ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29
Columns - Political Column  

Politics of suspense and skulduggery

  • Govt. survives on JVP support, but Anura trapped, Thonda escapes

By Our Political Editor

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which had outsmarted the opposition United National Party (UNP) to become the bitterest critics of the Government in recent months, on Friday helped its declared foe to remain in power.

'Who misled you?' seems to be what minister John Seneviratne is telling his colleague Anura Bandaranaike in Parliament on Friday. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam

If they voted against the budget during the second reading last month, they abstained en masse on Friday. A record majority of 47 votes passed the final vote of the budget, the culmination of the Committee Stage. Voting in favour were 114 - down from 118 last time round, whilst 67 were against - down from 105, with six abstentions. Soon after Speaker, W.J. M. Lokubandara announced the result; Government MPs including Mahinanda Aluthgamage, Jagath Pushpakumara and Rohita Abeygunawardena brought a wreath and placed it in front of Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's seat.

Former Sports Minister UNP's Johnston Fernando kicked it in typical footballer's fashion forcing the wreath to fly. That was the sombre note on which the suspense-filled budget debate ended. Heated verbal exchanges followed putting paid to the traditional practice of party leaders thanking parliamentary staff for their efforts during the more-than-a-month-long debate.

It was only last week that the JVP made its position unequivocally clear - there will be no abstentions and no vote in favour of the budget. It was going to be a vote against it. If any more proof was required, it came on Friday morning. In the wake of the JVP's politburo meeting the previous night, their General Secretary Tilvin Silva told VFM radio, their own party radio station, that the JVP would oppose the budget. What more encouragement to the Opposition than that. It came against the backdrop of more JVP parliamentarians speaking assertively throughout the week. Come Friday afternoon, and the JVP not only sprung a surprise but also pulled the carpet right under the feet of the entire Opposition. For the latter, it was a great betrayal. It seemed that the party's politburo had in fact decided on Thursday night to abstain, and ensure that the Government they were bitterly critical of, not fall.

The Opposition fell victim to the JVP ploy. Read with what Tilvin Silva told their own party radio station, the move seemed to deceive the Opposition. For what purpose no-one really knows. Its Parliamentary Leader Wimal Weerawansa who was the last to wind up for the JVP slammed the Government, no doubt, but he also quoted an Aesopian fable which pointed out that they will not allow a new set of ticks (the UNP) bleed this country further - which begs the question - then why did they vote against the 2nd reading of the budget?.

Opposition members moving against the Government first learnt that the JVP was still undecided. That was early Friday. The story went that a discussion had ensued among their (JVP) own group where there had been a heated exchange of words between their parliamentary group leader Wimal Weerawansa on the one hand and Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Vijitha Herath on the other. The mood, it was argued, appeared to veer around voting against the budget. There was a flurry of activity.

Prime movers in the opposition had worked out their strategy. Two Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members and two of the UNPers who had crossed over to the Government recently would cross over to the Opposition benches. Anura Bandaranaike was in the office of UNP Leader Wickremesinghe, talking about his plans to cross over. Bandaranaike's phone rang. It was the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader, Arumugam Thondaman. "You go. We will follow," said Thondaman to Anura. Moments later, CWC's National Organiser R. Yogarajan walked into Wickremesinghe's room to shake Bandaranaike's hands and declared; "in future we will work together."

Earlier, Anura had met National Congress co-leader Mangala Samaraweera. He asked the latter "are you sure the JVP will vote against the budget?" The man who brought about the marriage between the JVP and SLFP which helped them win 39 seats at the last parliamentary general elections replied: "of course - I am positive." That was to give strength to Bandaranaike to do what he eventually did.

Having assured Bandaranaike of the JVP's support, Samaraweera walked into Thondaman's office in Parliament. He wanted to work out the finer points for 'Thonda' to follow across the floor of the House after Bandaranaike. In fact, said one opposition source, Thondaman was armed with the resignation letters of his colleagues and himself from Ministerial portfolios. However, the man was not in his room. Samaraweera waited for almost an hour for Thondaman. It was only thereafter that Samaraweera spoke with Thondaman. What he said was to jolt the former Foreign Minister. "I have changed my mind. We are not crossing over," said Thondaman.

Samaraweera learnt that whilst he waited for Thondaman, the CWC leader had been locked in conversation with national list MP and Presidential Advisor, Basil Rajapaksa. What transpired there is not known, yet. Even more shocking was another factor. Samaraweera learnt that a prominent member of the JVP walked into the meeting to disclose to Thondaman that their party would abstain during the voting. It became clear that this prominent member has been working closely with Basil Rajapaksa. That was how Thondaman changed his mind. He knew that without the JVP's votes, the defeat of the budget was doomed to failure. There was a pall of gloom among the Opposition top-rung.

Samaraweera rushed back to Bandaranaike. But it was too late. Bandaranaike has already jumped the gun, and sat on the Opposition benches. Samaraweera broke the devastating news to Bandaranaike, one of the original brokers of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that brought about the marriage between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the JVP to defeat the UNP Government in 2004. In a desperate bid to do some damage-control, at least for Bandaranaike's sake, Samaraweera then urged Bandaranaike to abstain from voting. That was how the National Heritage Minister walked out of the House before the voting started. He muttered something to Weerawansa who shot back in equal measure with an unkind barb at Bandaranaike's expense.

When Bandaranaike, the son of two Prime Ministers, including the founder of the SLFP, came out of the chamber, he learnt that his security has already been withdrawn. The Rajapaksa Government had moved at the speed of greased lightning. Government MPs, particularly those known for their verbosity, some of whom Bandaranike had himself inducted into politics, were heckling him on his way out. He could not travel to his Ministry to say goodbye to the staff. More importantly, he wanted to speak to his sister, Chandrika who was abroad and tell her what happened to him.

The first casualty of the Opposition moves to oust the Government was Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader, Rauff Hakeem and three of his parliamentary colleagues - Basheer Segu Dawood, Hassan Ali and Faizal Cassim. They all had their security contingents withdrawn pronto. On Wednesday, they had crossed over to the Opposition benches fuelling speculation that the Government faced defeat.

Heightening this was Friday's cross over by Bandaranaike, who did not, however, do the traditional cross-over by walking across the 'floor of the House', a line that runs parallel dividing the Government benches from those of the Opposition. He merely entered the chamber from the Opposition door at the back and took a seat in the Opposition side. It was the culmination of some sabre-rattling first when he voted for the 2nd reading with a defiant cry that he was voting because of his father and mother (who led the SLFP during their time) and not because of anyone else, then his public criticism of the way the country's foreign policy was being handled, leading to his resignation from the Consultative Committee of the Foreign Ministry in Parliament, and now this. But this time, he clearly seemed to have shot himself in the foot simply because he crossed over to the Opposition because he was made to believe that the Government would fall.

So, by the time voting came around, it was generally known what the JVP was going to do, unlike during the 2nd reading. If at that time they had kept it an absolute secret, this time round they had no qualms of informing Basil Rajapaksa about their decision. It was the Basil Rajapaksa-Thondaman meeting that then revealed this fact to the rest of the Opposition through Samaraweera.

It was the JVP's Galle MP Ajit Kumar who once again had to do the honours by announcing the JVP's position on the 3rd reading vote. The cat was thus officially out of the bag. The JVP was not going to see the fall of the Government. Sceptics who felt that the JVP voted the last time only because they knew there would be no cross-overs and the Government would remain in tact, may have been right.

Within just over a year, this is the second time that Bandaranaike had walked out of the Government. The first was with his erstwhile Cabinet colleague and friend, Mangala Samaraweera, in September last year. However, he left Samaraweera hardly a week thereafter to kiss and make up with President Rajapaksa. The latter even came to his birthday party in a rapprochement deal worked out by Western Province Governor and veteran trade unionist Syed Alavi Mowlana. If his personal security detail was withdrawn then, it was restored. If there were pressures to ask him to move out of Visumpaya (the former Acland House), he was told to stay "as long as he liked."

This time, Bandaranaike lost the personal security detail within minutes of his crossover. Cooks assigned to his official household from the Ceylon Hotels Corporation were asked on Friday evening to withdraw. Bandaranaike may not have been in any mood to eat that night, but even if he was, there was no-one to cook for him. There were indications that he would be asked to vacate Visumpaya too to pile on the pressure.

But as of yesterday Bandaranaike remained there incommunicado. But Presidential Security Division (STF) groups had taken charge of the one time state guest house. They were under orders not to allow anyone to enter except members of Bandaranaike's family.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) insiders say he has angered the political leadership on numerous issues. There were fears he would cross over. When asked he had denied it except to admit that there were strong pressures from family members. To make things worse, they alleged, that on Thursday night Mowlana, with Bandaranaike's Cabinet colleague and classmate Dinesh Gunawardena turned up at Visumpaya to meet Bandaranaike. They were turned away at the gate though Bandaranaike was inside. The staff, however, had claimed he was away thus triggering off a search for him late into the night. It later transpired he was very much at home.

Still, political analysts feel that Bandaranaike will survive all the treachery he does against the party and the President. On Friday afternoon, scores of SLFP MPs surrounded Bandaranaike and consoled him (while others had heckled him), among them Power and Energy Minister John Seneviratne and MP Arjuna Ranatunga. UDA Minister Dinesh Gunawardene was also present. The Rajapaksa brothers are only too well known to him, and despite what they see as Bandaranaike's eccentricities, they still have a soft spot for him. They might feel that there is every possibility of roping the man back into their fold, but that a little pressure tactics will serve the cause better.

Both during the second reading as well as Friday's final vote, it was the JVP that made the waves. On the first occasion, they were the cause for suspense by not revealing their stance. The fact that they were opposed to the budget became public only at the voting time on November 19. This, no doubt, made Government parliamentarians who were wooed being extremely cautious. Last Friday, however, was different.

This time the JVP had made its position public. Some of its front-liners had declared both in the media and at public meetings that they would vote against the budget. So Opposition MPs were emboldened to lobby their counterparts in the Government. The frenzy was so high it worried those in the Government. Late night meetings went on at Temple Trees where close tabs were kept on developments. Those who were rumoured would cross over were spoken to. Others who were missing were tracked down to be asked questions about their intentions.

Even President Rajapaksa, who was on a three-day official visit to Japan was keeping track of developments at home. He then flew to the UK to see his son pass out as a subaltern from the Dartmouth Naval Academy. Even the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who was busy with the 57th anniversary commemoration activities of his own institution, took a Sri Lankan Airlines flight to be on hand at the ceremony.

Before taking off to Japan, President Rajapaksa had left in the hands of close members of the family, some key responsibilities and organisations. His brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was appointed acting Secretary to the President. Lalith Weeratunga, who holds the substantive post and Gamini Senarath, who acted in his absence were both in the Presidential entourage. The Government's 'budget' airline Mihinair was brought under his elder brother, Chamal who is the Minister of Ports and Aviation. Two separate Gazette Extraordinary notifications were issued in respect of the two matters.

On Friday, a scheduled SriLankan airlines flight brought President Rajapaksa to Colombo in the nick of time. His immediate task was to keep a close watch on developments in Parliament. But his brother Basil had done the needful by then.

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