Sirisena revolt: Presidential race gets on the road

  • Ranil and CBK playing crucial role in formulating strategy for the common opposition candidate; Sajith to handle grassroots campaign
  • Mangala, Ven. Athureliya and Rajitha to spearhead campaign; Ven. Sobhitha attends meeting
  • More crossovers soon; Chandrika says 31, Kiriella 60, but Temple Trees restricts it to 11

There are neither permanent friends nor permanent interests when it comes to politics in Sri Lanka. The players involved keep changing roles and shift their solemnly declared ideals from time to time. The search for a presidential candidate by the main Opposition United National Party (UNP), for a second time in four years, lays bare this fragility of a recurring political drama. It had the shades of the January 2010 presidential poll where former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, emerged as the ‘common candidate.’ Only a few weeks ago, the grand old party, the UNP, was to nominate its national leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe to be its presidential candidate. Sitting next to him at a meeting, the new deputy leader, Sajith Premadasa, declared that he would be the alternative if his leader was not willing to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet, he demanded a heavy price – that he be made leader of the UNP so he could defeat President Rajapaksa. He also declared that the symbol should be the UNP’s Elephant.

By Friday, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa had changed their minds. The duo were among the UNP parliamentarians and Provincial Council Opposition Leaders who unanimously endorsed a proposal by Wickremesinghe that Maithripala Sirisena be the common presidential candidate of the Opposition. Until that day, Sirisena remained Minister of Health and more importantly, the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the largest partner in the ruling UPFA coalition. Thus, it is a Rajapaksa Cabinet’s key Minister who is the main contender.

The move came barely 24 hours after Rajapaksa issued a proclamation. Signed at the auspicious time of 1.02 p.m. on Thursday whilst party organisations were asked to light crackers, it said: “KNOW YE that by virtue of the powers vested in me by paragraph (3A) of Article 31 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I, Mahinda Rajapaksa, President, do by this Proclamation, hereby declare my intention of appealing to the People for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term.” Earlier, on Wednesday during an SLFP Central Committee meeting that followed the weekly ministerial session, Senior Minister A.H.M. Fowzie proposed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate. It was seconded by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. It was the first hint. Sirisena as party General Secretary was not among the two to propose or second the name of the president.

There is little doubt that Maithripala Sirisena is a formidable opponent. Adding great weight to his candidacy is the array of personalities and political parties backing him. Heading the list is his mentor, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who did most of the talking behind-the-scenes to put together the new line-up. The breakaway Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) monk-MP, Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera took credit for setting the ball in motion. In ‘Temple Trees’ the Government felt that it was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that was urging Sirisena to come forward. To his credit, Wickremesinghe carried his party with him on the broader consensus reached — abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected — and make him Prime Minister.

A group of ruling party ministers and MPs crossed over signalling the formation of a broad new joint Opposition political front. They sat on a hurriedly set up stage at the New Town Hall with convener Kumaratunga, and Sirisena. A live telecast of the event was a turbo charged boost. The array included Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, Educational Services Minister Duminda Dissanayake, and Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs Deputy Minister M.K.D.S. Gunawardena. Parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha and Arjuna Ranatunga were also present. The ministers and the deputy minister came to the event even without resigning their portfolios and were later removed by Rajapaksa. Later that day, Nuwara Eliya District UPFA parliamentarian Perumal Rajadurai joined in. Also joining the UNP was Wasantha Senanayake, Gampaha District UPFA MP. He wanted to be the first to leave the Government, not to be a follower. He had said he was returning to the “Maha Gedera” (main house – as the Senanayake family were UNPers). The sponsors say they expect “more ministers and MPs to cross over in the coming days.” Kumaratunga gave the figure of 32 cross-overs. UNP frontliner Lakshman Kiriella gave the figure of 60. At ‘Temple Trees’ the count was 11.

If a section of the SLFP has now joined hands with the UNP, on board so far is the JHU. Talks were under way by some senior UNPers to draw in the JVP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and even the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Such a potent opposition force would undoubtedly come as heavy pressure for Rajapaksa.  The JVP declined comment. TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, told the Sunday Times, “This candidature is now made public. I listened to Mr. Sirisena’s speech on television. It contains progressive views. We will have to meet to take a decision. We will also consult our people. There is time since the nominations are in December.” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem said consultations with the Government were on. “No commitments have been made until the conclusion of discussions. The Party High command has to meet and approve any final decision.”

Yet, Hakeem has not been unmindful of the events unfolding. He was keeping himself informed of up-to-the minute developments through his own channels of information. Naturally, countermeasures were being taken. Some of the suspect Ministers and MPs have come under close watch whilst others were being approached. Government MPs were assured that their grievances would be redressed. In fact, Rajapaksa had held at least two meetings with Minister Sirisena to persuade him not to leave. The move came as further confirmation that Rajapaksa was keeping close tabs on developments. Another minister who came under close scrutiny was one who was reportedly making acidic remarks about the President and his family.

The new Opposition grouping emerged literally out of the blues. UNP national leader Wickremesinghe and his close confidant Malik Samarawickrema returned from a private visit to Hong Kong last Wednesday, They were locked in a series of consultations with former President Kumaratunga at her Torrington Square residence. President Rajapaksa was aware of this meeting on the night of the proclamation. As revealed in these columns last week, UNP’s efforts to form a less formidable ‘common front’ were stymied. This was after Democratic Party (DP) MP Tiran Alles arranged a meeting for Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, leader of the National Movement for Justice and Equality (a would-be partner in the front) at Alles’ parental home at Kuruppu Road in Borella. There the venerable Thera met President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. Later, Ven. Sobitha entered the Malabe Teaching Hospital owned by Dr. Neville Fernando, a staunch supporter of the Government. The signing of a ‘common programme’ set for November 17, at Hotel Galadari had to be called off. Amidst Ven. Sobitha’s night rendezvous, some would-be members of the ‘common front’ were to demand that the UNP candidate should be made known well ahead of the signing of the ‘common programme.’

The deal to form a new broad Opposition front was wrapped up on Thursday night at the meeting Wickremesinghe held with Kumaratunga. There, she handed to the UNP national leader a signed document from Sirisena assuring that Wickremesinghe would be the Prime Minister if and when he is elected President. Later, at the news conference at the New Town Hall, Sirisena also made a public statement confirming that Wickremesinghe would be the Premier. The former President had launched her own initiatives for twin reasons: Firstly, the UNP’s efforts to form a ‘common front’ and sign a ‘common programme’ had been sabotaged by the Ven. Sobitha-Rajapaksa meeting brokered by Alles. Secondly, Kumaratunga stalled moves by her friend and ally, Mangala Samaraweera to join the Government ranks. She asked the former Foreign Minister in the Rajapaksa cabinet for time to formulate some measures to set the ground for a common grouping with declared objectives.

With finality at the Thursday night discussion, Wickremesinghe summoned his party MPs and Provincial Councils Opposition Leaders for a meeting at Siri Kotha, the party’s headquarters, on Friday morning. He proposed that the General Secretary of the SLFP be the candidate at the upcoming presidential elections. He did not mention Sirisena by name and some of the participants at the meeting said it was then premature. That was because he was still a Minister in the Government. Wickremesinghe’s proposal was adopted unanimously. Among the backers was Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. In a brief speech Premadasa endorsed the move. It is not unusual for political parties in Sri Lanka to have their own comical moments when important issues are discussed. The one for the UNP came when industrialist Daya Gamage, National Organiser, known for his funding of the party, declared that if the search was for a ‘common candidate,’ there was no one more suitable than himself. Hence, he declared that he should be considered. Karu Jayasuriya was to remark that individuals did not matter but it was the issue — the abolition of the executive presidency. He said it was time now for the party to get down to that task. Among others who spoke was Kabir Hashim, the UNP Chairman.

The UNP had summoned a meeting of its Working Committee, its main policy making body, for 4 p.m. on Friday. Like he did with the party MPs, Wickremesinghe was to obtain the consent of its members to support Sirisena as the presidential candidate. Even before the UNP working committee meeting had started, Kumaratunga and Sirisena were at the New Town Hall together with others who crossed over. They held a news conference. Sirisena began by reciting the Dhammapada. Here are highlights of what he said:
“I am the General Secretary of the SLFP and for 47 continuous years I have been a member of the party. I have been the General Secretary for 13 long years. The SLFP was founded under the leadership of S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike in 1951.

“Many others who were like minded joined him to form the party and in the 67 years since, I have been the longest serving General Secretary. The SLFP, the UNP and several other parties have come to a common agreement on the changes that have to be made in this country and we have come to a policy agreement. The official announcement with regard to this will be made in the coming few days and will be made known to the public soon. I must extend my thanks to those who joined to assist in the journey to reach a common goal and for selecting me as the common candidate in the upcoming presidential poll. I must thank President Chandrika Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremaisnghe.

“There is a long list so I will not mention all of them but I wish to thank them all. For the sake of this country for choosing me as the common candidate, I wish to extend a very special thank you to the UNP leader and the Working Committee of the party for being generous enough to choose the General Secretary of the SLFP to be the common candidate. The UNP made a big sacrifice by doing this. This is the first time in the history of the UNP that it has made such a sacrifice by choosing the General Secretary of the SLFP.

“In 2006, during the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, we signed an agreement. I signed it on behalf of the SLFP and Malik Samarawickrema on behalf of the UNP. Today in a different manner, we have come together for the future of the country. S.W.R.D .Bandaranaike and his contemporaries such as Sri Nissanka and T.B.Illangaratne, Badiuddin Mahmood and others all got together and formed the SLFP with a vision and a policy. He implemented those polices and brought about great awakening in the country.

“It was the first time since independence that people got real freedom. Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike took leadership after her husband’s demise and with much commitment took the party forward. With their non-aligned policies they brought great recognition to the country in foreign nations. After Ms. Bandaranaike lost in 1977, her civic rights were removed. Till 1994 when we were returned to power, she stayed in the back and shed tears to hold the party together. I am someone who had seen her tears flow from her eyes. Even without her civic rights she held the party together.

“Then Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came to power after forming the People’s Alliance. She made the necessary changes and worked to defeat the LTTE and also built necessary international relationships. She suffered in a terrorist attack. We worked with the JVP in 1994 and formed the PA. We worked tirelessly to form the UPFA and also to take power. In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President. Under him our forces fought valiantly and defeated the LTTE. However, after end of the war, our government began to travel in a direction we did not anticipate. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution (allowing a president to contest any number of times) is a serious mistake. It has taken away the freedom, the democratic rights of the people as well as the powers of Parliament. It made the executive presidency of the 1978 even stronger.

“In the past few years the country has been heading towards a veiled dictatorship. Relief packages are given, development projects are being carried out, elections are being held with smiling faces but there are many things that cannot be approved by us and the people. Corruption, fraud and injustice are rampant. The supremacy of the judiciary is crumbling. The Police have been undermined. They’re unable to deal with wrongdoers. In this way, the country is under a veiled dictatorship with members of one family running the economy and the administration.

“Because of this, with me, a vast number who will join us soon thought, that we need to find a solution to all this. We spoke to other parties and we came to an agreement. As the General Secretary of the SLFP, I never thought that I would be chosen as the common candidate. As the Health Minister for the past four years, my experience has been disheartening.
“The move to put the pictorial warning on cigarette packets was delayed; the national drug policy was delayed. Who was behind it? I went to Hulftsdorp and sat on a bench on behalf of the people but I was not able to get it implemented. We are all going to die someday but before that we have to do something for the people. For that I will give up all positions and privileges. Today the SLFPers have been abandoned. We have to give them leadership. We have come to a decision to abolish the executive presidency.

“I urge the people of this country to support me so as to abolish this executive presidency which has brought much misfortune to the people and the country. I will abolish it within 100 days of being elected. Give me the power to do that. There are many poor people in the country. Public servants are in the doldrums these days. The living standards of all people must be raised. The economic status of the farmers in the place I come from must be strengthened. The Police and the public servants must be allowed to function independently without political interference. This will be guaranteed under the new government we want to create. I also appeal to the members of the armed forces as well as the IGP to ensure that a free and fair election is held.

“I think you all are aware of the media freedom in the country. You are aware of the pressures that were heaped on the media to distort news and to hide the truth. Under a new government, there will be real media freedom. Journalists will be able to speak and write freely. ”This corrupt election system will be abolished. I will reactivate the 17th Amendment and the 18th Amendment will be abolished. I will appoint UNP leader as the Prime Minister in the new government. And we will take our journey forward. I wish to thank President Kumaratunga who worked with much commitment, Venerable Aturaliye Ratana Thera as well as the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. In the days ahead we will reveal all our plans. I will place my faith in the people of this country. I must thank my wife and children who told me whatever decision I take they will stand by me.”

Former Minister Senaratne warned that the country’s image was being ruined internationally. “Shouting hoarse against them (international community) or using strong epithets is not patriotism or bravado,” he exhorted and warned that “matters would come to a head soon.” Hardly had he finished did he declare, watched on Tv by tens of thousands, that he had just received a message to return his official car. Sirisena, Senaratne and Kumaratunga all voiced fears for their safety. If Kumaratunga said there would be “white van” reprisals, Sirisena declared that he was willing to even sacrifice his life to achieve their goal of abolishing the executive presidency. Tears welled into the eyes of the duo during moments of their speeches.

The news conference was still under way when the Working Committee of the UNP met at Siri Kotha. Wickremesinghe followed the same routine proposing to participants that they support Maithripala Sirisena as the presidential candidate. Unlike his brief endorsement at the meeting of UNP parliamentarians that Friday morning, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa declared that he was not against the wishes of the party. He said efforts should be made to ensure that at the end of it all, a UNP Government, is in place. It should not be allowed to be hijacked by others, he said. Others who spoke in favour were Rosie Senanayake, Daya Gamage and Ravi Karunanayake.

As the UNP working committee meeting ended, all party leaders and personalities in the broader Opposition front were invited for a meeting at No. 30 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha, the office of the Leader of the Opposition. One of the surprise attendees was Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera who welcomed the new front and offered to place his signature on behalf of the National Movement for Equality and Social Justice. A notable absentee at the event, however, was UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake. Among others, present on behalf of the UNP were Wickremesinghe, Premadasa, Karu Jayasuriya, Kabir Hashim, Mangala Samaraweera, Eran Wickremeratne, Ruwan Wijewardene, Ravi Karunanayake and Malik Samarawickrema. Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera represented the JHU and Senaka de Silva the Democratic Party. Representatives of some of the smaller parties were also present.

In an emotion charged speech, Sirisena said though he had not met UNP national leader Wickremesinghe or spoken to him on the telephone, he had learnt a great deal in politics from him. This was by closely observing him conducting business in Parliament and the deep knowledge he had in politics and standing orders (rules of Parliament). “I have one request to make from those present here. Like I call Ms Kumaratunga Madam, please permit me to call Mr. Wickremesinghe ‘Sir’. Even when I become President I want to address him as Sir,” he said. Sirisena said that as a Cabinet Minister in the UPFA Government he had been treated so shabbily. He said he would soon reveal to the public who was behind moves to reduce drastically the size of graphic health warnings on cigarette packs. He said he would make a solemn pledge before those who had gathered at the Opposition Leader’s office that he would abolish the executive presidency.

An active participant at Friday night’s meeting was UNP Deputy Leader Premadasa. He said although there were good reasons to abolish the executive presidency in 100 days, this was not an issue when it came to people at the grassroots level. He said there would also have to be a 100 day package which should contain relief to the people who were affected by the mounting cost of living. “That is very correct,” said Kumaratunga who added, “let us ask Sajith to undertake the grassroots level campaign.” A programme is to be formulated. The unusual camaraderie between Premadasa and Mangala Samaraweera was also the talking point among some of the participants.

The discussion then centered on the all-important question: Under what symbol would Sirisena contest as presidential candidate? Ravi Karunanayake was to offer a party which was “in his possession.” It is the Nawa Prajathantrawadi Peramuna or the New Democratic Front with Hansaya or Swan as its symbol. The General Secretary of this party is lawyer Sharmila Perera, once an aide of Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. Samaraweera said Sirisena could also opt for Apey Jathika Peramuna or Our National Front. Its symbol is the telephone. Its General Secretary Ruwan Ferdinandes resigned yesterday. Former General Sarath Fonseka contested the 2010 presidential elections under the Swan symbol and lost. Hence, Our National Front’s telephone symbol is the most likely common symbol for now. Samaraweera and Rajitha Senaratne have been told to work out details in this regard and report back.

UNP national leader Wickremesinghe said the party’s campaign would have to be launched within the next two weeks on a grand scale. A three-member committee comprising Mangala Samaraweera, Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera and Rajitha Senaratne has been tasked with the responsibility of spearheading the campaign. The campaign office will be located at Siri Kotha. At the highest levels, both Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe will work out campaign strategies. They will also jointly name the various committees that will be tasked with different responsibilities. More importantly, those involved in the joint Opposition exercise are to now sign an agreement that will encompass their policy objectives and their commitment to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days.

Presidential candidate Sirisena’s position as General Secretary of the SLFP was filled yesterday. President Rajapaksa named Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa to act until a new General Secretary is elected in due course. The defections in the UPFA in general and the SLFP in particular, there is little doubt, would have a ripple effect when it comes to the district and electoral level. In such areas, those who have crossed over are either district or electoral organisers. Hence, the support base which was the grassroots level structure for the UPFA will be eroded considerably. That would impede to a great extent the working of the party machinery. Who would paste posters, engage in house-to-house campaigning and get the party machinery geared to move forward remains a critical question? Whether the time period available is sufficient enough to put the UPFA house in order at the district and electorate level, no doubt, is cause for worry for the leadership. On the other hand, since the outcome of the Uva Provincial Council elections, the good news for the UNP at the grassroots level is the fall of manna from heaven. The UNP will work together with some of the UPFA backers in their areas. And that makes the January 8 presidential election that much more crucial – and unpredictable.

A worrying feature, however, is fear of escalation of violence. A statement from the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) said, “United National Party (UNP) supporter Chamila Ranasinghe, a resident of Maggona, was shot at Maggona Junction around 6.30 pm today (21). Ranasinghe who was shot in the head twice is in a serious condition and has been transferred to Colombo National Hospital. Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) believes that this is linked to Ranasinghe lighting fire crackers at Beruwala after former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena declared that he is the common candidate. CaFFE has also received information that the group that shot Ranasinghe had earlier destroyed cutouts of former Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne….”

It is no secret that polls, both national and local, have often generated violence. Already the Ministry of Law and Order has in the past weeks sent out transfer orders to a number of officers in charge of police stations. More are due. Unless tougher measures are adopted, a free for all could follow marring the upcoming presidential election.