Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A strategic political miscalculation (II)



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha (UPFA National List MP) and newly appointed Higher Education Minister, reacted sharply to the writer’s assertion that the Socialist Alliance (SA), comprising the CP (DEW Gunasekera), LSSP (Prof. Tissa Vitharana) and the Democratic Left Front (DLF) of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, had strongly opposed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to call a snap presidential election, two years ahead of scheduled date, whereas other UPFA constituents were silent.

Last week’s piece ‘A strategic political miscalculation’, in the Midweek section of ‘The Island’ of January 14th, 2015, comprehensively dealt with SA’s attempt, in late last year, to discourage the former SLFP leader from taking an unprecedented risk.

Prof. Wijesinha, in his capacity as the leader of the Liberal Party, on Oct. 9, 2014, requested the former President not to go for an early national level polls. Prof. Wijesinha’s letter followed the General Secretary, of the CP, and the then senior minister, DEW Gunasekera, on behalf of the SA, opposing the then President’s hasty decision. The veteran politician revealed the SA leadership’s hush-hush talks with the former President meant to avert, what he called, a highly risky adventure (DEW makes strong case against snap national poll-The Island, Oct 4, 2014).

The SA issued a special statement on Oct 7, 2014, opposing the former president’s plan. Declaring that there was absolutely no need for an early presidential election, the SA alleged that the SLFP had been preparing for such an election. Though the ruling coalition, or the SLFP-led government, was yet to officially decide on it. The SA reminded the former president, that the SLFP-led coalition had a two-thirds majority in parliament and, in accordance with the Constitution, national level elections, namely presidential and parliamentary, weren’t scheduled till 2016.

The government could present two budgets before the due dates for presidential and parliamentary polls, the SA said, while emphasizing the government could introduce constitutional and electoral reforms during that period.

Having reminded that the remaining period should be used to address social and economic issues, the SA also urged the SLFP to inquire into ground realities before taking any hasty decision.

Prof. Wijesinha alleged that the SLFP ignored the concerns expressed by the Liberal Party in its letter dated Oct 9, though it had been acknowledged by the then Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga. "Only parties which have national ideological bases came to the conclusion that there shouldn’t be national level poll under any circumstances,"Minister Wijesinha said. Interestingly, Lalith Weeratunga has acknowledged the Liberal Party letter, on Oct. 29, 2014. Imagine taking three weeks to respond to a such an important letter. In between Prof. Wijesinha’s letter and Weeratunga’s acknowledgment, Kamal Nissanka, Secretary General, Liberal Party, strongly opposed an early presidential poll.

Prof. Wijesinha asserted that Rajapaksa wouldn’t have had to experience the ignominy of a humiliating defeat if he had only examined ground realities before calling for a national level election ahead of schedule.

The following is the full text of Prof. Wijesinha’s missive, addressed to President Rajapaksa: "At the last meeting (held on Oct 5, 2014) of the Executive Committee of the Liberal Party, it was decided, as requested by them, to support the request of the Left Parties that national elections not be held in the short term. We, too, feel that it would be better instead to embark on the reforms that have been pledged in Your Excellency’s manifesto as well as in other contexts.

These reforms should be based on the vision Your Excellency used to express regarding bringing government closer to the people, and ensuring greater responsiveness and accountability in respect of local needs. The need for devolution is something the Liberal Party has always stressed, but we have also been conscious of the need for national security. However, as we have often pointed out, giving greater responsibility to the people, and to local communities, for matters that affect them closely, on the principle of subsidiarity, is quite feasible whilst also ensuring the security of the nation.

"But devolution must also be accompanied by empowerment. So we also need to move towards developing a technologically competent younger generation, and pay much greater attention than now to maximizing human resources.

"In this regard Bills that need to be expedited include the following, which are pledged or planned

a) A new Universities Act that provides meaningful training that promotes employability free to those who need it, whilst facilitating the establishment of other centres of excellence through private/ public partnerships

b) A new Education Act that ensures holistic education, with greater stress of skills and competencies that are developed through extra-curricular activities, such as Sports and Social Service and Cultural Activities

c) A new Local Government Act that increases the power of local authorities in specific fields whilst also entrenching consultation mechanisms with provision for feedback

d) An Act to change the Electoral system so as to enhance the accountability to specific electorates of Members of Parliament, whilst also preserving proportional representation without the distortions of the current system

We must also revise Administrative and Financial Regulations, as has been agreed which is essential in response to strictures made by the Committee on Public Enterprises on which I have had the honour to serve. Such Regulations should establish consultation mechanisms such as the Jana Sabhas you mentioned, but these must be vehicles for the people, not tools for politicians. The initial steps taken by the Ministry of Public Administration in this regard should be strengthened.

It would also help to fast forward action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, as well as on the LLRC Recommendations, all of which have been approved by Cabinet. I believe the position of the government would also be immeasurably improved if the National Policy on Reconciliation were adopted.

Without such measures the decline in popularity, that we have recently witnessed, will continue. A hasty election will be seen as evidence of panic, and this can be easily exploited. On the other hand, unless there is evidence of change, the people will have no reason to continue to vote for this government, since the economics and social benefits of peace that were anticipated are no longer evident.

It would be tragic if the tremendous achievement of 2009 were to be squandered. Though it may be claimed that the Liberal Party is not in touch with electoral reality, it must also be recognized that our analysis of political developments, based on wide knowledge and established principles, have generally been accurate. Given our initial contribution to the international dimensions of the victories of 2009, we too have reason to argue for measures that will allow us to build positively on that foundation, rather than stand back and see it destroyed."

Having failed to convince the SLFP leadership to drop its controversial plan, Prof. Wijesinha switched his allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena. Regardless of their apprehension, the left parties threw their weight behind president Rajapaksa’s candidature.

In spite of his decision to quit the then government and join Maithripala Sirisena, Prof. Wijesinha strongly defended the Sri Lankan military, in a live Al Jazeera programme. The Sri Lankan military had fought a relatively clean war against the LTTE, when compared with others engaged in such operations, Prof. Wijesinha told a special live Al-Jazeera programme ‘inside story: clinging to power in Sri Lanka’, anchored by Jane Dutton, in late Nov last year.

Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesman Suren Surendiran alleged that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front in early 2009.

The one-time head of the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat asserted that President Rajapaksa earned the appreciation of the vast majority of the people for eradicating LTTE terrorism.

For some strange reason, the former government pathetically failed to realizt what was happening on the ground. Instead of appreciating Prof. Wijesinha’s defence, a ridiculous attempt was made by UPFA propagandists to portray him in bad light. Perhaps, the government was reacting angrily to Prof. Wijesinha’s argument that the accountability issues, raised by Geneva, couldn’t be resolved as President Rajapaksa remained in power, hence a regime change was nothing but a necessity. Opposition heavyweight Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, too, said the same several days later. Rajapakshe, the Justice Minister in the new government, didn’t mince his words when he declared that unless the electorate removed Maninda Rajapakshe, the country could be targeted by punitive international sanctions.

The only other political party to make a serious effort to change the course of the Rajapaksa administration was the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Unfortunately, the previous government, instead of reacting positively to the JHU’s proposals, made a despicable bid to split the party. Although the UPFA succeeded in engineering Western Provincial Council member Udaya Gammanpila’s defection, it couldn’t sabotage the JHU operation. Had the former President gave up some dictatorial features, in the executive presidential system, and agreed to retain only the defence portfolio, the SLFP could reached an understanding with the JHU. Had that happened, an early election, to secure a fresh mandate, could have been averted. But the former President had been adamant. The then SLFP National Organizer and powerful Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa pushed for a snap presidential poll, though the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, opposed the move. But the so called royal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who had immensely benefited from the previous government, predicted a comfortable victory for Rajapaksa. In fact, he went onto declare that the former President could go for 100 presidential terms, though he changed his tune within 24 hours after the conclusion of the January 8, 2015, poll.

Communist Party veteran, DEW Gunasekera, had been one of the strongest critics of the executive presidency. Although, he solidly backed Rajapaksa’s candidature, he did his utmost to avert a snap presidential poll. In fact, Gunasekera had received an assurance, from the then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, during the middle of last year, that he, too, strongly opposed the former President’s move. But, there hadn’t been any consultation with constituents, though, from time of time, the former leader sought the opinion of others. Had the SLFP bothered to examine what was happening, both in and outside parliament, it would have known that a major coalition was in the making. DEW Gunasekera revealed left parties’ readiness to work closely, even with the UNP, to either repeal executive presidency or do away with, what he called, dictatorial features in the system through a constitutional amendment. The understanding between the UNP and left parties had been compatible with the JHU’s proposals. DEW Gunasekera received an assurance from the UNP National Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, that his party would back an urgent constitutional amendment to make the required changes. Although the UNP had promised to do away with the presidency, after winning the presidential election, the party adopted the JHU’s proposal that the presidency could be retained with defence portfolio under the president (UNP, UPFA red allies agree on amending Constitution with strap line Abolishing executive presidency or reducing its powers-The Island July 16, 2014).

UPFA constituent, the National Freedom Front (NFF) which threatened in May, last year, to quit the government, unless the SLFP met its demands, including far reaching constitutional reforms, meekly reached an understanding with former President Rajapaksa. Interestingly, Maithripala Sirisena had been one of the signatories to the agreement, between the SLFP and the NFF. The SLFP had absolutely no intention of honoring the agreement. But the NFF pretended as if its push had been successful. The NFF turned a blind eye to the former government involving foreign experts in domestic war crimes/accountability issues investigative process soon after the finalization of its agreement with the SLFP.

But the JHU pressed ahead with its campaign. Obviously, the SLFP leadership had been blind to the rapid deterioration of its popularity, in the wake of the Opposition campaign. Those opposed to the executive presidency convinced the electorate that either repealing of the presidential system or taking away its dictatorial features would be the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills. The middle class and upper middle class accepted that position. The minorities too endorsed that position and the voting pattern at the recently concluded presidential poll reflected that.

While preparing for elections, the former government continued to deny its plan. On Oct 9, 2014, the day, Liberal Party leader, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, sent a letter urging the former president not to call for early national level poll, the then Treasury Chief, Dr. P. B. Jayasundera, assured the business community that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would present a development oriented budget for 2015, though a section of the media speculated that the government was planning to unveil a basket of goodies with an eye on the forthcoming national election.

Dr. Jayasundera was responding to reports that he was preparing a budget to facilitate the incumbent president’s re-election campaign.

President Rajapaksa was among those in the audience. The corporate sector as well as many foreign delegates attended a conclave in Colombo.

Addressing the ‘Capital Market Conference’, at the Cinnamon Lakeside, Dr. Jayasundera stressed that budget 2015 would be in line with the government strategy to strengthen the economy and infrastructure development.

The event was organized by the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE), in collaboration with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Jayasundera said: "Although there was a reference made in last weekend media that the 2015 Budget will be a bag full of election goodies, I can assure you that it will be a development oriented budget that is in line with the direction so set, with significant emphasis on the knowledge economy concept with which the country gained momentum."

Having ruled out ‘election goodies’, Dr. Jayasundera discussed a range of issues under the theme, ‘Take off to a High Altitude: The Transformation of the Economic Landscape in Sri Lanka’

The then Disaster Management Minister. Mahinda Amaraweera, confidently predicted a snap presidential poll in May last year. The Hambantota district MP told the writer the president would seek a fresh mandate. The outspoken politician challenged the Opposition to find a suitable presidential candidate. Amaraweera would never have thought that the SLFP’s General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, would take up the challenge (Be ready to face presidential poll-Minister tells Opp-The Island, May 14, 2014). One couldn’t find fault with Amaraweera for not being able to see Maithripala Sirisena’s challenge when royal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, couldn’t either, in spite of being handsomely rewarded by the previous government. Had Abeygunawardena read views, expressed by Messrs DEW Gunasekera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Prof. Wijesinha, he would have realized the ground realities and advised the former president, accordingly.