, it succeeded in having 39 out of its 42 candidates elected to Parliament. It had only 16 seats in the previous Parliament. It also gave away two of its National List slots to the UPFA to help settle a dispute in that party. But today its political fortunes have diminished as never before if its pathetic performance at the last local government election is anything to go by. The main reason for this situation is that it is seen to be in league with the yahapalana government. It campaigned for the common Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena and joined the National Executive Council appointed by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, in 2015.
The JVP and the UNP have been on very intimate terms in Parliament as well. The former poses questions and the latter answers them in such a way that there seems to be some understanding between them. The JVP went overboard in helping prop up the UNP-led government during last year’s constitutional coup. It insisted that it was not helping the UNP as such but was trying to defeat an unconstitutional move to capture power in Parliament. It said it was not against a change of government if Rajapaksa and Sirisena could prove they had a working majority in Parliament. But the public did not seem convinced. If it had been wise, it would have presented a motion seeking the dissolution of Parliament immediately afterwards so as to prove that it was not for the continuation of the current administration.
The JVP leadership which is not free from intra-party conflicts may be able to prevent, with the help of protests, the morale of the party’s rank and file from sagging further, but whether such gimmicks will help change public perception remains to be seen.
Former Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Vigneswaran is making a determined effort to remain relevant in northern politics. He is aware that if his newly formed party, the Tamil People’s Alliance, is not to end up being a mere name board, it has to eat into the vote base of the TNA, which made him the Chief Minister. This is a daunting task he cannot accomplish under his own steam, and he is wooing the smaller Tamil parties which are not well-disposed towards the TNA. He tried to coalesce with some of them recently but without any success.
The TNA remains strong though its support base has shown signs of erosion, which has caused concern to the party leadership. Its main campaign promises were more devolution through a new Constitution and a war crimes probe. It has failed to make good on both of them. Its problem will be to sell these two pledges again at a future election. It will also have to explain to its constituency why it keeps propping up a government which has not fulfilled its promises to the Tamil people, who are, however, without an alternative to the TNA, which alone has the strength to bargain with governments.
The TNA is concerned about its failure to fulfil its pledges. TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran, in a recent television interview, admitted that the unfulfilled promises were a problem, but, he argued that the people were aware that his party had done its best to have them carried out albeit in vain. What the people really thought of his party’s performance could be seen only at an election, he said. This is a realistic assessment of the situation.
There is absolutely no way the UNF government can secure the passage of a constitutional package without the backing of the UPFA. It will also be politically suicidal for the UNP to undertake to introduce a new Constitution under a future government and honour its Geneva commitments which include the setting up of a war crimes probe with the participation of foreigners. Such a promise may help retain the support of the TNA in the next Parliament as well, but that will prove counterproductive, if not disastrous, where the voters opposed to federalism and war crimes probes are concerned. However, it can rest assured that the TNA will be left with no alternative but to back it in the next Parliament as well.
Gotabaya speaks from Singapore
Former war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is tipped to be the SLPP’s presidential candidate, but not all top guns of the party are amenable to that arrangement. Joint Opposition firebrand Vasudeva Nanayakkara, MP, has said the SLPP should not decide on its presidential candidate without consulting its coalition partners. What really matters in the SLPP is former President Rajapaksa’s decision. He will have to name the party’s presidential candidate before long; he is under pressure from some prominent Opposition politicians and well-wishers to consider fielding former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.
The SLPP’s plan is to field someone to secure the presidency and win the next general election so that Mahinda can become the PM and run the show. This is something Mahinda will not be able to achieve under a strong President. Mahinda will have to have as the President someone he can control.
Gotabaya has made a statement from Singapore, where he is convalescing after a heart operation, lest he should be forgotten or be written off as an invalid. He has implied that he is fighting fit and will return home to launch his presidential election campaign. His statement which was given wide publicity in the local media has warmed the cockles of the supporters’ hearts. Gotabaya is lucky that Sri Lankans prefer strong leaders to mild-mannered ones.
The road, however, is not without any obstacles for Gotabaya. His enemies are all out to prevent him from standing for President. They have filed cases against him in the US and are hopeful that he will not be able to relinquish his US citizenship in time for the presidential election. Gotabaya is confident that he can overcome all those challenges and be ready for the big fight.
BBS makes a comeback
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) convention in Kandy, on Sunday (07 July), reminded us of the 2015 presidential election period, which was full of BBS activities, following the Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence.
Kandy was tense during the BBS event, “Sivu Hele Maha Samuluwa” with a heavy police and military presence. A large number of Buddhist monks and laypersons converged on the hill capital, and speakers, one after the other, waxed eloquent on the need to champion the cause of the Sinhalese, who, they opined, had been marginalised.
BBS Chief Galabodaatte Gnanasra Thera showed that old habits die hard. He has undertaken to play a messianic role. He vowed to create a Sinhala Parliament to look after the interests of the majority community. There were no leaders to safeguard the interests of the Sinhalese, he claimed, adding that his outfit would support a presidential candidate who was ready to defend the Sinhalese.
Gnanasara Thera spoke of twin challenges to the Sinhalese—incompetent political leadership and Muslim extremism. Urging the government to stop negotiating with the Ulama, he said that it had to talk with the Sufi and other moderate communities that had lived in the country for generations.
The BBS keeps saying it has no political agenda. It may not be involved in party politics actively, but its agenda is not devoid of politics. How can it aspire to create what it calls a Sinhala Parliament without getting actively involved in politics?
Is the BBS planning to contest the next general election the way the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) did in 2004? The latter made the most of the death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thera, claiming that it was a murder committed by anti-Buddhist forces, and won nine seats at that year’s general election. The BBS is apparently trying to turn the post-Easter situation to its advantage.
Gnanasara Thera has been at pains to have the public believe that President Sirisena released him from prison, not as a part of a political project. The President has drawn heavy flak from some quarters for pardoning the controversial monk and he will be held responsible for what the BBS does.
Only time will tell, whether the President has let the genie out of the bottle.