The Joint Opposition’s Janabalaya Colombata protest is just a foretaste of what to come. The ruling coalition did not expect the JO to stage such a successful rally. It had done everything in its power to sabotage the protest while claiming, in public, that it did not care a damn about the event. Private bus owners had been warned that if they released buses for transporting people for the protest, they would lose their route permits. Many bus operators fell in line, and an irate Lanka Private Bus Owners’ Association President Gemunu Wijeratne told a newspaper that restrictions on private buses would not help prevent JO activists from converging on Colombo. He got it right. Above all, the permits the JO had obtained for using some grounds in Colombo for the rally were hurriedly cancelled at the behest of the government a few days before the event. Not that such despicable actions are of recent origin. Successive government have adopted those methods to counter Opposition protest, but in vain.
What really contributed to the success of Wednesday’s protest was the element of surprise it had besides the government efforts to scuttle the event. It is said that, in politics, there is nothing called bad publicity; the government and its propagandists blundered by drawing too much of public attention to the JO’s protest unnecessarily by being critical of it. The ordinary public usually tends to believe the very obverse of the government in power says.
The JO acted in such a way that it seemed to be at sixes and sevens and the government was lulled into a false sense of complacency. Some UNP politicians were confident that the JO protest would be a flop so much so that they dared their opponents to bring 10,000 people to Colombo if they could. The JO kept the venue of the protest under wraps until the eleventh hour to confuse the government and the police, which true to form, got hold of the wrong end of the stick and spread its resources all over the city unnecessarily. So much for police intelligence!
The police also went running to courts, on Tuesday, in a bid to have the protest banned. The statements they made before courts in support of their arguments against the event were of political nature. They blew the situation out of proportion, giving the impression to the judiciary that there was an attempt to overthrow the government. One of the Magistrates who rejected their pleas rhetorically asked why they were not making arrests if they suspected a conspiracy to oust the government. The police failed to convince the judges and their plan to prevent the protest went awry.
‘Occupy Colombo’ in the offing?
Some of the JO protesters remained in Colombo almost overnight. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited them and made a short speech. It was not a kind of victory lap. The JO leaders were dipping their toes in the water. They are apparently limbering up for something bigger. What they are planning may even be an Occupy Colombo protest with tens of thousands of Opposition activists crippling the city and perhaps towns in other parts of the country.
The government will not be able to justify the use of excessive force to crush protests, in such an eventuality, after having condemned the bloody crackdown on the Welikade prison uprising (2012) and ordered a probe into it. President Sirisena once made a grand show of pardoning an LTTE activist who had conspired to kill him while he was a minister of the Rajapaksa government. His problem will be to order or endorse a crackdown on protests led by the dissident group of the UPFA he leads. Suppressive measures will be counterproductive in that they will only strengthen the Opposition’s resolve to fight back. They will also make the yahapalana leader more unpopular. The government’s approval rating is decreasing if the outcome of the last local government polls is any indication.
The UPFA dissidents’ victory at the Feb. 10 local government election worsened the internal problems of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Sixteen SLFP ministers rose against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, made an abortive attempt to oust him through a vote of no confidence and joined the JO after being stripped of their ministerial posts. This year’s mammoth May Day rally of the JO further weakened the government and triggered defections, and Wednesday’s protest may lead to another realignment of forces in Parliament. The JO already has 70 out of 95 UPFA MPs on its side. Losing numbers in Parliament is a worrisome proportion for a lame duck President, under whose leadership the SLFP has suffered the worst ever split and failed to poll more than 4.4% of the votes where it contested the last LG polls alone while the JVP polled 6.2% overall.
The JO and its electoral wing, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), have given several reasons for their protest, the main being the inordinate delay in holding elections, threats to national security, poor economic management, extremely high taxes, the divestment of state ventures and the denial of the post of Opposition Leader to MP Dinesh Gunawardena. But Wednesday’s protest was basically a show of strength to unsettle the government, which has consolidated its power in Parliament, where it secures the passage of vital Bills though it no longer presents those which require a two-thirds majority for ratification. The JO/SLPP has to flex its muscles, from time to time, to consolidate its electoral gains and prevent the government from gaining ground.
Jeering near SLFP headquarters
Thousands of JO protesters, on their way to the Lake House Roundabout, via Darley Road, on Wednesday jeered as they passed the SLFP headquarters, which they had held in esteem before Jan. 05, 2015. They were, in fact, ridiculing the current party leadership. Ironically, a couple of hours before the protest the Government Information Department sent out a picture of SLFP leader President Sirisena reading newspapers in the Parliament library; the caption for the picture said the President was relaxing while the JO was struggling to muster people for its protest, in Colombo. The President must be having sleepless nights with his term coming to an end; the UNP is waiting to ditch his party in time for the next presidential election.
SLFP National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake’s order that the party members refrain from taking part in the JO’s protest became a joke in that the protesters who jeered near the party office were SLFP members who have rejected the current leadership. Among the prominent politicians who joined the protest were SLFP Treasurer S. B. Dissanayake (besides other 15 former SLFP ministers) and no less a person than SLFP Advisor Mahinda Rajapaksa.
President Sirisena is in a dilemma. If he continues to be in the yahapalana alliance with the UNP as his partner, the JO/SLPP will eat into the SLFP vote bank further and make his position in national politics even more vulnerable. There is no guarantee that the dissidents will receive him with open arms or there will be rapprochement on his term if he ditches the UNP and make overtures to the JO/SLPP. Instead, he runs the risk of falling between two stools with neither the UNP nor the JO to back him.
Stories are being floated by the SLFP that the JO/SLPP and President Srisena are likely to bury the hatchet and form a common front. Anything is possible in politics, but there are fundamental issues that the two sides will have to sort out if they are to come together, the main being who the next presidential candidate will be.
JO’s battle plan
The JO-SLPP combine seems to think that nothing is going to prevent it from capturing power. It is sure to step up its anti-government protests in the hope that such action will help precipitate the fall of the government. But, in politics nothing is so certain as the unexpected. Issues keep cropping up and the possibility of one of them ending up being a game changer cannot be ruled out.
The Rajapaksas and their henchmen do not seem to have learnt from their mistakes much less regret having done what they did while in power. They have apparently succeeded in having the people believe that they lost in 2015 not because of their faults but due to a conspiracy, masterminded by some foreign powers with the help of Sirisena and some other UPFA members, the UNP, the TNA, the SLMC and the JVP.
The former leaders are likely to start from where they left if they manage to recapture power, and the country will be made witness to a replay of what happened from 2005 to 2015. Another electoral loss will further weaken the UNP and the present yahapalana camp, as never before, and it will be plain sailing for the Rajapaksas and their loyalists.
The government has ruined things for itself, bigtime. It has failed to live up to public expectations. People elected it to put an end to waste and corruption, restore the rule of law, build the economy and grant them relief. Instead, it has been bashing its opponents and flogging the same issues it once exploited to defeat the Rajapaksa government in 2015. It has remained preoccupied with constitution making, which has turned out to be a never-ending process.
The UNP has not recovered from the Treasury bond scams. The prosecution of Arjun Aloysius et al will not help it repair its image. The discerning public knows that they are not the masterminds of the scams. The government’s failure to bring back former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, wanted in the bond scams case, has aggravated its political woes.
While the JO MPs were busy with their street protest, the JVP tabled the 20th Amendment (20-A) to the Constitution Bill in Parliament on Wednesday. The JVP could not have drafted the document on its own. There could be some truth in the claim being made in some quarters that it has only presented a Bill, prepared by some others.
The 20-A Bill seeks to abolish the executive presidency and strengthen the post of prime minister. This could not have come at a worse time for President Sirisena, who cannot win a general election. Given the pathetic performance of the SLFP at last election, the only way he can think of retaining the powers he already has is to face the next presidential election as the common candidate of either the UNP-led yahapalana camp or the JO/SLPP.
In the unlikely event of the 20-A being made into law, a titular President would be appointed by Parliament, and the PM will become all powerful; there would be no presidential election. Settling for the titular presidency may be an alternative available for Sirisena in case of the abolition of the current presidency, but the question is whether the SLFP will be able to gain any bargaining power by winning an adequate number of seats at the next parliamentary polls for him to become the President to be elected by Parliament.
The yahapalana leaders made a solemn pledge to do away with the executive presidency before the last presidential election. They are without any moral right to oppose the main objective of the 20-A. On the one hand, the UNP has its work cut out as regards the next presidential election. It is without a marketable candidate and, on the other, the presidency has been stripped of most of the executive powers which made it attractive to ambitious politicians. So, the best option available for the UNP seems to be endorsing the 20-A.
The JO/SLPP also will find itself in a quandary over what to do with the 20-A, because the abolition of the executive presidency is not without some advantages for it. Attempts to field former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the SLPP have run into resistance from some JO heavyweights and the question of who the next presidential candidate is likely to threaten the unity of the UPFA dissidents. The abolition of the executive presidency might solve that problem.
The reactions of UNP, the SLFP, the JO, the TNA and the SLMC to the 20-A are not yet known. The JO indicated its displeasure, but it has not officially made its position on the 20-A.
However, the abolition of the executive presidency is not going to be easy, though the JVP thinks it can be done away with like cake past its shelf life. Some of the complex issues concerning the 20-A have to be discussed at length.