Political Shock Waves Of Easter Blasts

Two policemen walk past shops that were burned in communal clashes that took place in the Wayamba Province earlier this week, while the UNP struggles to have Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka appointed Minister of Law and Order.

One of the main allegations the leaders of the Rajapaksa dispensation levelled against their political enemies in the present administration was that the latter would endanger national security and the country would be plagued with terrorism again. They may have expected the LTTE to raise its head again and wreak havoc, but terror attacks came from the least expected quarters. But the government stands accused of having compromised national security and failed to prevent terror strikes.

The government finds itself in an unenviable position. The Easter calamity could not have come at a worse time for it.  The terror strikes occurred while it was preparing for the next presidential election. The UNP’s Gamperaliya development drive, aimed at regaining lost ground on the political front, has got eclipsed, nay, derailed. The country’s topmost priority, at present, is national security and any attempt to kick-start Gamperaliya will be used by the Opposition to claim that the government has got its priorities mixed up.

The danger of terrorists striking again lurks and the government is struggling to restore normalcy. The time is not opportune for the yahapalana leaders to shift their focus from national security to election-related development activities.

Meanwhile, the government’s pecuniary woes are aggravating by the day. Tourism industry is lying supine, and the economy has suffered a crippling blow from the Easter bombings. Hotel prices have plummeted drastically. The government will be without adequate funds to expend on its election-related programmes.

The only advantage that has accrued to the UNP from the current situation is that it can skip the much-delayed Provincial Council elections further and avoid its electoral weakness being exposed before the presidential election.

President’s China visit

President Maithripala Sirisena was in Singapore on holiday at the time of the Easter carnage. He drew heavy flak for his failure to have appointed an acting Defence Minister to look after national security before leaving for India, from where he proceeded to Singapore. Upon his return from Singapore, he claimed that he had not been informed of any intelligence warning of a terrorist attacks.

On Monday, Sirisena left for China while the country was still on edge. He, however, appointed State Minister of Defence as the Acting Minister of Defence before his departure. He visit was to attend a conference on Asian civilizations in Beijing, but that could not have been the only reason why he went there.

President Sirisena met the Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang and briefed them on the situation at home. Speculation is rife in diplomatic circles that he went to Beijing to meet his Chinese counterpart urgently and the international conference, which he could have skipped, was only an excuse. Anyway, Sirisena now has something to flaunt back at home as an achievement; China has promised its unstinted support for Sri Lanka’s war on terror.

Chinese investment has been badly affected by the Easter attacks and Beijing is not likely to take it lying down. It is sure to make an effective intervention to safeguard its interests here, and what form it will take remains to be seen.

 A mosque that was damaged during riots that occurred earlier this week.
A mosque that was damaged during riots that occurred earlier this week.

A damning indictment

The ministry of Law and Order had been held by several key UNPers before it was brought under President Sirisena. They were Tilak Marapana, Ranjith Maddumabandara, Sagala Ratnayake and Prime Minster Wickremesinghe himself. Now, the UNP is asking the President to appoint Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka Minister of Law and Order, and this demand is tantamount to an indictment on the UNP heavyweights who previously held that post in that their party has, albeit unwittingly, admitted that none of them is equal to the task of handling the situation and, therefore, Fonseka should be brought in.

The UNP’s own admission that only Fonseka is capable of facing the challenge of defending the country against terrorism is bound to go against UNP leader PM Wickremesinghe, who is planning to stand for President for the third time. He was beaten by Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 1999 and 2005, respectively. He avoided two presidential contests in 2010 and 2015. Fonseka lost one presidential election (2010). It is widely thought that Fonseka has not given up his presidential ambitions.

Communal riots

The UNP is heavily dependent on ethnic and religious minorities to shore up its vote base. It made a great deal of political capital out of communal violence under the Rajapaksa administration, especially the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, in 2014. But it has failed to honour its pledge to protect the minorities.

There have been several attacks on Muslims under the present government in Gintoa, Ampara, Digana and recently in the Gamapaha and Kurunegala Districts.

The attacks on the Muslims in Digana, last year, spread to several parts of the Kandy District while the UNP was holding the Defence portfolio. The current spate of violence against the Muslims has occurred at a time when the Defence Ministry is under the UNP. President Maithripala Sirisena can (and will) claim that there had been no racial violence when he left for China.

Sri Lanka has a history of communal violence rearing its ugly head from time to time, but no government has successfully implemented policies that promote tolerance and understanding between communities.
Sri Lanka has a history of communal violence rearing its ugly head from time to time, but no government has successfully implemented policies that promote tolerance and understanding between communities.

The Cardinal speaks up again

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith did not mince his words when he said, at a concelebrated Holy Mass at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena, held last Sunday to pray for the victims of the Easter attacks, that public officials and the rulers responsible for the Easter carnage had to resign or be removed. Reflected in this strong statement is the disappointment of the Catholic community.

The Cardinal has been critical of the manner in which the government has handled national security and the post-carnage situation. He has called for tougher action against the terrorists and a proper investigation. His aforesaid statement can be considered an exhortation to the Catholic community to help bring down the government at a future election.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference (CBCSL), on Monday, called for an impartial inquiry to find the real culprits behind the Easter Sunday bombings and legal action against them. The ISIS has claimed the responsibility for the attacks, which, it says, were carried out through its local affiliate, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ). Is it that the CBCSL thinks there could be others behind the carnage? The Cardinal, too, has said on several occasions that the possibility of some powerful external forces being behind the Easter Sunday incidents cannot be ruled out.

The Catholics have traditionally voted with the UNP, and what kind of electoral impact their consternation will have on the ruling party remains to be seen. What hurts the Catholic community most is the fact that the government ministers, including Catholics, had received intelligence warnings of impending blasts but the public was not cautioned.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith celebrating mass at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena. Will he be able to push Catholics to vote against the government at a future election?
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith celebrating mass at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena. Will he be able to push Catholics to vote against the government at a future election?

Conjoined twins fighting

The yahapalana twins, the UNP and the SLFP, are joined at the head. A high risk political surgery to separate them failed, last October, and President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have had to remain together.

The adverse effect of anything bad done to one of the twins affects the other. Hence it is suicidal for the UNP and the SLFP to attack each other. But, this exactly is what they are doing. President Maithripala Sirisena makes use of all opportunities that present themselves to weaken the UNP and vice versa; they are oblivious to the fact that both of them  have become unpopular in the process. Their infighting has been to the advantage of the SLPP and the JVP.

Time was when both the President and the UNP would get together to launch frontal attacks on the SLPP and the former ruling family. The SLPP is no longer at the receiving end of the presidential diatribes, which are now directed at the UNP. It has been a win-win situation of sorts for both the Rajapaksa family and the President.

The blame game

Unlike in other games, there is no winner in the blame game; both parties which accuse each other of wrongdoing in a bid to absolve themselves of the responsibility become losers in the end and find themselves in the same predicament as the thieves who fall out and rat on one another. This is what happened to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration a few months after the last parliamentary election, which cemented what had previously been a loose alliance between the UNP and the SLFP/UPFA.

President Sirisena, in a bid to avoid the blame for the bond scams, appointed a presidential commission of inquiry to probe them and ruined the prospects of the UNP winning elections. The UNP returned the favour by levelling very serious allegations against the UPFA ministers in the joint Cabinet. The end result of the SLFP/UPFA and the UNP clashes was the SLPP’s mammoth victory at the 2018 local government elections.

The UNP, having failed to secure the much-coveted defence portfolio, is all out to lay the blame for the Easter Sunday attacks entirely at the feet of President Sirisena and cast him in a bad light as a failed leader in retaliation for last year’s abortive power grab and other hostile actions.

The UNP has been able to secure the defence portfolio, albeit temporarily, but the situation has taken a turn for the worse with the Muslims being attacked by mobs.

The defence portfolio serves as a political crutch for a lame-duck president, who otherwise becomes a nonentity even before his term draws to a close. So, it is not surprising why President Sirisena is keeping the armed forces and the police under him. He will take over the Defence Ministry immediately after returning from China and consolidate his position.

TID brought under CID

One of the main reasons the President gave for taking over the Law and Order Ministry late last year was that attempts were being made to derail the investigations into the alleged plot to assassinate him and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Curiously, there has been no discernible progress in the probe. It was thought that that arrest of notorious drug dealer Makandure Madush would give a turbo boost to the assassination probe, but nothing of the sort has so far happened.

Curiously, while the President was away in China, the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), which was under the IGP, was attached to the CID. No reason has been given for this and it will be interesting to see the President’s reaction when he returns.

TID Director DIG Nalaka de Silva is the key suspect in the plot to kill the President and Gotabaya. He is currently in remand prison. What kind of impact the government’s decision to attach the TID to the CID will have on the ongoing investigations in the assassination plot remains to be seen.

The elephant in the room

Will the SLFP-SLPP honeymoon last long? The signs are that it will be over within the next few months despite their talks on how to strengthen their bonds. The two parties have so far had four rounds of talks, all of which ended inconclusively without contentious issues being taken up. How long they can go on pussyfooting around is the question.

With the next presidential election only a few months away, the two parties have to decide whether they will field a common candidate or contest separately. This is the elephant in the room. Time is running out and they will have to make this decision fast. If they want to join forces and field a single candidate, who will be that person, President Sirisena or Gotabaya or someone else from the Rajapaksa family? The answer to this question will either cement or break the fragile SLFP-SLPP alliance.

Before its political misadventure last October, the SLPP’s popularity was very high. The SLPP was previously able to negotiate with the SLFP from a position of strength because of the huge number of votes it polled at the last local government elections. But its popularity has since been on the wane and its ‘Enough is Enough’ rally in Kandy, on March 08, failed to draw mammoth crowds unlike its previous events. The SLFP leaders were conspicuous by their absence at the SLPP’s Kandy rally and the following day SLFP General Secretary, explaining why his party had not been represented at that, said the two parties had not yet forged a formal alliance.

That the SLFP will be able to win a presidential election under its own steam is only wishful thinking. The UPFA, led by it, came a poor third at the 2018 local government elections. The SLFP went it alone in some areas and polled 4.44% of the votes while the UPFA secured 8.94% of votes. Thus, they have, between them, polled a little over 13% of the votes as opposed to the SLPP’s 45% and the UNP’s 33%. If these results are anything to go by, then the SLFP/UPFA can prevent the SLPP candidate from clearing the 50 percent mark in the next presidential race if they fall out.

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