Saturn has made its mischief and the January presidential contest now looks poised to become a hard-fought battleIt all began with the stars. It was apt therefore that less than 24 hours after President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared he would be seeking a third term in office two years ahead of schedule, certain celestial bodies began to wreak all manner of mischief inside his ruling party.
Believers in astrology put last week’s political dramas down to the influence of the planet Saturn, the ‘Great Malefic’ of the astrological firmament. There was a major movement of the planet on 2 November 2014, which astrologers say could result in sudden deaths, bad luck and punishing circumstances. The planet is known to be the great obstructer, moving slowly during transition, slowing momentum and making courage falter in the physical realm. Saturn is the punishing father, the grim reaper and the consummate mischief-maker, creator of controversy and abrupt change in the mortal realm.
Those dwelling in the realms of reason may conclude that the Rajapaksa administration is simply sowing what it has reaped for nine long years. He sowed these seeds when he consistently sidelined and ill-treated senior members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party over two successive terms in office. He set the stage for this political drama when he repeatedly undermined them and never heeded their counsel.
And when he repeatedly and determinedly sought the support of the more radical and fringe elements – those with much less electoral clout and a highly destructive influence – within his ruling alliance.
For years the disillusionment had been simmering and the highest officials in the regime have known it. Over the years it has used band-aids to cover the wound. But President Rajapaksa, safely ensconced inside a bubble about his own glorious rule, surrounded by sycophants that refuse to bore him with political realities, had in fact been clueless about the depths of the discontentment within his own party. There is no greater indication of this than the fact that his administration, cautious to a fault when it comes to maintaining its edge in political power games, took no precautions to pacify ruling party members before proclaiming the election.
The stolen narrative
As a result, hours after he declared his intent to contest an unprecedented third term in office, the wind went out of the sails of the Rajapaksa campaign. News about the proclamation and the President’s massive incumbent advantage was lost in the noise of the common candidate, who by Friday evening was revealed to be a member of his own Cabinet.
Hundreds of buses brought supporters in from the provinces to the capital Colombo for a massive Divi Neguma rally in Campbell Park, a thinly-veiled campaign event for the President soon after the declaration of elections. But the defection of Government frontliner Maithripala Sirisena and Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne celebrated with a media briefing at New Town Hall completely eclipsed the Campbell Park event. Suddenly, the election in which President Rajapaksa was supposed to be a clear front-runner had become all about opposition to his rule.
Reeling from the shock, the Government went full-steam into panic mode, making elementary mistakes along the way. President Rajapaksa is reported to have been livid about the failure of his intelligence forces to predict this Opposition move. Forced to react to a fluid and unexpected situation, members of the Government have been tripping over themselves to formulate a coherent response.
After the Friday announcement of the Maithripala Sirisena candidacy, the Satana political talkshow on the Sirasa network was to host the SLFP General Secretary and other key opposition figures the following night. Mysteriously, cable TV viewers began to report that from 6:30 p.m. on Saturday (22) that the channel was not available on both the Dialog and SLT-run PEO TV networks. The channel was off air for several hours and resumed once Satana ended. Both satellite networks have claimed ‘technical glitches’ that interrupted the Sirasa broadcast, but the channel directors told the Reuters news agency that their terrestrial signal was “working fine” and that there were no “technical glitches” on their end.
The channel was visible on its regular UHF band and also on a third cable TV network servicing only certain areas of Colombo, leading to suspicion of political interference in the disruption. International reporting on the incident, unceasing customer complaints and bombardment on social media against the private company forced a response. Yesterday, Dialog Axiata CEO Hans Wijesuriya apologised to the Sirasa network for the disruption and pledged to investigate the issue. Wijesuriya also maintained in a separate communication with constitutional lawyer Saliya Peiris, that the Satana program had been aired without glitch on the Dialog network the following morning (23).
Over the weekend, President Rajapaksa made a massive gaffe that is set to haunt him throughout his campaign for re-election. At a public meeting, President Rajapaksa alluded to the fact that he had “files” on the defectors, but hastened to add that he would not use them.
The threat of blackmail and the notion that the President was hiding files on his ministers and protecting information about their misdeeds became serious fodder for the Opposition. Opposition parties, especially the firebrand JVP are demanding the “files” President Rajapaksa is hiding also about ministers who still remain with the Government and members of the ruling family.
On Tuesday Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Ratnaweera came up with the most atrocious argument yet for why the UPFA Government should remain in power, saying ministers in office had “plundered enough” while the advent of a UNP Government would mean fresh faces that would have to start all over again and “make a killing.”
In a civilised society, in an honest Government, such a statement would not only result in the immediate sacking of the minister but also an immediate investigation into his own finances and those of all his colleagues.
And then yesterday when Maithripala Sirisena launched the UNP campaign at Sirikotha in Pita Kotte, the area suffered a mysterious power outage.
These moves only serve to expose President Rajapaksa as being caught unawares and jittery about his challenger.
The fact remains that defying all odds and thwarting the growing surveillance power of the State, the Opposition had pulled off a coup barely 24 hours after President Rajapaksa’s election declaration. The strategy to keep the entire country guessing about the common candidate and limiting the field to Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Chandrika Kumaratunga was a stroke of genius.
It was only in the four or five days before the election declaration that the advent of a fourth, surprise candidate entered the discourse, in hushed whispers in the tightest circles. Meetings had been held outstation for weeks to hammer out agreement and convince the main actors to play their role without giving the game away. Instrumental in the exercise was the team surrounding Kotte Naga Vihara Chief Incumbent Sobitha Thero, whose campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency is reaching fruition with the announcement of the common candidacy and the 100-day constitutional reform plan. As Sobitha Thero’s movement promised, Sirisena’s manifesto for the January poll will include the draft of the constitutional amendment abolishing the presidency and setting up a different governance model.
The two campaigns, between incumbent and surprise challenger will be a strange contrast.
Against the populist appeal of the Rajapaksa candidacy, with its concentration of power in a single family and the desire to prolong and consolidate executive control of the state for a further eight years, will stand the farmer’s son from the North Central Province, promising to end this oppressive control in less than six months. And this is no trouser-clad, Tiger-labelled Ranil Wickremesinghe promising re-democratisation but a man who much more closely resembles the Rajapaksa ideal of the dyed in the wool Lankan politician.
In other words Sirisena has all the popular, common man appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa without the baggage of corruption, nepotism and autocratic rule. He poses therefore, a fundamental challenge to the Rajapaksa re-election campaign.
Rajapaksa vs. The Rest
This election has become, in the week since it was declared, a race that will be fundamentally between Rajapaksa values and the desires of the democracy-seeking Rest. Maithripala Sirisena, with his humble beginnings and common man touch, will advocate democracy, good governance and an end to oppression in Sri Lanka.
He is the perfect bridge between the intelligentsia whose crying need is for constitutional reform and a check on executive power and the common man, whose greatest needs have nothing to do with constitution making or breaking, but who is nevertheless a victim of a broken and corrupt system. Power-hunger and greed are often distasteful to the voter, particularly when it comes on the back of nine years of corruption, extravagance and mismanagement.
In the January poll, President Rajapaksa will stand election as the only incumbent Head of State to have amended the Constitution to allow himself to win power, over and over again. Sirisena is pledging that he will be Sri Lanka’s last executive president.
In a perfect world, in a healthy democracy, this election should be the Opposition’s to lose.
But Sri Lankan democracy and its electoral process are far from perfect. Under the terms of the 18th Amendment, weeks ahead of nomination day, the blood-letting has already begun.
Police transfers have commenced. The regime’s fifth column will begin its work with new targets in its cross-hairs. Against the might of the state machinery that will be mobilised against them with increasing brutality, the Opposition will have only the power of the people. It will therefore have to focus all its energy on psychological warfare and getting voters to the polling booths if it is to get any traction against the Rajapaksa campaign, which will outspend and outmaneuver the Opposition in any way it can.
Plugging the leaks
After its initial shock, the regime went into heavy-duty damage control mode. It began its weekend mop-up operation by first plugging the leaks. The Opposition anticipated that at least 20-30 SLFP members may have been on the fence, ready to defect from the ruling coalition if the Opposition seemed to be putting up credible resistance.
By Tuesday, ruling party members had stopped taking calls from the Opposition activists. It remains unclear how many will still be willing to quit the Government in the days ahead.
Integral cogs in the Opposition wheel, especially in terms of reinforcing the confidence of SLFP members willing to join the Sirisena campaign, have been former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera. Athuraliye Rathana Thero has also been instrumental in steering the negotiations in this direction, but in the end game, this first chapter of the 2015 presidential poll will be about the SLFP revolt.
Initially, Sirisena was not in the mix as a potential Opposition candidate supported by the common platform. The universal choice was in fact Karu Jayasuriya, even though Wickremesinghe was also a strong contender for the position.
Jayasuriya was seen to be the option with the most amount of appeal for a wide section of Opposition movements and his credentials with regard to the fight against LTTE terrorism was also seen to be a major factor in his favour.
But with what was perhaps valid reason, Wickremesinghe opposed a Jayasuriya ticket on the basis that if the candidate was to be a UNP member, it had to be the leader of the party. This is not an illogical argument and it was strongly backed by the Sajith Premadasa faction of the UNP. Since the Opposition alliance could not get consensus on a Wickremesinghe candidacy, the next best hope was to steal a rebel from under President Rajapaksa’s nose. Rather than sulk about his missed opportunity, Jayasuriya has completely backed the Maithripala candidacy and played a role in convincing his fellow parliamentarians to back his nomination.
Kumaratunga and Samaraweera became key to the process from that point on. Other interlocutors would liaise quietly with Sirisena but it was Kumaratunga and Samaraweera who had major roles to play to keep the other players in line. President Kumaratunga’s residence at Independence Avenue became a hive of activity, but it was closely watched, therefore the major negotiations and crucial meetings took place in other undisclosed locations.
Once the negotiation was complete with Sirisena, the next task at hand was to pacify the UNP and especially Wickremesinghe, about the fact that for the second time in seven years the party would not be fielding its own candidate.
Opposition activists with knowledge about the negotiation process insist that Kumaratunga was instrumental in convincing Wickremesinghe, a former playmate, to agree to the Sirisena formula.
“She has 100 times the energy and skill of the entire UNP put together,” one activist noted last weekend. Her own candidacy would have been tricky because she had failed to abolish the presidency in two terms and would therefore be seen to lack credibility.
But on President Kumaratunga, this new role as patron and liaison had begun to sit a lot better. Until recently, Kumaratunga was only a side player in the process to forge a common platform but sources said she was spurred into action when Samaraweera threatened to rejoin the Government, after the Sajith Premadasa faction began to wield significant influence within the UNP once again and threatened to derail his future in the party.
For the UNP, the main architects and negotiators of the move were Party Chairman Kabir Hashim, Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, former Party Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and of course, Samaraweera.
The ‘powerful’ horoscope
The Rajapaksa administration has always feared Mangala Samaraweera. And it was never his political acumen or shrewd campaigning skills that caused them discomfort – all these things could be bought for the right price. Ruled by the stars and slaves to astrology, the regime feared Samaraweera because of the ‘power’ of his horoscope.
Some politicians are not made to be king. On the political stage, king-makers can be more powerful than the rulers they install. President Rajapaksa desperately wanted Samaraweera back in his fold, where he and his allegedly powerful horoscope would be under the regime’s watchful eye. Perhaps with Samaraweera in the bag, President Rajapaksa had hoped for a return to the energy and tactics that won him the presidency in 2005. Perhaps he hoped that Samaraweera’s departure would be a blow from which the main Opposition UNP would not recover in time to put up a real contest in January.
With the Samaraweera crisis averted the Opposition inherited two key political strategists in him and the former President – both more determined than ever to find a way to challenge the Rajapaksa juggernaut.
Samaraweera is a veteran of electioneering. Not only did he and S.B. Dissanayake band together in 1994 to bring Kumaratunga into power, Samaraweera also supervised the formation of the United People’s Freedom Alliance in 2004 that wrested control of the Government from under the UNP with its memorable ‘Rata Perata’ and ‘Kawda mewata waga kiyanne’ advertising campaigns and set the stage for the Rajapaksa candidacy in 2005.
In 2005, the Chandrika Kumaratunga-led SLFP gave Mahinda Rajapaksa the ticket to contest as their party’s presidential candidate. Samaraweera, President Kumaratunga’s main political confidant took over as Rajapaksa’s campaign manager. Together, they were the architects in a sense, of the Rajapaksa presidency. The question now remains whether the duo, united on a single political platform again, can use their considerable political skill, party faithful and broad opposition support to end his grip on power.
Within the UNP, Samaraweera has weathered every challenge posed by the pro-Premadasa camp. He was taunted by Premadasa and his loyalists for failing to bring more SLFPers into the Opposition. They tried to brow-beat him with scurrilous media campaigns. They tried to have him arrested for his lifestyle choices. In pulling off this coup together with Kumaratunga and the rest of the Opposition, Samaraweera outplayed his critics within the UNP and left the Premadasa faction high and dry. Premadasa, who was breathing fire and brimstone regarding the “UNP candidacy” only weeks ago, meekly acknowledged that he had bowed to the will of his party to field a common candidate last week. Their well-laid plans to defeat Wickremesinghe at the presidential election and wrest the party leadership from him now laid to dust, the Premadasa camp will continue to plot its next moves. Right now, to go against what is a wave of public support for the Maithripala defection and candidacy could be suicidal for the Hambantota MP.
Samaraweera’s triumph over the Premadasa faction is the UNP’s ultimate gain. He had insisted the UNP back the common opposition platform. Overnight, the opposition party went from being a non-entity in this presidential race, to being the main political machinery that will breathe fire and life into the common opposition candidacy. Less than a week after President Rajapaksa declared elections, the ruling coalition has lost 10 Parliamentarians.
But this is a regime unaccustomed to losing a battle. Humiliated and wounded, they will strike back hard. Top officials in the administration have already engaged in hectic lobbying over the weekend to hold back at least 15 more SLFP members that had pledged their support in secret to Sirisena and the Opposition alliance.
The Rajapaksa Government won a small victory on Monday when the Budget vote passed without incident, despite intense speculation about more defections from the ruling party. President Rajapaksa’s damage control measures also ensured that he continues to hold on to his two-thirds majority in the legislature, albeit by only two seats now following ACMC MP Hunais Farook’s defection yesterday.
The Maithripala Sirisena candidacy is by no means a foregone conclusion nor a certain recipe for success. He remains untested. Other candidates have gone into these races swearing to do away with the presidential system. Once in office, the presidency suddenly becomes a much harder thing to give up. The campaign will also have to find ways to infuse confidence among the UNP rank and file, by standing by the commitment to form a national government in the event of a victory. It will be a terrible travesty if the UNP puts its full force into installing a fundamentally SLFP regime, therefore it will be incumbent on Sirisena to make the UNP major stakeholders in this journey from the beginning, irrespective of the outcome of the election. What the common candidacy and the series of defections that followed the announcement has done, is infuse hope and excitement into what was until one week ago, a one-horse race. It has stripped the Rajapaksa regime of invincibility, just like the Uva Provincial election did a few months ago.
If one is to go by the incumbent administration’s own beliefs, Saturn has managed its mischief. Sudden changes plague the political firmament and it appears Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to win a third term as executive president of Sri Lanka, will actually come down to a real fight.
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