Columns - Political Column

The Rajapaksa thunderbolt

  • Unprecedented victory leaves opposition shell-shocked and in disarray
  • Election night hotel drama leads to coup and counter-coup charges
By Our Political Editor

At Tuesday's polls, the final count showed that Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa rode on a tidal wave of voter support to victory and continues as Sri Lanka's sixth President. The triumph was unprecedented. None of his predecessors had got an overwhelming majority of 1.8 million votes or gained 57.88 per cent when seeking a second term. He ceded only 40.15 per cent to his main rival, retired General Sarath Fonseka.

During the last November 2005 Presidential Election, Rajapaksa won his first six-year term by a thin majority of 180,786 against his rival, UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa polled over 4.8 million votes (or (50.29 per cent) over his opponent who had more than 4.7 million votes (or 48.43 per cent). His gamble to cut short his term by two years to seek a fresh mandate had paid great dividends and consolidated his position.

Rajapaksa then wanted to ascertain whether he could recover at least one of the two years he had sacrificed. His lawyers had advised him that under existing Constitutional provisions, he could take his oaths at anytime within one year. In accordance with this, he has decided to have his swearing in ceremony on February 4 when Sri Lanka marks its 62nd anniversary of Independence. The main national ceremony this year will be held in Kandy. Once sworn in, however, the question that has arisen is when his second term would begin. The President will seek a ruling from the Supreme Court in this regard.

Troops of the Gajaba regiment stand guard outside the Cinnamon Lake Hotel

While he awaits this, Rajapaksa has decided to dissolve Parliament on February 5 and call for general (Parliamentary) elections. The dissolution comes two months ahead of the end of the current term of Parliament (in April this year). "He not only wants to cash in on his own phenomenal victory but also take advantage of the disarray in opposition ranks," said one of his aides.

The unexpectedly high majority win for Rajapaksa even jolted the UPFA ranks. They were confident of a Rajapaksa victory. Yet, their own surveys stopped at 54 or 55 per cent, as the furthest volume of votes Rajapaksa would receive. A few even placed it at little beyond 51 per cent making a sizeable section in the Government apprehensive about the outcome. Thus, they were surprised at the unbelievably high voter support.

Elsewhere, the results were to have a shattering effect. Some of the leading Colombo-based diplomatic missions had forecast a victory for Gen. Fonseka. Some had done so after exhaustive surveys through their own local staff. The effect was devastating for all opposition parties that backed their 'common candidate'. The record crowds at rallies, the greater public response, attractive contributions from the business community at the last moment, even from those who had lavishly funded the President's campaign, and their own surveys had placed their candidate far ahead or so they believed.

Rigging charge

Gen. Fonseka told a news conference on Thursday, "We had a good response from the public. We knew we were going to win. The results have been manipulated with the use of technology." Mangala Samaraweera, (SLFP - M leader) joint spokesperson for Fonseka declared, "The results are a well planned hi-tech rigging." His colleague and joint spokesperson, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's (JVP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake said, "we do not accept the results. We are now collecting evidence and will show that the poll is flawed." The opposition has complained that its Counting Agents were not allowed entry into some of the centres until past 7 p.m. or later. They allege that elections officials at the district level did not pay heed to their representations.

United National Front Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe complained he was misquoted by sections of the media. He had responded to a media query on the day of the polls to say the election was relatively free of violence and peaceful. However, some media reported remarks not made by him. He had not endorsed the polls results as free and fair since there were several doubts. The opposition parties are "collecting evidence" and consulting legal opinion to file an election petition.

UPFA leaders reacted angrily to the accusations. Sri Lanka Freedom Party General Secretary and senior minister Maithripala Sirisena, said on Thursday it was a "decisive victory for Rajapaksa in a poll which was both free and fair. "No one can say it was manipulated," noted Minister Sarath Amunugama. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, who was one of the frontline campaigners for Rajapaksa added, "no candidate who had failed to uphold the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka has ever won a Presidential Election."

The debate over the results of the Presidential polls will continue for weeks and months to come. Those who are challenging the outcome are yet unable to produce any substantive evidence of mass-scale irregularities except to say the counting process on the night of January 26 was badly flawed. They say they are gathering evidence. Even if they succeed in this effort, will they be able to prove that large-scale irregularities did occur? Not a single independent poll monitoring body has made any comment on matters relating to the count and the results. However, they have declared ahead of the polls and on polling day that the election process was not "free and fair."

In the light of this, particularly in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the outcome of the polls has to be accepted. That is not to say that there were no irregularities or abuses. The words of Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake last Wednesday evening underscore the seriousness of the situation that surrounded the polls. Here are relevant excerpts of his speech at the official declaration of results:

"We did not have to go on to count the second and the third preferences. In the first count, the required percentage for a single candidate has been received. I was, therefore, able to call you today to announce results. You are aware of the results already. This time, the manner the results were released is different. At the counting centre a copy of the results at that respective counter centre was duplicated with a carbonized paper. The first copy was handed over to the agent of the candidate who received the highest poll there.

"The second copy to the agent of the candidate who received the second highest, the third was given to the agent of the candidate who received the third highest, the fourth was displayed on a notice board and the fifth was filed by the officer in charge. Thus I was able to avoid any allegations that may be made later on about the results. If not I would have to face a lot of complaints and allegations.

"I wish to bring out some points. In the first election which I conducted the then IGP declined to implement certain decisions taken and as a result there were problems. This same situation is experienced in some instances now. In the Constitution (Section 104 b) has a clause where media guidelines could be issued. I issued such guidelines with amendments. I have done the same earlier. My experience was that the two state media institutions did not pay attention to this.

"I was, therefore, forced to appoint a Competent Authority. They disregarded him as well. The heads of these institutions who met me promised that they will act according to the guidelines. We expected that they would be followed, but that did not happen. I had to cancel his (Competent Authority's) appointment and consider it as a useless exercise. Some of the State institutions failed to understand their responsibilities. They acted in a defiant manner. I faced inconvenience. Some said that my job was only to protect the ballot boxes and counting the votes.

"Under the current situation it may be difficult to even protect the ballot boxes. This is a situation, which causes problems. I am sorry that I have to act under difficult situations due to this. I should have retired in 2002 and I have been holding the post for 10 years. During that period I have held more elections than the previous Commissioners. I was able to win the hearts of all political parties in performing my duties. This time I worked with pain of mind. Nevertheless I fulfilled all my responsibilities. I was short of 72 staff members of the 525 cadre, but still we were able to conduct the elections…

"I have faced various problems and obstacles. The public have blamed me. They send abusive letters, they call at home and scold me. I worked under all this inconvenience. Now it has come to a situation, which I cannot control. I have also completed my age, as I have been eight years more in this post. I am asking that I be released from my duties. In the next few days I will be completing my remaining duties. Thereafter I don't think it is suitable for me to continue in this post.

"I cannot work with tension that is unhealthy for me. I am sorry to say that I have come to this decision. If something happens to me I will have to bear the consequences. Another point I want to make. Some of the regional leaders (politicians) trouble us. As an example in Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Matale districts their supporters troubled us even in the Counting Centers. This is not a good trend. I do not think that these actions are directed by the political leadership. They are acting on their own will. My Returning officers and Assistant Commissioners of Elections are inconvenienced. In some instances abusive language had been used. We had to chase them away. Sometimes we are accused of acting in favour of one party. I cannot bear this. The reason is that I have lost the strength to tolerate such things…….."

Polls Chief’s dilemma

Dissanayake makes a few points clearer. He will quit his job in the next few days for the political pressures were far too much for him to bear. But he has the same nagging problem. He is prevented from resigning by a Supreme Court order. Unlike the Government, he cannot afford to ignore a Supreme Court order. The fact that a man charged to conduct a free and fair poll, unlike in the past, has been subject to all forms of pressure does not augur well. His speech reveals the enormous difficulties he had encountered. Like his remarks made to the Advisory Committee that comprised representatives of the candidates, he admits that he had little or no control over state-run media and other state agencies. He said that he had stopped sending letters to the Police Chief because his requests were being ignored. There is little doubt that the role of the state-run media, particularly the television networks, helped sway thousands of votes.

This is particularly so during the days ahead of the polls where opposition parties alleged that the state media defied guidelines of the Elections Chief and continued programmes until the day before the elections. UPFA leaders countered these accusations and claimed it was because other media outlets had also violated the guidelines. The latter, however, explained that the Commissioner of Elections had given them special authority to broadcast information to educate the voters and thus dispel any misinformation over important issues.

Adding to this situation was another incident. Several media groups were on the ready on polls day to cover Gen. (retd.) Fonseka cast his vote. When hours ticked by, they kept checking with his office at Rajakeeya Mawatha. At first, aides said the media would be alerted one hour ahead of the event. Later, they said that due to security reasons, photographs of the voting would be released once Gen. (retd.) Fonseka visited a booth. UPFA leaders became suspicious. The Sunday Times learnt they checked with a senior official at the Department of Elections. He had said that Gen. Fonseka was not a registered voter.

State TV: Disqualified candidate

NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa and Presidential candidate Sarath Kongahage went on national television networks Rupavahini and ITN to say the opposition's common candidate was not a registered voter and was thus disqualified. In fact at the nominations on November 17, Kongahage objected to Gen. Fonseka's candidature on the grounds that he was a foreign national. Elections Commissioner dismissed the objection and advised him to seek remedy in Courts. He has since filed action in Courts over the matter.

The afternoon television broadcasts claiming Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was disqualified since he was not a voter was to have a crippling effect in some areas. In Seruwila in the Trincomalee district, Gen. Fonseka's Polling Agents walked out of a booth on learning that television announcements about his disqualification had been made. In other areas, though the bulk of voters had already cast their votes, there were voters who thought there was no purpose served in voting for Gen. Fonseka and cast their votes to other candidates.

UPFA leaders hurriedly summoned a news conference. Weerawansa declared once again that Gen. Fonseka was disqualified. Added Minister G.L. Peiris, "we are going to Courts to challenge the matter. He is not eligible to be a Presidential candidate," the professor of law declared.

In the meanwhile, MTV television channels broadcast a statement from former Chief Justice, Sarath Nanda Silva, that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka was very much entitled to contest, as stipulated by the Constitution. He said the Constitutional requirement that he be a citizen had been fulfilled. He had served in the Army for 40 years in his capacity as a citizen.

The law only required that he be an eligible voter and not a voter registered. The same TV channels broadcast a voice cut from the retired General. He said it was Government propaganda and urged the public to vote for him. Quite clearly, retired General Fonseka's campaign staff had mishandled the issue until then, first by misleading the media and later parrying all questions posed to them.

It was too late when the matter was laid to rest. With voting hours barely about to close, Commissioner Dissanayake issued a statement. He said according to Sri Lanka's election laws it was not compulsory to be a registered voter to be a candidate. It is not compulsory even if the candidate is a registered voter to cast such a vote, he said. The candidature of a person at a Presidential Election is not affected by whether the person is a registered voter or not. It does not affect in any way his being elected, he declared. One had only to be 'qualified to be an elector', and there was nothing to disqualify the retired General being an elector.

Copies of Dissanayake's statement were distributed at a hurriedly summoned news conference.
In calling for polls two years before the completion of his term, President Rajapaksa declared he wanted to seek the mandate of the all people including Tamils. The latter were prevented from voting at the Presidential polls in 2005 by the Tiger guerrillas. However, last Tuesday he did not win most Tamil votes. Gen. Fonseka won the districts of Jaffna and Wanni in the North. In the East, he won decisively in Batticaloa despite the Karuna/Pilliyan faction working for the President. He also won Digamadulla and Trincomalee districts. In the central hills he won the Nuwara Eliya district. This underscores the fact that Tamil votes went largely to Gen. Fonseka.

In marked contrast, Rajapaksa's victory in the remaining 16 districts clearly highlighted the fact that the majority of Sinhalese votes were in his favour. Quite clearly Rajapaksa has retained and even increased the majority Sinhalese vote base. Gen. Fonseka did win some of the electorates in these districts. This again was because of a larger concentration of Muslim and Tamil voters there. Examples include electorates like Puttalam, Galle, Haputale and Passara. In marked contrast, the Digamadulla district where Gen. (retd.) Fonseka won, Rajapaksa made gains in the Ampara electorate, which has a larger Sinhalese concentration.

Did the turbo charged media campaign, particularly through state run TV channels, strengthen and enhance Rajapaksa's Sinhalese vote base? This is on allegations that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka had entered into a 'secret deal' with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that may give rise to the resurgence of separatism. To further this charge, UPFA leaders claimed that Gen. (retd.) Fonseka's ten-point programme had no reference to retaining the unitary status of Sri Lanka. Conversely, Rajapaksa's vote bank also turned out to be mass approval that he had given political leadership for the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Widespread belief that Gen. Fonseka would win Tuesday's polls was mostly based on the result of November 2005 Presidential election. One of the reasons was the fact that the JVP that supported Rajapaksa then, was now supporting Gen. Fonseka. Another was the TNA support. Then, the TNA support was not available either to Rajapaksa or to his rival, Ranil Wickremrsinghe. Added to that were the support of one time SLFP stalwarts, Mangala Samaraweera, then Rajapaksa's campaign manager and patron Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Yet, the total vote polled by Gen. Fonseka was less by 533,181 votes from what was polled by Wickremesinghe in 2005. Wickremesinghe received 4,706,366 as against Gen. Fonseka's 4,173,185. Did this shift come about because of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas? Was there erosion in the ranks of the UNP and the JVP since 2005? Have the two parties lost their support bases in the hinterland, in particular? Or, simply put, have the Sinhalese polity united in large numbers to express their gratitude to Rajapaksa for defeating the guerrillas? These and other questions will continue to linger. Some of the answers may perhaps unfold during parliamentary elections.

It is no secret that the UNP organisational mechanisms at the electorate level were not vibrant as they once were. If some of the organisers complained they had no funds, others were happy leaving the task to the JVP. It turned out that there were signs that Wimal Weerawansa's breakaway, has had a debilitating effect on the JVP too. If those were handicaps, there were a few more. The focus of Gen. Fonseka's campaign was enforcing a ten-point programme, but he lost direction. Instead of dealing with the issues spelt out, the opposition's common candidate embarked on a vituperative campaign himself in a bid to respond to Government allegations. He, wittingly or not, made the campaign into a Rajapaksa vs. Fonseka personal feud rather than an Incumbency vs. Alternative contest.

The Fonseka campaign degenerated from charges of corruption and nepotism against the Rajapaksa family to personal jibes as well as ridicule in language that was not what the citizenry might have liked from their future President. Much worse, some of the opposition leaders were embarrassed and felt they had no control over their candidate. He was a prisoner in the hands of a coterie of his own men, mostly retired Army officers and various hangers-on who knew little or nothing about politics.

Gen. Fonseka, at the beginning, was the magnet that got together an assortment of political parties. He had polarised the thinking of parties with diverse views like the UNP, JVP and the TNA to back him. However, as weeks went by, the ten-point programme or the main aim of abolishing the executive Presidency was not highly visible. Instead, the election campaign was based mostly on his war hero image thus undermining the main objectives - an issue based campaign. It floundered further when the Government launched a high octane advertising campaign against Gen. Fonseka's personal integrity. In trying to respond to them, he lost track of other objectives. He threatened to remove uniforms of Police officers, court martial senior Army officers and place several political leaders in jail once ensconced in power.

There was also a good side for the opposition. Gen. Fonseka was the catalyst that brought together the UNP, one of two large political parties besides a minor section of the SLFP, and the JVP. The more pressure UPFA exerted on him, the closer the two parties had become. He has also brought to the public domain several issues, which the two parties have not been able to raise or exploit.

Despite a controversy over the results, one would have thought that the issue would end within weeks. Firstly, the Commissioner of Elections has declared Rajapaksa the winner, an acknowledgement that the poll has been formally concluded. Based on this, several countries including India, the United States and the European Union have congratulated Rajapaksa.

However, a much bigger issue now looms large with the impending arrest of Gen. Fonseka. Our front-page report today gives details of this developing story that is bound to cause serious reverberations in the political firmament. It began just three days before the polls.

Opposition parties alleged that the Government had plans to hold on to power should Gen. Fonseka win. Such plans, they claimed, at a news conference on Sunday had been discussed on Friday (January 22) at a meeting of the National Security Council. Joint spokesperson Mangala Samaraweera alleged that the Air Force was to take over the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) and prevent selected persons including opposition members from leaving the country. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe declared it was a 'coup of sorts'.

Concerns in opposition circles over these alleged moves prompted a lengthy discussion. It was decided that the security details of opposition leaders and Gen. Fonseka be pooled and they stay in one common location on the night of January 26 and thereafter until results were announced. Thus, all of them checked into rooms at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel (the former Trans Asia) after nightfall last Tuesday. Within hours, the Army placed a roadblock outside the hotel and began conducting security checks on those entering or leaving the hotel. Men in green berets from the Gajaba Regiment, Defence Secretary Col. (retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's former unit, took up static positions on the streets of Colombo, along with Police especially around the Queen's Road area where the retired General has taken up temporary residence by midnight. This was whilst the Rupavahini repeatedly announced that opposition leaders were hatching a plot with Gen. Fonseka to overthrow the Government. Later, allegations extended to charges that they were to assassinate President Rajapaksa.

In the middle of that night, Gen. Fonseka's aides were hurriedly summoning foreign media teams who had arrived in Colombo to cover the elections. The retired General told them that he had been placed "under siege" and claimed the Government was trying to assassinate him. By then he said he was assured of victory, and the Government was trying to prevent him from becoming the President. He said the Army would not follow illegal orders and that though his hotel was surrounded by some troops the majority in the Army would support him. Through the foreign media, he called upon foreign governments to "intervene", in fact, he asked them to "interfere" to prevent this. Opposition leaders were also briefing several Colombo-based diplomatic missions. The vehicles bringing in Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem and Democratic People's Front leader Mano Ganeshan were searched by soldiers. A contingent of Military Policemen was also present. They said they were there to apprehend army deserters who were providing personal security to the ex-Army Commander. The Sunday Times learnt senior officials in New Delhi raised issue with their counterparts in Colombo on the developments in and around Lakeside Hotel only to be told there was no move to harm the Opposition's candidate.

By Wednesday morning, Media Centre for National Security Director General Lakshman Hulugalle was to go on state television to allay fears expressed by the international community. He declared there were "no plans now to arrest Gen. Fonseka." He was only making clear that if indeed there were any plans then, they would not be executed. He left options open by the use of the word "now." This became clearer by evening that day. President Rajapaksa, who had been down south during most of election day and the day after, went to the office of the Commissioner of Elections to hear the news of his victory and declared that "no one is above the law." The only exception, he said, was the President on whose office the Constitution conferred immunity.

By then CID detectives had begun investigations into an alleged plot to topple the Government and assassinate President Rajapaksa. By Wednesday night, there was pressure on UPFA leaders to allow Gen. Fonseka to return to his rented house at Queen's Road. He left in the night escorted by an Army Jeep. Since then, Police Special Task Force commandos, some of them wearing balaclavas, have taken up position outside this house. The troops, it was clear, did not want to lose track of the whereabouts of Rajapaksa's election rival.

Police were busy recording statements and gathering 'evidence' regarding the conspiracy. In this process, heavily armed STF commandos on Friday raided Gen. Fonseka's office at Rajakeeya Mawatha (opposite Royal College). There, they seized documents and took into custody computers. Six retired Army officers and nine soldiers were arrested. CID detectives are also on the lookout for several other retired Army officers and soldiers.

Whilst security at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) has been strengthened with the deployment of more Air Force personnel, the Department of Immigration has been given a list of persons who should not be allowed to leave Sri Lanka. They include Gen. Fonseka, several members of his immediate family, retired Army officers, soldiers and members of his campaign staff. Detectives also on Friday night arrested a journalist because he was tipped to be spokesperson for a group that was to overthrow the Government.

The same journalist, a close associate of Gen. Fonseka was the one who had told the latter that troops were ordered to kill Tiger guerrillas who came with white flags to surrender. This was in May, last year, when the military offensives against the guerrillas were about to end. Gen. Fonseka was then Commander of the Army. Detectives are now recording a statement from him.

The outcome of Tuesday's polls portends a significant change in Sri Lanka's political firmament in the weeks and months to come. On the one hand, the UPFA Government was unaware of its own strength until it realised that a vast majority of the people seemingly backed them, notwithstanding the Opposition's allegations that the count was rigged. On the other, if it does not exploit this success to rectify the deficiencies in governance, admitted by the UPFA leaders during polls campaign, the euphoria can evaporate soon. In the long run, a continued witch-hunt against the rival candidate and other opposition leaders can turn out to be counter productive. It could not only boomerang, but it might give the signal that the country is heading towards one-party rule.

As for the opposition parties that backed Gen. Fonseka, another major hurdle awaits them. Whether they will stay united for the upcoming parliamentary elections or go their own way remains the critical question.
Early signals are that they will go their separate ways. The UNP will contest as the United National Front (UNF) in alliance with the SLMC.

The TNA will surely go it alone in the North and East. Gen. Fonseka says he will contest under the swan symbol, the symbol owned by New Democratic Front. The JVP has ideas of abandoning their Bell symbol and coming under the swan. The SLFP (M) might want to come under the UNF. The short-lived unity to defeat President Mahinda Rajapaksa might well disappear as they fight it out for seats in the General Elections to come. The challenge to the vote count might be the only unity they will have left, in what history has shown to be, a purely academic exercise.

The winner takes all, as in all election victories.

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