A new political party takes shape



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Sri Lanka is indeed a country like no other as the tourist brochures say. We have a president, a prime minister, a cabinet and a parliament where the PM commands a two thirds majority, but no functioning government. There is no sense of direction and no decisions are being made. An ambitious programme to promulgate a new constitution was inaugurated as the first major task for this year but it seems to have ground to a halt even before it began. At the SLFP executive committee meeting held last week, constitutional reform was one of the main items discussed and President Maithripala Sirisena’s view was that what was needed was not a new constitution but amendments to the present constitution to ‘reduce’ the powers of the executive presidency and for electoral reform.


President Sirisena now avoids the word ‘new’ when talking about constitutional reform and ‘abolition’ when it comes to the executive presidency. This was the line he toed at the SLFP executive committee meeting. What this means in effect is that the constitution making process of the UNP has effectively been derailed by Sirisena. This is not the first time that he did this. The 19th Amendment which purported to reduce the powers of the executive presidency was also sabotaged by him in just the same manner. Of course so long as he persists in this kind of sabotage, the UNP is not going to agree to electoral reform and there we will be stuck. It’s not just in the field of constitution-making that this cold war has intensified. Last week the president told the BBC that he is against foreign judges participating in the judicial mechanism to try our war heroes and soon afterwards the prime minister told Channel 4 that the participation of foreign judges has not been ruled out.


As always, Sirisena was trying to feign that he ‘did not know’ the contents of the UNHRC resolution that his government co-sponsored last March. It is of course a fact that for the first time we have a Head of State who is not proficient in English and he has no way of reading and understanding the UNHRC resolution that his government co-sponsored. However he has advisors who can read and explain to him the contents of what his government agreed to in Geneva and in any case former President Mahinda Rajapaksa highlighted the contents of the UNHRC resolution in Sinhala on several different occasions and that alone should have been enough to educate Sirisena as to what the actual contents of the UNHRC resolution were. The doubt that has entered the minds of many UNP types is whether Sirisena is trying to play the patriotic card as a cover for refusing to abolish the executive presidency.


The suspicion that Sirisena may be playing this card to side step the abolition of the executive presidency has led to speculation on the part of pro-UNP websites whether Gnanasara’s antics in the Homagama magistrate’s court were orchestrated with encouragement by Sirisena. The meeting that Gnanasara had with President Sirisena just days before this incident was widely reported in the press. The patriotic line certainly goes well together with an attempt to retain the executive presidency because many patriots think the executive presidency is a constitutional bulwark against federalism. Indeed it is certainly a cause for suspicion that the president has not said anything about the incident at the Homagama Magistrate’s Courts even though the prime minister has been tearing his hair out and berating the media over its coverage of the incident.


Confirming his sudden change of stance, President Maithripala Sirisena dodged the question of war crimes in an interview with Al Jazeera on Friday claiming that SL has not been accused of war crimes but that there were allegations of certain human rights violations. When confronted with an extract from the Maxwell Paranagama report which said that certain incidents are alleged to have taken place which ‘may’ amount to war crimes, President Sirisena dismissed the Paranagama report as not being an official publication of the Sri Lankan government. President Sirisena has come under fire in recent days from the international busybodies who were among his most ardent admirers for the positions he has been taking lately.


Whether Gnansara has been receiving encouragement from anyone in the government is a moot question. Certainly there is no question about the fact that Gnanasara was one individual outside the yahapalana government who played an indispensable role in polarizing the vote on ethnic and religious lines, making the January 2015 yahapalana victory possible. He is one of the unacknowledged pioneers of the yahapalana government. If Sirisena has developed a soft spot for them, that would not be surprising. Minister Rajitha Senaratne once told this writer that Gnanasara should be given an award for the services he rendered to the yahapalana project. Today, when the government’s fortunes are deteriorating by the day, one way they have of heading off a possible set back at the next election is by maintaining the January 2015 polarization intact and ensuring that the Muslim and particularly the Sinhalese Christian vote does not gravitate back to the Rajapaksas. The way to maintain the status quo is to bring Gnansara back into action and that they have achieved with the Homagama incident.


Gnanasara has kept off the streets since the yahapalana government came into power. He has been holding regular press conferences but he could never regain the traction he had earlier. With the rise of ‘Sinhale’ which appeals to the same constituency as the BBS, there was a need to do something dramatic to claw back some of the ground lost. The Homagama incident has brought Gnansara back into the public domain. Whether this will be enough for him to make a comeback is yet to be seen. In any event, the courage of the Homagama Magistrate should be commended. We can’t have another situation as we had during the last years of the Rajapaksa regime with Buddhist monks running amok on the streets and disrupting day to day life. It is these monks and Gnanasara in particular who was responsible for the destabilization of the Rajapaksa government.


Gnanarara is a living, walking, talking disaster to Buddhism. He was completely unknown to the public until he found in 2012 that engaging in acts of hooliganism in front of TV cameras in the robes of a monk, could get him the publicity he craved. When the whole country was at peace after the Rajapaksa government ended terrorism, suddenly there was this militant organization of Buddhists called the Bodu Bala Sena which was formed after a trip to Norway. In no time the streets were full of Buddhist monks surrounding and stoning Muslim owned business establishments and picking quarrels with Sinhala Christians over such matters as a ‘sandakadapahana’ in a church in the Kalutara district. They did all this while conveying the impression that they were acting with the patronage of the Rajapaksa government. That turned even the few Muslims who voted for the Rajapaksas against them and even more damagingly turned large sections of the Christian vote against the Rajapaksas.


The Bodu Bala Sena was spreading hysteria about Muslim extremists in a situation where the government in power had amply demonstrated that they were quite capable of handling any kind of extremist or terrorist. As it turned out ironically, the only extremist that the Rajapaksas could not handle were Buddhist extremists! The foreign powers who were against the Rajapaksa regime knew that they would not be able to destroy the Sinhalese Buddhists without enlisting the help of Buddhist monks and for this they have found an ideal tool in the form of this thug-monk.


Gnanasara made a scene at the Homagama courts at the trial of Army intelligence personnel who have been arrested over the alleged disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda. Yet the fact is that if not Gnanasara, these Army personnel would not have been in the predicament they are in today. We will of course be watching this trial very carefully to ensure that no injustice befalls these Army intelligence personnel. Gnanasara not only created a situation where the Rajapaksa government was defeated, leading to the arrest of these Army personnel, they have now undermined these war heroes further by deflecting public attention from their trial to an irrelevant side show. It is to be hoped that after the first few days, attention will once again focus on the Army personnel and not on this madman in robes.


 


A demand rising from the bowels of the SLFP


An interesting phenomenon that we have been seeing over the past couple of weeks is the sight of former SLFP local government representatives holding press conferences demanding the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the upcoming local government election. It’s only recently that the local government election was put off for another six months by the president. Yet people are agitating for MR’s leadership as if the elections were just round the corner. Press conferences are being called district by district and the proportion of SLFP local government representatives attending those events to demand MR’s leadership in the latest three instances were, 95 out of the 127 former LG representatives in the Kegalle district, 130 of the 152 LG representatives in the Galle district and 110 of the 127 LG representatives in the Ratnapura district.


Such press conferences were held in the Ampara, Kalutara, Anuradhapura, Gampaha, Matale and Kandy districts as well in the past couple of weeks and the proportion of former UPFA local government representatives demanding Mahinda’s leadership was roughly similar. President Maithripala Sirisena postponed the LG elections before this round of press conferences started. If he was jittery then about the outcome of the local government elections, the opinions that were voiced at these press conferences would have only increased his feeling of insecurity. Most of the former UPFA local government representatives were saying that they will contest only under a political formation led by Mahinda Rajapaksa whatever it is. Some said that their constituents would not vote for an SLFP led by Maithripala Sirisena even if Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was to appeal to voters to do so.


The local government representatives of any party are the people’s representatives who are closest to the people. They get voted into office by the people of a restricted area unlike parliamentarians and provincial councilors who obtain votes from the whole district. As such the opinions of local government representatives do reflect the thinking of the constituents of that party at the grassroots level. The fact that so many of them have openly defied their party leader should be an eye-opener to Sirisena. This open defiance is being displayed in a situation where there is no sign of a change of government anywhere in sight. Obviously, Sirisena postponed the elections for good reason. But whether this postponement will have the desired result is debatable. With each passing day, the situation in the country deteriorates, and the postponement of an election means that it will be held when the conditions are even less favourable than at present.


Furthermore, it is almost inevitable that a part of what used to be the UPFA will field a separate list at the next local government elections, even if Mahinda Rajapaksa throws his weight behind the Sirisena led SLFP. Udaya Gammampila and Wimal Weerawansa have gone on record as having said that they will not be contesting under any formation led by Maithripala Sirisena. The parties led by D.E.W.Gunasekera, Tissa Vitarana, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Dinesh Gunawardene too would not be able to contest as partners of the SLFP because the SLFP is in partnership with the UNP. If even one constituent party of the UPFA fields a separate list, the SLFP protest vote against Sirisena will gravitate towards that list. If Sirisena’s worst nightmare is leading the SLFP into defeat at the local government elections, that may come to pass no matter what he does to avoid it. Unless Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the SLFP when the next local government election comes along, nothing can prevent a good part of the former UPFA from fielding a separate list and thereby siphoning off SLFP votes.


The Sirisena faction will not be able to rally the SLFP vote by saying that to vote outside the SLFP would be to ensure the victory of the UNP because the Sirisena faction of the SLFP is already in a partnership with the UNP, and Sirisena himself was elected president largely on UNP votes. It does not seem as if the public and especially the SLFP voters have forgotten these facts. Though there has been much hype about the formation of a separate political party to fight the local government elections, there is hardly any need to form a new party. The battle lines are already drawn as the government made up of the UNP and the Sirisena faction of the SLFP on the one hand and the Joint Opposition on the other.


At the upcoming local government elections, the Joint Opposition can field candidates under the name of one of its constituent parties the way the TNA does. The TNA functions as an alliance of several political parties but at elections they field candidates under the ITAK banner. This arrangement has worked well for the TNA for years and there is no reason why a similar arrangement will not work for the Joint Opposition. So this talk about a ‘new’ political party and a ‘new’ symbol is just a whole lot of fluff just to fill the news broadcasts and the front pages. Certainly Sirisena’s worst fears will be realized if Mahinda Rajapaksa openly gives leadership to the fielding of a separate list at the next LG elections. But MR’s leadership is not really necessary for the Joint Opposition to be able to floor the SLFP. Any list fielded by the Joint Opposition with or without the endorsement of MR, will take away enough votes away from the SLFP to ensure a resounding defeat for the latter.


The cry that to defeat the SLFP would be to ensure the victory of the UNP will mean nothing to most of the parties in the Joint Opposition, because they have been snubbed, sidelined and even insulted by Sirisena, and they will need to contest the election separately for their own political survival. What happens to the SLFP is probably the last thing on their minds at the moment. The LSSP, CP and MEP have been long standing partners of the SLFP and the way they were denied the national list slots that they were entitled to would not have endeared the SLFP to the rank and file members of those parties. And in any case, the argument that the UNP will win if the SLFP is defeated sounds hollow in the context where the Sirisena faction of the SLFP is serving in a government together with the UNP.


Repression stepped up against the Rajapaksas


As the government stumbled towards an unprecedented economic and political crisis there was a palpable stepping up of repression against the Rajapaksas. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Media Secretary Rohan Welivita was questioned and then arrested by the FCID yesterday as this column was being written. He had been questioned on and off over the past one year. The former president’s son Yoshitha was also questioned and arrested by the FCID on the same day. The FCID works directly under a cabinet sub-committee headed by the prime minister. These arrests follow close upon the PM’s broadside against sections of the media on Thursday where he named certain journalists attached to Derana TV, and our sister paper the Divaina. When such individuals are taken in for questioning by the FCID so soon after the PM’s outburst against the media by a police unit reporting directly to the PM, one begins to wonder whether there isn’t some link between this and the plans of CSN to give up being a sports channel and to become a news channel. In fact the very first news broadcast by CSN was supposed to take place on 1 February.


While Rohan Welivita functioned as the Media Secretary to MR, his day job was in the broadcasting industry. One of the hats he wore was as the head of the CSN channel. If CSN became an ordinary news channel, it would have become a powerful voice against the government. It is no secret that these days, the highest ratings are obtained by news channels that give publicity to the former president. CSN had the advantage of being thought rightly or wrongly, to be actually owned by the Rajapaksas which means that its news broadcasts would have attracted a significant viewership. Furthermore with MR’s Media Secretary being the head of the institution, MR would have obviously got a lot of exposure over CSN. This was the only channel that had live broadcasts of the pro-MR rallies held last year. The sequence of the events of the past few days seems to point in no uncertain terms to the arrest of Welivita being an attempt to cripple CSN as they were about to enter the news broadcasting scene.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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