Tuesday, 13 February 2018

LG polls: Mahinda makes headway, govt. and its allies in turmoil



By Shamindra Ferdinando

A smiling wartime Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, on Monday (Feb. 12) said that he couldn’t be prime minister under any circumstances as he was a US citizen. Rajapaksa said so in response to a media query whether he would accept prime ministerial position if the SLFP offered it to him. The question was posed as he left the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), after arriving from the US. The tough talking Gajaba Regiment veteran said that those who had exercised their franchise against war-winning twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa had realized their folly and voted overwhelmingly for a return to the Rajapaksa era. The former Defence Secretary asked the media whether they were present there along with the CID (Criminal Investigation Department). Obviously, it was a reference to Health Minister and cabinet spokesman Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s repeated vows to arrest Rajapaksa over alleged misappropriation of funds in a transaction with Ukraine to acquire MiG 27s, immediately after his return from the US.

Rajapaksa, who skipped the local government polls, returned as earlier announced after the massive electoral victory achieved by his older sibling, Mahinda led SLPP at the countrywide local government polls. The destabilizing defeat caused unprecedented turmoil in the ruling coalition with a foolish attempt now being made to blame the UNP component for the crisis. Obviously, both President Sirisena led SLFP, the UNP as well as the civil society grouping had pathetically failed to comprehend post-2015 presidential poll situation.

The youngest recognized political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), secured overwhelmingly the highest number of local bodies, Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils in electoral districts outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Elections were held for 340 out of 341 local authorities. A Court stayed local government poll at Elpitiya.

Rajapaksa won 232 local government bodies. The UNP secured a poor second place with 41 councils whereas the SLFP managed to win just nine councils.

During the local government polls campaign, MP Wimal Weerawansa declared that Feb. 10 victory would pave the way for a campaign leading to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa becoming the president and Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister.

A section of the media, and some interested parties, have sought to shield Sirisena at the expense of Wickremesinghe - an exercise in futility.

Rajapaksa’s unprecedented triumph over Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has jeopardized the high profile Geneva project meant to introduce a new Constitution, subject to a referendum. In fact, Sirisena was chosen to facilitate the controversial constitution making process, spearheaded by Wickremesinghe, after the failure of the 2010 attempt.

Anura Kumara’s JVP, too, suffered a debilitating setback. Although the TNA had secured the most number of seats in the northern local government bodies, except Kayts, it lacks the required strength to form an administration. The TNA, too, now faces challenges, with its political opponents making substantial progress there, in the wake of Northern Province Chief Minister, retired Supreme Court Justice C.V. Wigneswaran, distancing himself from the leadership. EPDP secured Kayts on its own whereas the TNA gained Pooneryn. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s outfit, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), made progress in the north, while the TNA, in spite of overwhelming support from Tamil media, western powers, diaspora and the university community, couldn’t secure outright at least the Jaffna Municipal Council.

The ground reality is that three major political parties, the UNP, JVP and TNA, which backed Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at the Jan. 2015 presidential election had suffered huge setbacks at the Feb. 10 polls, with Sirisena’s SLFP receiving a shocking drubbing - the worst ever performance by a party in power. In fact, Sirisena’s SLFP, and the UNP, as well as the JVP, now face the daunting task of revamping their respective battered outfits ahead of the forthcoming provincial councils, presidential and then the parliamentary polls, within less than two years.

Unholy alliance

It would be pertinent to mention that the UNP-JVP-TNA alliance that came into being, in late 2014, made an abortive bid to bring Rajapaksa’s rule to an end within a year after the LTTE was brought to its knees on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The US run operation pitted war-winning Army chief Sarath Fonseka against Rajapaksa, an unbelievable scenario against the backdrop of the TNA and the US alleging massacre of Tamil civilians during the Vanni offensive (March 2007-May 2009).

In addition to them, Rauf Hakeem’s SLMC and Arumugam Thondaman’s CWC backed Fonseka and Sirisena at the 2010 and the 2015 presidential polls.

Those who had backed Fonseka didn’t even bother to check whether he had the right to exercise franchise at the 2010 presidential poll. When the Rajapaksa administration got to know about Fonseka’s predicament, halfway during voting, state television brazenly exploited the situation to Rajapaksa’s advantage. The then Election Department was powerless to intervene. With so much at stake, the Rajapaksas flouted presidential election laws to their hearts’ content though there was absolutely no basis to accuse them of having manipulated computers (computer jillmart) to steal victory as alleged by the losing side.

Obviously, the UNP lacked a clear understanding of ground realities. In spite of being plagued by treasury bond scams, involving Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), to the idiotic sacking of Sri Lanka’s Defence Attache Brig. Priyankara Fernando over ‘throat slitting gesture’ in the face of British citizens of Sri Lankan Tamil origin protesting outside the Sri Lankan High Commission there, on the eve of the Feb. 10 polls, Deputy Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ajith P. Perera declared that the UNP could secure 275 out of 341 bodies. Perera ended up with egg on his face having even lost his own home town.

Geneva-TNA project in disarray

TNA leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan in Nov, 2017 called for the SLFP’s support for constitutional making process. The veteran politician declared that the country expected genuine SLFPers to throw their weight behind the process. Sampanthan’s efforts to secure SLFP’s support would have to be examined against the backdrop of the SLFP being weakened to such an extent, consequent to the Feb. 10 poll, the yahapalana partner cannot under any circumstances engage in any exercise spurned by the Sinhala community. The crisis has engulfed the SLFP and the situation is most likely to further deteriorate as Rajapaksa flexes his muscles with Sirisena under mounting pressure to reach a deal with the SLPP or face the consequences.

When the writer, last Sunday, sought an explanation from the SLPP/Joint Opposition leadership as regards their role in the ongoing constitution making process in post-poll era, former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris unequivocally declared that a government, much weakened by the Feb. 10 defeat, wouldn’t be in a position to pursue constitutional making process. Prof. Peiris addressed the briefing at the Nelum Mawatha office of former President Rajapaksa, in his current capacity as the Chairman of the SLPP.

By delaying local government polls by over two years and then having those three years after the last presidential poll, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government gave the electorate the perfect opportunity to vote on its performance or more pertinently the lack of it.

Sunday’s briefing was the first called by the SLPP/JO leadership in the wake of Rajapaksa’s triumph over Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s bid to capitalize on the treasury bond scams to make significant progress, at least in rural areas, failed, much to the disappointment of the top Marxist party leadership. But, the biggest loser is Sampanthan whose efforts, both in parliament and outside, to promote a new Constitution, will be stymied by Rajapaksa’s victory. The TNA and its foreign sponsors realise the ground situation. The former LTTE mouthpiece has no option but to engage in some petty campaigns to secure Tamil support. Having stoutly backed the LTTE, since late 2001, the TNA recently joined the UK-based Tamil groups to pressure the UK to recall Brig. Fernando over threatening gestures towards protesting British nationals of Sri Lankan Tamil origin. The Gemunu Watch officer is on record as having said that ‘throat slitting gestures’ were meant to signal the conclusion of the war and the end of Prabhakaran. President Sirisena’s intervention in Brig. Fernando’s issue has made matters worse with some ministers, State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene and Minister Navin Dissanayake publicly defending the officer.

The UK incident certainly caused severe damage to the government on the eve of the Feb. 10 polls. Although, the National Election Commission (NEC) has issued media guidelines in respect of the Feb. 10 polls, the print and electronic media, as well as uncontrollable social media, flayed the government over the UK fiasco. In fact, the government never realized how social media had steadily influenced the electorate though NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya warned mainstream media against promoting or undermining any political party during what he called silent period. With a vast majority of Sri Lankans eligible to vote, having access to internet, political campaigning has taken a new turn. Those who had praised social media for helping oust authoritarian Rajapaksa rule are now at the receiving end.

PM Wickremesinghe towards the end of his campaign declared that 4,000 villages would be provided free wi-fi. Had that happened, politicians would be in real trouble as electorates would have had more opportunity to gather dirt on those elected and appointed.

Social media operatives brutally attacked Sirisena over his inadvertent reference to Sri Lanka gaining independence from the British, 30 years ago. However, lack of knowledge prevented social media from attacking President Sirisena over Ratnapura declaration that UPFA parliamentary group comprised 96 whereas it consisted of 95 and more than 50 of them are with Rajapaksa.

The TNA played into the hands of those exploiting the incident by issuing a joint statement demanding Brig. Fernando’s expulsion. The TNA joined 10 foreign-based Tamil diaspora organizations in demanding that Boris Johnson, MP and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs ‘declare the Sri Lankan military attaché, Brig. Fernando, a "Persona Non Grata" for committing serious offenses under British Law, abusing diplomatic immunity in the UK and committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka..."

The letter has been signed by representatives of the following diaspora organizations, apart from the TNA: British Tamil Conservatives (BTC), British Tamil Forum (BTF), Global Tamil Forum (GTF), International Centre for the Prevention and Prosecution of Genocide (ICPPG), Tamils Coordinating Committee (TCC-UK), Tamils for Labour, Tamil Friends of the Liberal Democrats, Tamil Information Centre (TIC), Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) and Tamil Solidarity.

Let me emphasize that all those LTTE flag carrying protesters are British nationals. It would be interesting to know whether those seeking political asylum there on bogus claims, too, participated in the recent protests against Sri Lanka.

A divided government

The SLPP/JO leaders cannot claim credit for the Feb. 10 victory. Although, the electorate responded, enthusiastically, to the Rajapaksa-led campaign, leading to an unprecedented victory, the crushing defeat, suffered by yahapalana leaders, were largely of their own making. A section of the media, too, contributed by not succumbing to government pressure whereas the well-funded NGO community promoted phony values.

Contrary to assertion, the treasury bond scams, perpetrated by the yahapalana government, in Feb. 2015, and March 2016, are certainly not one of the main reasons for the devastating electoral debacle, though wide reportage of the scandalous transactions, over a period of three years, influenced the electorate.

When jubilant SLPP/JO leaders declared victory, at Battaramulla,  Nelum Mawatha media briefing, even before the releasing of final results, they never bothered at least to refer to how the yahapalana government harassed, humiliated and disgraced the war-winning armed forces after the so-called Jan. 8 revolution. Perhaps, they lacked the courage to do so as they remained tight lipped when Gen. Fonseka was imprisoned. There hadn’t been absolutely any reference to treacherous yahapalana decision to co-sponsor the Geneva Resolution 30/1 meant to set up a hybrid war crimes probe, targeting Sri Lanka. SLPP/JO leaders, obviously not realized how and why the yahapalana government became so unpopular in predominately Sinhala majority districts, within weeks, if not months, after Sirisena’s victory. Having defeated Rajapaksa with heavy Western and Indian support, the government had to follow Geneva dictates. On the basis of still unproved and strongly disputed war crimes allegations, Geneva has prescribed a new Constitution. Now, their plans are in tatters, thanks to the Feb. 10 mauling of yahapalana partners.

The UNP-SLFP administration unceremoniously cancelled Sri Lanka’s annual Victory Day parade, in May 2015, to appease the TNA, foreign nationals of Sri Lankan origins and Western powers despite immense sacrifices made to bring about that historic triumph over the most ruthless terrorist outfit the world has seen, especially by the security forces. The SLPP/JO made no reference to this despicable yahapalana move. Essentially, they felt the overwhelmingly anti-government vote meant the electorate hated those in power for attacks on the Rajapaksas. They conveniently forgot that western powers demanded a new Constitution on the basis of unproved war crimes allegations. There hadn’t been at least mention of officers and men being arrested over such allegations. The writer couldn’t understand how the SLPP/JO failed to at least refer to the arresting of Commodore D.K.P. Dassanayake in respect of wartime disappearances.

Naseby’s move

The government earned the wrath of ordinary Sri Lankans for not exploiting an opportunity presented by Lord Naseby to challenge bogus war crimes allegations on the basis of which western powers formed a political alliance to bring the Rajapaksas’ rule to an end. However, the writer is of the firm belief that the former

President Rajapaksa shouldn’t have sought a third term at the expense of deserving party members. He caused unnecessary upheaval by seeking to extend his term after having enacted the 18 Amendment to the Constitution in the wake of CJ Shirani Bandaranayake’s impeachment.

The yahapalana government never recovered from its members pulling in different directions and pursuing different agendas. In January 2017, JHU member and UNP National List MP, Ven. Atureliye Rathana, who had been deeply involved in the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera-led campaign to oust Rajapaksa in Jan. 2015, switched sides. Ven. Rathana ignored the JHU’s calls to quit the UNP National List seat in case he wanted to serve as an independent member.

In Aug 2017, the UNP sacked Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, over allegedly violating cabinet responsibility. MP Rajapakse remains an elected member of the UNP though he openly attacks the party.

Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake was forced to resign in Aug. 2017 over damaging  evidence that transpired against him in relation to treasury bond scams, perpetrated twice, in 2015 and 2016. Treasury bond scams caused irrevocable damage to both the UNP and the SLFP, though the latter sought the credit for setting up Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCI) into disputed transactions. Interestingly, the UNP brought back Tilak Marapana, PC, the former Attorney General, in place of Karunanyake in Aug. 2017. Marapana resigned in early Nov. 2015 over accusations of conflicts of interest regarding his relationship with controversial Avant Garde enterprise run by retired army Commando Maj. Nissanka Senadhipathi, a close confidante of wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Those who had praised President Sirisena for timely intervention could never explain why PCI was constituted in late Jan. 2017, one month short of two years after the bond scam and nearly a year after the far bigger second heist was staged. They couldn’t also explain or justify the presidential decision to dissolve parliament, in June 2015, to thwart the presentation of a parliamentary watchdog report on the first bond scam.

President Sirisena paid a very heavy price for blaming the treasury bond scam on the UNP. The President’s move resulted in a heavy exchange of ‘fire’ between the two sides, though some ministers downplayed the issue. Cabinet spokesman and Higher Education and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella wrongly asserted that everything would be normal after the Feb. 10 poll.

Yahapalana government also ruined its reputation by going ahead with all projects initiated by the previous government after having repeatedly promised to do away with them.

With nine provincial council polls, presidential poll and parliamentary polls scheduled to take place in 2018 and 2019, yahapalana partners will increasingly come under pressure to reassert political authority, both in and outside parliament.