SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena must be ruing the day he became the President. His presidency was apparently jinxed and landed him in trouble. He is doubtlessly worried about the political fallout of the recent Supreme Court ruling that he pay Rs. 100 million as compensation to the Easter Sunday carnage victims for his failure, as the President, to prevent the terror attacks on churches and hotels in 2019. He has chosen to put on a brave face, but he cannot hide the fact that he is a worried man.

On Tuesday, Sirisena gave a press conference, where he tendered an apology to the Catholic community, but at the same time sought to absolve himself of the blame for the terrorist attacks, which he manifestly failed to prevent. The Catholic Church lost no time in rejecting his apology out of hand and renewing its call for criminal proceedings against him and two others whom the Supreme Court has ordered to pay compensation—ex-State Intelligence Service head, SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena, and former Chief of National Intelligence Service, SDIG (retd.) Sisira Mendis.

Sirisena, as a seasoned politician, knows how to capture media attention, divert it, as and when necessary, and even obfuscate issues. On Tuesday, he told journalists that he would run for President again, and the Supreme Court judgement in question was no barrier for him to do so. He need not have declared his intention to seek another presidential term. Why did he do so?

Sirisena sought to kill more than two birds with one stone when he made that statement.  Hereafter, the focus of public discussion will be on Sirisena’s intention to contest the next presidential election rather than any other issue concerning him.

Sirisena knows that he will not be able to square up to issues pertaining to the Easter Sunday carnage, especially the ongoing campaign for criminal action against him unless he remains active in politics and is seen to be a force to be reckoned with.

Most people may not think Sirisena can win a presidential election ever again, given his pathetic failure as the President from 2015 to 2019, but he will be seen as a prospective presidential candidate. This will go a long way towards increasing his bargaining power, which he will be able to leverage to prevent criminal proceedings from being instituted against him.

UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara has declared that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. He said so in an interview with Hiru TV.

Wickremesinghe is not likely to receive the backing of the SLPP for his election bid although its parliamentary group elected him the President. It is unthinkable that the Rajapaksa family, which is all out to retain its hold on power, will support anyone other than one of its members at the next presidential election. Wickremesinghe may therefore feel the need to enlist the support of as many political parties as possible including the SLFP. Sirisena can seek to cut a political deal with the UNP by offering to opt out of the presidential race and make a virtue of necessity in the process. Perhaps, this is what Sirisena has in mind.

Social media is full of posts on Sirisena’s intention to run for President again. The UNP General Secretary’s announcement in question has also generated a similar response from the public. Some newspapers are likely to conduct opinion polls on the subject.

Never a dull day in Sri Lanka! Issues crop up at such a rate that nobody could keep track of them, and this has been to the advantage of the governments in power. Most of these issues are created by politicians, and some of them are blown out of proportion or catapulted to centre stage for political reasons.

A few weeks ago, it was reported that there had been an increase in drug abuse among schoolchildren; ICE (crystal methamphetamine) was smuggled into many schools, and even students in lower grades were addicted to it. The Education Ministry and the police launched a joint programme, and checks for drugs got underway in schools. The Opposition viewed the anti-narcotic drive as an attempt by the Rajapaksa family to make a comeback, offering to save the country’s children. That issue effectively overshadowed all other problems for a couple of weeks or so, before fizzling out. Cynics are now asking whether the police have solved the narcotic problem in schools once and for all!

Sri Lanka is no stranger to mass hysteria, which crafty politicians use to further their interests by diverting public attention from burning issues, in most cases. The grease yaka (a naked male smeared in grease) terrorizing women at night makes news from time to time. Everybody talks about the unseen yet much-feared yaka for several days. Reports of rays of light emanating from trees and religious statues miraculously are also not rare in this country. People flock to those places in their thousands to witness such ‘miracles’.

Immediately after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of people converged on a small village in Kegalle to buy some herbal syrup from a quack, who claimed it to be a cure for the fast-spreading viral infection. Those he took for a ride included Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, the then Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi and a host of other prominent politicians.

Likewise, there is bound to be a social media feeding frenzy of sorts over the statements that Sirisena and Range Bandara have made.

The only way Sirisena could prevent criminal charges from being pressed against him over the Easter Sunday bombings is to be in the good books of President Wickremesinghe. It is the Attorney General (AG) who can decide whether to institute criminal proceedings against Sirisena and others. The AG’s Department like the police has become a mere appendage of the President’s Office over the years, as is public knowledge, and therefore everyone who wants to avoid criminal action tries to endear himself or herself to the President in power. Sirisena is doing likewise. He has softened his stand on the government.

Sirisena attended an all-party conference President Wickremesinghe held on Jan. 26 to discuss a solution to the ethnic issue although the SJB and the JVP-led NPP boycotted the event. He sounded reconciliatory at the meeting and apparently succeeded in ingratiating himself with the President and the government. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena were present at the multi-party gathering. Previously, Sirisena and SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera attended a party leaders’ meeting at the parliamentary complex despite the Opposition’s protests against the President’s presence, which the SJB and the JVP-led NPP viewed as an interference of the Executive with the legislature.

The Supreme Court ruling against Sirisena has taken its toll on the unity of the newly formed People’s Freedom Alliance consisting of the SLFP, the SLPP dissidents and others ahead of the upcoming local government elections. The SLFP has chosen to go it alone in some parts of the country, and odds are that its councilors to be elected may even side with their UNP and SLPP counterparts after the polls so that the government will not push for criminal proceedings against Sirisena. In this country, political leaders never hesitate to subjugate the interests of their parties and/or even the country to their personal agendas. One need not be surprised if Sirisena and Wickremesinghe choose to kiss and make up. Whoever would have thought the SLPP and the UNP would join forces to share power?


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