Political Column  

Crucial poll goes to the wire
By Our Political Editor
An early morning chore at "Temple Trees" for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse in the past several days has been to telephone President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. As her Sri Lanka Freedom Party's (SLFP) presidential candidate, he wanted to brief her on the ongoing campaign and obtain guidance.

The telephone operator at Janadipathi Mandiraya would politely answer his call, keep him waiting for a while and later tell him she was not answering the phone. Rajapakse would then leave a message - "tell her that I telephoned." The calls, however, were never returned. Kumaratunga, it seemed, was still prosecuting her "guerrilla war" against Rajapakse for not following in her footsteps.

But Rajapakse did not give up. Last Friday morning, he was lucky. The operator politely told the Premier to hold the line. Lo and behold, the outgoing President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, was on the line. She was in a fine mood and spoke in very friendly terms, Rajapakse told a close aide. "That is the time you will have to be more cautious. She has not given up telling key people to go slow on campaigning for you," warned the aide. The Premier only smiled.

The Kumaratunga mood change had been noticed even three days earlier by some of Rajapakse's cabinet colleagues. They heard Kumaratunga remark ahead of last Wednesday's Cabinet meeting that the elections were now a close fight between Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe. The same Ministers had heard her remark earlier that with the votes of Catholics, Muslims and plantation workers Rajapakse had no chance ever of a victory. What made her change her mind? One Minister said she was regularly seeking the outcome of field surveys carried out by the Directorate of Internal Intelligence (DII).

At last week's Cabinet meeting Prime Minister Rajapakse was keen on a fertilizer subsidy, but he could not convince his colleague Finance Minister, Sarath Amunugama to announce it in last Tuesday's budget to offer a hundredweight of fertilizer to farmers at Rs 350. Instead, Amunugama declared it would be priced at Rs 550 - the amount offered by United National Party and Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe.
At the meeting, Kumaratunga had also not been in favour of the move to give a major fertilizer subsidy as requested by Rajapakse. After the meeting, Rajapakse made another bid to have the subsidy included. He made a telephone call to Amunugama. Later, when the Finance Minister arrived in Parliament, Ministers Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Nimal Siripala de Silva made a last minute plea on behalf of Rajapakse. They were all of no avail.

On the other hand, Amunugama was heard to chide Rajapakse's economic advisor, Nivard Cabral and point out such measures cannot be enforced without a strain on the economy.

Addressing election rallies thereafter, Rajapakse said if he was voted President, he did not require another budget to bring the fertilizer prices down. He said that would be his first Cabinet paper and will be put into effect no sooner Ministers granted approval. But firstly, he has to win and become President.

That is still no easy task. Kumaratunga and her brother Anura have been continuing to blow hot and cold with Rajapakse. That the duo did not put their best foot forward in Rajapakse's election campaign is now a public secret. They left Colombo on Friday for Dhaka to attend the SAARC summit. Thereafter, Kumaratunga was to return to Sri Lanka. This was in time to declare open the re-developed Bandaranaike International Airport on November 15 and address the Nation in the evening. Rajapakse aides were reacting with trepidation whether she would fire the last "political salvo" on Rajapakse.

This could be either directly, or in a veiled way to make sure he does not win next Thursday's elections. Others say since it was her farewell address, she would focus more on praising herself.

Brother Anura, the Foreign Minister, was to originally fly from Dhaka to London to take part in the World Travel Mart. His friend, and one of his favourite diplomats, Kshenuka Seneviratne, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom was not only lining up engagements, but also insisted on meeting and greeting him personally on arrival at the Heathrow Airport. Anura had earlier told her to proceed to the tourism fair, but the High Commissioner had insisted she should be at the airport. The Prime Ministerial aspirant in a Rajapakse Presidency, who only weeks ago staked his claim for the post in a letter to his sister, was scheduled to return to Colombo only on November 17, in time to cast his vote. Then, he was to wait until Rajapakse won to be named PM. But sister Kumaratunga told Anura to cancel his UK trip and return to Colombo. Blowing hot and cold has been a consistent Bandaranaike tradition in the recent weeks.

Kumaratunga has been spending the waning days of her controversial presidency partying, pushing projects through Cabinet with a crusading zeal, and engaging in talks about herself so that history is kind to her legacy. Her catch phrases were echoing within the walls of Janadipathi Mandiraya and outside - "My hands have not been stained with mud or blood. I am leaving office empty handed". She speaks of protecting democracy, forging national amity, upholding media freedom, the rule of law, giving the needy children of Sri Lanka a much deserved system of education. Such was the eloquence; voters would surely have installed her for a third term if there was constitutional provision to do that.

Talking of the media, when she assumed office in 1994, she avoided granting interviews to the local private media. In true tradition, she excluded them on the eve of her departure by speaking to a foreign correspondent. During her inaugural address, she vowed to fight corruption. As she leaves, only a member of the family is under investigation for corrupt activity. Many a big shark in uniform and outside it has gone scot-free and even won elevated positions.

A similar farewell dinner was also accorded to armed forces chiefs and those in the Ministry of Defence by its Secretary, retired Major General Asoka Jayawardhana. The camaraderie was so great, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda, never in the news unlike all his predecessors, -- sang a few popular Sinhala hits. Unlike in the pre Royal-Thomian cricket encounter stag parties, where he is a star attraction, he seemed defeated by a rival this time. It was Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda who took over the mike and convinced all those present that he was indeed a versatile exponent of the baila. Many were thumping their feet or gyrating to his numbers.

Elsewhere, Rajapakse was in for some shock at the news given to him by the leader of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), Douglas Devananda. He told the Premier that Kumaratunga had telephoned him and asked him not to travel to Jaffna (together with Rajapakse) ostensibly for reasons of security. "You can decide what you want to do," the Premier told him. Devananda, a one time militant trained in warfare in a Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) camp in Lebanon, was bold enough to disregard Kumaratunga's warning. Early that morning he turned up at Temple Trees to accompany Rajapakse to Jaffna. That was not all. He had managed to put together a crowd of some 6,000 civilians to greet Rajapakse. However, the Premier was advised not to venture out from Palaly. Devananda's move caused some concern for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On the other hand, reports from Jaffna said, the LTTE was infuriated that Rajapakse did not come alone. The fact that he was accompanied by Devananda had annoyed them.

Also annoyed with Rajapakse was a strong Kumaratunga ally, parliamentarian Mahindananda Alutgamage, an ardent advocate of the P-TOMS or Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure. He had arranged for Rajapakse to address an election rally in Nawalapitiya and was awaiting his arrival. Heavy rains forced Rajapakse to cancel his plans. He phoned Aluthgamage to apologise. Later, the Premier used his mobile phone to make a speech. Aluthgamage held the phone before the microphone and that was how voters in Nawalapitiya heard Rajapakse speak.

This absence was to cause problems for Rajapakse. Quick to take advantage of a Rajapakse slip, Kumaratunga telephoned Aluthgamage and told him "Didn't I tell you. This is what Mahinda is," she said.
Crest-fallen, Aluthgamage was then met by a leading businessman in the area engaged in recruitment of youth for foreign employment. He was a staunch supporter of the UNP and a friend of its Chairman, Malik Samarawickrema. He told Aluthgamage that the UNP would not treat him the way he was treated by his own Prime Minister. He offered to take the MP to the UNP Chairman and invited him to join their party. Aluthgamage, unhappy though he was, refused.

The whirlwind campaign of Rajapakse, criss-crossing the country into rough weather result in his helicopter taking him to Ampara, Kalmunai and Sammanthurai to make an emergency landing on a school ground near Ratnapura. This was due to heavy rains and poor visibility. School children flocked from their classrooms to catch a glimpse of the Prime Minister - and the helicopter - before his helicopter took off again. Later, heavy rains stalled his departure forcing him to cancel some meetings en route in Eheliyagoda, Pelmadulla and later in Homagama. But, rain or sun, the caravan had to move on.

In the meantime, Kumaratunga has been busy steering through the Cabinet several projects and proposals. One source said there were some 150 such outstanding issues she wanted cleared in a mighty hurry. However, this could not be verified. One such matter she however wanted done was to give a plot of state land for a supporter, a wealthy casino owner and importer of spirits to manufacture liquor.

This land in Homagama belonged to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). A part of it had been used to locate towers that beamed radio programmes. She had urged SLBC Chairman Hudson Samarasinghe, a one-time protégé of late President Premadasa and now a diehard Kumaratunga loyalist, to have the SLBC board of directors approve it. When the matter came up before the board, Deputy Chairman Sunil Sarath Perera and other board members had objected to it. They held the view that it would lead to a security threat for the repeater towers.

Back to the Rajapakse campaign, his aides were irked by the conduct of a Cabinet Minister from the south who was not active in Rajapakse's election campaign. It was only last week that Kumaratunga had obtained for this Minister's son a slot in a diplomatic mission in Europe. The young man is a student and will now get paid by the Sri Lankan tax payer for "serving" in the foreign service. This Minister turned up at Temple Trees last Thursday to be asked by Rajapakse, "I say, I see you more in Colombo than in Kuliyapitiya. What are you doing here? Get back to your electorate and continue with the campaign." Rajapakse aides complained that Kumaratunga had advised the Minister in question not to take the campaign work seriously. But many other Kumaratunga loyalists were so busy electioneering that they were absentees at the last Cabinet meeting. They included Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva, D.M. Jayaratne, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, John Seneviratne and Susil Premjayantha.

Meanwhile, Rajapakse's active ally, the JVP, faced some tough questions from the business community at a meeting at the Hotel Hilton ballroom this week. Some big business leaders gathered there raised issue over how the JVP would react towards the private sector. It seemed there were fears that the JVP's association with Rajapakse meant the death knell of the private sector.

JVP leader, Somawansa Amerasinghe answered the question. He said under the UPFA Government, four JVP Ministers were in charge of cabinet portfolios. He asked whether any one of them had acted against the private sector. He said the private sector had an important role to play, and that the JVP had no reservations about it. Of course, the other JVP portfolios were Fisheries, Small Industries and Culture - not exactly where private sector concerns would come in.

Why should LTTE back Mahinda?
At the UNP headquarters, feelings were running high. Everyone knows, that a last minute entry by an unsolicited player -- like the Osama bin Laden tape that helped President George W. Bush get re-elected, or an own-goal could cost them victory. It was the two team members Navin Dissanayake and Milinda Moragoda who joined to score that own-goal for the UNP.

Addressing an election rally in Ginigathhena, Navin, son of the late Gamini Dissanayake declared that it would not be necessary for Sri Lankan security forces to fight Tiger guerrillas. "American and Indian forces will fight the LTTE if the Liberation Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran opts for war," he said. The Jaffna based Uthayan newspaper had a front page spread over his remarks. Naveen was also quoted as saying that the LTTE renegade leader Karuna had the full backing of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe before he set out on his diversion. "This is why Prabhakaran was unable to wage another war," he said.

The statement was a fact, because the Karuna faction was a creation of the CFA though by accident and not by design. But the question was whether such a statement should have been made on the eve of the LTTE deciding their role in the upcoming elections. Everyone knows the Karuna issue is a sore-point with the LTTE leadership, to put it mildly.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was not happy.

He called for Navin Dissanayake. His first reaction was, however, to deny the report, and say that he was misquoted by the Tamil newspapers - that he had spoken in Sinhala, and the reporter would have got it wrong. He said he had sent a denial, but the newspapers stood by their report saying that they had the tape.

Party campaigners called for the young man's blood, and asked that he call a press conference and make the denial, but his party leader came to his rescue and asked that the matter rest.

The ripples of that remark had already spread to the Wanni. In Kilinochchi, posters sprang up quoting the remarks and calling for a boycott of the Presidential elections. In Jaffna, the Uthayan ran a full-page article analysing the statement. More than the Karuna angle in it, the newspaper speculated rather wildly, that this was a deliberate statement by Navin Dissanayake to have Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated; so that his father-in-law Karu Jayasuriya, the UNP's incumbent deputy leader becomes the party's next leader post-Nov. 17.

The newspaper then suddenly went soft on the issue, insiders saying that they did not want to be seen as those persecuting a politician whose father, Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated by the LTTE in the run-up to the 1994 Presidential elections. Milinda Moragoda, one-time Minister and erstwhile confidant of the UNP Presidential candidate also put his foot in his mouth, repeating to a large extent what Navin Dissnayake had said and was rapped on the knuckles for it. He first said it during a TV interview.

The same content appeared later in a newspaper in the form of an interview. He talked of the ' international safety net that was created under the CFA, and how this prevented war. Asked about the Karuna issue, Moragoda seems to have put his foot in saying "Karuna is a product of the peace process for which the UNP made the bulk of the contribution".

The pro-Eelam web-sites picked up the story in next to no-time and spread the word around. If Navin Dissanayake was a small fry in the UNP machinery, Moragoda was not, they said. He was one of the two negotiators of the peace process, and here he was, indiscreetly claiming credit for the Karuna faction being a by-product of the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led peace process at the time.

Another dimension to the issue came from some regional watchers. They claimed that both Navin Dissanayake and Milinda Moragoda were very close to India. Hence, the remarks came on the advice of India who saw other countries in the region being favorably disposed towards Rajapakse. Like during the separatist insurgency, India was stirring the pot again, they claimed.

The LTTE felt that the successive Dissanayake-Moragoda statements were synchronized to win back Sinhala votes that seemed to be flowing to Mahinda Rajapakse due to his hard-line on the LTTE issue. It did not appear so. Ranil Wickremesinghe was quite un-happy with both of them. After the Navin Dissanayake cautioning he had to tell Moragoda that he should be careful when giving interviews.

The internal debate within the LTTE is one between the political wing and the military wing. The former saying that the two main parties in the ' south ' ( UNP and SLFP ) have come to some agreement about Federalism, and that they should capitalise on this climate, while the more hard-nosed who want nothing short of a separate Eelam state saying that Federalism is not what we want, and a Mahinda Rajapakse victory would create the climate for hostilities to resume, an environment that would benefit the military wing's agenda.

They were no doubt mindful of the fact that an EU ( European Union ) election monitoring team was in the country, and keeping a close tab on the LTTE. Smarting under a travel ban imposed by the EU, the LTTE has opted to be in the good books of the EU rather than aggravate the situation and sullying their image any further after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The EU delegation leader John Cushnahan was in Jaffna at the time they were deliberating in the Wanni.By Saturday, UNP organisers in the north and east had not received any red light to stop canvassing.

When they had contacted their LTTE counter-parts they were told that "no instructions have come from the Wanni leadership, so you can carry on with what you are doing". The official version of the party is that Wickremesinghe has not authorized any of these peace missions. They say that Wickremesinghe himself, party chairman Malik Samarawickrama and deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya have shot down any such overtures. " There is no need to go to the Wanni during the election campaign " was the message from 'Siri Kotha' the UNP headquarters.

The one person willing to play a mediatory role would be P. Chandrasekeran of the plantation Up Country People’s Front, but Wickremesinghe kept telling his party workers that there was no point in winning the elctions and losing the ' south '. He told them - as he told journalists - that he has not asked for an endorsement from the LTTE. "The votes of the north and east is a bonus " has been his message to them trudging it out in the rain and mud to grab the remaining floating votes in the Sinhalese populated south.

If Wickremesinghe does not get the votes of the Tamils of the north and east (which majority would have clearly gone to him because of the fact that they credit him with the end of the war through the peace process), and he loses votes in the south because of the voters of the south perceive him to be a leader who will strike a negative bargain with the LTTE - then he has fallen between two stools.

The LTTE's call for the people of the north and east to allow the people to do as they please is clearly something they must say with the EU and the international community watching. And if they really allow the people to do as they please, Wickremesinghe is in for half a million plus votes from them.

But their refraining from actually saying to vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe, takes away the argument from the Mahinda Rajapakse camp that there is a secret truck between the UNP and the LTTE.

Then, there is the school of thought that says that the LTTE by saying that the people can vote the way they please, coupled with Sambandan's statement to the effect that " the Tamils need not show any interest in this election " is in fact a message that they should boycott the election - in other words giving Mahinda Rajapakse a helping hand to coast home the winner. And thereby lies the tale. What is it in a Mahinda Rajapakse victory for the LTTE?

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