SPECIAL REPORT : Part 53December 9, 2014, 5:51 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
The UNP-JVP combine, that backed war hero, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, at the January 26, 2010, presidential poll, lacked courage to examine the heavy defeat suffered by its candidate at the hands of incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Instead, the political grouping accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of ‘computer jilmmart’ that enabled him to secure a second term. Rajapaksa secured 6,015,943 votes (57.88%) whereas Fonseka managed to obtain 4,173,185 votes (40.15%).
The then Prime Minister Rajapaksa narrowly won the Nov 17, 2005 presidential poll. Rajapaksa obtained 4,887,152 votes (50.29 %) against UNP presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. The UNPer polled 4,706,366 (48.43%).
Fonseka couldn’t achieve victory, in spite of him having the largest ever political grouping, comprising the UNP, JVP, TNA, as well as the SLMC, pledging to repeal the executive presidency immediately after Rajapaksa’s defeat. In fact, there hadn’t been any other issue at the first poll after the eradication of the LTTE. Essentially, the Opposition leadership declared that abolition of the executive presidency would be the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills.
The military finished off the LTTE, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on May 19, 2009.
Had the electorate took the Opposition’s vow seriously, Rajapaksa wouldn’t have polled a staggering 1.8 mn votes over Fonseka - undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s best army commander.
Obviously, the Opposition fielded Fonseka to deprive Rajapaksa of credit for the LTTE’s annihilation. Fonseka’s defection had been as surprising as Maithripala’s due to their close relationship with the Rajapaksas during Eelam War IV. The UNP and the JVP quite rightly realized that there couldn’t have been a better choice than Fonseka, widely credited for executing the war. The conclusion of the war, as well as the role played by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), in the capture of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s successor, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’, in Malaysia, in early August 2009, brought further accolades for the military. Fonseka faced Rajapaksa at the height of his popularity, though he suffered a stunning defeat.
The Rajapaksas remained confident, regardless of Fonseka having a formidable team, including media specialists. Fonseka commanded the vote bases of four major political parties, namely, the UNP and Marxist JVP, as well as two major political parties representing the Tamil-speaking people - the TNA and Rauf Hakeem’s SLMC. Twice-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, too, supported Fonseka. An influential section of the Colombo-based diplomatic community, and business elite, threw their weight behind the former Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The tough talking General had the admiration of over 200,000 from the army, though some, in the military, despised his approach towards the war as well as politics. Interestingly, Fonseka had the backing of the NGOs, primarily due to the US tacitly approving Fonseka’s candidature.
Fonseka seemed to have an invincible political grouping, whereas Rajapaksa had only the JHU (quit the UPFA to back Maithripala Sirisena) and the breakaway JVP faction, namely the National Freedom Front (NFF) ably led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa. The left parties, as well as MEP though being with Rajapaksa, didn’t make a real impact on the electorate. However, MEP leader, Minister Dinesh Gunawardene had tirelessly campaigned for the President.
Why did Fonseka failed in his political mission? What went wrong at the final phase of his campaign though, at one-time, Opposition strategists asserted Fonseka could overwhelm the Rajapaksas, regardless of them being at the height of their power? Did the Opposition grouping take any remedial measures? And, lastly, did Fonseka realize the shortcomings on the part of the political group backing him before it was too late?
SF receives CBK’s backing
Mrs. Kumaratunga announced her support for Fonseka’s candidature on January 23, 2010, three days before the election. On Kumaratunga’s invitation, Fonseka visited her ancestral home at Horagolla, Nittambuwa, after having paid floral tributes at the Bandaranaike Samadhi. Mrs Kumaratunga’s move was meant to split the SLFP vote at the expense of Rajapaksa. At the Nov, 2005 presidential election campaign, both Mrs Kumaratunga and her brother, the late Anura Bandaranaike, went out of their way to sabotage Rajapaksa’s propaganda campaign. The then Rupavahini Chairman, M. M. Zuhair, PC, would be able to shed light on the Bandaranaikes’ efforts against Rajapaksa. The former PA National List MP earned the wrath of Anura Bandaranaike for ensuring coverage for Rajapaksa (Zuhair, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador in Teheran, recently signed the ‘Common People’s Agenda for Just, Democratic and People-Friendly Governance’, at Vihara Maha Devi park. Zuhair formed a new political outfit-National United Front (NUF) to promote the interests of all communities. Zuhair alleged that the country was facing an unprecedented crisis due to: (1) the total breakdown of the Rule of Law, (2) the erosion of democratic institutions essential for governance, (3) an unprecedented widening of social disparities and social injustices and (4) severe strains on co-existence between different ethnic and religious communities and increasing disharmony and distrust. Zuhair echoed Opposition that the country wanted to see the back of Rajapaksas, who thrive in post-war Sri Lanka at the expense of the national economy.
Campaign goes awry
Fonseka’s declaration that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated 58 Division, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, to execute surrendering LTTE cadres, carrying white flags, on the Vanni east front, during the third week of May, 2009, almost crippled his campaign. The claim, made in an interview with Frederica Jansz, the then editor of The Sunday Leader, caused furore among the vast majority of the electorate. The Sunday Leader exclusive, headlined ‘Gota Ordered Them To Be Shot’, of Dec 13, 2009, caused irreparable damage to Fonseka’s campaign. The celebrated soldier’s decision to take a risk with The Sunday Leader had been surprising, given its constant inimical reportage of the war effort against the LTTE throughout Eelam War IV.
Obviously, that particular statement was meant to appease the Tamil electorate. That controversial declaration made things easy for the TNA, who campaigned for the Opposition candidate in the northern and eastern electoral districts, as well as in Colombo. Fonseka overwhelmingly won all northern and eastern electoral districts, though he suffered heavily in the predominately Sinhala areas. In fact, Fonseka lost his home base, the Ambalangoda electorate, by a staggering majority of 12,297 votes. Rajapaksa polled 33,488 (62.79%) and against 19,191 obtained by Fonseka. The TNA and SLMC delivered Jaffna, Vanni, Batticaloa, Digamadulla (Ampara) and Trincomalee districts. Fonseka also won Nuwara Eliya with a majority of 30,000 votes, due to support extended by the Tamil voters, to increase his tally to six electoral districts. Rajapaksa secured 16 electorates.
Outspoken politician Mano Ganeshan’s Western People’s Front (WPF) played an important role in Fonseka’s campaign, particularly in Colombo. Had the TNA, SLMC and WPF failed, Fonseka would have experienced a far bigger defeat.
Mrs Kumaratunga couldn’t deliver her power base, Attanagalle, nor Gampaha district, to Fonseka. SLFP rebel, Mangala Samaraweera, who, in the run-up to the poll, declared he would take over the SLFP after Rajapaksa’s defeat, failed to ensure Fonseka’s triumph in his home base, Matara. Samaraweera, one-time Foreign Minister of the Rajapaksa government, pledged his support to Wickremesinghe after having quit the UPFA, in 2007, over differences with Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
Desertions by former national cricket captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, as well as one of the most respected UPFA politicians, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, in the run-up to January, 2010 poll, didn’t cause any problems to Rajapaksa.
At the Nov 2005, presidential poll, Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa shared 11 districts each. Wickremesinghe secured Colombo, Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Badulla, Mahanuwara, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Vanni and Puttalam. Rajapaksa won Galle, Anuradhapura, Gampaha, Matara, Polonnaruwa, Kalutara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Kegalle.
The Rajapaksa camp exploited some speeches made by Fonseka to undermine the former army chief’s campaign. The government succeeded in causing fear and dismay among the voters by highlighting Fonseka’s controversial statements threatening those who dared to challenge him. The government strategy largely succeeded in the backdrop of damning The Sunday Leader interview.
Fonseka’s electoral pact with the TNA had been made at the expense of the Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhala Catholic voters.
Another minus factor had been the severe UNP criticism of Fonseka’s conduct during Eelam War IV. The UNP went to the extent of alleging the army chief of running a death squad in the immediate aftermath of The Sunday Leader editor, Lasantha Wickremetunga’s assassination in Colombo. Although the UNP and Fonseka swiftly sank their differences, for political reasons, the UNP accusations remained fresh in the minds of the electorate.
Fonseka suffered a massive setback on the afternoon of January 26, 2010, when the state media declared that Fonseka could not exercise his franchise due to inexcusable failure to register himself as a voter. State run television stations, as well as radio, interrupted their programmes to announce Fonseka’s plight. The state media blitz, launched three hours before the closure of voting, at 4 p.m. stunned the electorate. Many voters, waiting to exercise their franchise in the afternoon, would have skipped the vote, though Fonseka, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former a Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva made a desperate bid, through Sirasa, to thwart the state media operation. The government relished on Fonseka’s predicament.
In hindsight, Fonseka, as well as Opposition strategists, could have avoided an unprecedented crisis if they took the electorate into circumstances and explained the Sinha Regiment soldier’s failure to get on the 2008 electoral register. People would have accepted such an explanation, given Fonseka’s spearheading role in the war. Did Gen. Fonseka brief the UNP or the JVP about not being on the electoral register? Did he seek legal advice as regards his status? Sarath Nanda Silva could have explained the situation if Fonseka sought his advice.
Appearing on Sirasa, Fonseka confirmed that he could not exercise his franchise as he was not on the June, 2008, electoral register. The four-star Gen emphasized that it would not in any way hinder his first bid at a presidential election. Wickremesinghe and Sarath Nanda Silva declared, over Sirasa, that failure to vote was not a legal impediment to Fonseka being next president, if he obtained over 50 per cent of the vote. An irate Fonseka declared that no one dared to question him as regards his voting rights when he served in the army for four decades. Fonseka alleged that the Rajapaksas propagated lies to the effect that he couldn’t be elected as President because they feared defeat. The Election Secretariat, too, confirmed that Fonseka’s inability to his cast vote wouldn’t be an issue in case he polled more than Rajapaksa.
Wickremesinghe later accused the government of sending an SMS claiming that the Fonsekas weren’t registered voters in Sri Lanka.
Fonseka accused some unruly elements, in the army, of trying to disrupt polling in the Jaffna peninsula. The veteran alleged that several artillery rounds had been fired to scare the voters.
On the eve of the presidential poll, the then Elections Commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, requested both camps not to make foolish excuses in case their candidate failed. Urging the media not to manipulate the electoral process, Dissanayake explained the measures in place to ensure a free and fair election. The polls chief addressed the media in the wake of claims and counter claims that Rajapaksa and Fonseka could influence the electoral process.
SF’s relationship with JVP
It would be pertinent to discuss an attempt by the JVP to divide the army over President Rajapaksa’s decision to retire Fonseka, soon after the conclusion of the conflict, during the third week of May, 2009. The JVP made its bid about a week after Fonseka caused himself irreparable damage by accusing Defence Secretary Rajapaksa of issuing extra judicial directive to Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva.
JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, and MP Vijitha Herath alleged that the country, entering into Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), in early, 2007, with the US, had been inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests, as well as that of India. They alleged Defence Secretary Rajapaksa was promoting the US because of his US citizenship. Having attacked the Rajapaksa brothers, over signing of a security agreement with the US, the JVP declared that Fonseka was deprived of an opportunity to continue as the army chief on the advise of the then Manmohan Singh’s administration. Quoting the Pakistani media, the JVP said that India had warned the Rajapaksas of a situation similar to that of Pakistan and Bangladesh had Fonseka remained in command of the army. The JVP also alleged that the US and India hadn’t backed Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism. The JVP made a foolish attempt to defend its position, when the writer queried whether the General Secretary Silva and Propaganda Secretary weren’t aware of India providing Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) to supplement the SLN fleet, comprising US and Israeli vessels, to hunt down floating arsenals belonging to the LTTE. They also couldn’t explain the US providing intelligence required to track down four such floating arsenals, thereby helping Sri Lanka to bring the war to a successful conclusion. JVP spokesmen declined to comment on the LTTE having had a range of weapons of Chinese origin, including assault rifles, mortars, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns (JVP breathes fire at India and America-The Island, Dec 21, 2009).
At the same briefing, the JVP revealed that the party had been in touch with Fonseka, even before he quit his post as Chief of Defence Staff, on Nov 12, 2009. The JVP unwittingly exposed its clandestine relationship with Fonseka when the media was told of the war hero consulting the party over the phone in late Oct-early Nov 2009 from the US. Over the phone consultation took place in the wake of the US seeking to record a statement from Fonseka as regards to the war crime allegations (JVP reveals SF consulted them from US-The Island, Dec 21, 2009) The US made its move weeks ahead of Fonseka’s damning interview published in the Dec 13, 2009, issue of The Sunday Leader, as well a US cable originating from the US diplomatic mission 10 days before the poll. Interestingly, that particular cable categorized Fonseka as a war criminal.
The then US Ambassador, Butenis, in this cable, dated January 15, 2010, dealt with the contentious issue of war crimes accountability. Butenis implicated President Rajapaksa, his brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil, and Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Butenis pointed out "that responsibility for many of the alleged war crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate.