(Excerpted from the “Sunday Times”Political Column of September 2nd 2018)
Wednesday’s protest rally by the ‘Joint Opposition’ has come under heavy focus of leaders of the ruling coalition.
Whilst the ‘JO’ wants to induct large crowds, coalition leaders want to do just the opposite — prevent as many from taking part. Indications of who will win the ding-dong battle will be known within the next 48 hours. Yet, it has set off alarm bells in the coalition. The Western Province Transport Authority has banned from yesterday until September 8 all private bus operators undertaking special tours. Only buses operating on specified routes on permits issued to them will be permitted on the roads. Violators will have their permits cancelled. Other than that first blow, more are due, say government sources.
The ‘JO’ is keeping the venue a secret. “We have sought approval for five different venues. Our organising committee will decide on Tuesday the exact location,” Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF), and one of the front liners, said. Such approval would have to come from both the Colombo Municipal Council and the Police. A safe guess is that ‘JO” marchers may converge on the Galle Face Green.
Perhaps to allow all MPs to assist ministers in showcasing the government’s different achievements, also on Wednesday, President Maithripala Sirisena is in favour of Parliament sessions not being held on Tuesday and Wednesday. With no visibility of any such move, it is not clear whether there is any other reason behind it. In fact, the Leader of the House, Lakshman Kiriella, told a party leaders’ meeting in Parliament that Sirisena has made this suggestion to him. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who presided asked how this could be done since it would violate accepted traditions. It is unlikely that sittings will be cancelled.
Announcing the protest, posters have sprung up in many towns. Most carried the photographs of Mahinda Rajapaksa together with those of the different organisers. “We have asked 3,475 local council members supporting the ‘JO’ to bring a busload each,” said Sanjeeva Edirimanna, media spokesperson for the organisers. Even half of that number mustered would prove the ‘JO’s point with all the odds against it.
As reported last week, at a joint meeting between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe accompanied by their senior ministers, it was decided to have events in different electorates as well as in Colombo to highlight government’s achievements. The proposal had its origin at a Cabinet meeting where UNP Deputy Leader and Minister Sajith Premadasa made the proposal. Yet, there were no visible signs of any arrangements by the Government. In fact, one of the UNP State Ministers’, Asoka Abeysinghe, (Kurunegala District) pooh poohed the idea.
He told the Sunday Times, “We will not be holding any programme to coincide with the protest. We will allow them to come to Colombo, protest and return. Every year, they need to have something of this nature,” he said.
‘JO’ leader in Parliament Dinesh Gunawardena disputed Abeysinghe’s claim of protestors being allowed to come to Colombo. “They are already bringing pressure on bus operators not to bring our supporters to Colombo. Some have even been threatened. Why is the Government afraid, if as it claims, we have no support,” he told the Sunday Times. A main theme of the protest, he said, was to demand early elections. Despite all assertions, we have not seen any preparations for the outstanding Provincial Council elections. The Government is only buying time. Issues like the rising cost of living, particularly after the increase in the price of flour by five rupees at midnight on Friday, will also feature. Bread and other flour-based products will cost more due to the price rice.
Gunawardena is the leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). His party held its annual Sathyakriya and AdhistanaPooja in front of the Kiri Vehera in Kataragama for the 24th year in succession amidst crowds. Among their prayers was one to “defeat federalism” and evoke blessings on the armed forces.
Gunawardena also said that they would protest against the persecution of Government’s opponents by trying them before special courts. Another SLFP pole vaulter to ‘JO’ — who fears government would stymie the ‘JO” protest — is former Minister Chandima Weerakkody. “However, we will go ahead and face the obstacles,” he declared.
Interesting enough, President Maithripala Sirisena is yet to decide on a date for the 67th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which falls today. A party source said a date would be fixed after the party determines how Wednesday’s protests play out. The idea is to ascertain how much public support the ‘JO’ is able to muster and formulate strategies to counter it. Sirisena wants to spell out the SLFP’s upcoming programme of action.
The impending protests notwithstanding, key SLFP players in the group of 16, now sitting in opposition benches, have not given up their efforts toward rapprochement with their counterparts now in the ‘JO.’ Former minister S.B. Dissanayake has been the conduit in a Sirisena-Rajapaksa dialogue. As expected the move by the group has generated considerable resentment among some top rungers. They insist that members of the group should first renounce their membership in the SLFP and join their ranks. It is only thereafter that they could talk of other matters. They also contend that a “third party” does not have any mandate. Even the main strategist for the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), Basil Rajapaksa, now away in the United States, is of the same view. Angering him and like-minded others is another factor. Some from the 16 were still office bearers of the SLFP.
The de facto ‘JO’ leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times, “Dissanayake has been bringing messages. That is all. It has not gone beyond.”
“Our priority now,” he said, “is to get the people who are suffering untold hardships to rally round the opposition. This is why we are holding a major protest on Wednesday.” He charged that the Government was “bent on taking political revenge through special courts” – a case which his son and MP Namal Rajapaksa has been making with the Maha Nayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven Warakagoda Sri Gnanaratna and the head of the Ramanna Nikaya Ven. Napane Pemasiri, whom he called on Friday.
The Government’s retaliatory move against the opposition protest underscores its concerns and highlights an unenviable situation it has forced itself into. The fact that it has taken steps to prevent crowds from converging in Colombo through restrictive measures reflects its worry of a large turnout. If it does happen, it would lend more credence to the claim that the coalition is more unpopular now. Such measures cannot be kept away from the public.
Hence, the move is counterproductive and leads to more public disenchantment, which is not to the Government’s advantage. The situation also raises an all-important question – whether the impending Provincial Council elections will be held at all.
Unlike a protest where crowds converge and depart, the election is an event where the people will choose their representatives to the PC. A corollary of the move to restrict crowds at the protest means that the Government would be worried about the outcome of the PC polls. Quite clearly the Government would be worried about a larger voter protest.
For the coalition, such a scenario plays out in a very paradoxical situation.
The coalition government appears trapped not only in a state of confusion but also finds itself in a dichotomy. Taking steps to prevent large crowds turning up in the City for a protest, it fears, will deliver a message that the Government is unpopular. Allowing such a protest is equally worse. That would only exacerbate the unpopularity.
So with little or no sign that any major development projects are being showcased, the Government’s dilemma is worse. On the one hand, if the Government did exhibit the major projects in Colombo, measures to restrict transport will reduce crowds for its own event. On the other, is there a fear people may not turn up for the Government’s events?
With the prices of bread and other products going up from this week, it looks like the tempers of the coalition leaders are also reaching galactic proportions.