The incident at Gintota in the Galle district appears to be at least on the face of it, a private dispute that got out of hand. The Aluthgama incident in 2014 was also sparked off in a similar way. When things begin to go wrong, the very elements seem to conspire to get things going in the wrong direction. The developments in the Galle district on Friday night was perhaps not unexpected given the developments on the political front in the past few weeks. Members of the Joint Opposition have been saying for months if not years that if this government is unable to prevent an election from being held, there would be a communal riot to head off the elections. Some months ago, we saw such a situation developing with petrol bombs being thrown at mosques.
That sudden flare up ended with Gnanasara Thera setting an all time record being granted bail on three occasions in a single day and even having his charges amended. The next week will bring the simmering showdown between the two factions of the government to a critical point, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to appear before the bond commission on Monday and a demonstration being organized by the UNP in Colombo against the Bond Commission on the same day. Apart from the PM’s impending appearance before the commission, the telephone records which show that Arjun Aloysius was in contact with members of COPE during the inquiry has done immense damage to the UNP.
The attempt by the Sirisena faction of the SLFP to get the elections postponed through litigation went awry with the identities of the persons who had petitioned the Appeal Court asking for an enjoining order on the gazette relating to the delimitation of local government wards being revealed. That the UNP has become an intervenient in the case asking that the elections not be postponed shows that they are not behind this latest move. Indeed from the earliest days of yahapalana rule, it was the Sirisena faction of the SLFP that was fighting shy of elections – not so much the UNP. At a certain point, especially when it came to holding elections to the Sabaragamuwa, NCP and Eastern Provincial Councils, the UNP also got the jitters. That is why they all cooperated in getting those elections postponed.
After having literally moved heaven and earth to get the provincial council elections postponed, it just does not make sense to now have the local government elections in January. The reason why the UNP decided to go ahead and have the elections even at the risk of an embarrassing performance, it was obviously to politically finish off Sirisena before the he finishes off the UNP. The fact that Maithri Gunaratne’s newly formed United National Freedom Front has also joined as an intervenient in the case filed in the Appeal Court shows that they are not a fifth column of the SLFP Sirisena faction as originally thought by many within the UNP but an independent entity that is seeking to carve out a niche for itself. With the PM appearing before the bond commission, we are now seeing the unraveling of the process that began in 2014 against the Rajapaksa government.
Remembering Robespierre’s end
What we are now seeing is a drama worthy of a Shakespearean play. This writer has read how during the Stalinist purges in Russia one set of purged officials were tortured and executed by their successors only for the torturers and executioners of today to fall victim later to the very repression machine they had created. The man who led the great terror during the French revolution Maximilian Robespierre was himself executed in exactly the same manner and by the same executioner that he had kept busy with countless beheadings of real or perceived enemies of the revolution. This is a recurring theme in history but this writer never thought he would actually see such a process taking place in real life. The term ‘hoist with your own petard’ is now beginning to acquire a new meaning.
The conspiracy of the Sirisena group is obviously to render the UNP rudderless before the Presidential elections and for Sirisena to become the UNP’s presidential candidate once again. This writer said it earlier, and the subsequent events have confirmed that this is indeed what is happening. Readers should understand that there is now less than two years for the next presidential election process to start. The 19th Amendment reduced the term of the President to five years and Article 30(2) of the Constitution now reads as follows – “The President of the Republic shall be elected by the People and shall hold office for a term of five years”. Yahapalana ministers have been arguing that even though the term of the President has been reduced by the 19th Amendment, that applies only to future Presidents and that since Maithripala Sirisena was originally elected for a six year term, he will serve out that term before the next Presidential election is held.
Even though Sirisena was originally elected for a six year term, the 19th Amendment reduced the term of the President to five years and Section 49(1)(b) of the transitional provisions of the 19th Amendment clearly states that “For the avoidance of doubt it is hereby declared that, the persons holding office respectively, as the President and Prime Minister on the day preceding April 22, 2015 shall continue to hold such office after such date, subject to the provisions of the Constitution as amended by this Act…” The above mentioned provisions of the 19th Amendment have to be read together with Article 31(3) of the constitution which goes as follows – “The poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office”. Thus, according to the provisions introduced by the 19th Amendment, Maithripala Sirisena’s term as President ends on January 9, 2020. When Article 31(3) of the Constitution is applied to this date, the next Presidential election has to be held between 9 November and 9 December 2019.
This is why the two partners in the government are now at each other’s throats. Sirisena’s game plan appeared to be to destroy all possible contenders both within and outside the government so that by the time the next presidential election comes around, only he will be left standing. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appearance before the Bond Commission will achieve part of that. The entire UNP has been seriously undermined by the revelations of phone conversations between COPE members and Arjun Aloysius, and they are hardly in any position now to be able to face a presidential election. The Chairman, General Secretary, Assistant Leader and Leader of the UNP have been hauled before the Bond Commission and now several State Ministers, Deputy Ministers and backbenchers have also been implicated. Never before has any political party been made to suffer such ignominy.
Green frog in the cooking pot
Furthermore, once the report of the Bond Commission is in his hands, Sirisena will have a weapon to use against the UNP. Hence there is a need for the UNP to checkmate him with the holding of the local government elections. While the UNP was thus being assailed by Sirisena, the UNP itself was making plans to set up special courts to try members of the former regime accused of corruption so that they could be put in jail before the next presidential election. A decision was made at the UNP Working Committee to set up these special courts and to expedite cases against members of the former regime. This must be the first time in Sri Lankan history that the decision making body of a political party is deciding on changes to the courts structure of the country. Since the purpose of this change in the courts structure is to hear cases against political rivals, that amount to a clear politicization of the administration of justice.
While the UNP is busy making plans to finish off their political rivals, they themselves are being finished off by their allies. The biggest irony is that the UNP that is behind this move to persecute their political enemies, are themselves on the dock for massive corruption in a case that is now clearer than any corruption probe ever held before in this country. All this is a result of the cycle of betrayal, treachery, conspiracy and deceit that started before the Presidential elections of 2015. The UNP is like that apocryphal frog being cooked in a pot over a slow fire. What is supposed to happen is that since the frog changes its body temperature to suit its environment and as the heat in the pot increases, the frog keeps increasing its body temperature to keep up and ultimately dies without knowing what happened. That seems to be exactly what is going to happen to the UNP.
Having a demonstration against the Bond Commission on the day that the UNP leader is being brought before it serves no purpose except to portray the UNP in a bad light for trying to protest against an investigation that has unearthed so much undeniable evidence. This is one of the cleanest investigations ever held in this country. It should be noted that not a single person has been arrested so far in the bond investigation. All the evidence that has been unearthed is based on technology or on witness statements given voluntarily. Usually a yahapalana investigation takes the form of arresting someone and keeping him in jail or threatening to do so until he says something that implicates the main target. That in fact is how the FCID which is controlled by the UNP carried out the Malwana mansion investigation. This is a remarkably effective method.
In the Malawana case, even though its owner originally claimed the property as his, later he said that the property was not his, and he even wrote to the Inland Revenue Department asking for a refund of the income tax he had paid over a number of years for the money used to build the house which he had declared as his house to the IRD! The UNP could have given Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor a run for his money. Even while the UNP is engaged in perpetrating such horrors, they themselves are being slowly cooked to a finish by the bond commission. This is now a race against time. The UNP needs the local government election to put an end to Sirisena’s political future before he puts an end to theirs.
The Joint Opposition for its part needs the local government election in order to effect a change in the political situation firstly to prevent Sirisena from taking disciplinary action against its members for striking out on a different path. In this respect at least there was a favourable development for the Joint Opposition last week. One of the ways in which the Sirisena faction sought to bring the Joint Opposition to heel was by holding disciplinary inquiries against them so that they can be expelled from the party and eventually removed from their parliamentary seats. A test case in this regard was the disciplinary inquiry that had been started by the SLFP into Puttalam District MP Sanath Nishantha Perera for having criticized the party leader President Maithripala Sirisena. The disciplinary inquiry was headed by one Champani Padmasekera and MP Sanath Nishantha was represented by President’s Counsel Ali Sabry.
The right to dissent
The disciplinary committee did not allow witnesses to be cross examined by Sabry and confined the evidence to affidavits. When Sanath Nishantha filed action in the District Court against the findings of the disciplinary committee, the court issued an enjoining order on the proceedings of the disciplinary inquiry. If he had been sacked from the SLFP and he lost his seat, that would have placed the entire JO in jeopardy. Now however with the next local government elections coming due, if the election is held, that will destroy the Sirisena faction and take the pressure off the Joint Opposition. In any event, this question of taking disciplinary action for ‘criticizing the leader’ raises some interesting questions. Are the members of a political party not supposed to criticize their leaders? What constitutes acceptable criticism and unacceptable criticism? Furthermore in this instance, there is an acknowledged split in the SLFP with one part of it serving in the government and the other half remaining in the opposition.
The half that is in the opposition routinely votes against the budget presented by the government and even speaks against it in parliament. They routinely oppose decisions made by their other half in government and hold separate political rallies. In such circumstances, how are they not to criticize their leader because their very action of remaining in the opposition constitutes a criticism of their leader who heads this government. Be that as it may, since the strategy of the Sirisena camp hinges on destroying both the UNP and the Joint Opposition, both these latter political parties have an interest in getting rid of him. This is why a yahapalana website has already mooted the possibility of an impeachment motion being filed against Sirisena by the UNP. An incipient coming together of all political forces opposed to Sirisena was seen in the political parties that joined up as intervenient petitioners in the case filed against the gazette notification regarding the delimitation of wards.
The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake too made it known that they would join up even with people they would not otherwise join with for the purpose of having the local government elections held. The Sirisena group’s willingness to undermine democracy has made the local government election a need even for the JVP which has hitherto been a fellow traveler of the yahapalana camp. The way in which Sirisena benefited and then turned against the UNP and Lanka e News when it suited him, is obviously not lost even on the JVP. The struggle to have the local government elections held has now become the main rallying cry for all political parties other than the Sirisena faction. Last week, as soon as Prof. G.L. Peiris, the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna heard that six petitions had been filed in the Appeal Court asking for a writ against the Gazette regarding the delimitation of wards for the local government elections, he had instructed Manohara de Silva PC to file papers on his behalf as an intervenient against this attempt to get the elections postponed. It was almost immediately established that the petitioners were people linked to Sirisena loyalist SLFP ministers including Dayasiri Jayasekera, Dilan Perera, and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena. It was revealed that the lawyer appearing for the petitioners was a junior lawyer working for Faizer Mustapha’s father’s law firm. Minister Mustapha has not denied the allegation. The SLFP (Sirisena faction) was also conspicuous by their absence among the intervenient petitioners opposing the request for a writ against the LG delimitation report.
The possibility of the Joint Opposition once again being hoodwinked into contesting under one banner with the SLFP seems remote for many reasons. Firstly the lessons of what happened last time is not lost on the MPs representing the Joint Opposition. Then there is a visceral dislike of Sirisena among the supporters of the Joint Opposition and there is the likelihood that many voters will keep away from voting in the event of a tie up. Thirdly, the Joint Opposition will not be able to claim that they are contesting against the government if a partner in the government is contesting on the same list. Furthermore, the two sides of the SLFP have been drifting apart and now are for all practical purposes two different organizations. Almost all members of the SLFP who decided to take Mahinda Rajapaksa’s side have lost their SLFP organizer positions and other people have been appointed to fill those slots.
Besides, the appeal of the Joint Opposition is because they are the only genuine opposition left in the country. They would not be in a mood to give up this advantage by contesting together with the now irreparably discredited Sirisena faction. Another practical difficulty is that the Joint Opposition has already divided up all the local government wards among themselves in many districts and this process is going on even as this is being written. A tie up with the SLFP is now virtually impossible due to practical reasons because there aren’t enough slots to go around even within the ranks of the JO.