By The “Sunday Times” Political Editor
Personal initiatives by President Maithripala Sirisena to re-unify the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ahead of the local polls have all ended in failure.
Now, he has declared political war on the rival faction for repeatedly snubbing his overtures. Sirisena told his ministers and other SLFP stalwarts this week he would nominate a person for each electorate to monitor the activities of the rival group. Their tasks include gathering audio and video evidence of those taking part in the ‘Joint Opposition’ campaign on behalf of the Sri Lanka Podujana (People’s) Party (SLPP). At the same time Sirisena also declared that other than attending weekly Cabinet meetings, his priority in the coming weeks would be to take part in every district level meeting for the local polls. He will address 22 meetings countrywide.
Several nomination lists were rejected for the elections to 93 local councils. One of the major rejections was the Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya (SLPP) list for Maharagama, a stronghold of ‘JO” and MEP leader Dinesh Goonewardene. Pic by Indika Handuwala
In the wake of his inability to reunite with the rival faction of the SLFP, a fuller involvement in the campaign has become imperative for him. Though his rationale is based on the premise that every candidate has been named by him and he had to therefore to back them to the fullest, there are even more important reasons. He is conscious of the impact of the polls’ outcome on the Presidency and the need for his party to perform equally well if not better than his coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP).
The move to deal with SLFP dissidents is a prelude to initiating disciplinary inquiries prior to expulsion from the SLFP. Whether he could face the fallout of such a mass scale expulsion remains a critical question and he has threatened to do this many times before, but Sirisena is quite clearly piqued by the snub at the hands of leaders of the rival group. It was only last week, as revealed exclusively in these columns, that he spoke on the telephone with Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) chief strategist Basil Rajapaksa, seemingly on his own initiative. This was after Ven. Medagoda Abeytissa Thera, the chief incumbent of the Sunethra Devi Pirivena in Kohuwala and one of the many emissaries, took a call and handed over the mobile phone to Sirisena. It was one final throw of the dice. “That is now over. There are larger sections of the public who expect our party to give voice to their concerns and highlight their grievances. They are looking to us in confidence,” Basil Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times this week He had confided in a close friend that Sirisena spoke to him after four and half years, which meant they were not on talking terms even when they were ministers in the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabinet. Strange enough Sirisena was General Secretary of the SLFP and Rajapaksa the National Organiser of the same party.
An emissary who has been equally active last week was Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera. Though regarded as representing the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), he is on the National List of the United National Party (UNP) in Parliament. He made last ditch attempts throughout last Sunday, shuttling between Sirisena and many ‘JO’ leaders. That was to ensure an electoral deal just 24 hours before last Monday when nominations began for 93 local authorities. In fact, Sirisena had awaited a response before Monday. He had ensured that the SLFP candidates including those from the rival faction could contest under the Chair symbol. This is the symbol of the People’s Alliance (PA) where Mahinda Rajapaksa is the leader and former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne the General Secretary. This is besides the SLFP which is also fielding candidates under the Hand and Betel Leaf symbols. This was not to be.
Premajayantha’s last-ditch efforts
One of the official Government spokesperson’s (SLFP) Dayasiri Jayasekera told Wednesday’s news conference that he was among those who also held talks with Basil Rajapaksa. “Dilan Perera (SLFP spokesperson and State Minister) pleaded for re-unity. I did not plead. There are people who did not want this to happen. G.L. Peiris has said so publicly. He was at the talks. Peiris said ‘we don’t have time, work is done’. Then he said he is sleepy and left the talks,” Jayasekera told the media.
The reunification effort did not end there. With nominations due for 248 more local authorities from December 18 to 21, Minister Susil Premajayantha made another desperate attempt last Wednesday. He met ‘JO’ leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to ascertain whether there was still a possibility of an electoral alliance. Rajapaksa not only rejected the new overtures brought by Premajayantha but the very next day (Thursday), issued a strongly worded three-page statement that roundly criticised the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government and its allies.
Noting that the local council elections had been delayed for nearly three years “due to the Government’s fear of the voting public,” Rajapaksa accused President Sirisena of ensuring “the victory of the UNP at the last parliamentary election.” This is why “the Joint Opposition is contesting this local government election under a different symbol and a different political alliance,” he said. Rajapaksa also charged that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which is also fielding candidates at the local polls, has “fully co-operated in every anti-democratic measure taken by this Government. It was the JVP that provided the two thirds majority that the Government needed to change the electoral system and avoid holding the provincial council elections which should have been held by now,” Rajapaksa added.
Another significant assertion by Rajapaksa related to the change brought about by the introduction of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Pointing out that the term of office of the President was reduced to five years, he contended that this “change has been specifically applicable to the incumbent President as well”. Hence, he declared, “the term of office of the incumbent President ends on January 9, 2020.” He said therefore, “a Presidential election has to be held not more than two months and not less than one month before the incumbent President’s term of office expires.”
Hence, the next Presidential election will have to be held between November 9 and December 9, 2019. However, protagonists of Sirisena argue to the contrary saying the Presidential elections are not due till end 2020. Mahinda Amaraweera, General Secretary of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the umbrella organisation under SLFP majority, told a news conference this week, “We are only planning to work for an SLFP Government in 2020.” He noted that “even though other parties say about the continuation of the ‘Yahapalana’ or good governance Government till 2025,” adding that “we take this as a compliment.”
Fuller details of Thursday’s nominations appear elsewhere in this newspaper. As is always the case, internecine issues have dogged practically all political parties in the fray. The inability to adhere to procedures led to 23 nomination papers from different contestants being rejected. The majority of them, 19 were from registered political parties whilst others belonged to independent groups. The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) fielded a woman candidate for Maharagama Urban Council but a silly error described her as a male. The entire list was rejected, and Maharagama is the pocket borough of its leader Dinesh Gunawardene and therefore a very strong constituency for the MEP.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had its nomination papers rejected in respect of the Urban Councils of Maharagama, Panadura and Weligama. Also rejected were its nomination papers for the Pradeshiya Sabhas in Badulla, Agalawatte and Mahiyangana. These would, therefore, see a straight forward UNP-SLFP contest. The SLFP also had its nomination papers rejected for the Pradeshiya Sabhas in Padiyathalawa and Dehiattakandiya. The same fate befell the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in the Trincomalee Town Gravets Council and the Pradeshiya Sabha in Valachchenai. The Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi had two of its nomination lists rejected in the Pradeshiya Sabhas of Alawediwembu and Sammanthurai.
“Admittedly, there were errors in a few nomination papers. However, some of the rejections raise questions. We are moving to courts to seek redress,” Dinesh Gunawardena, leader in Parliament for the ‘Joint Opposition’ told the Sunday Times. He said their campaign would centre on many issues including the Government’s incompetence in managing the economy, not delivering on the promises made to the people and the soaring cost of living.
Gunawardena said, “We (Joint Opposition) are the only ones who can publicly criticise this Government. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have become appendages of the Government,” he charged. He also said that the Government was facing a financial crisis, a fact admitted by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is extending piecemeal support. “People are helpless and corruption is at unprecedented levels,” he added.
The United National Front (UNF), the umbrella organisation of the UNP which is fielding candidates together with its allies under the elephant symbol, has also had its share of issues. This week, UNF leader Premier Wickremesinghe insisted that the prospective mayoral candidate for Colombo Rosie Senanayake should contest a ward. She had been exploring the possibility of being nominated from the proportional representation list after the elections are concluded.
Mano Ganesan’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA), sought the office of Deputy Mayor and found the request rejected. The party has now declared it will field its own candidates. Ganesan told the Sunday Times ; “The coalition of political parties representing Up Country, Tamil community and Colombo based minority communities have decided to field candidates in selected areas including for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The decision to go it alone in some areas came after extensive discussions with the UNP to contest under their alliance United National Front (UNF) were not successful. The UNP is not willing to allocate more seats to our party candidates where multi-member wards now exist.
“Therefore we have decided to contest under our own United Progressive Alliance (UPA) under ladder symbol. “This doesn’t mean we won’t work with other major parties in future. We are of the view that we will face the election in certain areas alone. We will extend our support to other parties to form the majority in local authorities after polls. We will bargain with them on the basis of the number of seats we win.”
Barring two, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) will contest local authorities throughout the country, JVP frontliner Vijitha Herath said yesterday. In the Bandarawela Urban Council and the Pradeshiya Sabha, we have formed a united front with a group which has been campaigning against the huge environmental damage caused by the Uma Oya Project. The JVP has invited non-political interest groups in various towns and villages to join it in the elections.
Herath told the Sunday Times, “Our campaign slogan will be ‘Gama Godanagana, Dushanaya Paradana Jawaya (The force that defeats corruption and builds the village). We have a mixture of candidates including professionals such as doctors, artistes and also those representing the village level such as farmers. We will be telling the voters that the main parties have failed to uplift the standards of villages and therefore give an opportunity for our party to serve the villages. Our campaigns have already started at village level and we have had several major meetings. The campaign will be stepped up in the next few weeks.”
After the parliamentary elections in August 2015, this is the first time that countrywide polls are taking place to elect members to local bodies. That again is after more than two years during which councils have been run by Special Commissioners, causing immense hardship to the public. Local bodies are regarded as nurseries for politicians who aspire for greater heights leading to their becoming Members of Parliament. But with the advent of Provincial Councils these local bodies have become a third tier and not the second tier of political leaders of the future. However, the upcoming local polls, now likely on February 10, has other manifold ramifications. It is the first popularity test for the SLFP-UNP coalition, the ‘JO’ and other opposition parties. More importantly, the sequence of political events that preceded the local polls, particularly the inordinate delays in conducting them, has placed President Sirisena’s own popularity to the test. A win, no doubt, will bolster his position and consolidate his leadership of the SLFP. A loss, on the other hand, will become a serious challenge which portends many ramifications.