Crossovers and cross currents

Gross encounters of a political kind

Nominations for the presidential election closed on Monday to be followed by a week that saw a record number of crossovers. Emotions are running high with both camps locked in a do-or-die battle for the country’s top spot. At least three political figures have cried on camera, on public platforms. Election monitors have noticed that this election has generated more excitement than any other.

It’s not clear whether this ‘excitement’ had anything to do with Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake’s shocking, disgusting remarks about former president Chandrika Kumaratunga aired on public television. What’s clear is that the minister is unaware that over half the voters in this country are women, who will not be impressed by such abuse directed against their kind.

While some of this week’s crossovers seem to conform to a familiar pattern of political expediency, others seem driven by issues of conscience. The camp-hopping started with UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake’s dramatic move on nominations day to pledge his support to president Mahinda Rajapaksa. He says he has not left the UNP. He cited disappointment over the choice of the opposition’s common candidate who, he felt, should have come from the UNP. Attanayake’s move was followed by Jayantha Ketagoda’s defection from the DNA, also to join the government.

Electoral system
The DNA as a political entity seems to be fully disbanded with Ketagoda’s exit. Earlier Sarath Fonseka formed his own party, Tiran Alles and Arjuna Ranatunga went their separate ways, and the JVP members (who were elected on the DNA ticket) reverted to their ‘JVP’ identity. One JVP parliamentarian Ajith Kumara broke away to join the Frontline Socialist Party. The DNA is ‘dead’ but its members live on.

The DNA’s case points to the peculiarities of the electoral system which allows members elected from one party to leave or cross over to other parties at will, and yet remain members of parliament on the basis of their election from the original party. This system has caused confusion for voters who have no assurance that the person they vote for will continue to uphold the values that the party in question is supposed to represent. Its more problematic aspects were seen in the mass crossovers from the UNP and SLMC that gave the government a two thirds majority which some say is illegitimate.

Also switching loyalties to join the Opposition this week were UPFA provincial councilors Hirunika Premachandra and Jayatissa Ranaweera. This was followed by the defection of two deputy ministers representing plantation Tamils, P Digambaram of the National Union of Workers and V S Radhakrishnan of the Upcountry People’s Front.

Udaya’s U-turn
FILE 3But by far the most emotion-driven scenes of the week related to Udaya Gammanpila, (former) Western Provincial Council minister and Deputy General Secretary of the JHU, who declared on Thursday that he had left not only the Maithripala camp (that his party had only recently joined) but his party as well. Brutus-like, he indicated that he made this painful decision ‘not that he loved the party less, but that he loved the country more.’

The JHU with just two members in parliament — Ven Rathana Thera and Champika Ranawaka — has been punching above its weight in the election, by leading the battle-cry against corruption and nepotism. Its more typical extreme-Sinhala-nationalist orientation seemed to be deliberately down-played in its engagement with the opposition campaign. The tensions within the group are beginning to surface now.

Gammanpila protests that Maithripala Sirisena’s MoU with the UNP signed at Vihara Maha Devi Park pledged to abolish the executive presidency, whereas his deal with the JHU, signed hours later, was to retain a reformed executive presidency. Both positions could not be maintained simultaneously he said. He argued that abolition of the president’s executive powers while the 13th Amendment remained intact, would lead to the country’s break up. He feared that the Ranil-Chandrika-Mangala-Ravi combine will take the country down a path to Eelam.

Sirisena’s pledge
It was barely a week ago that Sirisena announced during an interview with BBC Sinhala service that if elected president he would remain Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He also said he would retain presidential powers in relation to the provincial councils, since the abolition of these particular powers could lead to the country’s breakup. Why didn’t these comments put Gammanpila’s fears to rest? Is it because the coalition partners have failed to reach a clear understanding among themselves? If the joint opposition is committed to a unitary state it should make this pledge in its manifesto. To say that these matters will be deferred till ‘after the general election’ leaves doubts in the minds of coalition partners and voters alike.

The UNP in a draft constitution it presented in May last year said: “While Sri Lanka remains a Unitary State, powers will be genuinely devolved to Provincial Units” while ‘taking into consideration’ a number of factors that were listed. This clause appeared to balance a pledge to protect the country’s unitary status with a commitment to devolve power to the provinces.

CKD and drugs policy
President Rajapaksa’s inaugural rally in Anuradhapura drew a massive enthusiastic crowd that showed he is certainly not out for the count, in the face of the challenge sprung on him by Sirisena. Yet his promise to the people of Rajarata that he will supply pipe-borne drinking water to every home, and that this would put an end to the Chronic Kidney Disease afflicting the region, sounded hollow. If agrochemicals are poisoning the groundwater, the poison is getting into the food chain as well. This means that the produce from these regions is poisoning not only Rajarata people but could also harm those in other parts of the country where this produce is distributed and consumed.

The failure to address CKD and the non-implementation of the National Medicinal Drugs Policy are among Sirisena’s most powerful pieces of campaign artillery. They involve issues of life and death for the affected people. If bribe-taking can be proved, they strike at the heart of the allegations of big time corruption in government.