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No fight though hat is in the ring?

The big news last week was the premature retirement of General Sarath Fonseka, the Chief of Defence Staff, in the context of persistent rumours that he may run for president against the incumbent. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to reveal his hand on which election will come first – presidential or parliamentary – at the SLFP’s annual convention today. Most analysts and observers expected him to use his constitutional power, as four years of his first term run out this month, to call a premature presidential election two years ahead of the deadline and take advantage of the war victory. But as this is being written there were strong signals that there will be no early presidential election as was widely expected following Gen. Fonseka’s entry into the picture. We’ll know today how things will play out.

It is no secret that the chemistry between the president and Fonseka has not been the best in the months that followed the total annihilation of the LTTE last May. The general was not happy about being kicked upstairs as CDS weeks after the war victory in which he played a major role although the position to which he was promoted is the most senior in the military hierarchy. He has said in a confidential annex to his letter to Rajapaksa, seeking permission to retire from the regular force of Sri Lanka Army from December 1, that the position of CDS basically has no authority; and had further claimed that prior to his appointment as CDS, he was misled on the authority vested in that office being made to understand it carried more command responsibilities and authority than earlier. He had also requested that he be allowed to continue as army commander until the army’s 60th anniversary as he had hoped to preside over those celebrations.

All that was not to be and General Fonseka should not be surprised that his papers have been accepted with immediate effect - that is from Nov. 13 when the request was submitted. Unless relations are of the best or at least cordial, nobody can be expected to permit a departing officer to retain the power and trappings of office for even a short period while he is on the way out. If the general intends to embark on a political career as is widely speculated, it would have made sense for him to wait until at least today, when the emerging picture would have clarified, before showing his hand. But for reasons best known to him, and they could be astrological knowing the way many things are done in this country, he had a one-to-one meeting with President Rajapaksa and thereafter sent in his papers through the proper channels – in this case the defence secretary.

What transpired at that meeting between the CDS and the president is not known, but our sister paper, The Island, no doubt on good authority quoted a smiling Rajapaksa telling the general ``Sarath, you can always come back to me after your defeat in politics!’’ That surely was an admission of the vital role that Fonseka, a 40-year veteran in the army single-mindedly played as army commander in the final phase of the long drawn war against the LTTE. But the president who has the trumps in his hand now seems to have decided that if the general wants to run for president, he will have to wait a little longer.

If the opposition was waiting for the general to shed his uniform to announce that he was to be their common candidate against Rajapaksa, there is now no reason for keeping their plans under wraps any longer. It was a foregone conclusion that Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the winner in a race against Mahinda Rajapaksa and it was an open question on whether the UNP would run him in the first instance. Alternatives like Karu Jayasuriya and S.B. Dissanayake have been mentioned while Sajith Premadasa went on record saying the party leader must run.

Mangala Samaraweera, who played a major role orchestrating Rajapaksa’s election in 2005, managing the campaign and wrapping up arrangements for JVP support had, according to media reports, worked might and main to persuade Fonseka to run against the incumbent. But now it looks as though the race will not be run just yet after all. Rajapaksa seems to have plumped for a strategy of letting the ruling coalition take on a divided opposition at a parliamentary election early next year than face a united opposition backing a strong candidate at a premature presidential election.

Although the UNP is anathema to the JVP, Fonseka is a common candidate they could comfortably back against the incumbent. Given the less than satisfactory relations between the general, the president who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the defence secretary who was Fonseka’s immediate boss (as revealed in last week’s correspondence), the field was wide open for opposition strategists to make their moves. However, there still may be moves within moves as signaled by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Sudar Oli interview where he had laid down certain conditions for a common candidacy. The UNP believes that the minority support it enjoys can make the difference between winning and losing and the last three points that Fonseka made at the end of the annex to the letter he wrote the president clearly signals that he is falling in line to accommodate these concerns though how successfully remains to be seen.

As the commentator in this page succinctly points out, these ``veer from the military to the political.’’ Friend and foe will both freely concede that Fonseka was a hardnosed army commander who threw his troops to battle accepting casualties as a price that must be paid for victory. He was never soft on the enemy or even those the LTTE used to shield themselves. Thus the final three paragraphs in his annex looks very much like a political manifesto. This, of course, will become redundant if there is no presidential election in the short term as previously expected. But a parliamentary election must be held by April. There is no discretion on that.

The country does not have long to wait to see how events will play out. Whatever happens, some exciting times (though less so than if Rajapaksa and Fonseka stepped into the ring) are ahead of Sri Lanka. Let us hope and pray that the violence demonstrated at Attanagalla and the Bronx cheer at the Kelaniya temple are not a harbinger of things to come. It is up to the president and the government to ensure that the elections are free and fair and violence is not part of the scene. This is an obligation that lies not only on the government but also on the other parties as well as the law enforcement agencies.

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