Wednesday, 20 November 2019

SLPP emerges as most powerful party, UNP in crisis

* SLFP saved by last minute pact with the SLPP
* Civil society groups suffer debilitating setbacks
* Gotabaya attributes his victory to Sinhaha majority vote, praises brothers Mahinda and Basil
* Enterprise Sri Lanka, Gamperaliya fail to deliver
* Ranil remains Premier 72 hours into new President’s term
* UNP divided over post-poll strategy
* Nagananda lucky not to contest Nov 16 prez poll


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former President Maithripala Sirisena , SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and a section of UPFA parliamentary group taking part in religious observences at the Presidential Secretariat yesterday.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Among the 35 candidates who contested the 2019 presidential election were two retired army officers, namely General Mahesh Senanayake and Lt. Colonel Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Senanayake retired early this year. Rajapaksa retired over a year after the outbreak of Eelam War II, in June 1990.

General Mahesh Senanayake contested the Nov 16, 2019 poll on the National People’s Movement (NPM) ticket. The NPM accommodated Senanayake with the blessings of its leader, President’s Counsel Srinath Perera, formerly of the UNP. Perera represented the UNP in the Western Provincial Council, though his attempts to enter parliament weren’t successful.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa contested on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ticket. Both the NPM and the SLPP lacked parliamentary representation though those elected and appointed on the UPFA ticket and the National List, respectively, served the SLPP. One-time External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris functions as the Chairman of the SLPP, while former State Counsel Sagara Kariyawasam is its Secretary.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa never took membership of the SLPP. A last minute agreement between the SLFP and the SLPP saved the former from political massacre.

Senanayake, who retired just a few months ago could not poll even 50,000 votes whereas the indomitable Rajapaksa convincingly defeated his rival Sajith Premadasa. Rajapaksa polled over 1.3 mn votes more than Premadasa whose humiliating defeat triggered fresh chaos in the UNP. Some of the UNP Ministers humiliated by the massive defeat, resigned their portfolios in the absence of consensus on what to do. Among those who quit their portfolios, within hours after the demeaning defeat were, Mangala Samaraweera and Harin Fernando. But Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was present among the gathering at Ruwanweliseya when, on the morning of Monday, Nov 18, Gotabaya Rajapaksa took oaths as the President. Wife Iyoma, their only son Manoj and his daughter-in-law Seuwandhi were present.

Thanks to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 2015, under controversial circumstances, to clip the powers of the all-powerful presidency, without a referendum, the Premier couldn’t be removed. In terms of the 19th A, the premier had to resign or continue to serve in that position as long as the cabinet stands. Wickremesinghe’s, being at the Ruwanweliseya, event, highlighted the crisis in the UNP in the wake of the latest electoral debacle. UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim resigned whereas its General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam remained in office. Wickremesinghe appears to be struggling to regain the position of the Leader of the Opposition, at the expense of Sajith Premadasa, in the run-up to the next parliamentary poll.

Are we heading for another crisis far worse than previous crises? Isn’t it a tragedy that the parliamentary system is deliberately used to cause further turmoil? Those who depicted the 19A as the panacea for Sri Lanka’s ills caused irreparable damage. Post presidential poll developments highlighted the crisis.

Rajapaksa obtained 6,924,255 votes (52.25%) while Sajith Premadasa obtained 5,564,239 (41.99%.). Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the first to be elected for a five-year term, whereas his predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, received a six-year term and reduced it to five by way of the 19th A.

Premadasa contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket - the third occasion a UNP-led coalition fielded a candidate on the NDF ticket. General Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena contested the 2010 and 2015 polls, respectively, under the ‘swan’ symbol. The NDF gained notoriety, in Oct 2017, when its Chairman Shalila Munasinghe and Janaka Nanmuni, son of one-time Army Chief-of-Staff  Maj. Gen. Jaliya Nanmuni, were arrested for allegedly stealing USD 2.1 mn from a Thaiwanese bank. At the time of the arrest of British national, Shalila Munasinghe,’ he served as the Chairman of state-owned enterprise Litro Gas. They received bail, pending the case. The writer sought a clarification from Sajith Premadasa, before the election, whether Shalila Munasinghe remained the Chairman of the NDF. The then UNP Deputy Leader’s response was ‘No.’

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake couldn’t even save his deposit. Dissanayake, who secured a distant third place, managed to secure 418,553 (3.16%) votes at the Nov 16 poll. The JVP contested the presidential election twice before, including the first in Oct 1982, where its founding leader Rohana Wijeweera was its candidate.

The just concluded poll - third since the conclusion of the war in May 2009 proved that there was no charismatic and capable leader to be a third force in the current environment. The JVP is unlikely to recover from its perceived-behind-the scene backing of the UNF regime, since 2015 and the just suffered drubbing at the national poll. The forthcoming parliamentary election will definitely make matters worse for the JVP.

The NPM picked Senanayake, under controversial circumstances, in the wake of the Easter Sunday carnage. One-time Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe and Dr. Ajith Colonne introduced the former Army Commander at an event at the Sugathadasa Stadium. Senanayake, in spite of being the Commander of the Army, didn’t accept responsibility for the Easter Sunday security failure. As the top most officer responsible for the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), can he absolve himself of the responsibility for the government failure. Therefore, Senanayake is also responsible for the shocking failure to thwart the murderous National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) project. Senanayake received tremendous media coverage as a result of the Easter Sunday horror. Senanayake never explained as to how mobs torched Muslim property, in several parts of the country, many days after the April 21 attacks - and most often during curfew hours when marauding gangs, riding hundreds of motorcycles, perpetrated the mayhem. What were the Police and Army doing with their newly restored emergency powers at the time? The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) never really bothered to inquire into some crucial aspects, such as possible Saudi links to the then Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah. The NPM fielded Senanayake at the expense of a consensus among the civil society groups to field a candidate opposed to Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sarvodaya played a significant role in the NPM project.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Army re-accommodated Senanayake in the wake of Maithripala Sirisena receiving the presidency, in spite of Senanayake being away since the 2010 presidential election. Senanayake fled the country citing threats to his life on the premise the Rajapaksas pursued him for being a Sarath Fonseka loyalist.

Attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku was certainly lucky to escape the Nov 16 slaughter, thanks to him being deprived of an opportunity to contest. Kodituwakku bitterly complained about Okkoma Rajawaru Okkoma Wesiyo party denying him the ticket at the behest of some of his civil society colleagues. Kodituwakku gave up his British citizenship to seek nominations.

Even if the entire civil society grouping backed one candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have handsomely won the contest by over 1.3 mn. The civil society activists were sharply divided with the politically influential NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice), Purawesi Balaya and Civil Society and Trade Union Collective et al throwing their weight behind Sajith Premadasa, though their first preference was Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

The result clearly proved that the grouping was only some people’s civil society and its backing didn’t make any difference or even worked to the disadvantage of Sajith Premadasa because of the general perceived feeling in the south that they were only motivated by outside interests and funding. The civil society grouping played a significant role in the high profile 2014 project to defeat the Rajapaksas. The Americans funded the operation. At the recently concluded poll, sharply divided civil society activists backed Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Mahesh Senanayake. Even if all joined hands, they couldn’t have challenged Gotabaya Rajapaksa under any circumstances. At one point those backing Sajith Premadasa alleged Anura Kumara’s move would only help Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The result highlighted the emergence of the SLPP as the most powerful political party in the country at the expense of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Both the SLFP and the UNP suffered debilitating setbacks with their leaderships in disarray. The SLPP will further consolidate its position at the forthcoming parliamentary polls.

Having been sworn in as the seventh Executive President at Ruwanweliseya, Anuradhapura, on Monday, Nov 18, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked brothers, Mahinda and Basil for making, Nov 16 victory possible. Rajapaksa especially appreciated SLPP strategist Basil for building an unbeatable political machinery that ensured his triumph. Basil Rajapaksa acquired? the SLPP to contest the last parliamentary poll in August 2015 though it never materialized.

 The writer, at a discussion on Nov 13, 2019 with TV 1 anchor, Faraz Shauketaly, and Rasika Jayakody who represented the NDF, asserted that wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa would comfortably win the contest. Asked what would be the outcome of the eighth presidential poll, the writer emphasized certain victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in spite of the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) throwing its weight behind Sajith Premadasa. As promised, the TNA, SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) and the ACMC (All Ceylon Makkal Congress) delivered the entire northern and eastern polling divisions to Sajith Premadasa. Galvanized by the alleged UNP-TNA deal, the South delivered a knockout blow to Sajith Premadasa. As a result, the significant gains in Jaffna, Vanni, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Digamadulla electoral districts were wiped out by the majority community.

Having arranged a media briefing, in Colombo, to accuse Gotabaya Rajapaksa of running death squads and stealing an astronomical 7,000 tonnes of gold belonging to the LTTE, UNP strategist Dr. Rajitha Senaratne remained supremely confident of Sajith Premadasa’s victory. Having voted for Sajith Premadasa, at the Vardhanarama temple, Hettimulla, in the Beruwela electorate, Dr. Senaratne declared that Sajith Premadasa would poll 750,000 votes more than Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sajith Premadasa lost by over 1.3 mn votes. Beruwela, nursed by Dr. Senaratne, too, was won by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In fact, the SLPP wiped out the UNP in the Kalutara district.

In the run-up to the poll, Dr. Senaratne played a critical role in forming a coalition, comprising political parties, political groups and the civil society. The UNP lacked even basic political strategy to convince the South, whereas the Tamil vote was meant to recoup the loss of the southern vote. Obviously, the UNP didn’t comprehend the level of the southern electorate’s animosity towards the ruling party against the backdrop of one-time LTTE apologists pledging their support to Sajith Premadasa.

In his brief inaugural speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reminded the nation as to how his appeal for Tamils and Muslim communities to be part of his victory was disregarded. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he declared that the Sinhala majority made his victory a reality. At the 2010 presidential poll Mahinda Rajapaksa too proved victory could be secured on the strength of the Sinhala majority vote. Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated Sarath Fonseka by over 1.8 mn votes.

The writer joined a discussion, on post-election issues, on Monday, Nov 18, on Pathikada and News-line, anchored by Bandula Jayasekera and Faraz Shauketaly, respectively. Central Province Governor Maithri Gunaratne, who is also the Chairman, United National Freedom Front, was the other guest on the programmes.

The writer explained the daunting challenges faced by the new President. In fact, it was pointed out that beating Sajith Premadasa was much more easier than overcoming challenges faced by the country - waste, corruption and irregularities threatened the very existence of Sri Lanka. An utterly corrupt parliament remains the mother of all problems. Political reforms are a must. Corrective measures are required to discipline the Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government system. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the new government should examine the feasibility in sharply reducing the size of the Local Government administration, now comprising approximately 8,600 members. A section of the civil society backed by some foreign donors, influenced the UNP-SLFP administration to expand the Local Government system, hence the more than doubling of the Local Government system from 4,000 to 8,600 members. Today, the Local Government system is a huge burden on the taxpayer.

The Election Commission should examine the possibility of limiting the Local Government administration.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, although not having experience at any level of political administration, will certainly be able to quite rightly identify the need to clean up the political system. The President, in his inaugural address, declared that corruption wouldn’t be tolerated. Tackling corruption wouldn’t be easy with both sides, including those now with him being accused of serious corruption over the years.

The drubbing the UNP and the SLFP received, at the Feb 10, 2018 Local Government polls, resulted in the rapid deterioration of both parties. On the other hand, the SLPP rapidly grew to be the most powerful registered political party. Twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to accept the leadership of the SLPP, on August 11, 2019, sealed the fate of the SLFP.

Mangala Samaraweera is the only UNP lawmaker to warn of dire consequences of an SLPP victory at the Feb 10 Local Government polls. Samaraweera quit the Finance portfolio in the immediate aftermath of the Nov 16, 2019 rout at the presidential polls.

Samaraweera has contradicted those who had downplayed the importance of the Feb. 10 Local Government polls. He didn’t mince his words when he acknowledged, in the run up to the Local Government polls, the growing and formidable challenge posed by the SLPP, though his colleagues depicted a different picture. Samaraweera, in a statement issued on January 25, 2018, warned the electorate of dire consequences over the Rajapaksa group making significant progress.

Declaring that the Feb. 10 countrywide local government poll is much more than a contest to capture political power, in local government authorities, Samaraweera asserted: "It is an old regime’s first real attempt to recapture power and restore an old, corrupt and dictatorial order."

Samaraweera warned that electoral inroads, made at the Local Government poll could be utilized to attempt to recapture national control at future elections. His fears were proved right a few days ago.

He said that the outcome of the Local Government poll would have ‘national consequences’ and undermined the yahapalana administration. "With the Rajapaksa regime and its fellow barbarians at the gates once more, Sri Lanka is at a crossroads at this election," he claimed

Acknowledging the possibility of the January 8, 2015, constituency wavering, Samaraweera, one of those who had spearheaded the campaign, both here and overseas, against the Rajapaksas, in the run-up to the last presidential poll, said: "Perhaps we are not where we hoped to be by this time."

Having reminded the electorate how the then President had brazenly abused power, shot people who asked for clean drinking water and allowed his incompetent brother-in-law to ruin the national carrier et al, Samaraweera said: "On February 10th the people will have to choose once more – will we continue the march to freedom or herald a return to fear."

Samaraweera referred to white vans, grease yakas, attacks on media, killing of journalists, night races in Kandy, Thajudeen killing, though there was no reference to his earlier charge that Rajapaksas had stashed away billions of US dollars in offshore accounts. Samaraweera, sometime ago, claimed the Rajapaksas’ ill-gotten stash at a staggering USD 18.5 bn. This claim was outdone by Rajitha Senaratne when he produced an alleged eyewitness, in the run up to the recent poll, who claimed he was involved in transporting, to Colombo, 7000 tonnes of gold taken by Rajapaksa from Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Did Samaraweera purposely omit that line against the backdrop of the UNP being accused of massive treasury bond scams involving Perpetual Treasuries (PTL), by no less a person than the then President Maithripala Sirisena. Had the treasury bond scams not taken place, the veteran politician wouldn’t have had to admit: "Perhaps we are not where we hoped to be by this time."

In fact, Samaraweera wouldn’t have had to admit the possibility of former President Rajapaksa making a rapid comeback, if not for the treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016. Widely dubbed Sri Lanka’s biggest single financial fraud, the treasury bond scams dominated both print and electronic media, since March 2015. The reportage of the treasury bond scams certainly embarrassed the yahapalana government, both locally and internationally.

The first treasury bond scam, perpetrated in Feb 2015, marked the beginning of the end of the yahapalana administration. The second treasury bond scam, in late March 2016, caused irreparable damage to the UNP-SLFP arrangement in parliament. In between the two treasury bond scams disgraced primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL), the yahapalana government betrayed the country at the Geneva Human Rights Council. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, in a desperate bid to save his marriage with the UNP, delayed appointment of a Presidential Commission till January 2017. Both the UNP and the SLFP contributed to their embarrassing defeat at the Local Government polls in Feb 2018. President Sirisena’s efforts were meant to save the government at the expense of Premier Wickremesinghe. The UNP parliamentary group lacked the strength to take a stand. Wickremesinghe survived a no-confidence motion moved against him, in April 2018, before President Sirisena sacked him in late Oct of the same year. Wickremesinghe managed to secure premiership in Dec 2018 thanks to joint action undertaken with the support of the TNA and the JVP. Those who believed high profile Enterprise Sri Lanka and Gamperaliya, launched in the wake of the Local Government polls debacle could change the situation, ended up with egg on face.

The UNP has every reason to be scared of facing the forthcoming parliamentary polls as well as Provincial Council polls, especially in the South.