An unexpected political event that took place last week was the return of Rauff Hakeem to parliament. Once he lost the EPC elections, everybody knew he would return to parliament on the national list, but as if to confound those who were snickering behind his back, he took oaths as a provincial councilor and looked set to remain in the EPC for some time. But last week, he suddenly gave up his provincial council seat and rushed back to parliament. This act will have a long term impact on the SLMC base in the east and particularly in the Trincomalee district.
The reason why the SLMC won Muttur in the Trincomalee district was because Hakeem the leader of the SLMC himself came to the people asking for their support on the promise of leading them. Readers will remember that the Muslims of Muttur even surrounded the house of Minister Baiz – so fervent was their support for Hakeem. For him to now suddenly give up the Trincomalee district and rush back to Colombo is tantamount to political suicide as far as that region is concerned. M.H.Hisbulla, whom the SLMC called a traitor for joining the government, is at least still in the east and is not preparing to go anywhere.
These precipitate moves on the part of the SLMC leader took place in the context of an internal crisis in the UNP. The UNP leader is grappling with not one but two crises within the party. One is the recent problem involving Johnston Fernando, Lakshman Seneviratne and others. The other is the ongoing problem of S.B.Dissanayke. Dissanayake is not involved with the Johnston-Seneviratne group, but is an independent thorn in the side of Wickremesinghe. There were reports in the newspapers that SB was playing a double game, and that he was in cahoots with Mahinda Rajapakse. But these reports are not quite accurate. SB does not see any future for himself in the SLFP. If he did, he would have joined the Karu Jayasuriya group, gone over to the government and had his civic rights restored and by now he would have been comfortably occupying some ministerial post. SB however, is an ambitious man who sees himself leading the country one day, and he knows that the only chance that he will have at the top leadership ie. the presidency, is through the UNP, as the successor to Mahinda Rajapakse will be one of his brothers.
Hence, even if Ranil Wickremesinghe himself joins the Rajapakse government, SB will continue to remain in the UNP. Last month, Dissanayake withdrew a case he had filed in the Supreme Court concerning his removal from Parliament. This was after the elections commissioner ruled that he had been removed from parliamentary seat not because he was disqualified to sit in Parliament following his conviction for contempt of court, but because he had absented himself from the House for an unbroken period of three months. During the court proceedings, the chief justice apparently made several comments which appear to signal that SB will be able to hold office once again. The comments the CJ is supposed to have made during the hearing would go as follows.
"If we wanted to remove him (SB) from parliament, then we would have definitely sent a copy of the judgment to the elections commissioner and the speaker."
"Whether he lost his MP position due to the contempt case is not yet decided because the secretary general and the elections commissioner have said that SB lost his seat due to non attendance for three months."
"We cannot decide this issue in this case. Issue might arise in an appropriate case. Now that there is another person appointed automatically, how can he come back to parliament now? But we never intended to prevent him from contesting future elections."
"Whether contempt is an offense in that sense cannot be decided in this case because it was already dealt with in the court of appeal and also because that is not the basis of this application."
These comments had also led to the demand that SB be appointed to parliament to the vacancy created by the resignation of Basheer Segudawood to contest the eastern elections. Hakeem’s elected seat in the Digamadulla district went to UNP organizer Nushad. The SLMC has one national list vacancy, in its own right - that created by the resignation of Hassan Ali. So Hakeem was expected to be generous.
Wickremesinghe had in fact gone with SB to see Hakeem to ask him to give the vacant UNP national list slot to SB temporarily, so that he could go to parliament, clear his name and resign, but Hakeem had said the SLMC high command will have to make a decision on this.
Unsurprisingly, the decision of the SLMC was that the UNP national list seat should remain with the SLMC and Hakeem came rushing back to reclaim that seat. The UNP faction supporting SB is furious. The suspicion here is that SB is being deliberately kept out, with Hakeem playing ball with Wickremesinghe, even after the Supreme Court showed some signs of being conciliatory towards SB.
The story going around is that when the two monks, Ven Kusaladhamma and Ven Bellanwila Wimalaratne, had met former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and asked her why she had not pardoned SB before she left office, she had told the monks that during the presidential campaign in 2005, she had in fact offered to pardon and release SB so that he could contribute to the campaign. But Wickremesinghe had declined the offer because he had been confident of winning without SB and SB had continued to languish in jail. According to what Kumaratunga had told the monks, she had not pardoned SB before she left because Mahinda Rajapakse was already against her and she could not afford to antagonize Wickremesinghe as well. This story had apparently been recounted to SB by the Ven. monks, and SB is said to be harbouring a grudge against RW on this account.
Victory worse than defeat
It is in this background that the UNP leadership seems to be running around in circles trying to prevent SB from holding office again in the wake of last month’s comments by the chief justice. After Hakeem turned down the request to allow SB to occupy one of the national list seats allocated to them, the focus now is on K.N.Choksy and the pressure is on to persuade him to give way for SB to make a symbolic appearance in parliament. But the fears are that this too will be sabotaged by the party leadership.
In the meantime the unrest in the UNP has settled down into a cold war because of the elections. In fact each side is using the elections to get the upper hand over the other. If the UNP loses the elections, the dissidents will place the blame on the leadership. The leadership, on its part, is trying to ensure that it does not go down alone. At the eastern province elections, SB was told to take a back seat, because his involvement in the campaign could queer the pitch in case of an election petition. But after those comments by the chief justice last month and the possibility that SB may not be legally debarred from politics, he has now been asked to lead the campaign in the Sabaragamuwa province.
SB has been asked to lead the Sabaragamuwa campaign in a situation where his status as a lame duck national organizer has not changed. The UNP knows that it is going to lose Sabaragamuwa no matter who leads the campaign so they want SB also to be tainted with defeat before he is able to make a comeback to politics. These elections preset a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for the UNP. If by some chance Janaka Perera wins the NCP, that will catapult the ambitious former army officer into the limelight. Had a young politician like Sajith Premadasa been allowed to stand by his side in the campaign, Janaka Perera’s campaign would have been strengthened to that extent. Premadasa has in fact been assigned to the NCP for this election, but he has been strictly told to restrict himself to one electorate. He was first assigned to the Kalawewa electorate and now he has been pushed off to the Medawachchiya. Sajith’s is a face that Janaka Perera could have used to his advantage, but it is not to be.
What will be worse for the embattled UNP leadership at these two provincial elections is a victory. If the UNP wins in the NCP, there will be a new power centre in the UNP, a new charismatic figure in the form of Janaka Perera – one who can win elections for the UNP on nothing but the strength of his personality. In other words, Perera would have what the present UNP leadership does not have. While it is true that the UNP decision making bodies are now full of Wickremesinghe appointees, the problem is that even these appointees like political power. As of now, all that they have is a party position which does not bring any benefits. If these appointees see someone who can deliver political power to them at an election, the chances are that they will abandon RW and look to the new star, as being perpetually in the opposition is not what most of RW’s appointees have in mind.
There are two stars in the electoral fray. SB as the campaign leader of Sabaragamuwa and Janaka Perera as the chief ministerial candidate of the NCP. If the UNP leadership is to be secure in its position, both these individuals have to lose. By losing these elections, even the potential future leaders of the UNP will be tainted with defeat and the UNP leadership can well claim "SB lost Sabaragamuwa and Janaka Perera lost the NCP, so why are you blaming us?" Ironically, it is victory that will make the UNP leadership’s position precarious, not a defeat.
While the UNP has this situation to contend with, the government also had its hands full trying to restore some balance to the PA lists in the four districts. Most government politicians, had tried to nominate their kith and kin on the party list for the provincial councils, and the president was heard lamenting last week, that these people are not interested in allowing ordinary SLFPers to come up but are filling the lists with their kith and kin. On presidential orders, five close relatives of politicians had been removed from the PA’s list in the Sabaragamuwa province alone.
Drowning the UNP dissidents
The middle class will be greatly relieved that the countrywide general strike called for July 10 was unsuccessful. The JVP controlled trade union federation headed by K.D. Lal Kantha claims that it was a 70% success and the government says it was a failure. Without getting involved in these arguments, the middle classes may well say, "May the JVP continue to succeed as they did on July 10th!" The UNP tried to ride piggy back on the JVP and has ended up sharing the failure. This decision to cast their lot with the JVP strike was one of those arbitrary decisions suddenly taken by the UNP leadership. Usually, before calling for a strike, the union members are consulted. But none of the UNP trade unions had been consulted, nor had they been given time to consult their members before this decision was taken. This was not really a UNP strike at all, which is why JSS members were not seen anywhere in the scattered demonstrations which took place on July 10.
At a meeting of UNP organizers and activists of the Kegalle district held last Friday in Mawanella, the UNP’s national organizer S.B.Dissanayake had been scathing in his criticism of the decision to join the JVP strike. "Api JVP eke nagute elluna" he had said adding "Me illagena kewe" and he had warned that the failure of this JVP-UNP strike is going to have an adverse impact on the NCP and Sabaragamuwa elections as well. The feeling among many UNPers is that the party leadership made this eleventh hour decision to join the JVP strike in order to embarrass the UNP trade union leadership. The UNP unions, the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) is led by Johnston Fernando. The president and vice president respectively of the Lanka Jathika Estate Worker’s Union is Parliamentarian Ravi Samaraweera and Lakshman Seneviratne – all of them prominent in the UNP’s present dissident movement. They were up in arms against the leadership saying that the leadership was flatfooted. Now they too look flatfooted in the eyes of the people!
Be that as it may, many people are relieved that the strike was in fact unsuccessful. If there is anything that the middle classes in this country fear, it is the anarchy that can result from a general strike. After J.R.Jayewardene broke the July 1980 general strike, trade unionism has been on the wane in this country. Individual unions may have struck work and succeeded in winning their demands. But the threat of a general strike was the first in nearly three decades. In a sense it may have been absurd for people to fear a single organization which has been fast losing popularity and which has just suffered a major split, losing more than one third of its representation in parliament. But there were reasons for the people’s fears. It was a known fact that the JVP had spread its tentacles in the trade union sector. Even when they were losing popularity in the country, their trade unions were thriving. And the general impression was that the JVP trade unions were better organized than the government trade unions. Moreover, the recent price hikes had given people the impression that the JVP call for a general strike would elicit a lot of sympathy from the general public. All these factors caused a great deal of apprehension in people’s minds about the July 10 general strike.
Had the JVP strike succeeded, that would have been the beginning of a problem worse than LTTE terrorism. Whatever the LTTE does, they can’t bring the country to a standstill. And once the strike weapon is firmly in the hands of a political party that still espouses revolution, they are definitely going to use it for political purposes. In fact in their five lecture program of indoctrination, they had lecture called the ‘betrayals of the left movement’ where they criticized the old left LSSP and the CP for having let down the proletariat. One of their main accusations was that the LSSP did not take the Hartal of 1953 to its logical conclusion by making use of the situation arising from the Hartal to capture political power. The Hartal of August 12, 1953, was provoked by a decision of the then Dudley Senanyake government to remove the subsidy on rice thus causing a price increase of a measure of rice from 25 cents to 70 cents. The Hartal was not just a general strike, but a public protest combined with a general strike and the JVP felt that this opportunity should have been made use of to capture political power.
Had the general strike of July 10 been successful, the JVP would no doubt have used trade union action in their quest for power. The people probably instinctively knew that they would be helping to begin a process from which there would be no return if they kept off work last Thursday. Even at Lake House, where there was a near mutiny against the government recently, the strike was unsuccessful. Both the JVP and UNP unions were supposed to be on strike, but they were at work throughout the morning. During the lunch hour, the JVP activists, 12 in number, had come out of the building, unfurled a large banner and had started shouting slogans. A little while later, they had been joined by the UNP union members, who had passively stood two or three feet behind the JVP front line. The UNP trade union at Lake House is not known for its timidity. They survived throughout the years of persecution under the Chandrika Kumaratunga regime with their heads held erect. Yet on this day, they were less than forthcoming, and seemed to be reluctant participants.
The reason was not difficult to see. Neither the trade union nor its members had been consulted by the party before announcing the decision to throw their lot in with the JVP. Furthermore, with even the JVP members working like beavers throughout the morning, the UNP union members would have hardly been in an enthusiastic mood to shout slogans for a strike that had failed before it even started. Another unusual incident was that the pro-government workers at Lake House had assembled on the flight of stairs leading to the editorial department, in a crowd vastly outnumbering the protestors and had jeered at the JVP and UNP demonstrators and pelted eggs at them. Minutes later, both the assailants and the victims in the egg attack were standing in an orderly queue at the Lake House canteen to buy lunch! That seemed to symbolize the attitude of the general public to the notion of experiencing anarchy once again. One begins to wonder whether strike would mean the end of political trade unionism in this country. The tradition of having trade unions affiliated to political parties, with politicians often heading these unions, has led to accusations of there being political motives behind trade union demands.
Janaka under fire
Last week, Janaka Perera came under fire by two of his closest friends, S.L.Gunasekera and H.L.D.Mahindapala for joining the UNP. S.L.Gunasekera had raised the question whether Janaka Perera had changed his stance on the war to suit the UNP or whether the UNP had changed its stance to suit Janaka Perera. This is a question that is going to feature very prominently in the NCP campaign, but so far, the public has heard nothing from either party. Anybody who is familiar with the UNP will know that there is a great deal of disquiet among many UNPers over the stance taken by the party on the war. In fact if there is a change of leadership, there will be a radical change of policy on the war as well. So it may not be fair to needle Perera over something that he has no control over. However, it will be interesting to see what will be said from the UNP platforms once the campaign starts in earnest. But the main problems facing Janaka Perera at the moment is the apparent refusal of the government to provide him with security adequate to counter the risks he faces from the LTTE.
The trajectory of Sri Lankan politics has not really been understood by the opposition. In the view of the present writer, the Sinhala public is working to an agenda in much the same way that the Tamil public worked to an agenda in the 1980s. The resounding victory of Mahinda Rajapakse in the Sinhala majority districts, during the 2005 presidential elections is due to this agenda. The failure of the July 10 strike is due to this, and not because the people don’t want a Rs 5,000 increase in their salaries. When the JHU reorganization committee met last week, just before the general strike, the JHU leader held that this strike was something that should never have been called. He said that the soldiers were fulfilling a great dana-paramita by being at the battle front for months at a time without seeing their near and dear, and without enjoying a hot meal. In such a situation, the Ven. Monk lamented that some of our people have placed the ‘bada’ before the ‘rata’.
But on July 10, what became clear is that the vast majority of the salaried employees of this country have in fact placed the rata before the bada. On the one hand, it seems to be that many of them realized that if this strike succeeded, that would be the end of peaceful existence for everybody in this country, with political parties using the disruption of normal life as a political weapon to make their way to power. This, combined with the public consciousness of a ‘mission’ to be accomplished, is what helps in the perpetuation of the status quo. This mission or agenda is so polarizing that it motivates fellow workers in the same institution to jeer and pelt eggs at their fellow workers and close friends to turn against men like Janaka Perera whom they had held in high regard for years. So long as this polarization exists, things are going to work to the advantage of the government.