Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Civil society intervention underscores turmoil

Selection of UNP 2019 prez poll candidate


Speaker Karu Jayasuriya paying floral tribute at the statue of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha near the parliament recently (pics courtesy Speaker’s Office)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The National Movement of Social Justice (NMSJ)-led civil society grouping is of the view that UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should pave the way for Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to contest the 2019 presidential election.

 Having backed Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature at the January 2015 presidential election, the civil society grouping threw its weight behind Speaker Jayasuriya. The move should be examined against the backdrop of the Speaker’s role in thwarting the high profile Sirisena-Rajapaksa bid in Oct 2018 to oust the UNP. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo couldn’t sustain the operation launched on Oct 26, 2018.

Widely dubbed the Oct 2018 constitutional coup, the project collapsed in 52 days. Speaker Jayasuriya emerged stronger, following his bruising battle with President Sirisena.

 Had the constitutional coup succeeded, the 2019 presidential election would have been held under a very much different environment.

 In addition to the NMSJ, Purawesi Balaya played an important role in the counter-attack directed against President Sirisena. The civil society held President Sirisena responsible for the bid to change a government, elected for a five-year period, at the last parliamentary poll in August 2015. Speaker Jayasuriya also received the praise of a section of the international community for his strong stand against the Sirisena-Rajapaksa project.

Speaker Jayasuriya’s emergence as a political figure to be reckoned with seems to have given the civil society an opportunity to promote the UNPer as the National Democratic Front (NDF) presidential candidate. The civil society has ignored UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s bid to secure the NDF nomination. In spite of Premadasa launching a high profile campaign with three large rallies so far in Badulla, Matara and Kurunegala to pressure Premier Wickremesinghe, the civil society is of the opinion Speaker Jayasuriya stands a much better chance against Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

NMSJ pledges support to Karu J

 On September 06, 2019, the NMSJ delegation, led by its leader Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, requested Speaker Jayasuriya to contest the 2019 presidential poll. The Speaker’s Office confirmed the unprecedented meeting that took place in parliament. The Speaker accepted the challenge on the basis of all concerned reaching a consensus on his candidature. The UNPer was flanked by academic Wijesuriya and LSSP stalwart and one of the chief architects of the much derided 19th Amendment to the Constitution Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, a National List member of the UNP.

The Sinhala academic took over the NMSJ after the death of its founder Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera in Nov 2015.

The civil society move quite surprised some, including Premier Wickremesinghe’s camp. The civil society always worked closely with UNP leader Wickremesinghe, though there were some issues. However, the civil society decision made it quite clear that Wickremesinghe lost a key support base at a critical time of his lackluster political career.

The NMSJ-led grouping assured Speaker Jayasuriya that a person of his calibre is required to contest the next presidential election. Asserting that political and economic stability could be re-established by his election as the next president, the civil society grouping declared that he could secure the support of minorities, in addition to approximately three million floating voters. Underscoring the importance of experienced and sensible leadership, the civil society warned of fresh threat to democracy. The civil society also expressed serious concerns over the process of hasty decisions and as to how such decisions could undermine democracy.

The civil society described Speaker Jayasuriya as the person to lead the country, without pursuing corrupt political agendas and was the choice of the entire civil society grouping. Speaker Jayasuriya, while recollecting requests received from various parties, including religious leaders, for him to contest the presidential poll, ruled out him joining the power struggle.

The NMSJ followed its meeting, with Speaker Jayasuriya, by two widely covered media briefings, on Sept 10 and Sept 14, at its Rajagiriya Office, where a group of monks, affiliated to the group, declared its support for Speaker Jayasuriya, on Sept 10. The group included chief incumbent of Tantirimale Raja Maha Viharaya and chief prelate of the North Central Province Ven Tantirimale Chandrarathana. On Sept, 14, a group of academics declared that a countrywide survey conducted by a Peradeniya University team, revealed Speaker Jayasuriya was the strongest of the candidates likely to contest the 2019 presidential poll.  On the basis of the opinion poll, the academics, led by former Peradeniya University Professor Dr. Sisira Pinnawela, placed Speaker Jayasuriya above Sajith Premadasa. But, the most significant claim was that Speaker Jayasuriya can easily defeat SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A survey claims Karu J

can beat Gotabaya

 Senior Fulbright Fellow and former faculty member of the Department of Sociology, at Peradeniya University, Dr. Sisira Pinnawala, said that his research contained a sample size of 1,675 voters, with the entire vote base divided into 10 geographical sub-groups.

Interestingly, UNP leader Wickremesinghe hasn’t been among the four candidates examined by voters. Dr. Pinnawela based his report on voters’ reaction to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya. The study, according to the report, was meant to test the popularity of the four candidates, though the UNP and NDF were yet to name its candidates. Although Prof. Pinnawela briefed the media, on Sept 10, it was available to the writer on August 19.

Jayasuriya led in seven out of the 10 sub-groups, polled in Dr. Pinnawala’s research.  Premadasa polled well in four out of 10 sub-groups.

The survey was conducted, using telephone interviews, with voters in Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, and Christian majority areas.

The survey was based on key assumptions: (a) that the SLFP will not field a candidate (b) that the UNP will not be divided over its candidate and back a single candidate, and (c) that the minority parties, and especially the Tamil National Alliance, will not field a candidate.

The survey, according to Dr. Pinnawela, proved that Sajith Premadasa cannot defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa, under any circumstances, whereas Karu Jayasuriya can certainly defeat the wartime Defence Secretary. In a contest between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Karu Jayasuriya, in 10 sub group areas, Karu Jayasuriya leads in seven sectors. In a contest between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, the latter leads in four areas though the percentage of voters the UNP Deputy Leader is likely to receive definitely much lower than Karu Jayasuriya. Dr. Pinnawela asserted that Sajith Premadasa is likely to lose to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as he didn’t get the attention received by Gotabaya Rajapaksa from professionals.

Dr. Pinnawela also declared that Karu Jayasuriya could attract the Sinhala Buddhist vote, thereby strongly challenging Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s perceived superiority among the Sinhala Buddhist vote. Many an eyebrow was raised over Dr. Pinnawela’s assertion that Karu Jayasuriya enjoyed, what he called Sinhala Buddhist image, than Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

The survey suggested that JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake can cause similar damage to the UNP and SLPP candidates, even if the SLFP joined the SLPP, as all its voters are not likely to be exercised in support of the latter and finally Premadasa’s nomination can benefit the JVP leader.

A forgotten defeat

 Dr. Pinnawela’s findings are obviously contrary to the results of the last Local Government polls conducted in Feb 2018. The SLPP inflicted massive defeat on the UNP and the SLFP at that poll. The UNP ended up being the first political party to lose Local Government polls while being in power.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa always considered the possibility of Speaker Jayasuriya being his opponent. Gotabaya Rajapaksa discussed the possibility months before the SLPP, after much haggling, announced the war veteran as its candidate. Rajapaksa, on March 20, told a gathering at Gauthama Viharaya, Narahenpita, that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was seeking to be UNP candidate, at the 2019 presidential election.

A smiling Rajapaksa, told Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake, present on that occasion that the latter’s father-in-law was a presidential contender.

Rajapaksa said so in response to Navin Dissanayake, who, in his address called Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the future Opposition presidential candidate. Minister Dissanayake emphasized the pivotal importance of suitable persons given appropriate positions.

Navin Dissanayake recalled the assassination of his father, Gamini, in Oct 1994, at the age of 52, at a UNP rally at Thotalanga. Navin Dissanayake said that today (March 20) was his 77 birth anniversary.

Dissanayake said that Rajapaksa was much older than his father when coming forward as a presidential candidate.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa survived an LTTE suicide attack, on Dec 01, 2006, in Colombo. Had the LTTE succeeded in assassinating Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the then Army Chief Lt. Sarath Fonseka on April 25, 2006, Sri Lanka couldn’t have eliminated the LTTE.

Minister Dissanayake said that they didn’t know what the future held for them.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked Dissanayake for introducing him as the future presidential candidate.

Speaker Jayasuriya has always been a key presidential contender since he scored heavily during the failed constitutional coup. Although, the Joint Opposition and the SLPP accused Speaker Jayasuriya of acting contrary to the Standing Orders, thereby jeopardized parliamentary proceedings, the UNPer attracted the attention of those who sought a change of UNP leadership though they were not ready to accept a Premadasa take-over.

At the onset of the battle for UNP presidential nomination, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka were in the running. In addition Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne too indicated an interest in contesting the 2019 presidential election. Minister Senaratne’s media unit quoted the General Secretary of Sihala Ravaya, Ven. Magalkande Sudantha as having told an event organized by Rajitha Senaratne foundation in Kalutara on July 21, 2019 that the time was ripe for a person from the Kalutara district to become the President. Ven. Sudantha stressed the need to fill what he called a national leadership vacuum. However, UNP leader Wickremesinghe and his Deputy Premadasa emerged the two major contenders, about three weeks ago, before the civil society made its well calculated move. Obviously, the NMSJ-led effort is meant to promote Speaker Jayasuriya at the expense of both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. Some speculate in case Speaker Jayasuriya received presidential nomination, the JVP may quit the contest and declare its support for Speaker Jayasuriya. An authoritative civil society leader confirmed the possibility when the writer raised the possibility of the JVP leader quitting the contest.

Karu J’s politics

 Speaker Jayasuriya has never been accused of waste, corruption or irregularities though he cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the rapid deterioration of parliament, since he received appointment as the Speaker, following the last parliamentary election, in August 2015. Speaker Jayasuriya certainly owed an explanation as to why the debate on the presidential bond scams was never held. Over the past decade, the parliament has deteriorated to such an extent that lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse PC, in response to a query raised by the writer recently, called the parliament the most corrupt institution in the country. In fact, Premier Wickremesinghe wouldn’t have been in such a nasty political mess if not for the treasury bond scams, perpetrated by Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran, in Feb 2015 and March 2016. The Bonds scams ruined the relationship between the UNP and President Sirisena. Unfortunately, the civil society largely remained silent on the issue. Had they responded swiftly and decisively, in the wake of the 2015 scam, the second could have been averted. But, the cocky top UNP leadership perpetrated the second scam seven months, after the last general election. The first scam was carried out during President Sirisena’s much touted 100-day programme.

It would be pertinent to mention that Karu Jayasuriya returned to the UNP in early Dec 2008, after having served President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet, along with several other senior UNPers. Jayasuriya’s group was called the UNP Democratic Group. The Jayasuriya-led group backed President Rajapaksa’s war effort, before Jayasuriya again switched allegiance to UNP leader Wickremesinghe. Those who joined the Rajapaksa government, three years before, did not come back with Jayasuriya. Why did Jayasuriya abandon the Rajapaksa administration as it was making rapid progress on the Vanni front?

At a media briefing, given by the then UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, on Dec 10, 2008 at Sirikotha, the writer sought an explanation from him as to why he returned to the UNP at a time the Rajapaksa war effort was making significant progress. Flanked by UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and UNP Assistant Leader Rukman Senanayake, Jayasuriya contradicted the often repeated UNP assertions that the war effort suffered severe setbacks due to political interference. Jayasuriya didn’t mince his words when he declared the military was on the verge of defeating the LTTE. The Army brought the LTTE administrative capital on January 02, 2009 under government control. Jayasuriya declared that the war was coming to a rapid end (New UNP deputy leader says forces on the verge of finishing off Tigers with strap line...LTTE hold on Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu rapidly shrinking - The Island Dec 11, 2008).

Karu Jayasuriya’s return thwarted an attempt to force a secret vote to elect Deputy Leader and Assistant Leader at a time the UNP was in turmoil. Among those who vied for post of Deputy Leader were Sajith Premadasa, S.B. Dissanayake and Vajira Abeywardena (Karu’s re-appointment violated guidelines on top posts – The Island Dec 12, 2008).

UNP leader Wickremesinghe requested the remaining UNPers in the Rajapaksa government to come back. Jayasuriya assured that he was making an effort to bring back members of the UNP Democratic Group. Jayasuriya was among 17 lawmakers who defected to the Rajapaksa government. The UNP deputy leader failed in his efforts. The then UNP MP lawmaker Dayasiri Jayasekera opposed Jayasuriya et al being given top posts as they not only deserted the party but publicly vilified it. Today, MP Jayasekera is among the few lawmakers still loyal to President and SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena.

In the wake of the NMSJ project, UNP leader Wickremesinghe met a group of civil society members at Temple Trees. The group led by Ven Dambara Amila met the UNP leader on Sunday (15). The beleaguered UNP leader stressed that the UNP required the backing of friendly parties to win the presidential poll. Therefore, those who expected to contest should submit their proposals as to how to win the election meant to ensure the abolition of the executive presidency and resolution of the national problem. Ven. Amila was quoted, by a source close to Premier Wickremesinghe, as having said that whoever won the election on behalf of the NDF, the leadership of the coalition and the next government should be under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Health sector trade union activist Saman Ratnapriya was quoted as having said the proposed coalition should be built on a fresh move to abolish the executive presidency within a short span of time after the presidential poll. Among those present were Dr. Jehan Perera, Dr. Wickremabahu Karunaratne, Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara, Sunil de Silva, Raja Uswetakeiyawa and Priyadarshani Ariyaratne.

Obviously, those who met Premier Wickremesinghe are not with the NMSJ-led project to declare Speaker Jayasuriya as the presidential candidate.

The following response was received from Dr. Perera when the writer sought a comment as regards the Temple Trees meeting: "Civil society members were invited by the Prime Minister for a discussion. As a civil society member I am happy to engage with political leaders with my colleagues so that we can put our point of view across to them.

"At the meeting, the civil society members recommended that power sharing, bribery and corruption, hate speech and economic justice should be priority areas in the UNPs party manifesto. I appreciated the PM’s speech in Jaffna where he committed to the devolution of power.

"The PM explained that the presidential candidate should be able to get the votes of other parties in addition to UNP votes. This corresponded to the civil society proposals."

Premier Wickremesinghe was explicit in his thinking as to how those seeking presidential nomination would be picked. The Sept 15 Temple Trees gathering was told that their candidate would be picked by the decision making Working Committee.

There had been another meeting with several prominent civil society members and Premier Wickremesinghe, also on the same day. The group included Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya, Gamini Viyangoda, Lal Wijenayake and K.W. Janaranjana, editor of the political weekly Annidda.

Can the UNP continue to delay taking a decision on its candidate at the third presidential poll since the successful conclusion of the war against the LTTE?

Sajith Premadasa registered his protest recently by requesting party leader Wickremesinghe to name the presidential candidate without further delay.