Differences of opinion between the two warring groups within the UPFA have widened to an extent that a patch-up cannot be expected in the foreseeable future.
As exclusively revealed in this column last week, the group supporting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now made up its mind to contest the forthcoming Parliamentary election as a new political front. They will form a new political coalition and its main component will be break-away MPs of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the UPFA.
The primary intention of their campaign will be to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the supreme leader of the country, once again. Rajapaksa supporters have now crossed the Rubicon and it is naïve to believe that they will return before the next Parliamentary election.
Breaking away from a mainstream political party is no easy task, especially for a person who was at the helm of its organizational hierarchy. When one defects from a mainstream political party, one has to expose himself to a totally different experience. One has to think anew and plan anew, breaking away from the comfort zones of his past.
The nearest example in this regard is the Democratic United National Front formed by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake after they broke ranks with the Premadasa administration. They masterminded the failed impeachment motion against the then President and were subsequently thrown out of the government. They too had no option but to form a new political front to challenge the presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa who was known as a leader with “dictatorial tendencies.”
On September 03, 1991, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, along with six other MPs who were expelled from the United National Party, held a mammoth political party in Nugegoda with the participation of tens of thousands of supporters. Those who were expelled from the UNP included G.M. Premachandra, Lakshman Seneviratne, Chandra Gankanda,Vincent Perera, Samaraweera Weerawanni and Premarathne Gunasekera. The rally held by UNP defects in Nugegoda was considered to be one of the biggest rallies in the history of Sri Lankan politics.
Addressing the rally, the late Gamini Dissanayake made a historic speech explaining the circumstances which led to their defection from the party.
“Comrades, today, the North is controlled by Prabhakaran. The South is controlled by Paskaralingam. Apart from them, there is no government in this country. The sole duty of President Premadasa is to sling mud at us. We have never seen a leader who is as foolhardy as President Premadasa. Today, we have risked our lives to protect the dignity of the country. We know we have the blessings of D.S. Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake, M.D. Banda, Iriyagolla, A. Rathnayake and other forefathers of our party,” Dissanayake told cheering crowds at the meeting. The giant rally sent shockwaves across the rank and file of the UNP and it looked as if the breakaway faction was ready to overthrow the Premadasa administration which ruled the country with an iron fist.
Nearly 12 months after its formation, the Democratic United National Front had to prepare for a Provincial Council election and it was a crucial opportunity for the nascent political movement. As the party was already working with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as a joint opposition, some were of the view that the DUNF should contest the PC election as an opposition coalition. It was DUNF Leader Lalith Athulathmudali who categorically said that the party should contest separately at the election to assess its ‘real strength.’ After a series of discussions, Gamini Dissanayake, G.M.Premachandra and the rest agreed to Athulathmudali’s proposal and the party decided to join the electoral fray as a separate and independent political entity.
The DUNF, despite being a nascent political movement, had some popular politicians as its core members. In addition to the members who were expelled from the UNP along with Lalith and Gamini, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Sarath Amunugama played key roles in the party when it entered the Provincial Council election. Saddhathissa Wadigamangawa, who contested the Parliamentary election in 1977 under the SLFP ticket, joined the DUNF and became a candidate. P.B.G. Kalugalla, a senior politician who was a deputy minister of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s MEP government and a Cabinet minister of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration, contested from the DUNF for the Kegalle district. Monty Gopallawa, Keheliya Rambukwella and Srima Dissanayake were also at the forefront of the party in its run-up to the election.
The DUNF meetings attracted massive crowds in every nook and corner of the country. It appeared as if the election had turned into a triangular contest with the People’s Alliance and the DUNF drawing significant crowd support whenever they organized meetings. Growing support for the opposition appeared to be a threat to the Premadasa government which, at one point, seemed invincible. Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and G.M. Premachandra contested as Chief Ministerial candidates representing the DUNF.
Interestingly, the results of the Provincial Council election showed that the DUNF had managed to secure only 16% of total votes. However, one has to take into consideration two important developments which made a severe impact on the results of the Provincial Council elections. At the height of the election campaign, DUNF Leader Lalith Athulathmudali was killed by a gunman at a public meeting in Kirulapona. While it crippled the election campaign of the party in multiple ways, the incident also earned a great deal of public sympathy for the DUNF. However, Athulathmudali’s killing came as a severe blow not only to the political party he led but also to the opposition at large as he was dubbed by many as an “alternative leader” for the country.
Seven days after Athulathmudali’s killing, President Premadasa too was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber during the UNP May Day rally in Colombo. Premadasa died just two and a half weeks before the election and the incident plunged the country’s political sphere into a chaotic situation. This too made a great impact on the Provincial Council election which ultimately became a ‘turning point’ in Sri Lanka’s political history. Regardless of the killings of Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranasinghe Premadasa, the Provincial Council election gave a clear assessment of the true strength of the DUNF. Although it formed a formidable ‘third force’ at the election, it was never in a position to overthrow a government with its own strength.
Similarities and differences between DUNF and Pro-Rajapaksa movement
The DUNF and pro-Rajapaksa political campaign have certain characteristics in common. Both groups had their first public rallies in Nugegoda and they were attended by large crowds. Both groups attempted to position themselves as a “third force” in the political sphere and had several senior Parliamentarians as ‘core members’ of the party. Although the DUNF did not want to project itself as a Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinist organization, Premadasa’s alleged deals with the LTTE was a key topic during election rallies of the party.
But, when the DUNF was at its early stages, its leaders, namely Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake were “untested” who created a lot of fresh hopes on the minds of its supporters. On the contrary, former President Rajapaksa is a ‘tested’ leader who has ruled the country for nearly 10 years. His strengths and weaknesses have been exposed to the public and the ‘fresh-hopes’ factor does not come into play in the case of the pro-Rajapaksa campaign. That is one of the key differences between the pro-Rajapaksa campaign and the DUNF.
On the other hand, the Parliamentarians who play key roles in the Rajapaksa campaign face serious allegations on the bribery and corruption front. The Bribery Commission and the Police Financial Crimes Investigations Division have launched inquiries against most of the key members of the campaign and they have been branded as those who embezzled public money. It is not an easy task to get over this ‘brand image’ and that affects the overall ‘Bring Back Mahinda’ campaign in multiple ways. Although Gamini Dissanayake had to deal with certain allegations with regard to the ‘Mahaweli’ project, the DUNF, as a political entity, did not have to worry about mounting corruption charges.
The DUNF declared war on a government that was two years old. Premadasa came to power in 1989 and he had to deal with two armed organizations that were wreaking havoc in the North and the South. After the negotiations with the JVP failed, Premadasa attacked the armed organization mercilessly and the country was in a state of shock over killings that took place on a daily basis. The country, its administration, national security and day-to-day functioning of the government were in total disarray and the ‘public life’ was severely crippled due to violence. At the same time, the manner in which President Premadasa dealt with the LTTE drew a lot of criticism from many quarters -including the members of his own party. Political opponents of the government too was killed in broad daylight in the guise of counter-terrorism and ‘private armies’ were operated by politicians and political groups. Therefore, this was a good breeding ground for a political movement that challenged Premadasa’s presidency.
The Pro-Rajapaksa campaign, on the other hand, has to deal with a government that came to power nearly four months ago. It is an interim administration of some sort and the UNP too does not have a ‘full stake’ in this government. A Parliamentary election is around the corner and every party is attempting to consolidate its power ahead of the election.
Due to the ‘interim nature’ of this government, a lot of development projects that were started by the previous administration have come to a standstill. Apart from the controversial Treasury bond issue and some ‘teething problems’, the opposition is yet to find ‘solid’ slogans against the 100 day government. That is partly due to the fact that the government is still too young and it needs more time to make mistakes! That is one reason why the Pro-Rajapaksa campaign finds it difficult to play ‘the DUNF role’ against the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe administration.
President wants to buy more time?
The timeline of the dissolution of Parliament and the next Parliamentary election is still unclear. It is quite evident that President Sirisena is trying to buy more time before the election to resolve certain problems in his own party. The 20th Amendment to the constitution and electoral reforms have permitted President Sirisena to buy more time and retain the present Parliament, despite calls for immediate dissolution of Parliament. Many were of the view that the Parliament would be dissolved before the end of May. But, informed sources of the government told the Daily News on Tuesday that there was no final decision on the matter and the present Parliament might continue at least until the first week of June.
President Sirisena believes ‘buying more time’ is an option for him as he is trying to bring the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Democratic Party under the umbrella of the UPFA. Some UPFA seniors are under the assumption that the defections of Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudewa Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila will be a setback for the coalition at the Parliamentary elections. President Sirisena is trying to allay their fears by bringing fresh partners into the coalition. Although that can be considered as a good strategy, the President has to be mindful of the amount of time he consumes for this entire process.
“Time-factor” is crucial for President as the Rajapaksa group is attempting to penetrate into the SLFP base while President is trying hard to resolve issues on the ‘home front’. As a result, some MPs who were previously on the middle path are now gravitating towards the Rajapaksa camp. One example is MP John Seneviratne who recently attended a meeting in Rathnapura in support of the former President. Seneviratne was earlier considered as a ‘moderate’ and now he is leaning towards the Rajapaksa camp, weakening the ‘old guard’ of the SLFP who are supportive of President Maithripala Sirisena. But, it looks as if the President is still confident that he will be able to overcome internal issues in his party with the passage of time.
The President has received multiple requests from various parties to dissolve Parliament and go for an election, as promised in his 100 day programme. Those who urge President Sirisena to dissolve Parliament state that further reforms can be done through a new Parliament that has a fresh mandate. They argue that the present Parliament, which does not reflect the mandate that was expressed at the last presidential election, is not suitable to pass further constitutional reforms affecting the country and its people.
“This was clearly highlighted when the UPFA diluted the 19th Amendment to the constitution at the last moment. The whole idea behind proposing an independent Constitutional Council was to depoliticize the country’s system of governance. But, the UPFA intervened at the last moment and dampened the composition of the Constitutional Council. The party which was defeated at the presidential election was able to hinder the constitutional amendment process. This cannot happen in the future. There should be a new Parliament to pass other constitutional reforms. Otherwise, the entire process will be meaningless,” a Parliamentarian of the United National Party, who is pushing for early dissolution of Parliament, explained their line of thinking. He said the JVP too was of the same view when it came to constitutional reforms and dissolution of Parliament. He said the JHU and some sections of the UPFA were trying to extend the ‘life’ of the present Parliament in which the UPFA has a clear majority.
Champika’s collateral agenda
The Jathika Hela Urumaya, in this case, has a collateral agenda. The party’s ultimate plan, quite understandably, is to make its General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka the Prime Ministerial Candidate of the UPFA by 2020. It is against this backdrop that the JHU is planning its political moves at this juncture.
From the JHU’s perspective, weakening of the SLFP’s old guard augurs well for the JHU’s future plans. Weakening of the SLFP pro-Sirisena faction will allow Ranawaka to play the rescuer’s role and consolidate his power in the UPFA. With no second tier leadership to challenge his position in the UPFA, Ranawaka will be able to position himself as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the UPFA within the next five years.
It is in this context that the JHU is pushing President Sirisena to postpone Parliamentary election and to introduce electoral and other reforms that were promised during the presidential election campaign. The JHU does not have to worry about senior members of the SLFP who are slowly aligning themselves with pro-Rajapaksa campaign. The party knows that will play into the hands of its General Secretary in the long run.
While indirectly calling for postponement of the Parliamentary election, the JHU is also acting like an opposition within the government. In other words, the JHU, a stakeholder of the common political alliance which won the last presidential election, is functioning as a ‘wheel within the wheel’. It is quite evident that the JHU does not want to be identified as a flag-bearer of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. This indicates their long-term strategic plan.
“No one I know can read the political situation of the country as accurately as Champika Ranawaka. The way he has carried himself and tactical moves he has made over the past 15 years clearly demonstrate his political acumen. I am sure he sees the vacuum that exists in the UPFA. He is trying to cash in on that,” a political observer, who had close links with Ranawaka over the past 25 years, told the Daily News.
Since politics is a game that revolves around power, no one can complain about the JHU’s ambitious plan. But, it is up to the SLFP old guard to decide whether they should allow Patali Champika Ranawaka to be the master of the UPFA’s fate. If the ‘old guard’ and relatively young leaders of the SLFP are not ready to rise to this challenge, it will just be a cakewalk for Champika Ranawaka and the JHU.
President only dances to his own tune
President Sirisena, though he hails from a remote village in Polonnaruwa, is an astute politician in every sense of word. The “unpredictability” in his character is his biggest strength. Until the very last moment, the Rajapaksas believed that Sirisena would turn back and support the campaign of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. But, in the end Sirisena outsmarted the Rajapaksas and did not look back until he became the President of Sri Lanka. The politician from Polonnaruwa, who seemed like a David at the outset, toppled a regime that looked like a Goliath.
Therefore, a constituent party, at some point, may believe President Sirisena will happily walk into its net. But, only President Sirisena will know his original plan and he will play his own game, irrespective of the ‘nets’ around him. That is how he has carried himself over the past few months.
President Sirisena is now in the process of grooming a second tier leadership within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. In this task, he is assisted by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. They have identified Arjuna Ranatunga and Duminda Dissanayake as future leaders of the SLFP. Ranatunga, who represents a multi-coloured political family in the Gampaha District, was made the Electorate Organizer of Attanagalle, the stronghold of the Bandaranaike family. That means Ranatunga has become a confidante of President Sirisena and former President Kumaratunga.
Duminda Dissanayake, who walked out of the Rajapaksa government along with Maithripala Sirisena, was also given a key Cabinet portfolio in January. Dissanayake earned the ire of the Rajapaksas at his father’s funeral ceremony when he said former President Kumaratunga was a “second mother” to him. As a result of that statement, Dissanayake received step-motherly treatment from the Rajapaksa regime and it eventually led to his defection from the government. With President Sirisena at the helm of the party, Dissanayake too is positioning himself as a second tier leader.
This suggests that President Sirisena is dancing only to his own tune, although different players are trying to serenade him with different melodies.