Two leaders who are among the main shareholders of the victory against the Tiger guerrillas are all set to cross swords at Sri Lanka's sixth Presidential Election.
And to sway Sri Lanka's 14 million voters, both are making claims that the war success is solely theirs. The voters will decide on January 26 who singularly deserves the biggest honour.
After weeks of speculation the die was cast by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday night when he issued the proclamation through a gazette notification for a presidential poll, two years before his first six-year term expired.
In the gazette notification dated November 23, the President declared his intention of “appealing to the people for a mandate to hold office, by election, for a further term”. The Constitution provides for the President to call an election after completing four years of his term in office but this would also mean that if the president is reelected, he will have to forego the balance two years of his first term.
The Elections Commissioner announced on Friday that the election will be held on January 26th with nominations scheduled for December 17.The President claimed he had decided to call for an early poll not only because that was the wish of his party supporters but also because he wanted to give the North-East people who were prevented from voting at the 2005 election due to a boycott called by the LTTE, a chance to exercise their franchise freely.
“I am not afraid of elections. I am always willing to go to the people for a fresh mandate,” a confident President told media personnel at Temple Trees on Thursday.
Senior presidential advisor and President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa has been appointed as co-ordinator of the election campaign with Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayaka heading a committee tasked with organising campaign work at electoral and district levels.
While the President has had a head start in his bid for re-election with the poster/cutout propaganda already almost at full-blown level, the main opposition alliance United National Front (UNF) and the JVP, though forewarned of an early presidential poll by several indicators over the past few weeks, began putting their endorsement on a “common candidate” only after the President’s proclamation. It was the JVP which went public first with the party’s politburo decision to endorse General Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate. “He is the best candidate to defeat Mahinda Rajapaska,” the JVP parliamentary group leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said.
On Thursday SLFP (M) leader Mangala Samaraweera said his party too was backing Fonseka’s candidature and several hours later UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that the Working Committee of his party had endorsed the former Chief of Defence Staff to run for office, setting the stage for Gen. Fonseka to meet his Commander-in-Chief in the political battlefield.
|A huge cutout, more than 100 feet tall, of President Mahinda Rajapaksa being erected near Alexandra Junction in Colombo 7.
Pic. by Ranjith Perera
The UNPs announcement came after it secured guarantees from Gen. Fonseka that after his election he would appoint a caretaker Cabinet, set up the Constitutional Council (CC) before general elections, repeal unnecessary laws that hinder civil liberties and take meaningful steps to resettle the displaced. Gen. Fonseka’s candidature is to be formally announced on Wednesday.
The four-star General is slated to hold a media briefing this morning to outline his election campaign, which will be spearheaded by the UNF and the JVP separately. Mr. Wickremesinghe said the election would be more a referendum on the Rajapaksa administration.
While some minority parties are still undecided about whom to support, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Up Country People’s Front (UPF) have decided to back President Rajapaksa’s re-election campaign, party sources said.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian N. Sri Kantha said his party would take a decision as to whom to support only after nominations are handed over.
A total of 14,088,500 registered voters are eligible to vote at the presidential poll and the Elections Department this year has the additional burden of ensuring that nearly 300,000 people who were displaced and then resettled in the North and East get the opportunity to cast their votes. Additional Elections Commissioner P.M. Siriwardena said the Department was working out the modalities to enable these recently settled IDPs to vote.
The Cabinet also decided on Wednesday to instruct the Commissioner of Registration of Persons to facilitate the issue of temporary National Identity Cards valid for one year to those without NICs so that they are not deprived of their franchise.
Commissioner A.G. Dharmadasa said the temporary NICs would be issued via Divisional Secretariats.
Around 2.6 million registered voters in the 2008 electoral list had not indicated their NIC numbers in their registration forms but the actual number without NIC would be less, the Commissioner said.
Four other candidates have also announced that they will contest the presidency. They are Wickremabahu Karunaratna of the New Left Front, Wije Dias of the Socialist Equality Party and Battaramulle Seelaratna Thera.
The stage has now been set for what could become the mother of all presidential elections the country has seen with the next eight weeks decisive for the main candidates as they campaign to woo voters. While President Rajapaksa said he would carry out a “positive campaign”, early indicators are it will be anything but positive.
ID cards: Too big a task, too little time
Even though the Government has announced that temporary identity cards valid for one year would be issued within the next two months, to voters who have no valid forms of identification to enable them to vote at the upcoming Presidential poll, election monitors say the task is too big to be completed in such a short time.
The Cabinet of ministers decided to issue temporary identity cards last week. Department Registration of Persons Commissioner A.G.Dharmadasa said the identity cards would be issued by the District Secretariats after the applications certified by the Grama Niladhari and the AGA of each area are submitted to his office.
“Although there are around 2.6 million voters whose National Identity Card (NIC) numbers are not entered in the completed electoral registration forms, the actual numbers without NICs are less. It is only voters who do not have any form of valid identity card to produce at the polling booth who will need the temporary identity card,” Mr. Dharmadasa said.
However Keerthi Tennakoon of the election monitoring group CaFFE said that it is likely a large number of people would be disenfranchised due to the identity card issue. “The Government was aware of this problem for the past 18 months but did not do anything about it. Now at the last minute attempts are being made to issue temporary identity cards but it is not possible to practically do so in such a short period of time,” Mr.Tennakoon said.
Flirting with the media: It’s election time
Politicians realise the value of the media during time of elections and President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no exception to the rule. Given the dismal record his administration has had in dealing with the media in the past four years and with the presidentialelection less than two months away, wanting to mend fences with the media is clearly a step in the right direction.
Last week was a busy one in this regard for President Rajapaksa who met with publishers and editors of newspapers on Tuesday and followed it up on Thursday with a breakfast meeting at Temple Trees for news desk heads and senior journalists from both the private and state run print and electronic media.
Flanked by Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, Ministers Anura Priyadharshana Yapa and Dulles Allahaperuma and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the President appeared casual and upbeat as he addressed those present.
While Thursday’s meeting was intended to request both state and private media to give impartial and balanced coverage to all candidates contesting the January 26 election, the President, at the end of his opening remarks, told those present they could ask him “anything” they wish.
In his response to queries, the President displayed his knack for answering questions in a manner that whetted ones appetite to ask more questions. He said a lot but still did not say much on several issues that were raised. For example, when asked why he maintained a jumbo Cabinet despite all the criticism, the President admitted ‘it is too large’ but he needed a stable government as he had a certain “goal to achieve” (defeat the LTTE) and a large Cabinet was needed for that reason. There was no mention of whether he would scale down his next Cabinet if re-elected.
But obviously the President had no immediate plans to do so, for at the same time he met the media personnel, National Freedom Front MP Achala Jagoda along with his family members was waiting to be sworn in as the new Minister of Tourism.
The President did not seem to be ruffled by the entry of a former military big wig as his main contender at the upcoming poll and when asked whether he preferred a former military man or a politician to contest against, he promptly replied, “It doesn’t matter to me who comes.”
But using Brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as example, the President was quick to add that once out of uniform; former military men were just like anyone else. “He was also a former army officer but now he is in a shirt and tie,” the President said, pointing to the Defence Secretary.
As for killings, abductions and attacks on journalists, the President said he had taken responsibility for all these incidents as well as the white van cases because “it was my responsibility as the head of the government. Investigations are continuing and there will be no cover up,” he assured.
“I have taken the responsibility for what ever happened. When Obama (US President Barack Obama) sends a letter, I have to answer to him. Here, I have a letter he has sent regarding journalist (J.S.) Tissainayagam,” the President said, in an attempt to explain the pressure he faced from many countries during the war against the LTTE.
A question-answer session with the President lasted nearly one and a quarter hour before he led those present to the spacious dining area of Temple Trees for breakfast.
Many got to sit at the same table with the President and enjoy a breakfast of hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, idly and several other items topped up with tea or coffee.
But more than the food, the President chatted informally with the journalists during and after the breakfast while the Defence Secretary too mingled freely, satisfying the curiosity of those present by letting them in one some inside information into the now famous Rajapaksa-Fonseka rift.
All in all, except for the rigorous body searches that the media personnel had to undergo to get into Temple Trees, the nearly four hours spent there was far less constricting.