Rajapaksa goes in as underdog, but is no pushover
Major parties and civic action groups rally behind Maithripala, while crossovers continue
MR confident of victory, says good governance means good results
Opposition expresses concern over ‘computer jilmart’ and police powers being given to armed forces
The month long campaign for Thursday’s presidential poll ends at midnight tomorrow (Monday) and the main contenders are equally confident of victory.
“It is likely my victory this time would be with a larger majority than in 2010,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. He said, “People know I have an impeccable record of conduct and results. This has led to a large number of undecided voters to shift towards me.”
Equally confident is his rival and former Cabinet colleague Maithripala Sirisena who heads the main Opposition coalition, the National Democratic Front (NDF). “I have never before witnessed such massive crowds at campaign rallies,” he told the Sunday Times. He said his belief was “bolstered by the Opposition Leader (Ranil Wickremesinghe) telling me the turnouts were similar to 1977 when the UNP won a landslide victory at the parliamentary elections.” He said he was confident people wanted a change to live without fear and intimidation.
President Rajapaksa countered a main plank of the joint Opposition’s campaign – the need for good governance. “More people now realise that good governance is all about generating good results,” he said and added; “hence, the accusations of my opponent and his group have now lost steam.” He pointed out “people have welcomed the massive development focus implemented by me, how our massive development drive has touched their lives, and how their lifestyles have improved tremendously.”
He told the Sunday Times, “Those who are promising good governance are actually terribly corrupt, are involved in many shady deals, have mafia connections and have been linked to many crimes.” Rajapaksa said he had two major priorities if re-elected. One was to move Sri Lanka to a US$ 7,500 per capita income level by 2020. The other, he said, was to formulate a new Constitution that would “reflect the people’s ideas, aspirations and wishes.”
Sirisena’s accusations about rampant bribery and corruption in the UPFA Government, were highlighted during a discussion at his official residence at Wijerama Mawatha, the official residence formerly occupied by the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. They came as answers to Rajapaksa’s charges. Sirisena said this was one of the topics he delved at length at polls meetings. “Some months after the presidential election in 2005,” he said, “there was a Minister who was engaged in corrupt activity. I complained to President Rajapaksa for I had the evidence.
He told me to write to the Minister concerned in my capacity as General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the majority partner in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Government. I was completely discouraged by the remarks and wondered whether it was worth having worked hard for him.” Sirisena said his immediate priorities were two fold — to adopt measures for the wellbeing of some ten million people who could not afford three meals a day.” Whilst initiating measures towards this,” he added, “I will focus on constitutional changes.” Sirisena’s 100-day programme of work encompasses these measures.
There are a number of factors that remain in Rajapaksa’s favour. One is his charisma and proven leadership qualities which have helped him win two previous presidential polls. His support in rural Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka is not to be underestimated. Also in his favour is the sudden emergence of Sirisena as the candidate. UNP national leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was originally billed as the candidate but a political metamorphosis followed.
The newly appointed Deputy Leader, Sajith Premadasa declared it would be him if Wickremesinghe did not contest. In the later weeks, the guessing game changed to either Wickremesinghe or Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. A distraction came after Rajapaksa offered Mangala Samaraweera, now the UNP’s Communications Director, the External Affairs Ministry and Law Reforms portfolio. Samaraweera who was then Singapore bound was persuaded by Ms Kumaratunga not to quit and was assured she would resolve the issue. Her efforts marked the entry of Sirisena. Some UNPers were disillusioned that, again, the UNP was unable to field its own candidate to challenge Rajapaksa.
That also put paid however to UPFA preparations for a campaign against Wickremesinghe over the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire agreement with the Tiger guerrillas and the events thereafter. However, it has been revived somewhat belatedly but with little effect after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) declared it would support Sirisena. Sections within the UNP, who have been worried in the recent years about their grassroots level organisations, are sceptical whether Sirisena’s message would reach their cadres. Sirisena does not have his own electoral machinery outside the Polonnaruwa district and the UNP machinery in the provinces is not well oiled. It is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that is doing some house-to-house campaigning for Sirisena while the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is more overt in bringing out corruption in the Rajapaksa regime through the media. If the Sirisena propaganda material and his message is not circulated, that would be an advantage to Rajapaksa. However, some senior UNP stalwarts contend that the grassroots level membership were equally literate politically like those in urban areas. They say social media and mobile phones have taken the message of corruption and the like to the young people in the rural areas and in turn it has reached the elderly. But Rajapaksa is the beneficiary of a lavish campaign costing in billions rather than millions of rupees. He is backed by a coterie of nouveau riche (new rich) billionaires and millionaires whose success was entirely due to his support. Being the incumbent President with access to such financial resources placed him at a distinct advantage.
Yet, there are a number other matters that stand against Rajapaksa. They tend to outbalance the pluses in his favour. Here are a few of the highlights:
The JHU was the key element in the Rajapaksa entity moulding and shaping its Sinhala Buddhist ideology. He was guided largely by the JHU. He does not anymore enjoy that support. Thus, there is no perceived monopoly of the Sinhala Buddhist votes. If the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was viewed as an alternative, it has a limited support base.
The SLFP was a unified entity in 2010. With the recent defections and Sirisena becoming the common candidate there may be at least a minimal three to five per cent erosion of votes of the traditional SLFPers. Taking into consideration the Bandaranaike legacy at least among the ‘old guard’ of the SLFP, Kumaratunga’s participation in the campaign makes Rajapaksa’s task of retaining the entire SLFP vote bank within the UPFA, a challenge.
Rajapaksa enjoyed a degree of support of the Muslim community in 2010. However, the June 2014 incidents in Beruwala, Aluthgama and Dharga Town have led to a total erosion of their support. This does not extend only in the South but also in all other areas including the East, where the entire Muslim political leadership has rallied against him.
Professional bodies did not take a collective stand at the 2010 presidential election. However, the majority of the professionals supported Rajapaksa then. This time the scenario has changed. More professionals like university academics, lawyers, and teachers are campaigning for Sirisena than before. Many professionals are sharply divided in supporting Rajapaksa for a third term.
Division in the civil society groups over support for Rajapaksa has increased compared to 2010. Many have pledged support to Sirisena.
Armed Forces personnel did not engage in commercial activities or ‘development work’ when 2010 elections were held. An identity crisis has already surfaced. This is highlighted in Sirisena’s manifesto. He has pledged to disengage them from doing such work. While the Government had a valid argument for keeping troops enlisted, the Opposition is exploiting the ‘dignity of the uniform’ issue.
Local artistes who supported Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010 have changed their voices this time in opposition to him.
There are around a million new voters. There is no specific programme by the UPFA to attract them. These young voters are heavily dependent on social media where Sirisena enjoys a greater popularity. Young voters usually are anti-Establishment voters.
The fact that the Rajapaksa family holds a multitude of official positions has led to public displeasure. The role of at least one of them has been the subject of criticism. Most of those who crossed over complained of the unfriendly conduct of one of them who had a monopoly of funding the functioning of their ministries.
All these and other factors helped the National Democratic Front (NDF) to forge a broader coalition than the one that existed when former General Sarath Fonseka contested the 2010 presidential election – not to mention the euphoria of a war victory which went to the Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Besides a large number of UPFA Provincial and other local councillors, the NDF has been able to bring within its fold 26 parliamentarians from the UPFA until yesterday — a record in the country’s political history.
To a lesser degree than originally envisaged, the UPFA fired a salvo at both the JHU and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) hinting that the JHU was now endorsing the “separatist agenda” of the TNA. “That kind of propaganda will not work now. It is the UPFA which is having in its ranks one time LTTE kingmakers who were responsible for escalating the war against our troops. The TNA has endorsed Maithripala Sirisena’s programme of work and chosen to support him unconditionally,” JHU General Secretary Champika Ranawaka said yesterday. He said the NDF manifesto had sworn allegiance to the Constitution which upholds the unitary character of Sri Lanka.
“We have not stipulated any conditions. No political solution can be born in secrecy. All the people in the country have to know about it. It is only then that a solution can be found,” Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) told the Sunday Times. In an interview, he gave the reasons why TNA decided to support Sirisena. “We need a leader who will have the courage and conviction to give all the people of this country their right to live as equal citizens,” he said.
Signs that the UPFA was under some form of stress emerged last week. The United National Party’s former Chairman Malik Samarawickrama, a close confidant of the party’s national leader Ranil Wickremesinghe complained of what he thought was a serious misunderstanding with President Rajapaksa. He said, “I had a call on the mobile phone from Lohan Ratwatte, the UPFA MP for the Kandy District. He passed the phone to HE the President. Mr Rajapaksa accused me of doing all the damage to him in collaboration with Mangala Samaraweera. He said after the presidential election, when he wins, he would be a different President Rajapaksa. You will then see what happens.”
Samarawickrema told the Sunday Times, “Obviously someone had misrepresented matters to HE the President. It is no secret that I am working for the United National Party and the National Democratic Front. So is Mangala Samaraweera. That is no secret,” he said. “Worse still, a small section of the media had reported that I had telephoned President Rajapaksa. This is a fabrication like most other reports. I have asked my lawyers to file action,” he said.
The NDF appears to be concerned about President Rajapaksa granting Police powers to the armed forces. NDF Secretary Shyamila Perera wrote on January 1 to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya, urging him to direct that armed forces personnel be confined to barracks from January 5 until the polls are concluded. This is with the exception of troops being permitted to engage in matters of national security. The NDF has said the President, acting under the provisions of the Public Security Ordinance, conferred Police powers to the armed forces. Those included powers of search and arrest. Hence, the NDF has said that the armed forces today were an institution that was exercising Police powers.
This week also saw the pullout of the UPFA by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). It was no doubt a relief to its leader former Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem that all his MPs quit. Hakeem said, “We did not want to give the Government the opportunity to blame us. We needed to maintain our credibility. To our credit, all MPs quit and no one chose to remain. In his letter of resignation Hakeem only said “the portentous events that have unfolded in recent times, and the overwhelming pressure from your party and people have also made it inevitable that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress should withdraw from the United People’s Freedom Alliance, in the wake of the imminent Presidential Election of January 8 2015.”
Yet, the fact that some of them regretted the decision they took is reflected by a letter former Productivity Promotion Basheer Minister Segu Dawood wrote to President Rajapaksa. Here are excerpts from an English translation:
“……..I offer assurance however that my resignation does not, in any way, imply dissatisfaction of or lack of faith in your leadership. It is my belief that, as executive president, you rendered great service to the motherland during the past nine years.
“Your Excellency did what no executive president before you could achieve, in bringing to a closure the 30-year war. I will never lose recollection of the fact that you instilled peace among the people of our country.
The reasons for my resignation are these:
“1. That I am bound to agree with all decisions taken by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the party I represent
“2. In order not to give rise to the idea that I betrayed the Muslim community
“3. In order not to be branded a power hungry despot
“4. As I am afraid I will not be able, due to the unstable condition I am in, to gain sufficient votes for your Excellency in the presidential poll
“In view of this complicated situation, I beg of you not to consider my act as a breach of trust. I believe you will understand my situation.
“I also give my assurance that I will not in any way participate in election campaigns which are against your best interests. I believe that you are next to God almighty in protecting the people of the country and especially the Muslim community.
“I make this the occasion too to express my heartfelt gratitude for all the privileges you granted me. In January your Excellency made me a cabinet minister without any recommendation by any other person and furthermore gave me support and guidance in steering my ministry.
“It is my heartfelt wish that you emerge victorious as our president in the coming election.”
Hakeem encapsulated his party’s issues at a news conference by saying the Congress was leaving due to lack of good governance. Obviously Segu Dawood does not agree with his leader. The next day, he declared “it is his heartfelt wish” that Rajapaksa wins and added “I will not in any way participate in election campaigns which are against your best interests.” Of course he stopped with that letter and did not engage in a campaign.
That was because he “made me a cabinet minister without any recommendation.” More importantly, there was a matter of greater concern to Muslims when he compared Rajapaksa as being “next to Almighty God” (or for Segu Dawood, it would be Allah). Obviously he forgot or chose to ignore the sayings in the Holy Quran. Sura 3 Verse 80 of the English translation by Yusuf Ali which says “and He commanded you that you should not take the angels and the prophets for Lords…..” In other words, no mortal being, the Holy Quran says, should be equated to God (or Allah in this instance). The SLMC and the TNA became the last political parties to join the NDF. Days earlier, the All Ceylon People’s (Makkal) Party led by Rishad Bathiuddin expressed support for Sirisena.
SLMC’s General Secretary Hassan Ali who elaborated on his party’s actions told the Sunday Times, “Our party decided to quit the Government since it has failed to fulfil the promises made to them when forming a government in the Eastern Provincial Council in 2012.”
“We realised the mindset of the Government. Its policies are against the minorities. When the Eastern Provincial Council was formed, the Government gave us eight promises including a separate administrative area encompassing Kalmunai, Sammanthurai, Pothuvil for the Tamil speaking people.
“The security of the Muslim community is questionable in the rule of this government after the atrocities in Aluthgama and surrounding areas.
“There was no remorse in the Government ranks. No one was held accountable for those crimes. The Government nurtures the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Now they have created bogus leaders in the Tamil and Muslim communities and are trying to make a tense situation between them.
“Another of the promises was to ensure the participation of the SLMC when a settlement of the national question is discussed. However, the Government did not include us in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) appointed for this purpose. We have tolerated enough and have been marginalised by this Government enough. They have cheated us.”
The week also saw the DNF worried over other issues related to next Thursday’s polls. One is a fear coming from the results of the 2010 presidential election. The words “computer jilmaat” became the language to describe computer manipulation of results. At that time when former General Sarath Fonseka lost by 1.8 million votes, it was suggested that this was due to “computer jilmaat.” Early this week, at the Colombo residence of a UNP politician, a team of experts gave a briefing. They explained that when results were faxed to the Elections Office in Colombo, there were programming methods that could be manipulated in advance. The matter became the subject of intense discussion among the Opposition leaders.
On Wednesday, a team of nearly 15 persons representing the NDF met the Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya to raise issue over this subject and related issues. The team included Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake. Commissioner Deshapriya, a source said, had agreed to give party agents at the 1419 counting centres a carbon copy of the Results Sheet that would be faxed to the Department of Elections in Colombo for the final compilation of the results. The source said that during a three-hour meeting, several other matters including clarifications on legal issues were taken up.
The campaign for the presidential race ends bar the shouting tomorrow night. With all the forces arraigned against the incumbent, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, for once though strongly defiant goes as the underdog. It was a poll he called two years ahead of the scheduled date, a decision which may or may not have been a wise one. It was his own calling. But it is difficult to comprehend a life after a Rajapaksa Presidency so easily. He is no mere pushover.
Executive presidency leading to dictatorship: Sampanthan
“There are factors that compelled us to come to the conclusion that there is a need for a change to enable this country to be genuinely democratic and uphold the supremacy of the rule of law,” says Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Here are excerpts of an interview:
WHY THE TNA DECIDED TO SUPPORT NDF CANDIDATE: Through the instrument of the Executive Presidency we are moving towards dictatorship. All powers of governance are concentrated in the President. Parliament has become a mere appendage of the Executive President. It has abdicated its position as the supreme legislative body. A person elected to the opposition is bought over by the Government through financial inducement and executive positions thereby becoming an appendage of the Executive Presidency.
INDEPENDENCE OF THE JUDICIARY: The independence of the higher judiciary – the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal – has been subverted. The Chief Justice was impeached on frivolous grounds and since then the deterioration in the standard of independence has been rapid. The judiciary has in these circumstances most unfortunately become a convenient tool in the hands of the President though the people would like to hold the judiciary in higher esteem. The abolition of the 17th Amendment and the enactment of the 18th Amendment making defunct the Constitutional Council and appointments to higher judicial positions, the Judicial Services Commission, the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption, the offices of the Attorney General and the Auditor General being done at the sole discretion of the President. This is without the recommendation of an impartial body such as the Constitutional Council. This has once again subverted these independent institutions and made it a convenient tool in the hands of the Executive President.
THE REMOVAL OF TWO TERMS OF THE PRESIDENT: The removal of the limitation of two terms in the office of the President and the right to run for office without any limitation is an effort to entrench the dictatorial and authoritarian attitude. Interference in the free media and civil society, the denial of the right to information by not enacting necessary legislation is again a move towards authoritarianism. Elections are held periodically but they cannot be said to be free and fair. The cumulative impact of these is that the country is going from being a vibrant democracy to a dictatorship. The rule of law is reversed to be the fiat of the Executive Presidency.
These are the reasons or the basis why we believe there needs to be a change. It is accepted even by sections of the Government who supported the repeal of the 17th Amendment and the enactment of the 18th Amendment, some of whom have crossed over to the opposition camp. This is a matter which affects the whole country over which every citizen should be concerned.
WAR AFFECTED PEOPLE IN THE NORTH AND EAST: There has been no genuine effort on the part of the Government towards a political solution despite TNA extending its fullest support to the evolution of a just and reasonable solution within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka.