The Opposition pulled off a coup early barely 24 hours after the declaration of snap presidential polls, stealing President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party stalwart to run as the incumbent’s main challenger.
Maithripala Sirisena, Health Minister and General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – the main constituent in the ruling UPFA coalition – quit the Government and announced his entry as the common opposition candidate at what is tipped to be a January poll.
“I am the common candidate,” said Sirisena, who received a tumultuous welcome at New Town Hall in Colombo, when he stepped out of his official convoy. Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne accompanied Sirisena to the venue of the press conference to officially announce his candidature.
Firecrackers and cheers accompanied the two ministers into the auditorium and they were soon joined by Government Minister Duminda Dissanayake and M.K.D.S. Gunewardane who also defected from the ruling coalition to join the opposition campaign. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, largely seen as the chief engineer of the move to field Sirisena, also received an uproarious welcome at the venue. Sirisena was the SLFP’s General Secretary for 13 years.
The former Health Minister pledged that UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would be appointed Prime Minister in the new Government if he should pull off a win in the January election.
Sirisena thanked Wickremesinghe for working to get the UNP’s support for his candidature.
“I will abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of assuming office – vote for me,” Sirisena asserted at the packed news conference.
“The country is headed towards a dictatorship,” the President’s Health Minister charged.
Sirisena said that the country’s economy, law and even his political party was being controlled by a single family.
President Kumaratunga teared up visibly as she spoke of the dire straits her party was in.
“Once the SLFP was this country’s most democratic party,” she noted. “We cannot allow this party to be destroyed,” she charged.
Breaking her silence on a political platform after nine years, Kumaratunga told journalists that her children had been dead against her decision to engage in the opposition campaign.
“They said Ammi they will kill you. But sometimes you must to do things for the sake of the country,” she noted.
The former President, who lost an eye in suicide bomb attack by the LTTE just before the 1999 presidential election, said opposition parties had come together to achieve what she could not during her presidency.
“What is important now is to save the country,” she charged.
The common opposition platform fielding Sirisena would focus on two major thrusts, Kumaratunga explained. “On the one hand, the platform will focus on abolishing the presidency, the other will be on evolving a just solution to minority issues,” she said.
Scenes at the press conference became emotional several times, as Minister Senaratne pleaded for the nation’s forgiveness for voting in favour of the draconian 18th Amendment to the Constitution. “This is our way of trying to put that mistake right, by fighting to abolish this system,” Senaratne said, after apologising three times.
Senaratne said the battle to abolish the presidency that began in 1978 would finally conclude 100 days after Sirisena takes office.
The former Fisheries Minister hit out against the executive presidency, saying it ruined any man who sat on the chair. “Wars may have been ended because of the executive presidency, but it must be remembered that wars have also begun because of it,” he charged.
Senaratne and Kumaratunga warned that all their lives were now in danger because of this decision to support the opposition alliance.
“If they kill me, carry my corpse and march against this presidency,” the former Minister charged.
UPFA National List MP Rajiva Wijesinha who has been a vocal critic of the Government in recent times, also stepped out of the ruling coalition and will act independently.
During the press briefing, Wijesinha said he received a telephone call instructing him to hand over his official vehicle.
Sirisena’s decision and the series of defections from a Government that has seemed unshakable electorally in recent years, reveals that the Opposition has tapped into deep discontentment within the President’s party.
The announcement comes after months of uncertainty about whether the Opposition would be able to name a candidate that could obtain cross party support.
Discussions were spearheaded by the leader of the National Movement for Social Justice, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and a group of activists who took up his cause to abolish the presidency.
Mahinda strips defectors of SLFP membership, positions
President Mahinda Rajapaksa moved to strip his Opposition challenger Maithripala Sirisena and other defectors of their party membership in the SLFP and all their posts in his Government.
The Presidential Media Unit said President Rajapaksa has taken the step in his capacity as Chairman of the SLFP.
Accordingly, Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, Duminda Dissanayake and M.K.D.S. Gunewardane will be stripped of their portfolios and will no longer be members of the ruling party.
“The people will decide which is the ‘real’ SLFP,” Sirisena told a press conference yesterday.
The defectors vowed that more crossovers would follow in the days leading up to the elections. Frantic negotiations are now underway by both sides, Daily FT learns.