Sirisena’s bid to prevent MR come back


As the election campaign drew to a close last week, President Maithripala Sirisena threw all the trump cards he had on the table to head off what he seems to believe is a clear victory for MR. How desperate Sirisena thinks the situation is for him can be gauged from the incredible flip flops in his conduct within a brief 24 hour period. On August 13, Sirisena wrote a letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa saying that if the UPFA wins, he would appoint one of seven party seniors as the prime minister and asked for MR’s cooperation to do so. Both Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha were among the seven seniors who were deemed suitable to become prime minister. Yet barely 24 hours later, the same Maithripala Sirisena removed both Yapa and Premajayantha from their positions and even suspended their party memberships!

What had happened between the 13th and 14th for such a radical change to have taken place? The answer is nothing, except that Sirisena was thrashing about looking for a way out of the soup that he thinks he is in. The word ‘thinks’ is important because there is no foolproof way in Sri Lanka to predict the result of an election with any certainty. Sirisena may have thought that by suggesting the names of seven possible contenders for the position of PM, he would be able to create divisions among the leadership of the UPFA. But on the morning of the 14th, UPFA leaders gathered at Mahinda Rajapaksa’s residence in Mirihana and drafted a letter which was signed by six of the seven seniors who were suggested for the position of prime minister rejecting the offer of the prime minister and reiterating the fact that the whole nation wanted Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister. The sole exception was A.H.M.Fowzie who was also mentioned as one of the seven suited to be PM but he is not a serious contender for the post by any stretch of the imagination. So nothing really happened in the 24 hours between the 13th and the 14th to justify the sacking of Premajayantha and Yapa.

Even though opinion polls are known to be unreliable Sirisena was obviously placing much store by what the State Intelligence Service was feeding him. The rather extreme steps he took last week indicates that he believed that MR would score and outright victory which would prevent the UNP from forming a government even with the support of the TNA. The letter that he wrote last Thursday naming seven senior SLFP seniors who would be suitable for the position of prime minister in the event of a UPFA victory was nothing more than a reiteration of the old theme that he does not want to make MR the prime minister.

But removing the secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA in the middle of an election is an extreme step that he would not have taken unless he believed that the UPFA was definitely going to win and win convincingly. Accepting the position of SLFP secretary in the middle of an election as the replacement for Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, a respected party senior, places Duminda Dissanayake in danger of being defeated in the Anuradhapura district which he is contesting at this election. In fact Dissanayake would not have accepted the position of party secretary at this stage unless he was convinced that he was going to lose anyway and he had nothing to lose by accepting the position of party secretary. During this election campaign, Dissanayake was shown addressing pocket meetings, but at no location was he shown addressing a significant crowd. The reactions he may have been getting from the public may have convinced Dissanayake that he may not get into parliament.

Repercussions of sacking party secretaries

Most of those who had left with Maithripala Sirisena and came back to the SLFP after he became president decamped the moment Mahinda Rajapaksa was given nominations through the UPFA. Only a handful like Duminda Dissanayake felt confident enough to remain in the party and contest the election. In fact Dissanayake was one of the MPs with a strong base and a good chance of winning despite his connection with Maithripala Sirisena. But as the election campaign drew to a close he seems to have sensed that he will be defeated which is probably why he took the extreme step of accepting the position of party secretary in what was nothing less than a coup on the eve of the election. Participating in such an operation will no doubt have consequences for Dissanayake at the poll. Why Sirisena replaced the two secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA is obviously to have complete control over appointing MPs on the national list. But it is unlikely that Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa will leave their removal unchallenged. There is the entire weekend to prepare papers to be filed in courts at the beginning of next week.

These moves seem to indicate that Sirisena believes that most of his loyalists who remained in the UPFA would be wiped out at this election and that his only hope of having some support in parliament would be to stuff the UPFA national list with his loyalists who would be amenable to helping the UNP to form a government. This is the last trump card that Sirisena has to play and he can’t afford to place that at risk by waiting until after election day. He had to move fast or risk losing everything. He has even taken the extreme step of suspending the party memberships of Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha. That is likely to increase the preference votes that both of them get. Maithripala Sirisena is not the most popular individual in the SLFP at present. When his name was mentioned at the last rally of the UPFA in Kurunegala, people hooted and jeered.

For the past seven months, this whole movement that transmogrified into the UPFA election campaign was organized in opposition to Sirisena and thrived despite all his efforts to stifle it. Now he is taking drastic steps against it in an attempt to prevent it from washing over him which is quite understandable. But whether these attempts produced results or made things worse for him will be known only after the preference votes are counted and it is established how many of Sirisena’s loyalists in the UPFA are left standing. At least one, Duminda Dissanayake appears to have given up hope completely. In a previous column we described how Sirisena made an appearance at Dissanayake’s house in Anuradhapura and after the president left Dissanayake himself told the press that Sirisena had warned him that his appearance may make Dissanayake lose even the few preference votes he would get. If a mere visit can have such a toxic effect on Dissanayake’s chances, just imagine what participation in a coup against Anura Priyadarshanaya Yapa would have on Dissanayake’s prospects.

We have written in previous columns that Sirisena first refused to give Mahinda the prime ministerial candidacy and even nominations to contest the parliamentary election, just 48 hours before the Kurunegala rally held in May this year. But that did not prevent that meeting from being bigger than the Nugegoda rally. At the Kurunegala meeting 56 UPFA parliamentarians got on to the pro-Mahinda stage with Sirisena’s point blank refusals still ringing in their ears. If these last minute moves that Sirisena made have the same effect, the latter may see an opposite effect to the one intended.

Sirisena uses force where

persuasion failed

Sirisena made elaborate plans to make the final moves he made. At one point his advisors collected money saying that was to insert advertisements in favour of the UPFA. Suspicious Mahinda loyalists were wondering what he was up to. But as he was legally the party leader, they could not turn down an offer to insert advertisements on behalf of the party. So full page UPFA advertisements appeared featuring Sirisena and the betel leaf symbol with the slogan "Jaya niyathai". Even the photograph for that advertisement had been sent by the president’s office and it was also paid for separately – not from the regular UPFA advertising budget. Most outsiders speculated that Sirisena may be trying to wash away some of his sins against the party by inserting a few ads in favour of the UPFA. It was only a day or two after those ads appeared that he wrote the letter dated 12.8.2015 to Mahinda Rajapaksa asking for his cooperation to appoint one of seven seniors he named as prime minister.

It was clear that he was anticipating a possible victory of the UPFA at that point. The tenor of that rambling five page letter makes that clear. What he anticipated was that the UPFA would score an outright victory. He had stated that in the event that the party falls a few seats short he could intervene to obtain the necessary extra seats. It was only after that, that he spoke of the possible candidates to be a UPFA prime minister. The conclusion that Sirisena appears to have come to is that the UPFA is winning anyway and everything that he is doing now appears to be designed to establish control over the UPFA before it wins. As we write this, news coming down the pipeline indicates that posters are being printed with Sirisena’s likeness and the colours of the UPFA with the slogan "Maithri paalanayak" to be put up all over the country.

Since Sirisena is not a candidate at this election the idea is that this may not be a violation of the election law. But since he is the leader of one of the parties contesting the election it is in fact a violation of the law. So whether this poster campaign will get off the ground is in doubt. In any event, just hours before the campaign period ended on Aug. 14, advertisements appeared on TV channels about a "Maithree palanayak" and drawing attention to the manifesto put out by Sirisena with the refrain that ‘Maithree palanaya’ will continue even after August 17.

So all these manoeuvres are meant to assert control over the UPFA in the belief that it will either win outright or get the highest number of seats. How successful this attempt to assert control over the UPFA will be is in doubt. Janaka Bandara Tennakoon was one of the first to speak out, demanding the reinstatement of Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. He said that these are all conspiracies hatched from Sirikotha. When a party senior like Janaka Bandara says indirectly in so many words that Duminda Dissanayake the newly appointed acting secretary of the SLFP is also in cahoots with this Sirikotha conspiracy that just about seals the political fate of the latter. If that is the general view among SLFP rank and file, just imagine what that would do to Dissanayake’s electoral prospects in the Anuradhapura district. This may also have serious implications for all those on the UPFA list associated with Sirisena in the past few months.

The cause for all the anxiety

The poll has not be held as yet and the votes have not been counted so nobody can say for certain who will win. But somebody is obviously reluctant to take any chances because once the votes are counted and the winner is declared, it will not be possible to make any manoeuvres at all. At this election, it will be the 17 districts outside the north and east that will decide which party gets the highest number of seats. At the last presidential elections, Sirisena won seven and Mahinda won ten of these districts outside the N & E. The majorities scored by the two sides in the districts they won are as follows.

Districts won by MS

Kandy - 88,409

Nuwara Eliya – 127,226

Colombo – 162,459

Gampaha – 4,660

Puttalam – 4,322

Polonnaruwa – 42,334

Badulla – 282

Total majority for MS – 429,732 votes


Districts won by MR

Matale – 12,952

Galle – 83,132

Matara – 85,388

Hambantota – 104,587

Kalutara – 46,486

Kurunegala – 80, 266

Anuradhapura – 42,754

Moneragala – 67,469

Ratnapura – 86,539

Kegalle – 25,597

Total majority for MR – 635,170 votes

Thus we see that in the 17 districts outside the North and East, Mahinda has a lead of 205,438 votes. This gap will widen by several hundred thousand more votes with the JVP and Sarath Fonseka contesting separately. It will widen even more with the floating vote splitting up between the various parties. Though Fonseka’s party got a significant number of votes at the PC elections held between 2012 and 2014, their popularity has declined precipitously since and they may end up not winning any seats at all in the next parliament. But the JVP may improve upon their performance because of the floating yahapalana vote. The meetings of the JVP throughout this election campaign have been very poorly attended. They could not put up a good showing even at that major rally they organized in Nugegoda. What this indicates is that the JVP no longer has a cadre as such and are wholly dependent on whatever falls off other people’s plates. Any seats they win at this election will depend of how much of the yahapalana floating vote it is able to attract. When the gap between the UPFA and the UNP widens in that manner in every district, the UNP has no way of bridging it. That is the reason for all this panic at the last moment in the Sirisena camp.

It’s in the Colombo district that Sirisena got the largest majority outside the North and East. But Colombo is also the district where the JVP is strongest and where its leader is contesting from. To make things worse even Sarath Fonseka is contesting from the Colombo district. The JVP and Sarath Fonseka’s party got a combined total of 145,962 votes at the Western PC elections held last year. (That was without their party leaders contesting personally. This time both Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sarath Fonseka are contesting personally and that makes for some difference.) So when the votes that may be taken away by the JVP and Fonseka are discounted, the gap between the UPFA and the UNP is reduced to nothing in the Colombo district. If the traditional UPFA vote has come back to normal in the Colombo electorates outside the Colombo city, then there is the very real possibility of the UPFA even winning the Colombo district. It is because of all these risks that Sirisena has launched a virtual coup in the UPFA and the SLFP.

The SLFP has seen it all before

The question is whether Sirisena’s moves will produce the desired result. The SLFP has gone through phases like this before. At the 1982 presidential election, Hector Kobbekaduwa had to contest without the support of both Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike and Anura Bandaranaike. It was Vijaya Kumaratunga who led the election campaign on behalf of Kobbekaduwa. The SLFP was up against incredible odds. Firstly there was the enormous disadvantage that the SLFP had nothing to show in its past record except disasters brought upon the country. It was only five years since the defeat of the SLFP in 1977 and people had not forgotten how unsuccessful SLFP rule was. Then there was a very successful ruling party in power with a five sixth majority in parliament and the economy was booming under the new dispensation. On top of all this the leaders of the SLFP were doing everything possible to defeat the SLFP presidential candidate.

Despite these odds, the SLFP managed to increase their vote bank from 1,855,331 votes at the general election of 1977 to 2,548,438 at the 1982 presidential election. This was a jump of 37% – an incredible achievement in just five years and given all the odds they were up against. The SLFP got nearly 700,000 new votes that they had never got before. Nobody has broken that record since. This writer can still remember the article that Mervyn de Silva wrote to the Lanka Guardian hailing the SLFP voters’ tenacity and commitment.

In contrast to this, when the UNP toppled the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in 2001, they managed to increase the vote only by 16% between 1994 and 2001 despite all the advantages they had. By 2001, the UNP had a history of solid achievement before 1994 they could hark back to. They had been succeeded by a very unsuccessful government that had all but lost the war and had driven the economy into the ground with negative growth rates. On top of all that, the ruling PA had split in what was up to that time the biggest crossover in parliamentary history, yet the UNP could not increase their vote bank by anything even close to the percentage that Vijaya Kumaratunga achieved in 1982.

If the SLFP voter displays that old tenacity and commitment, all these manoeuvres by Sirisena may not produce the intended result but exactly the opposite. One thing that this last minute drama has done is to shift all the attention to the UPFA with the president himself already trying to choose a prime minister from the UPFA. Even the remote possibility of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming prime minister was not considered in the president’s letter and the subsequent exchanges that took place in the media. On the eve of the election, that is not good for the UNP. If there is any advantage to the UNP, it is in the fact that Sirisena is doing all he can to prevent Mahinda from becoming prime minister. Yet even this can boomerang on them.

In any political party, the underdog hounded by the powers that be gets a sympathy vote. That is the effect that helped Hector Kobbekaduwa in 1982. Many people don’t realize that Kobbekaduwa got a lot more votes in 1982 that Mrs Bandaranaike got at the 1988 presidential elections and the subsequent 1989 parliamentary elections. Kobbekaduwa’s record was broken only by CBK at the 1994 parliamentary election. It is the underdog effect that helped Hirunika Premachandra come out on top at the 2014 WPC elections in the Colombo district and Prasanna Solangaarachchi to win the Kolonnawa PS. This is also the reason why Ranjith Madduma Bandara got the highest number of preference votes in the UNP list in the Moneragala district at the 2010 parliamentary elections after RW came to Moneragala and asked people not to cast any preference votes for him.

So that could be the end result of all this especially in the context where the Bring Mahinda back campaign was organized from the beginning in opposition to Maithripala Sirisena. By sacking Premajayantha and Yapa, President Sirisena has antagonized even the middle of the roaders left in the SLFP and polarized the party between those who are with him versus everybody else. S.B.Dissanayake who was identified with the Sirisena camp did not turn up for the Kandy rally held on Friday obviously for fear of being hooted at. All those who supported Sirisena were in any case fighting a rear guard action just to remain afloat. The events of Aug. 13 and 14 may have just about cooked their geese as far as electoral politics is concerned. The behaviour of the UPFA voters tomorrow will be interesting to watch.

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