Govt: Presidential powers, defence, 13 A: Sirisena contradicts himself

78295_Untitled-1-RecoveredBy Shamindra Ferdinando

The SLFP led UPFA yesterday urged the political grouping backing opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena to speak with one voice.

Addressing the media at SLFP headquarters, National Freedom Front (NFF) spokesman Mohammed Muzammil alleged that those spearheading Opposition campaign had been pulling in different directions. The NFF split from the JVP several years ago over differences over policy.

SLFP Treasurer Dallas Alahapperuma and LSSP leader Prof. Tissa Vitharana, too, joined the briefing.

The former parliamentarians was responding to Maithripala Sirisena’s declaration in an interview with BBC’s Sandeshaya on Saturday that he would hold defence portfolio as well as retain constitutional powers required to rein in Provincial Councils. Maithripala Sirisena admitted that abolition of the executive powers pertaining to the 13th Amendment would automatically lead to the creation of nine governments in the country. Abolition of such executive powers would empower Provincial Councils, the former SLFP General Secretary said.

Muzammil said that Maithripala Sirisena’s statements reflected the utter confusion in the Opposition camp as regards far reaching constitutional changes envisaged in case he won the presidency.

He pointed out that Maithripala Sirisena had also declared that in accordance with the powers vested in the presidency, he would be the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, therefore responsible for national security.

The presidential candidate also declared that the subject of good governance would come under him, though Parliament and cabinet of ministers were to receive powers.

Accusing the Opposition of causing political turmoil, Muzammil, subsequently pointed out that Maithripala Sirisena, perhaps inadvertently admitted that the executive powers pertaining to Provincial Councils couldn’t be done away with as long as the 13th Amendment remained intact.

JRJ established Provincial Councils in late 80s in accordance with Indo-Lanka peace accord signed in the wake of Operation Liberation meant to liberate the Jaffna peninsula being forced to stop by threat of Indian intervention.

Muzammil demanded that the Opposition explain its position with regard to key policy matters. Responding to a query by The Island, NFF official said that the Opposition had clearly rejected Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera’s push for abolition of presidency. “Maithripala Sirisena’s position is akin to the JHU proposal. Both JHU and Pivithuru Hetak pushed for abolition of what they called dictatorial features in the Constitution but to retain presidency and place defence portfolio under the President.”

Responding to a query posed by BBC Sandeshaya, Maithripala Sirisena emphasised that he never promised to abolish executive presidency within 24 hours. The Opposition always spoke of a 100-day project to restore democracy and that would be fulfilled. Sirisena asserted that they might have to go for a referendum to pave the way for constitutional changes.

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A clash of kingdoms?

The presidential race has officially begun with the closing of nominations for the Jan. 08 poll, which will be a contest between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. Interestingly, the former is the leader of the SLFP and the latter the former General Secretary of that party.

President Rajapaksa, as expected, sprang a big surprise for his opponents yesterday, engineering as he did two high profile defections. UNP General Secretary and MP Tissa Attanayake and Democratic Party MP Jayantha Ketagoda, described as former Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s right-hand man, joined the government. More crossovers are expected within the next few weeks.

The government and the Opposition are flogging various issues in a bid to garner votes while trying to bring about each other’s downfall through crossovers. But, they being tweedledum and tweedledee or Siamese twins where the abuse of power, the waste of state resources, the suppression of democracy and the plunder of public wealth are concerned, the main issue influencing the vast majority of voters is likely to be national security as well as allied matters such as the on-going international war crimes probe against Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are doing their damnedest to project themselves as, to borrow a term from the former, biyas or rustics. It is not difficult to see through their strategy; they are trying to woo the rural voters who are believed to account for about 80 percent of the population. They are claiming to be proud of their roots in the rural backwaters and the presidential election has become a contest between Rajarata and Ruhuna—two areas which became famous for their patriotism and great warrior kings they produced to protect the country against foreign invaders.

Sirisena has declared that if he is elected president he will rule from his home district, Polonnaruwa, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka. However, what he has left unsaid is how long he intends to rule—100 days in keeping with his promise or longer. Will the ambitious leaders who have thrown in their lot with him be running the government from Colombo 03 or Attanagalle in the event of his victory. (Even the late D. B. Wijetunga, who called himself a Kandyan peasant and lived like one until he bought the farm, so to speak, chose to stay in Colombo during his brief stint as the Executive President.) We have heard a story where a sensible boy, upon being informed by his sweetheart of her desire to live in a cottage atop a mist-clad mountain peak so that they won’t be disturbed by anyone, demands to know: “Who is going to come down every morning to buy bread?” The Colombo-based public officials wishing Sirisena well must be asking themselves similar questions given the distance between the capital and Polonnaruwa—some 218 kilometres!

 

Common candidate Sirisena’s propagandists are apparently trying to evoke memories of ancient warrior kings who saved the country to improve his image vis-à-vis that of his bête noire, Rajapaksa. Giant cutouts have already appeared with catchy slogans which refer to the incumbent president as King Dutugemunu.

 

Stakes are extremely high for both candidates in the upcoming presidential poll. If Sirisena loses he will be discarded by his supporters like a scratch-and-win lottery sans a prize as is evident from Gen. Fonseka’s experience. He once said he would like to be a virindu artiste in retirement. Defeat is a frightening proposition for President Rajapaksa with his formidable enemies all out to strip him of his immunity as the Head of State so that he could be hauled up before an international war crimes tribunal.

 

We only hope that the forthcoming contest will be peaceful.