ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 09
Columns - Political Column  

Govt., Opposition head for showdown

  • UNP boosted by Hyde Park rally, Mangala promises 22 crossovers
  • President takes counter measures amid double talk by politicians on both sides

By Our Political Editor

What stands between success and failure in Sri Lankan politics often is fear. Unlike votes that make a politician win and his rival lose, the fear factor can be quite different. Fear and the resultant anxiety can make all of them winners or losers. It is a phenomenon that does not afflict only one side.

Last Thursday's Colombo rally, that saw the debut of the newly formed National Congress, tells the tale. Days ahead of the meeting at Hyde Park Corner, speculation was rife that some Parliamentarians of the Government would mount the stage. Naturally, it caused concern even for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. "Are you hoping to ascend their stage (vedikawata naginna yanawada)," he asked Anura Bandaranaike, the Minister of National Heritage. One among the fast vanishing tribe of politicians good at repartee, he replied it was now the time for him to descend from the stage (than nagina kaley newene, than bahina kaley ne). Even if the remarks were made jocularly, it assured Rajapaksa. There was no crossover, at least not on Thursday. That took the fear away from the ranks of the Government.

Politically at each others throats for some time, Mangala Samaraweera and S.B. Dissanayake, two ex-SLFP ministers enjoy a throaty laugh as they sit together at the first mass public rally of the newly formed UNP-led National to ex-SLDFP Minister congress. Pic by M.A. Pushpakumara

Days ahead of the meeting, the two key players of the National Congress, Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), and Mangala Samaraweera, leader of the breakaway Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP-M), and their close advisors were discussing the venue for last Thursday's meeting. Though they had boasted about bringing an unrealistic half a million people to Colombo, the truth was different. There were fears that the turnout could be poor. Main among the many reasons they believed, were security considerations and concerns that the Government would use strong arm tactics to prevent a large crowd coming in. As one prominent member of the organizing committee declared, it is better to have a smaller venue that was easy to fill. A larger venue with a smaller crowd, he pointed out, would be too glaring an embarrassment and portended a bad start. But the fears of a poor turn out receded as buses, lorries and vans - numbering some 800 (200 were hired by the SLFP(M), and the rest by the UNP) - entered the City. Except at Kelaniya, where one bus was stoned, the rest arrived in the City unscathed. Anticipated delays at military check-points were minimal.

In Colombo, it was only in Narahenpita, that the Police intervened in the event, by bringing down banners inviting people for the rally. When UNP lawyers went to the station to ask questions, the policemen had said they had instructions from the top, but these did not tally with the otherwise non-interference by the Police in other police divisions in Colombo. It was only after the rally, that policemen were seen, with the support of SLFP supporters removing vitriolic posters against the President in Grandpass and Borella the night after the rally had ended.

National Congress leaders were elated not only at the public response and party mobilization capabilities, but also at their success in firing the first salvo, a loud one, at President Rajapaksa and his Government. One event followed another for the latter. First, it was the poor public response on July 19 for the Government sponsored Toppigala military victory celebrations at Independence Square. They also held district level rallies, where SLFP leaders were prone to say that the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces was equally entitled to the credit for clearing the Eastern Province as the Armed Services were in doing the job. Their rationale was that everybody blamed the President when a bomb went off somewhere, so he was entitled to the credit when things went right.

Now, the worry for Government leaders was over an unexpected and seemingly overwhelming public response to the National Congress. Samaraweera and colleague Sripathi Sooriyarachchi, had rallied a sizeable SLFP gathering that only less than two years ago ensconced Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa as President. That added insult to the injury caused by the UNPers who thronged the rally. Reuters news agency first placed the crowds at 15,000 quoting the Police. But barely an hour later, they declared "Reuters witness estimates around 50,000 people attend UNP rally in Colombo."

Concerns for President Rajapaksa over the birth of the National Congress, arose after the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding on July 19, the day of its Toppigala victory celebrations. He made telephone calls to several UNP parliamentarians to chat them up, ask what was going on, and hint that Government doors were open. That President Rajapaksa was canvassing opposition MPs personally underscored his concerns. He telephoned Dayasiri Jayasekera after a television appearance by the young MP and told him "Oya than hariyata mature wela ne" (You have really matured now), and praised him. Calls were also made to Vajira Abeywardena and Earl Gunasekera. The message was that the entry of Mangala Samaraweera into the UNP-fold meant that they would be side-lined.

Telephone operators at Temple Trees, now the President's de-facto office, also tracked down Ravi Karunanayake, UNP's Colombo District head who was in Kandy where Rajapaksa had a 35 minutes conversation on Karunanayake's mobile phone. Part jokingly, he asked the MP from Kotte to join the Government.

On Wednesday Karunanayake's former Ministerial colleague S.B. Dissanayake called on Rajapaksa and wife Shiranthi, accompanied by his wife Tamara, son, his newly wed wife and the in-laws. Rajapaksa had been unable to attend the wedding last week, and the son had wanted to pay a courtesy call on the President, whom he had known when Rajapaksa and Dissanayake were colleagues in a previous Cabinet. They posed for photographs. In what seemed a bid to embarrass the National Congress leadership, Presidential aides released the pictures to the media. They appeared on Thursday, the very day the rally was being held. For effect, the state run media front-paged them. This seemed to have embarrassed S.B. Dissanayake more than anybody else. He was furious that this had been done to him.

UNP stalwarts contacted Dissanayake and asked him about this photograph, and its timing. They told him what the motives would have been, and that now his credibility was at stake. Dissanayake turned up at the meeting, and as he mounted the stage, he was hugged and kissed by Mangala Samaraweera, his erstwhile colleague and now bete-noire , before sitting down.

In a hard hitting speech, he hurled strong vituperative criticism at Rajapaksa. He said Ranil Wickremesinghe had politically undressed Rajapaksa. It was Samaraweera who had removed his loin cloth (amude). The firebrand from Hanguranketha, sans his civic rights had only called on the man he was lambasting on stage, the previous day. He was now saying that the Head of State and Head of Government was politically naked. Some of the other remarks were too rude to be published for they were not only disparaging, but border on obscenity. It was double-acting all the way this week for him.

The day the UNP and SLFP (M) were signing the MoU, he was completely out of the picture. No doubt he was busy with his son's wedding that day, but then he is the UNP's National Organiser. He knew nothing of this MoU. When SB, who regards himself as a hopeful for the number two slot in the UNP, learnt that Samaraweera would become Deputy Prime Minister in a UNP Government, he was livid. He not only blamed his leader, Wickremesinghe for what he called destroying the UNP, he also accused Samaraweera of being the one who destroyed him, politically. "Eya thamai mawa vinaasa kale" he kept telling other UNPers, and referred to the time when he was in the SLFP, and fell out with then incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was Mangala Samaraweera who was responsible for sending helicopters to photograph his house, he said. One of his friends who heard the Dissanayake outbursts informed Wickremesinghe.

The UNP leader summoned Dissanayake for a meeting last Monday to explain the MoU. It was very much like his MoU with the LTTE signed when he was Prime Minister - signing the agreement and then getting consensus. SB contacted Party Chairman Rukman Senanayake before he went to see Wickremesinghe. Senanayake had calmed the agitated SB by saying that Samaraweera had promised to bring some 22 SLFP MPs across from the Rajapaksa administration on a given time-table, and that the MoU with him was based on specific-performance. Doubts were somewhat cleared and Dissanayake met Wickremesinghe. He then agreed to take part in Thursday's rally, but asked that he be given a speaking slot before Samaraweera. It was in the meantime that he had gone to see Rajapaksa. When the picture of his visit appeared in the dailies, it not only sealed his participation at the rally, but he forewarned his associates by saying "I will give it to him in the evening".

That was how Dissanayake lashed out at Rajapaksa at the National Congress rally. That night, after his rant, he was sipping drinks with some friends late into the night. Midway, an upbeat SB kept telephoning friends and asking "How was my speech (kohomada magey kathawa)." Most of them responded with such enthusiasm his spirits went even higher. One of them, however, asked what happened to his animosity with Samaraweera in the process. He replied by saying "Oka mawa baddagena imbahama parana waira okkoma amathakawuna" - that all his pent up anger evaporated the moment Samaraweera hugged and kissed him.

Subduing S.B. Dissanayake was not the only problem Wickremesinghe had before the rally. Another issue centered around Ravi Karunanayake who has, probably for his height and body won the nick name Colombus, the word coined from 'Colombo Boss'. He wanted to make the first speech to welcome the gathering at the rally as the head of the Colombo district that was hosting the rally. However, that task, as the party's ground rules went, had to be assigned to Mohamed Maharoof, the UNP organizer and MP for Colombo Central, where Hyde Park was situated.

As Karunanayake was insistent on a top slot for him, Wickremesinghe had to call Rukman Senanayake who was at the Gangaraamaya temple to help sort matters out. Karunanayake then wanted to speak last, but that was reserved for Sooriyarachchi. The UNP frontliner was eventually accommodated as the third speaker for the day.

Even if he failed to woo UNP parliamentarians during telephone calls, Rajapaksa had asked that his party stalwarts should hold protest campaigns on Thursday morning. This was to express their displeasure over Wickremesinghe's remarks over the re-capture of Toppigala and the criticism against Bhikkus of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The UNP leader angered the Security Forces over his remarks that Toppigala was a jungle area, and that the victory there was nothing to crow about. He also accused the Buddhist monk-MPs of 'riding to Nirvana in Mercedes Benz cars', a reference to the leasing of their car permits ostensibly to raise funds for the JHU.

Many such protest campaigns, some led by Ministers, were held but the crowds were quite clearly very small. In marked contrast, when the National Congress procession had reached opposite Ananda College in Maradana, the end had not left Campbell Park. An eye witness said there were no large gaps in the procession and it was like marches that precede May Day rallies. It took the marchers conservatively estimated at around 40,000 (of a total crowd of about 60,000) four hours to reach the venue.

The largest crowds came from the South, from the districts of Matara and Hambantota. This was followed by those from Moneragala and Badulla districts. A notable feature was the crowds brought by the newly appointed organizers of the UNP. Kandy district MP A.R.M.A. Cader had also sent over fifty buses.

Wickremesinghe charged that if Mahinda Rajapaksa had not entered into a 'secret pact' with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which saw the forced boycott of the Tamils in the North and parts of the East in November 2005 Presidential elections, he would not have become President. He charged that there was rampant corruption and pointed out that the recent purchase of MiG-27 aircraft from Russia was one such deal. Mangala Samaraweera disclosed that Rs 600 million has been spent for celebrations at Independence Square to mark the military victory at Toppigala. He said at least Rs 40,000 could have been paid for every soldier's family for their betterment. Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi declared that the Government was spending 10 billion rupees every year to maintain a giant sized Cabinet. This was whilst people were undergoing hardships due to the spiralling cost of living. A high ranking Government source said later that President Rajapaksa hoped to respond to all the charges made against him and his Government when he faces the cameras for his quarterly TV interview in the next two weeks.

The Hyde Park rally ended on a political high for the SLFP (M) leaders, but for Sooriyarachchi the night brought personal tragedy. His father passed away that same night. Since Friday, streams of UNP leaders from Ranil Wickremesinghe downwards were paying their respects at the Sooriyarachchi residence.

The organizers of the first National Congress rally at Hyde Park were also happy at another factor. Cut-outs of the President and his brothers, in most areas had not been pulled down. In some areas, it was later carried out only by SLFP supporters.

This week's developments have heightened the attention of the Colombo based diplomatic community. Besides the re-alignment of political forces, some of the contradictory and even surprising stances have come up for discussion in diplomatic circles. One of the areas of criticism was the set of proposals forwarded by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). In these proposals, the unit of devolution was to be the District Council. The Government's official announcement that it would hold elections to the Eastern Provincial Council has raised the all important question whether it, has deftly changed its position now.

This is on the basis that the conduct of Provincial Council elections constitutes an acceptance of these Councils. Another, which is of concern particularly to India, is the de-merger of the North and East. The fact that elections were being held only to the Eastern Provincial Council, diplomatic sources point out, meant that it would continue to remain a separate unit. This is said to be particularly significant in the backdrop of the APRC being required to formulate its proposals by August this year.

With pressure now mounting on the Rajapaksa administration, both internally and externally, the Government's political strategists are pondering their next step. Continuing military offensives against the LTTE is one method that will be adopted to win 'southern' votes. Unleashing the UNP cross-overs, who were ridiculed in posters at the rally and got a tongue lashing by speaker after speaker to question the National Congress MoU is another.

Financiers of the rally are going to be hounded - one of them who gave Rs. 5 million in cash-filled boxes has already got his office raided by Customs this week. Investigations into the shady deals of SLFP (M) stalwarts will continue; and attempts at wooing UNPers unhappy with the prominence given to Samaraweera will continue.

The President once again raised the bogey of re-introducing criminal defamation laws in what he seems as a desperate attempt to muffle Opposition criticism of him and especially his brothers. At the weekly Cabinet meeting last Wednesday, he cited a speech made by Sooriyarachchi where he had said that he had purchased a house at Battaramulla in Greater Colombo for the Rajapaksa Brothers during the last elections.

"Meka amulika boruwak" - This is a blatant lie - he told his Ministers, and pointed out how newspapers and tv stations just run such stories without any hesitation and sans any checks of the facts. "That is why I say that criminal defamation must be brought back", he said, sentiments that his Highways Minister Jeyeraj Fernandopulle echoed with gusto.

In the post Hyde Park rally UNP, rumblings have already begun. Already, the first resignation from the UNP has taken place - its Treasurer, Tilak Karunaratne. He not only kept away from Thursday's rally but the very next day sent Wickremesinghe a strongly-worded statement bitterly criticising him for the alliance with Samaraweera, the then SLFP treasurer.

UNP top-rung men play down the Samaraweera equation, and say that this was something that was brewing for sometime, starting with Karunaratne's objections to the appointment of some party organisers in Bandaragama and Panadura in the Kalutara district; the UNP Leader's remarks about the JHU monks, and why the UNP as a party which was coming into power anyway was giving parity of status to an individual - Mangala Samaraweera; but the timing for the day after the rally was what raised questions, though again, UNP officials say that he had wanted to give his resignation - which Wickremesinghe has said he will lay by for the moment, until his return from abroad.

Several MPs - and even Ministers seem to be caught in the headlights, not knowing which way to turn. Some say it is a courtesy, but others say it is political opportunism. But frontline politicians are taking no chances. As much as S.B. Dissanayake invited the President for his son's wedding, Minister of Special Projects former Communist Mahinda Wijesekera invited UNPers for his daughter's lavish wedding at the exclusive Water's Edge Private Golf Club. All 17 UNP defectors were present as well as Ravi Karunanayake and S.B. Dissanayake from the UNP.

This week, Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge, another UNP cross-over invited UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinge for both his daughter's weddings. The next day he told a pro-Government rally that this Ranil Wickremesinghe was sacrificing the UNP and its symbol, and is a useless leader.

In these shifting sands of politics, one does not know what the weeks ahead portend for either the Government or the Opposition as both sides gear for what may well be a showdown come November when the annual Budget is due - unless it gets postponed. A defeat for the Government at a Budget vote compels the calling for a fresh General Election.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.