Big guns woo the media while pow-wows begin among smaller parties in earnest
By Nadia Fazlulhaq and Damith Wickremasekara. Additional reporting: W.P. Weerawardena

It was a week which demonstrated that politics is indeed the art of the possible. Last Sunday morning, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka announced his candidature for the 2010 presidential election from the Opposition coalition--the United National Front (UNF). The following evening, President Mahinda Rajapaksa hosted Sri Lankan and foreign journalists to a grand dinner in appreciation of what he called, “the magnanimous service rendered by representatives of media agencies to unite Sri Lanka.”

On Sunday, standing behind a podium packed with television microphones at Colombo’s Jaic Hilton Tower, Gen. Fonseka addressed his maiden news conference as presidential candidate, betraying slight nervousness. Nine national flags were in the backdrop. The swan – his election symbol – he said: “is a resourceful bird capable of drawing milk from water.” “I seek a simple mandate to re-establish democracy in the country,” he added. Sipping water occasionally from a glass kept alongside, Gen. Fonseka tactfully answered questions on rights of minorities, media freedom and allegations of human rights violations. (Please see story below for excerpts from News conference)

A day later, President Mahinda Rajapaksa walked into Colombo’s Hilton Hotel where the defence establishment’s top brass including younger brother and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa stood beside a lavish spread of Sri Lankan and continental cuisine. As a live band played pop music of the 1980s, President Rajapaksa walked from one group of journalists to another, exchanging pleasantries.

About 250 representatives from Sri Lankan and foreign media organisations were present at the dinner. “People in Colombo may vote for him (Fonseka) but the love and affection that the people in villages have for me is still there,” the President said.

While the two main contenders for the next presidency tried charming the media in their own ways, political parties representing minorities – key players in the coming election - began throwing their weight behind either candidate. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) which claims to have the support of 75 per cent of the nearly one million voters in the tea plantation sector announced it would back President Rajapaksa’s bid for re-election. CWC vice-president Muthu Sivalingam said on Tuesday his party was happy with the “enormous development of the sector”, during President Rajapaksa’s term. “Our support is unconditional and we have the fullest confidence in the President,” Sivalingam added. The CWC supported the United National Party (UNP) at the 2005 presidential election.

Prominent Tamil politician Mano Ganeshan of the Democratic Peoples’ Front (DPF) said on Thursday that his party would support Gen. Fonseka. The DPF is part of the multi-party UNF and Ganeshan who earlier had certain reservations about backing Gen. Fonseka’s candidature, seemed to have been convinced otherwise by his colleagues in the opposition camp. “Tamil leaders have the duty of fulfilling justice towards their community and therefore should join hands with all others to elect the common candidate as the President,” Ganeshan said. He ruled out a boycott of the polls as an option saying the Tamil voters should come forward and show their political power. The DPF leader is now trying to bring the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on board the UNF. The TNA is yet to make a decision.

While Tamil political parties were taking sides in the election game, the National Freedom front (NFF) – a breakaway faction of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - continued its offensive against the JVP. Addressing a special convention of the NFF at the Sugathadasa Stadium on Wednesday, leader and parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa called the JVP an “anti-patriotic force” and Gen. Fonseka, a “puppet in its hands.” “The JVP has lost its virginity by joining hands with its once bitterest rival UNP,” Weerwansa said, adding that both the UNP and the JVP were “spent forces attempting to use General Fonseka to save face.” According to the NFF leader, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was afraid to contest the coming election due to fear of defeat and therefore fielded Gen. Fonseka.

President Rajapaksa sharing pleasantries with journalists at the Hilton Hotel function

JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe on his part directed his ire at President Rajapaksa. “During my visits to six countries, I tried to find out whether they would accommodate President Rajapaksa after he is defeated, but no one wanted him,” Somawansa said in lighter vain on Thursday after returning to Colombo from an overseas trip.

Gen. Fonseka who had gone to India for a brief visit in the middle of the week returned on Friday and attended a meeting in Pitakotte with trade unions affiliated to the JVP. “The present government has not been able to address the issues of the working class,” he said at the meeting.

Breaking his long spell of public silence, Mr. Wickremesinghe entered the campaign arena as the weekend neared. At a public rally of the UNP in Matara, the former Prime Minister asked the government to reveal to the country, details of the LTTE’s assets which the government is said to have discovered abroad following disclosures made by former LTTE funds manager Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias KP. “Don’t put these assets also under the account of the Rajapaksa and Brother Company,” Wickremesinghe said.

Hectic consultations and hard negotiations will continue among different political parties in the days ahead. The campaigns are expected to gather momentum after nominations are filed on December 17.

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