Mahinda, Sarath face moment of truth

As widely anticipated in the run-up to today’s presidential polls, former SLFP leader and President Chandrika Kumaratunga threw her weight behind Opposition candidate, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka, after paying a floral tribute at the Bandaranaike Samadhi, met Mrs. Kumaratumga at her ancestral home at Horagolla, Nittambuwa.

Although, she publicly announced her support to the former Army Chief only on Saturday (January 23), the last day of the campaign, her dislike for incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no secret. In fact, even at the last presidential polls in November four years ago, she and her brother, Anura, the then Foreign Minister, had sided with UNP presidential candidate, Ranil Wickremesinge. An influential section of the SLFP, too, undermined the Rajapaksa campaign, whereas the Marxist JVP led his campaign though it supports Fonseka now. Saturday’s meeting at Horagolla did not surprise anyone, let alone the Rajapaksa camp which expected Mrs. Kumaratunga’s move in the backdrop of former Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva taking on the President.

The Opposition comprises the UNP, JVP, SLMC, TNA, Mangala Samaraweera, MP and Mano Ganeshan, MP. It receives the backing of a section of the international community, a section of the Tamil diaspora and foreign-funded NGOs. The privately-owned media, too, played politics, though the tendency was to blame the state-run media for being biased in favour of the incumbent President.

The European Union Election Observation Mission quite rightly pointed out in April 2004 that media coverage of the parliamentary polls in April 2004 was polarized along party lines, supportive either of the UNP or the UPFA. Unfortunately, the EU declined to monitor the presidential polls this year. The EU mission declared that it was The Island that provided the most neutral perspective, allowing readers to look beyond the various competing shades to get to the honest, unvarnished truth.

Nov 2005 poll

The then Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s victory at the last poll seemed implausible with the UNP commanding the SLMC, CWC, Up country People’s Front as well as the TNA, though the LTTE at the last moment denied the Tamil vote in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, particularly in areas under its control to Wickremesinghe. The international community and the NGOs and the business community, too, campaigned for Wickremesinghe. Former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema at that time told The Island that Wickremesinghe could have comfortably won the poll if the LTTE didn’t interfere with the election process (The Island of November 21). He estimated the number of votes expected from the Northern and Eastern Provinces in favour of Wickremesinghe at 450,000. The UNP leader lost his second bid at a presidential poll by a mere 180,796 votes, though he secured Colombo, Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Badulla, Mahanuwara, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Vanni and Puttalam (11districts).

The CWC and the Up country People’s Front denied Rajapaksa a better majority by helping Wickremesinghe to secure Nuwara Eliya district by a staggering majority of 150,878. Wickremesinghe polled 250,428 against Rajapaksas’s 99,550. But today, the CWC and Up country People’s Front are solidly behind Rajapaksa, though former CWC MP R. Yogarajan and M. Satchithananthan, MP (Badulla District) recently pledged their support to the Opposition. Contrary to speculation, Navin Dissanayake, MP, didn’t switch his allegiance to the Opposition while UNP National Organiser, S. B. Dissanayake, threw his weight behind the ruling coalition thereby further strengthening the President’s position in the Central region. The CWC and the Up country People’s Front could deliver Nuwara Eliya District to the President along with many votes in plantation areas. In that case, the President will definitely secure a better majority at today’s poll.

Yogarajan told The Island that Wickremesinghe could still defeat Rajapaksa despite the LTTE order to boycott the poll (The Island of November 18 2005). He declared that the LTTE couldn’t deny a sweeping victory for Wickremesinghe, though the then Prime Minister won Galle, Anuradhapura, Gampaha, Matara, Polonnaruwa, Kalutara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Kegalle.(11 districts).

Katakatha Brigade

Contrary to speculation fuelled by the Opposition, none of the key ministers, including Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, quit the government. The Opposition campaign was spearheaded by the Katakatha Brigade alleging many SLFP seniors would desert the President. The Katakatha Brigade alleged that SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, Petroleum Minister A. H. M. Fowzie, and Plantation Minister, D. M. Jayaratne, would leave the government. The Opposition also discussed the possibility of Eastern Province Chief Minister, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, formerly of the LTTE, extending his support to Fonseka. It also planted news items about Minister Vinayagamoorthy Muralidharan aka Karuna having secret talks with the Opposition. But crossovers didn’t materialise with the Opposition engaged in desperate moves to confuse the voters. Yesterday, an SMS purportedly issued by Fowzie declared his support to Opposition candidate whereas the President was called a racist.

The government stepped up pressure on the Opposition following an alleged attempt to engineer a crossover (UPFA National List MP M. Musammil) from the National Freedom Front (NFF) to discredit Wimal Weerawansa, undoubtedly one of the leading campaign strategists for the President. Had the Opposition succeeded, it would have caused serious trouble in the Rajapaksa camp with Weerawansa being forced to go on the defensive. Musammil alleged that he was offered a Rs 30 million bribe to publicly denounce Weerawansa over statements attributed to the former JVP heavyweight in relation to a secret Opposition-TNA deal and Hicorp transaction. The Opposition has repeatedly denied these charges.

Although Wickremesinghe comfortably won Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Trincomalee, Jaffna and Vanni electoral districts at the last presidential polls despite an LTTE directive that people should not exercise their franchise. Wickremesinghe secured the Batticaloa district with an overwhelming majority of 92,678, though the Opposition would find it difficult to repeat the success due to Karuna and Pilleyan throwing their weight behind the President. The Opposition failed to exploit differences between Pilleyan and Karuna to its advantage, though it initially believed Pilleyan would switch his allegiance to Fonseka.

Peace of the graveyard

Let me recall what Dr. Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council said about the polls boycott order given by the LTTE. He asserted that the LTTE may have opted to indirectly back the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, as it would have been easier to negotiate with him once he was elected the President. The LTTE may have feared that Wickremesinghe would have brought international pressure on the LTTE thereby further restricting its activities. But Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives criticised the LTTE decision. Had the LTTE felt that it could handle President Rajapaksa, its assessment was badly off the mark. Under his political leadership, General Fonseka waged a bloody war until troops killed LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon last May. The fact that the TNA, which recognised the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil-speaking people in the run-up to the last parliamentary polls in April 2004, had to support the former Army Chief was nothing but evidence of their dilemma.

Although the LTTE had been vanquished militarily and the entire country liberated by security forces, the NPC, is obviously not satisfied with the current situation. Eight months after the final confrontation on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, the NPC is still campaigning to create space for peace, reconciliation and rule of law. This media campaign should be viewed against a recent article titled The power of keeping one’s word (January 5, 2010) penned by the Executive Director of the NPC critical of the President. He said, "A key element of trust is to keep one’s word and deliver on promises made however great the cost. Unfortunately, despite his great and important achievements, and his reputation for being a pragmatic politician, PRESIDENT RAJAPAKSA HAS FAILED TO EXCEL IN THE AREA OF TRUST BUILDING WITH OTHER POLITICAL LEADERS IN THE COUNTRY. (Emphasis is mine). The writer went on to say that the President has shown himself to have a sceptical nature where it concerns others. President Rajapaksas’s reliance on his family for support and for purposes of governance has suggested some insecurity in dealing with other political leaders, even those of his own party on equal terms. The President, I believe kept his pledge that the country would be liberated from the LTTE, though he did not abolish the executive presidency in keeping with a pre-poll agreement with the JVP. Had the President kept his promise to the JVP, his war against terror would have collapsed due to political manoeuvring in and out of Parliament. In fact, had the President failed to get parliamentary approval for his Budget presented in late 2007, the country would have had to face fresh general election. And that would have been the end of a successful combined security forces campaign against the LTTE.

Tragic but inevitable

The NPC should be ashamed of what it said after the LTTE triggered claymore blasts in the north in December 2005 (ahead of talks in Geneva arranged by the Norwegians) killing 15 soldiers and assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at his Colombo residence. "…these are the tragic, yet inevitable results of the stagnant peace process in which the Ceasefire Agreement is not being fully complied with," the NPC said. Could anything be as ridiculous as this position?

The peace merchants conveniently forget that the LTTE quit the peace process in April 2003 during Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as the Prime Minister at a time Mahinda Rajapaksa did not even have a chance to become the Prime Minister let alone the presidential candidate. To the credit of Wickremesinghe, he made every possible effort to keep the peace process on track even at the expense of national security. But, the so-called Co-chairs to the Sri Lankan Peace Process and peace merchants turned a blind eye to blatant CFA violations by the LTTE. Had they intervened forcefully on behalf of Wickremesinghe, a negotiated settlement could have been achieved.

Catholic vote

The Opposition is confident that Catholic voters would overwhelmingly support Fonseka though it did not receive the backing it expected from the Catholic areas. Interestingly, the Anti-Conversion Bill did not even figure in the Opposition strategy which revolved around waste, corruption and irregularities in the public sector and a range of clandestine deals involving the Rajapaksa brothers, though it failed to prove at least one single charge. Had the Opposition targeted the President for protecting those faulted by parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) and PAC (Public Accounts Committee) as well as the Auditor General’s revelation of waste, corruption and irregularities, the President would have been embarrassed. The Opposition could have also targeted him on his controversial decision to pardon Minister Milroy Fernando’s wife serving a life sentence for killing her husband’s mistress and a servant. The President also abused the executive powers to allow Chamal Rajapaksa’s son, Shashindra, to continue as the Basnayake Nilamae of the Kataragama Devale while being Chief Minister of the Uva Provicial Council.

In fact, the President’s assurance that he would wage war against corruption during his second term could have been used to attack him. This was an admission that he did not do enough to tackle corruption. Had the President acted on COPE and PAC findings as demanded by Wijedasa Rajapakshe, MP, and ensured Ministers, particularly those in charge of health and education, handled their portfolios well, the Opposition would not have anything to complain. Their demand to abolish the executive presidency would not have attracted voters, though they acted as if doing away with 1978 Constitution was the panacea for all ills.

Opposition strategists

At the last poll, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe secured 11 districts with the latter taking the entire Central Province comprising Matale, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya as well as all five electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, including the Vanni electorate. Rajapaksa polled 4,887, 162 (50.29 per cent) and Wickremesinghe 4,706,366 (48.43 per cent) to secure his first term by a majority of 180,776 votes. The Opposition is confident that it could thwart Rajapaksa’s attempt to win a second term by taking advantage of security forces’ triumph over the LTTE. No one could deny the credit the President and his ‘A’ team, which included General Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, deserved for beating the LTTE at its own game. The biggest minus factor faced by Fonseka was nothing but his new colleagues, Wickremesinghe, Hakeem, Mano Ganeshan, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella, Mangala Samaraweewa and Joseph Michael Perera, who infamously ridiculed the war effort. The TNA role in overall LTTE strategy is well known. Had they kept their mouths shut, the President would have had a bigger battle on his hands today. Fonseka, a war hero, who made victory over the LTTE possible though a section of the government says, otherwise, could have countered the state-propaganda better if not for verbose politicians. And Fonseka’s own interview with The Sunday Leader (December 13, 2009) that the Defence Secretary had ordered the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 58 Division, not to take prisoners, too, did not help his campaign. But whatever he did after shedding his uniform, his sterling leadership during war should be appreciated and it would not possible to discuss war victory without him being mentioned.

The President had handled the post-LTTE situation extremely well. Contrary to criticism, his decision to involve Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda in the rehabilitation of LTTE cadres, I believe, had helped the government to win confidence of the international community and Tamil speaking people. To the credit of Moragoda, he had succeeded in involving the Tamil community and the private sector in the rehabilitation process and thereby denied the Opposition an attractive slogan during the campaign.

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