22 in the fray, but only two stars

By Chandani Kirinde, Pix by J. Weerasekera, Gemunu Wellage and Saman Kariyawasam

Some came in Chrysler, Mercedes Benz and BMW cars, while others in vans, trishaw and even a tractor, but whatever their mode of transport , all 23 aspirants who came to the Elections Secretariat at Rajagiriya on Thursday between 9 a.m. and 11a.m. to hand in their nominations, had one common goal, that of becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.

The day began early for journalists who were assigned to cover nominations. They were asked to report to the Information Department at Narahenpita by 6 a.m. to be security cleared and transported to the Elections Secretariat to cover the event.

This meant journalists spending a lot of time awaiting temporary passes, getting checked and then waiting till all their colleagues too had completed the process before heading to the venue in specially arranged buses.

But arriving even earlier than the journalists at the Elections Secretariat that morning was one presidential candidate, Dr.Wickremabahu Karunaratna of the Left Front, who had made his way into the Secretariat auditorium before the arrival of the cameras. There was a steady flow of candidates from 8 a.m. onwards with the opposition’s common candidate Sarath Fonseka arriving around 8.30 a.m. It was nearly two hours later that his main rival President Mahinda Rajapaksa made his appearance.

Some of the more colourful candidates included Sirithunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party who came in a trishaw (his Party symbol) to hand in his nominations while Battaramulle Seelaratna Thera used a tractor (symbol of his Party, Janasena Peramuna) to get to the venue.

Nomination day
President Rajapaksa arriving at the Elections Secretariat
Gen. Fonseka handing over nomination papers to Elections Commissioner
Battaramulle Seelaratna Thera arrving in a tractor and (below) Sirithunga Jayasuriya in a three wheeler

However, the monk had to get off the tractor some distance away and walk to the Secretariat premises as his mode of transport was not cleared for entry into the high security area.

Another candidate Wije Dias of the Socialist Equality Party drove himself to the Secretariat premises only to be told that he would have to park his vehicle and come back on foot. Businessman A.S.P.Liyanage who is contesting from the Sri Lanka Labour Party arrived in his silver Chrysler, a sharp contrast to the majority of the other contenders who had less luxurious vehicles to come in.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa was the last to arrive reaching the venue around 10.30 a.m.

Several government ministers had arrived at the Secretariat prior to the President’s arrival and were accommodated in a special room set up for VIPs from where they could view the live telecast being aired by the state run Rupavahini Corporation.

They had sole access to the auditorium at the Secretariat where the nominations were accepted while the only photographer allowed access to the room was the official photographer to the President, Sudath Silva.

An interesting combination observed by media personnel was Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda arriving with veteran politician Minister M.H.Mohamed. The two were publicly at loggerheads, at one time over the internal UNP squabbling with Minister Mohamed once famously calling Mr. Moragoda a “sanctimonious humbug”.

With both now in the government, old rivalries seemed to be long forgotten. Also seated in the VIP room watching the nomination process were rebel-turned politician Vinyagamoorthy Muralitharan, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF) Wimal Weerwansa, Senior Advisor to the President Basil Rajapaksa, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayaka and JVP MP Anura Dissanayake.

Sarath Kongahage who handed in his nomination as the candidate of the Eksath Jathika Vikalpa Peramuna raised an objection to the candidature of General Fonseka on the grounds he was a U.S.citizen and thus unqualified to contest for the presidency. However, when queried by Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake if Mr. Kongahage had any documentary evidence of such a claim, he replied it was “public knowledge.” However, the Commissioner overruled this objection as well as another one against the candidature of M.C.M.Ismail of the Democratic United National Front by Sarath Manamendra the candidate of the Nawa Sihala Urumaya.

The Sri Lanka Progressive Front’s Nelson Perera’s nomination papers were rejected due to claims made by rival groups. President Mahinda Rajapaksa left the premises after telling journalists he would work for the development of the country in his second term in office after having fulfilled the promise to eradicate terrorism, while General Fonseka said, he would fight corruption, rid the country of family rule and ensure better living conditions for the people.

Much of the sentiments of the other 20 candidates were drowned amidst the media rush to obtain the views of the two main contenders. And so while 22 maybe officially in the running for the presidency, in reality it is only a two horse race.

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