The Government has lost its two-thirds majority in the 225-member House

The Piper and his broken charm!

December 11, 2014 ·

liarWith ruling party members still threatening to exit and the opposition campaign gaining momentum, can the Rajapaksa campaign continue to sing the same old tune?

The 8 January 2015 presidential election is a feeding frenzy for international conspirators and the LTTE rump. The candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena is not part of the democratic attempt to effect change through a multi-party, pluralistic electoral process. He is Washington’s pawn in the grand geopolitical struggle for influence between the US and China.
The Sirisena candidacy project is the brainchild of vengeance-seeking, power-hungry ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He challenges President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to remain in power for a third unprecedented term in order to ensure Sri Lankan troops and the Commander-in-Chief is tried in The Hague for crimes of war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the day he assumed his second term in 2010

President Rajapaksa must be re-elected to continue to protect the motherland, liberated from the clutches of terrorism only five short years ago. A victory for his opponent would not only endanger Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, but bring the Government’s mega development drive to a grinding halt.
The longevity of the Rajapaksa legacy, therefore, must be ensured. It has become imperative in the ‘national interest’.

Once upon a time, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Pied Piper. His words, like the Piper’s, enchanting music in the Grimm fairytale, had a hypnotic quality. In droves, the people followed him. He was their liberator, their mighty king, their salvation and their savior.

Until five years ago, politics in Sri Lanka was consumed by the war against the LTTE. Governments rose and fell on war-rhetoric, on which party or personality would do a better job at ending terrorism and the politics of separatism. As the Government that defeated the Tigers, the Rajapaksa regime was brimful of political capital and unashamed to use it.

  • In election after election, in the post-war years, the vanquished Tiger has been flogged to death.
  • Bogeymen have been created in the Tamil Diaspora.
  • Tiger puppets were labelled and condemned in the political Opposition.
  • From student to trade unionist, artist to journalist, Tiger-traitor label has been foisted upon a wide section of society.

But this is the trouble with post-war politics. Complacency sets in about terrorism. The memory of the Tigers and their terrible deeds begins to pale a little in comparison with corruption, impunity and the ludicrous cost of living. Suddenly, the town councillor or mayor, with his guns and goons, rampaging around the locale, has become far more troublesome than the dead Tiger. Abuse of power, the contagious quality of impunity, the failure of the economic dividend and rising tensions between religious and ethnic communities are far more likely to be issues at play at this election than a war against terror that was finished five years ago.

Perhaps if the go-to rhetoric about foreign conspiracies and latent separatism had not been hacked in successive presidential, parliamentary, provincial and local government polls over the past five years, it would have taken better this time. But against momentum clearly visible in the Opposition camp, the words and slogans are not binding. The charm appears to have broken and everywhere, even in his own ruling party, people are deserting the Piper.
Exodus – The Government  has lost its two-thirds majority in the 225-member House

Just yesterday, the Opposition claims four provincial councillors and 34 local government members quit the ruling party, costing the UPFA crucial ground level support that could affect its election machinery at the grassroots.
And against the Government’s best efforts, UPFA MPs and ministers are still defecting to the Sirisena camp.

Yesterday, plantation sector strongman P. Digambaran, who served as deputy minister of National Languages and Social Integration, quit his portfolio and announced his support to the Opposition.

Nuwara Eliya District MP from the Upcountry People’s Front, V. Radhakrishnan also crossed over yesterday. Since President Rajapaksa announced snap elections on 20 November, the UPFA has lost 13 parliamentarians. The Government still has plenty of MPs left, but it has already lost its two-thirds majority in the 225-member House, a fact that the Opposition counts a major psychological victory.

Against this swing towards the common opposition, the Government managed to strike back on nominations day by bagging two Opposition MPs. President Rajapaksa called it a tit-for-tat move, when he effected the crossover of UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake on Monday, soon after the deadline for nominations ended.

Attanayake has been on the fence for months now and his shifting allegiances became much clearer soon after the announcement of Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy. The weekend after Sirisena’s defection, Attanayake was admitted to a hospital in Narahenpita. Speculation was rampant that he had been offered vast amounts of money to join the Government. A tearful Attanayake denied the cash-for-crossover allegations and vowed to remain with the UNP at Sirikotha a few days later.

The emotional outburst caused UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, who had become Attanayake’s most ardent advocate in recent times, to explain that the party General Secretary was “hurt” and it was showing. Attanayake claims that his decision to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election bid was motivated by a vicious campaign launched against him by former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, Communications Director Mangala Saramaweera and Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake. He says he angered the Malik-Mangala-Ravi cabal when he reunified the UNP by striking the deal with Wickremesinghe to bring Premadasa back as Deputy Leader of the party.
Attanayake the reuniter
Attanayake’s role in the negotiations process to bring Premadasa back into the fold has been widely reported. He performed the role of emissary between the Premadasa camp, including its powerful backer, DNA MP Tiran Alles, and Wickremesinghe.
Several points of the negotiation, as put forward by Attanayake on behalf of the Premadasa camp, were rejected by the UNP Leader. These included the scrapping of the Leadership Council headed by Karu Jayasuriya and full control over the party’s media apparatus.

Interestingly, Premadasa and Attanayake had a running battle of words in the run-up to the Southern Provincial Council elections in March this year, after the UNP Deputy Leader was strongly urged to contest as the party’s chief ministerial candidate in the South. Referring to Attanayake in a derogatory manner, Premadasa ridiculed him in a widely publicised statement as a General Secretary who had failed to win his own electorate in the 2010 parliamentary poll. Premadasa scoffed that Attanayake had been compelled to enter Parliament on the party’s national list.
But Premadasa changed his tune swiftly when Attanayake became his main emissary with the party leader a few months ago. UNP seniors have called the entire ‘reunification’ exercise a ploy by the Premadasa camp to ensure the party was unsuccessful at the presidential poll.

Wickremesinghe, it was well-known, badly wanted to be named candidate for the election, even after it was agreed in theory that the Opposition would have to forge an alliance to make the election a real contest. Premadasa had already promised to be a firm backer of the Ranil Wickremesinghe candidacy.
He was insisting, not unlike the Government, that Wickremesinghe should be President Rajapaksa’s main challenger in the January poll. Perhaps the UNP Leader was at a juncture when he needed this backing. Yet he stopped short of agreeing to all of the Premadasa camp’s demands.

This put Attanayake at the time in a difficult position with the Premadasa camp and prompted his resignation from the Party’s Leadership Council, citing poor treatment by the rest of its membership. According to UNP insiders, Attanayake has been acting strange for several weeks now, and since the announcement of the party’s support for the common candidacy, he has been dragging his feet on mobilising the UNP grassroots machinery.
Part of the task therefore had already fallen on UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim, who was trying to fill in the gaps. By and large the UNP is pleased with Hashim’s appointment as General Secretary, saying it cements the party’s credentials as a pluralistic political party.

“Hashim brings some stature back into the UNP General Secretary position. He was a former Minister of Higher Education, he speaks three languages and represents the steadfastness associated with the party’s past general secretaries,” one UNP MP told Daily FT.
Attanayake, it had long been felt, was retained as UNP General Secretary solely due to his unswerving loyalty to the party leader.

“It is a strange thing, all this time Tissa has been a Ranil loyalist. A few months after he switched allegiances and became a Premadasa loyalist, he joins the Government,” the UNP MP quips.
The anti-Sajith camp faithfully repeats the mantra that most defectors to the UPFA in recent times have been ardent supporters of Premadasa. This could also be attributed to the fact that these members seek a change in leadership within the party that is not forthcoming, other more balanced party men argue.
It is nevertheless a strange phenomenon that the office-bearer who came in for such strong praise by the Deputy Leader of the UNP on Saturday, at the party convention, crossed over to the Government 48 hours later.

Whispers in political circles abound that the Attanayake deal was struck by Premadasa backers. The defection also raises pertinent questions about Attanayake’s seemingly careless remark about the transfer of executive power to Ranil Wickremesinghe 24 hours after Sirisena wins the election.
Careless mistake or sinister agenda?
The UNP General Secretary’s statement has caused tremendous problems for the common opposition. The circumstances of his announcement were also significant. Attanayake summoned a press briefing at Sirikotha on Friday, 21 November at 6 p.m.

The party’s working committee meeting had commenced at 4:30 p.m. at Sirikotha to endorse Sirisena’s candidacy. The meeting was just ending when reporters were already in the briefing room. Attanayake was addressing the press briefing even before Working Committee members had left the premises. Most UNP seniors had not been aware that the General Secretary was scheduled to address the media at the time. Attanayake’s remarks about the transfer of power became a major point of attack for the Government.

It is unclear how the UNP General Secretary came to that conclusion about the post-election power dynamics, since the matter had not been fully discussed by the party leadership. Post-election modalities still appear vague, with the exception of the promise that under a Sirisena presidency, a national Government comprising all parties in Parliament would be forged within hours or days, to implement the presidential candidate’s 100-day program for constitutional reform.
Whether it was the main Opposition party’s usually anarchical media strategy initiative or there were more sinister agendas at work with regard to Attanayake’s press conference remains unclear.

From the Government’s perspective, the crossover of Attanayake had much value in terms of stealing the news cycle for a few hours on nominations day. The movement of Attanayake and Democratic Party MP Janaka Ketagoda took centrestage on Monday, until Hirunika Premachandra, daughter of slain SLFP old guard member and trade union leader Bharatha Lakshman, joined the Opposition later that same evening.

Furthermore, Attanayake had been suspected by UNP insiders as being a ‘mole’ or spy for the ruling party, through the nexus of powers he had begun to closely associate. He had been useful to the ruling party in that role and if not for the importance of psychological pushback on a crucial day, the Government may have preferred that Attanayake remain inside the opposition fold. But inside the UNP there had also been a strong push to sideline Attanayake from key strategy meetings because of growing suspicion about his allegiances. Senior party members had been calling for his sacking for weeks after speculation of his changed loyalties became rampant, but UNP Leader Wickremesinghe refused to budge on the issue.
That Attanayake has been harbouring some animosity towards Sirisena’s candidacy is also clear. In a somewhat bizarre twist, Attanayake claims in his eight-page resignation letter to UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that Sirisena had failed to meet any of the conditions under which the UNP had agreed to his candidacy. Among these was the promise of bringing 20-25 Government MPs with him when he defected.
Counting crossovers
Sirisena may have not managed 25 UPFA crossovers but announcement of his candidacy has most certainly already led to more defections than the Opposition – particularly the UNP – could have ever dreamed was possible.

Authoritative sources indicate that there are several more ruling party MPs and ministers on the fence, currently being held back by inducements or intimidation. Others who have secretly pledged support to the Opposition camp are being forced to go public with denials about impending defections.

The long list of unhappy SLFP members within the Government is in wide circulation and senior members of the ruling party and their most trusted associates have spent the better part of the last 20 days trying to plug the leaks and prevent a mass exodus.

One ruling party politico, now on the fence, recently told confidants that he was suddenly at the receiving end of regular phone calls from VIP members of the Government, sometimes just to say ‘Hi’. “A few weeks ago they wouldn’t even pick up the phone when I called them,” he complained.

Operation damage control is in full swing in the Government camp, especially after the election surprisingly turned into a potential battle of the ‘blues’.
Suddenly, pictures of SLFP Founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike are appearing on party material and President Rajapaksa is speaking once more about the Bandaranaike political philosophy. His challenger Sirisena claims the President had ordered that the names of the Bandaranaikes be removed from the official party letter heads and other printed material, upon assuming office. Forced to destroy thousands of posters and other propaganda material about UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe after the surprise announcement of Sirisena’s candidacy, the regime is now compelled to play defensive on the matter of the executive presidency.

Five years after the Government moved the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, strengthening presidential powers and removing the two-term limit for an incumbent, UPFA Ministers are now tripping over each other to insist that President Rajapaksa is contemplating reform of the system.

Yesterday, National Languages Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara lent his voice to this chorus, saying that President Rajapaksa could well be the ‘last executive president’ of Sri Lanka.
Nanayakkara, who voted for the 18th Amendment in September 2010, insists he is against the system. To think that the same President that ensured only five years ago that he could contest the presidency for life with all the powers and resources at his disposal as incumbent, making him a strong front-runner forever, would move in his historic third-term to dismantle those powers is quite a reach. But faced with the 100-day constitutional reform agenda by his challenger, allegations of abuse of power, corruption and extravagance, the Rajapaksa campaign is finding it harder to stick solely to the ‘vanquished Tiger’ slogans.

At any other time of Sri Lanka’s political history, the kind of erosion of support the ruling party has seen in the past 20 days would indicate that President Rajapaksa was at great risk of losing the January election. The numbers do not favour the President, fundamentally because the minority vote will elude him almost entirely while his party has also been losing ground significantly among the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist populace.

Numerically, the incumbent needs 66% or two-thirds of the Sinhala Buddhist vote in order to clinch the presidency. In recent provincial elections, targeted contests with a barrage of propaganda and handouts thrown at the voter, the ruling party has only managed to get to about 55%. There is definite excitement about the Opposition campaign and palpable disgruntlement amongst the masses, with only 28 days more to polling day.

By ensuring that the number 8 is in play in all major dates pertaining to the poll and seeking divine intervention in Thirupathi, President Rajapaksa may believe he has the January election tied up. In his corner, President Rajapaksa has the entire state apparatus, seemingly limitless funding and democratic institutions that are cowed and pliant.
Such is the democratic deficit, that despite all indications and all the math, the odds are still heavily skewed towards the incumbent. Elections Chief Mahinda Deshapriya promises a free election, but the dates he has chosen to conclude nominations and as polling day are strongly indicative of the Secretariat’s own pressure points.

Two days after nominations day, cut-outs and posters of the incumbent still litter the streets of the capital. Violence against political opponents continue with elections monitors reporting that the hotel in which former President Kumaratunga stayed in Kandy had been attacked by a group arriving by defender jeep on Tuesday night.
The latest report by the International Crisis Group indicates that the January election will be a bloody and brutal affair with fears already being raised about the impartiality of the process and the possibility that the defeated may refuse to accept the result.

Still, the Piper has a problem. His tune has lost its magic. The Northern Provincial election and the Uva poll in September proved that ultimately, abuse of power, intimidation and limitless handouts can sometimes be powerless before the people’s franchise on polling day. This is a crucial enough election to cause that kind of revolution. In which case, the real battle will only begin once the final vote is cast.