Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Ex-lawmakers dominate the list of candidates, real battle between ‘Lotus bud’ and ‘Swan’

2019 prez poll to cost taxpayer Rs 5 bn


Kamal Bogoda captured leading candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake outside the Election Commission on Monday

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time JVP MP Anuruddha Polgampola is among those in the 2019 presidential fray - the third since the end of the war, in May 2009. Polgampola contested the last presidential election, in August 2015. The former JVPer polled 4,260 votes (0.04 % of the total valid votes) and was placed 13th out of 19 contestants. Polgampola is among 35 candidates in the fray at the Nov. 16 presidential poll, expected to cost the taxpayer a staggering Rs 5,000 mn.

 Of the 41 presidential hopefuls, who paid deposits, six opted out of the contest. The six included UPFA lawmakers, Chamal Rajapaksa and Kumara Welgama.

 The SLFP leadership ended up with egg on face unable to take a decision on its stand, even after the conclusion of nominations. 

Let me examine Polgampola’s candidature against the backdrop of anti-corruption lawyer Nagananda Kodituwakku, who exposed the true extent of the luxury vehicle scam, perpetrated by lawmakers, being denied an opportunity to contest the presidential poll. Kodituwakku exposed a series of high profile corrupt practices, involving both the public and the private sector, much to the discomfort of those in influential places. Kodituwakku is on record as having said that a section of the civil society sabotaged his presidential bid.

 Former Kegalle District JVP MP Polgampola was compelled to resign, in Sept, 2008, for allegedly helping a person enter Japan, posing as his assistant. Polgampola was appointed Chairman of the State Timber Corporation (STC) by President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday May 4, 2018. 

The appointment was made within 24 hours after STC Chairman Piyasena Dissanayake was arrested, along with Dr. T.H.K. Mahanama, Chief of Staff of President Maithripala Sirisena, for allegedly accepting Rs 20 mn bribe from an Indian national.

 The JVP Central Committee called for Polgampola’s resignation soon after the revelation that Japanese Immigration and Emigration authorities had questioned the MP at the Narita International Airport.

 The JVP identified the person who received Polgampola’s help to enter Japan, illegally, as Kodituwakku Arachchige Rohan.

 Japan deported the youth in late August, 2008.

 The appointment received by Polgampola reflected the crisis in the public sector. President Sirisena accommodated Polgampola several months before his UPFA quit the UNP led government.  JVP MP Vijitha Herath told the writer, in May this year that the JVP decided to expel Polgampola even before the flight taking him and the other person masquerading as his personal assistant, touched down at Narita International airport.

 "We got to know Polgampola’s illegal operation immediately after he had left for Japan," Herath said, adding that the MP also didn’t have party approval to leave the country.

 Herath alleged that Polgampola had been in remand twice, in 2016 for deceiving two persons who had invested in a Vavuniya-based enterprise launched by him, with the blessings of the previous government. Having served the then former SLFP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa after his expulsion from the JVP, Polgampola entered the presidential fray, in 2015, as an independent candidate, and then contested the parliamentary polls in August 2015 on the UPFA ticket.

 Mohammed Muzammil, spokesman for the breakaway JVP faction, National Freedom Front (NFF), told The Island that Polgampola had been involved in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) until the finalization of nominations for the Local Government polls in February 2018. Muzammil said that Polgampola functioned as the Organizing Secretary of the SLPP at the time he switched allegiance to President Sirisena.

 Muzammil, who had been a parliamentary colleague of Polgampola at the time the latter quit, emphasized that key appointments should be cleared by the Parliamentary High Posts Committee. Both Herath and Muzammil said that there was nothing personal in their response to Polgampola receiving appointment as STC Chairman.

 The Rajapaksa administration never conducted a proper inquiry into an MP’s alleged involvement in human smuggling though Japan brought the Aug 2008 detection to the attention of the then Lankan government. 

Having entered the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council, in 2000, on the UNP ticket, Polgampola successfully contested the Kegalle District, at the 2004, parliamentary election on the JVP ticket. The JVP secured 39 seats, including three National List slots at that election. 

 Polgampola’s appointment as STC Chairman, in May 2018, caused a media furor. In the wake of heavy criticism of President Sirisena’s move, Polgampola was removed. The former JVPer’s removal paved the way for defeated MP Shantha Bandara to receive appointment as STC Chairman. Later Shantha Bandara was accommodated in parliament in place of defeated National List candidate M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, who received appointment as the Eastern Province Governor, in January, 2019.

Four ex-JVP lawmakers, JVP leader in prez fray

 In addition to Polgampola, several other former JVPers are in the fray. Former lawmakers, Piyasiri Wijenayake (Kalutara), Siripala Amarasinghe (Gampaha) and Samansiri Herath (Puttalam), who entered parliament in 2010, along with Polgampola, are also in the fray. Wijenayake is widely believed to be a proxy for New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa and both Amarasinghe and Herath are believed to be backed by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP). Breakaway JVP faction, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) fielded Duminda Nagamuwa, one-time convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) while JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake is also in the fray. Dissanayake has the backing of the civil society grouping, the National People’s Power. Dissanayake contests under the symbol ‘Compass’

 Polgampola and Duminda Nagamuwa contested the last presidential poll. The latter polled 9,941 votes (0.08 %  of the total valid votes)

 Another offshoot of the JVP, the National Freedom Front (NFF) backs SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature. NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa, MP, was among the five members allowed in with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he handed over his papers to EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. The former Defence Secretary’s team consisted of SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris, SLPP Secretary attorney-at-law Sagara Kariyawasam, President’s Counsel M.U.M. Ali Sabry, lawmaker Wimal Weerawansa, and lawmaker and attorney-at-law Susil Premjayantha.

 Since the NGO cabal is all-out to tarnish Gotabaya as someone feared by minorities it might have been good to have included someone like EPDP Leader Douglas Devananda to represent the Tamil community in that team that accompanied the SLPP presidential candidate to hand over nominations. Against all such malicious propaganda Devananda has always stood by progressive elements in the South, who stand for a united one country.

 Premjayantha joined the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Camp, following a high profile abortive bid to move a No. Confidence Motion (NCM) against Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, in early April 2018. Premjayantha was among 16 Maithripala Sirisena loyalists who voted for the NCM, moved by the Joint Opposition (JO). The Group of 16 split soon thereafter with the majority switching their allegiance to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Two of them, S.B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera received the SLPP membership. 

Having recorded its best performance at a parliamentary election, in April 2004, the JVP split over its political strategy. More than half of the 39-member parliamentary group switched allegiance to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the war. A decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the JVP and the NFF are represented in parliament by six and five members, respectively. One NFF member Weerakumara Dissanayake, elected from the Anuradhapura District, now functions as the SLFP spokesman.

 It would be pertinent to mention that the UNP-led coalition, that backed former Army Commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena at 2010 and 2015 presidential elections, respectively, included the JVP. The late Somawansa Amarasinghe had been at the helm when the JVP joined the UNP-led coalition, in 2010, whereas Anura Kumara Dissanayake took the decision on the second occasion. Dissanayake, succeeded Amarasinghe, in early Feb. 2014. Fonseka and Sirisena contested on the NDF ticket, under the ‘swan’ symbol.

Pohottuwa candidate

and ‘Plan B’ 

In spite of heavy pressure exerted by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the strongest political party in Sri Lanka, in terms of the last Local Government polls, the SLPP, declined to contest under a common symbol. Regardless of the SLFP threat to undermine Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign, the SLPP leadership resolutely asserted that the symbol was not negotiable. SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris, on several occasions, explained to the writer the pivotal importance of retaining the lotus bud symbol. One-time External Affairs Minister and former Law Professor, Peiris pointed out the resounding SLPP success at the last LG polls, in Feb 2018, underscored the importance of its symbol.

 The SLPP managed to form a powerful alliance under the lotus bud symbol with sections of Tamil and Muslim communities pledging their support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

 Gotabaya Rajapaksa overcame an unprecedented challenge from vociferous civil society grouping comprising the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ), Purawesi Balaya (PB) et al, to proceed with the handing over of nominations. The Court of Appeal cleared the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa last Friday (Oct 04) by dismissing a petition filed by two civil society activists, Prof. Chandragupta Thenuwara and Gamini Viyangoda. Had they succeeded by some chance, former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa would have handed over his papers in his capacity as a sitting member of parliament in place of Gotabaya. Chamal Rajapaksa’s deposit was made also on Friday, hours before the Court of ruling in the name of Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sanvidanaya, an independent group. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrived at the Election Commission, to hand over his papers, he was accompanied by a smiling elder brother, Chamal.

 The UNP repeatedly denied having played a role in the civil society project, though the regular consultations between the top UNP leadership and prominent civil society activists, in this regard, in the run-up to nominations is not a secret. Both Prime Minister’s media and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s Office issued statements regarding talks they had with civil society representatives, in addition to a survey issued from the NMSJ Office, at Rajagiriya. The survey recommended Speaker Jayasuriya as their best option and the person capable of defeating Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The overall civil society project was meant to disqualify Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while bringing in Karu Jayasuriya as the NDF candidate. Had that happened, the 2019 presidential battle would have been between Chamal Rajapaksa and Karu Jayasuriya, who earned a name for himself for thwarting the so-called constitutional coup, perpetrated by President Maithripala Sirisena, on Oct 26, 2018, last year. The Karu Jayasuriya, led fight back compelled the SLFP-SLPP to give up power. The strong stand taken by Sajith Premadasa, thanks to support extended by Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema and the majority of the parliamentary group, weakened the civil society operation.

Swan for Sajith

Contrary to statements made over a period of time, the UNP decided to contest under the ‘swan’ symbol for a third straight time in spite of the NDF being embroiled in controversy over its Chairman, Shalila Munasinghe, arrested in Oct 2017, in connection with stealing US$ 2.1 mn from the Taiwanese Bank Far Eastern International. At the time of his arrest, Munasinghe held a lucrative post of Chairman, Litro Gas. Munasinghe held British citizenship whereas Janaka Nammuni, son of the one-time Army Chief of Staff, Jaliya Nammuni, arrested along with Munasinghe, was a British-Sri Lanka dual citizen. Since then, the NDF has replaced Munasinghe, while Mrs. Shamila Perera remained its Secretary. NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa was accompanied by Mrs Perera, in addition to Ronald Perera PC, current Chairman of the Bank of Ceylon (BoC) and Senaka de Silva, one-time Secretary to General Sarath Fonseka. Ronald Perera was on hand in his capacity as a legal advisor to the UNP.

 Having backed candidates picked by the UNP in 2010 and 2015, the JVP fielded a candidate of its own - only the third time the party did so at a presidential election. JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera contested the first presidential poll on Oct 20, 1982. Nandana Gunatilleke contested the Dec 21, 1999, presidential election. On both occasions, the Marxist party contested under its own symbol ‘Bell.’ However, Anura Kumara Dissanayake picked a common symbol to facilitate wider civil society participation in his endeavor. 

The JHU parliamentary group is divided over Sajith Premadasa’s candidature. Of the three JHU lawmakers in parliament, two -  Patali Champika Ranawaka and Karunaratne Paranavithana - back Sajith Premadasa whereas JHU stalwart Ven. Athureliye Rathana accommodated on the UNP National List recently, pledged his support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ven. Rathana spearheaded a high profile campaign with the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha thera that thwarted President Rajapaksa’s controversial bid to secure a third term.

More ex-rejected lawmakers

in the fray

 Former UPFA MP Milroy Fernando is also contesting the Nov 16 poll. Fernando’s wife Mary Juliet Monica sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court on March 2, 2005 for abducting and murdering Charlotte Teresa Fernando, believed to be Milroy’s mistress and her domestic aide Susanhewage Teckla alias Seelawathie, was pardoned on March 8, 2009, in view of the International Women’s Day by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. At that time Milroy served the Rajapaksa administration as the Public Estate Management and Development Minister. 

The Puttalam District MP’s wife and three other accused were sentenced to death on being found guilty of the Katuneriya double murder, said to have been committed on January 3, 1992.

A seven-member jury returned a verdict of guilty 6 to 1.

It was the first death penalty given after the Sri Lankan government decided to implement the capital punishment in the wake of High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya’s assassination in November 2004.

Milroy Fernando entered the Election Commission premises with the help of a person. The presidential candidate found it difficult to walk in on his own.

Jayantha Ketagoda is also another former MP in the fray. Ketagoda succeeded Sarath Fonseka who lost a Supreme Court appeal, in January 2011, to retain his parliamentary seat.

The court ruled that a court martial, in September 2010, which found him guilty of arms procurement offences meant that he could no longer be an MP. Having entered politics, courtesy the UNP, Ketagoda, one-time actor, lately served the SLPP.

Former UPFA MP and Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, who appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) tasked to probe the Easter Sunday attacks, in the wake of allegations he met some Saudi nationals, clandestinely, immediately after the Easter Sunday attacks, handed over his papers to the Election Commission. Hisbullah is also under fire over the building of the controversial Batticaloa campus with Saudi funds. One-time, SLMC heavyweight Hizbullah was one of the politicians accused of alleged involvement with the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) blamed for the Easter Sunday carnage, though they weren’t found guilty by any court of law.

Former SLMC Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood is another former MP in the presidential fray.

Interestingly, one-time Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.K. Sivajiilingham is the only former Tamil lawmaker to seek the President’s Office. Outspoken politician, Sivajiilingham, who subsequently represented the TNA in the now-defunct Northern Provincial Council, since the conclusion of the war in 2009, demanded an international accountability investigation. A close relative of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, Sivajiilingham remains committed to a probe conducted by foreign judges.

Among the presidential candidates are A.S.P. Liyanage, a businessman who received preferential treatment from both the then President Rajapaksa and incumbent President Sirisena. Liyanage received ambassadorial posts in Nigeria and Qatar. About a year after the change of government, in January 2015, yahapalana administration investigated Liyanage after he was accused of keeping gold and money belonging to the Rajapaksas, buried under the sand-filled swimming pool of his peacock mansion, at Pelawatte.

 Former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake wouldn’t have been among the candidates as the leading civil society representative on the President’s Counsel Srinath Perera’s party if not for the Easter Sunday attacks. Senanayake captured the limelight due to overall failure on the part of the government to thwart the suicide bombing campaign. Senanayake cannot absolve responsibility for the government failure, being the Commander of the Army at the time of the incident.

Two of the candidates, Battaramulle Seelarathana thera and Sarath Manamendra made abortive bids to have nominations of M.K. Sivajiilingham and Hizbullah dismissed, respectively.

Who really wanted Sivajiilingham and Hisbullah rejected?

 There were several other former lawmakers, including Asoka Wadigamangawa (ex-UNP), Samaraweera Weerawanni (ex-UNP) and respected academic Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe (ex-UPFA) among the candidates listed to contest. 

Addressing the candidates, at the conclusion of the nominations accepting process, EC Deshapriya said that the Nov 16, 2019 poll would cost Rs. 5,000 mn because of the larger number of candidates. Wouldn’t it be the responsibility of the EC to take tangible measures to address this issue to prevent waste of public funds. With the vast majority of people struggling to make ends meet, can a sensible administration squander taxpayers’ money on wasteful exercises? On the other hand, Nagananda Kodituwakku, a genuine candidate, was deprived of the opportunity to contest the presidential poll for want of a practical system to register a political party. Shame on the corrupt political system!