160 computer workstations set up by Basil at Temple Trees to coordinate election campaign Hand-picked organisers appointed raising fears whether the SLFP old guard will be left out at next parliamentary polls Confusion and conflicting reports over visit of Pope Francis; Vatican delegation arrives and final decision likely soon UNP’s revival begins with Hyde Park [...]


Presidential election: It should be Mahinda vs. Ranil


160 computer workstations set up by Basil at Temple Trees to coordinate election campaign
Hand-picked organisers appointed raising fears whether the SLFP old guard will be left out at next parliamentary polls
Confusion and conflicting reports over visit of Pope Francis; Vatican delegation arrives and final decision likely soon
UNP’s revival begins with Hyde Park rally; Premadasa pushes for Ranil; JHU likely to go it alone

The main contenders for the upcoming presidential election possibly on January 8 next year have now gone into high gear making preparations. This is notwithstanding high tensions within their own camps over different but contentious issues.

Spirits up: UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa togther with other party stalwarts wave at polling booth agents who came for the Hyde Park rally on Tuesday. Pic by Ranjith Perera

More active is the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which wants to see its candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa return with a higher majority. The nerve centre of its operations is ‘Temple Trees’. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa who is spearheading the campaign has taken time off from his ministerial tasks. Whilst keeping a close watch on those responsibilities, he spends most of his time at the TT Operations Centre now. There he presides over meetings, attended by some specially assigned provincial councillors and former corporation chairmen, among others, on campaign strategies and liaising with those in the electorates.

The enormity of the campaign can be gauged from the infrastructure that has been put in place. Some 160 separate tables with 160 desktop computers — one for each electorate — are linked to field co-coordinators in the different electorates. Those at the desk feed inputs to these computers from the respective electorates. Thus, data on the woes of voters and the localities where they are most prevalent will be at their fingertips. So will the information from Opposition strongholds they need to neutralise. The 160 electorates are with the exception of those in the North. The coordinators have been picked from those who are being described as “politically very capable” and are “loyal and strongly committed to UPFA ideals and policies of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party,” a source said.

The move, rightly or otherwise, has come as concern for the old guard in the UPFA or more particularly in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). They question whether the exercise has connotations beyond the presidential election. What is bugging them is whether most of the hand-picked coordinators would eventually end up as candidates at the next Parliamentary elections. More so with the thorough grinding they will receive during the presidential poll campaign. No response could be obtained from those responsible whether this was a sign of a changing of the guard, the old giving way to the new.

The increasing certainty of the presidential poll on January 8 has raised another issue — the visit of Pope Francis. He is still scheduled to arrive on January 13 for a three-day visit. An advanced team from the Vatican arrived in Colombo yesterday to examine the ground situation and determine whether the visit should remain on schedule. Tomorrow, the team will meet External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris during an inter-agency conference at the EAM where the advance team will learn about the arrangements being made.

The Vatican delegation will also meet the members of the Catholic Bishops Conference. The Vatican’s position on the visit was explained to UPFA leaders by the Archbishop of Colombo and head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. He has said that the convention was that the Pope does not visit a country that faces elections for at least one month before that event. Similarly, he also does not visit a country for a month after elections are held.

The UPFA Government is keen to ensure the Pope’s visit, currently on schedule, is not in any way changed. So much so, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed a meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference on October 24. Of the 14 Bishops representing different dioceses, two were absent. They were Jaffna’s Bishop Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundranayagam and Trincomalee’s Bishop the Rt. Rev. Kingsley Swamipillai. The Defence Secretary told the bishops he had ensured the highest security precautions were in place. Secretary Rajapaksa said it was not only the Catholic community that would be disappointed but also the UPFA Government if the Pope’s visit did not materialise. It would also reflect as a humiliation on President Rajapaksa, he claimed. The bishops explained that all local developments were being reported to the Vatican and it was the Vatican that would have to make decisions, if any. It is clear that such a decision — whether Pope Francis would visit Sri Lanka or not – will be taken after the advance team returns to the Vatican and files its report.

Galle’s Bishop Raymond Wickremesinghe, Chairman of the Media and Information Unit for the Papal Visit, said in a media statement on Friday: “We have been made aware of certain reports circulated among some social media with the title ‘Stop the Papal visit in January,’ MR pressurizes the Church”.
Their statement adds: “We wish to categorically deny this report and clarify matters as follows:

“Our request to the Government has always been that any election should not be held immediately after the visit of the Holy Father to Sri Lanka because that might be politically used by interested parties as a campaign tool.

“If an election is to be held before the visit, it must be held in such a way that the preparations for the visit should not be disturbed by such an event. We have appealed to the President to give us a sufficient gap between the two events and they have assured us that everything will be done in order that the visit goes ahead without disruption due to an election.

“The decision to hold an election and the dates to be fixed for such an election are entirely in the hands of the Government and the Elections Commissioner. The Church has no interest in trying to interfere in that matter.

“At no time did the President or anyone in the Government apply any pressure on the Church to stop or postpone the visit of the Pope to Sri Lanka. In fact they have given us a lot of cooperation and support to make all the necessary arrangements for the visit. They have also officially sent an invitation from State to State to the Holy Father and it had been accepted. The Government also has informed us that the President, when he visited the Holy Father reiterated that the Government was very keen to welcome him in Sri Lanka”.

A Colombo datelined report in the Vatican News said that the visit was on schedule but added, “In recent days, there have been doubts and concerns about the Pope’s visit, given the presidential election in the country will be held soon and current President, Mahinda Rjapaksa could set them for January, so in the days immediately before or after Pope Francis’ visit. The Church asks the vote to be postponed at least to the end of January 2015, to avoid any kind of exploitation.”
Also in Colombo, the Chief Opposition Whip John Ameratunga, who is known to be close to President Rajapaksa and accompanied him on the trip to the Vatican recently, briefed those at the highest levels of his party, the United National Party.

He has said he was taken into the portals of the Vatican only after President Rajapaksa had paid his respects to the Holy Father. Ameratunga has told his party hierarchy that he asked Rajapaksa not to hold the presidential election till the visit by Pope Francis was over. Rajapaksa had included Ameratunga in his entourage to project that he was on a bipartisan mission when he visited the Vatican. Amaratunga had obtained his party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s permission to join Rajapaksa on the visit, but UNP members were unhappy that he had lent the party’s support for what was, they felt, a move by Rajapaksa to get an unfair advantage with the Catholics in the forthcoming Presidential election. Earlier, Ameratunga was a member of Rajapaksa’s official delegation that toured both Palestine and Israel. He remains the Chief Opposition Whip in Parliament and often acts for his party leader in Parliament when the leader is abroad.

A major contentious issue for the UPFA is the future role of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). After the abrupt end to its talks with President Rajapaksa on October 21, a delegation met on October 25 a team of UPFA leaders who represent the SLFP. They comprised Ministers Maithripala Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha, Dullas Allahapperuma, Basil Rajapaksa and John Seneviratne. The JHU team was made up of Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera, Minister Champika Ranawaka, Udaya Gammanpilla and Nissanka Sri Warnasinghe. At this meeting Minister Rajapaksa was to explain that almost all proposals of the JHU could be acceptable in principle. However, they needed the endorsement of the SLFP. It was a time consuming process. He pointed out that mustering a two thirds support in Parliament for the exercise would be time consuming.

The JHU, however, insists that its constitutional changes be carried through. Minister Ranawaka offered to “be the bridge” between the Government and the Opposition parties if the constitutional changes were to be passed by Parliament ahead of the presidential poll. The JHU is seeking a 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe told Parliament last week that the UNP would support such a move. Among other matters, the Pivithuru Hetak and the Jathika Hela Urumaya want constitutional changes through this amendment:

To limit the portfolios held by the President to only the Ministry of Defence.

To change constitutional provisions that infringe on the sovereignty of the country. These provisions include Land and Police powers in the Provincial Council system.

The Executive President to be answerable to Parliament and be subject to judicial action.

“I am answerable to Parliament even now. I am empowered to sit in the House. In which country that has a presidential system is the President subject to judicial action. They would then be spending all their time in the courthouse,” President Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times this week. He said the subject of electoral reforms was one that is very much receiving the Government’s keen attention.

The meeting led to the formation of a joint committee to study the JHU proposals. Three SLFPers — Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dullas Allahapperuma, Susil Premajayantha together with JHU’s Champika Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpilla — formed the team. However, progress during the talks by the joint team was slow after at least three rounds of talks.

During discussions the joint committee had identified seven specific points from the 35 reform proposals. Whilst three of them related to the executive presidency, others included the need for an independent institution to deal with corruption, an independent Elections Commission, a mechanism to ensure judges are appointed on seniority and capability. The JHU pressed unsuccessfully to have these accepted by the UPFA leadership and implemented ahead of the presidential poll. The result was a meeting of the JHU’s Central Committee last Sunday. It decided that if the UPFA leadership did not take any initiative to heed the proposals, the JHU would adopt an “independent stance” at the presidential poll, a senior member said. He refused to elaborate.

He said the party would leave the UPFA government. Ahead of the Central Committee meeting, senior members of the JHU met representatives of other Buddhist organisations. They included the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC) and the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). However, adding credence to the likelihood of their veering away from the UPFA was underscored by a meeting JHU’s Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera had with UNP national leader Wickremesinghe. During a meeting at the Opposition Leader’s office in Parliament the two of them discussed the holding of a joint protest against the UPFA Government over a number of issues. Other opposition political parties are also to be asked to join in. A further meeing is expected to be held.

Ven. Rathana Thera told the Sunday Times, “We understand that our proposals are being discussed within the ruling party. We understand that a section of the MPs are in favour of the amendments before the Presidential election. Some other MPs believe that there was no necessity of introducing these amendments immediately and they should go for the Presidential election. We understand these issues also have been discussed with the Defence Secretary.

“We will not agree to a position that the amendments could be done after the Presidential election. We need to have a discussion with this Committee before the Presidential election is announced. We will not be carried away by false promises during our discussions. If we fail to gain support for our proposals, we will quit the Government and become an Opposition party. We will remain in the opposition and carry out our campaign against the Executive Presidential system.”

UPFA leaders are also sounding other partners. Last Sunday, President Rajapaksa held a one-on-one meeting with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem at ‘Temple Trees’. Hakeem told the Sunday Times his Congress was holding talks with different Opposition political parties as well as those in the UPFA. “With the Government many issues remain unresolved. We are inviting their attention to those issues,” he said. Among those the SLMC wants to meet are the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Today, the SLMC holds a meeting in Addalachenai in the Ampara District, the heartland of the party’s power base. The idea is to consult members on a variety of issues before they finally decide the position vis-à-vis the presidential poll.

Another UPFA partner, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), decided to support President Rajapaksa’s candidacy. This decision was taken at its Central Committee meeting last Sunday with 25 voting in favour and 13 against. Lal Wijenaike, a senior member, cried foul. He said in a statement that the resolution to support Rajapaksa was moved “without any notice.” The statement adds: “Very senior members including Lal Wijenayake, Dr. Jayampathi Wickramaratne, Prof. Vijayakumar, S. Ramanathan, Wimal Rodrigo, Keerthi Kariyawasam and Chamil Perera protested as the resolution was moved without giving any notice to the members in advance. However the chairman put it to the vote amidst protest. The protesting members informed the Central Committee that they reject this decision of the Central Committee taken to support the President at the presidential election and that they will defy the decision and act independently to support a candidate who will stand for the abolition of the executive presidential system. Many of the members who were opposed are very senior members of the party including those whose names were mentioned above.”

The Communist Party of Sri Lanka has also assured its support to Rajapaksa. It was only this week the Cabinet of Ministers gave approval to a recommendation by Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem to lease a building belonging to the Sri Lanka Communist Party at 95 Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Colombo 8. The building is to house Labour Tribunals. Rajapaksa has already been assured support by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).

The main opposition UNP, on the other hand, was buoyed by a public rally of its polling agents countrywide at Hyde Park in Colombo last Tuesday. The turnout, which Police estimates placed at between 4,000 and 4,500, was indeed an achievement for the party and cause for some jubilation. Yet, the underlying tensions were clearly reflected at the event. Wickremesinghe began his speech by referring to Garu Niyojya Nayaka Thumani or Hon. Deputy Leader but referred to a onetime Deputy Leader as simply Karu Jayasuriya Methi Thumanee or Mr. Karu Jayasuriya. There was no reference to his being the Chairman of the Leadership Council, a body which Premadasa wants abolished. Another Premadasa archrival, Matara District parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, nominally the party’s Director of Communications, did not find a seat in the front row. He was relegated to the second. On Friday, Samaraweera, a fierce critic of the Rajapaksas, was the talking point in the Parliament lobby. A sizeable number of Government MPs and Ministers had turned up to hear him speak. It was not unusual for them to heckle the one time Foreign Minister of President Rajapaksa but there was stoic silence. Samaraweera made no critical references to the Rajapaksas this time.

Premadasa did steal the show at the Hyde Park meeting. He received a thunderous ovation. He began his speech by praising the party’s General Secretary Tissa Attanayake for arranging the event so successfully and also for “forging unity in the party.” Here are some highlights of what Premadasa said: “I remember the faces of our war heroes. They sacrificed their lives to defeat terrorism, despite predictions that the war cannot be won. Today you are similar to those war heroes. Today various political pundits say that the UNP cannot win this election, they cannot proceed forward. I like to tell these pundits not to stop their predictions. Like the war was won, despite claims that the war cannot be won, the UNPers who have gathered here will lead the party to victory.

“The Government has declared it is now readying for a Presidential election. Therefore we should be prepared for it. We have now started the campaign to have a UNP President. Without your support we cannot achieve this. It is you who can draw these votes for the UNP. I had earlier pledged that I will fully extend my support to Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe if he contests as the Presidential candidate. Mr. Wickremesinghe has now decided to contest the Presidential election. He will contest under the Elephant symbol. Therefore as pledged earlier, I will fully extend my support for his victory. I will go from village to village, to each of the Grama Sevaka divisions to ensure his victory.

“I have said earlier that if Mr. Wickremesinghe was not contesting as the candidate of the UNP, to confer on me the leadership and the opportunity to contest as the UNP presidential candidate. That request can be forgotten now as Mr. Wickremesinghe who is a party stalwart is going to contest the election.”
He remarked that the UPFA Government was now a sinking ship and the rats were deserting. Some of Premadasa’s senior colleagues in the party did not take nicely to the remarks. They were irked that in saying that, Premadasa has effectively put a halt to any possible crossovers to the UNP from the Government side. In fact, a Gampaha District UPFA parliamentarian who wanted to take the first step has had a change of mind. Besides the simmering tensions within, it is no secret that the UNP has remained cash strapped in the recent years and months. How this handicap would affect the party’s polls campaign and whether it could match the UPFA’s high pitched one remains an important issue.

In an unusually hard hitting speech, at what seemed the informal launch of the UNP’s presidential election campaign at Hyde Park, Wickremesinghe declared his party would launch campaigns of the people (Jana Bala Meheyuma) to take the message to the people if the Government uses state power to suppress the UNP. “We have travelled most part of the journey. It is the last hill we need to climb. It may be difficult, but we have the ability and the strength to do that.” He likened it to a journey to the highlands or the upcountry. In one route they would have to go past Beragala and pass the Haputale hill to go beyond.

Wickremesinghe said, “We have to find out who has been the real traitor of this country. If this is not reported in the media it is your duty to take this message to the village. If the voting rights of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka who gave leadership to end the war are removed and the voting rights of Kumaran Pathmanathan are restored, who is the traitor? I would say the person who gives such voting rights to KP is a ‘First Class traitor’. When the LTTE filed action in the EU to get a ban imposed on its funds lifted, the failure of the Sri Lankan government to intervene is another action of a traitor. Giving money for the LTTE to boycott the presidential election in 2005 was another similar action.”

The UNP has been shifting its posture on a candidate for the presidential election much the same way a pendulum moves. Earlier, at a meeting of the so called “G-20,” when Premadasa urged that Wickremesinghe’s name be publicised as the party’s candidate, the UNP leader said they should await the issue of a proclamation. Thereafter, the UNP shifted stance to say that the party would decide on its candidate only after the proclamation. Now, it has been publicly announced by Premadasa at the Hyde Park event that Wickremesinghe will be the candidate. This was whilst Wickremesinghe was on the stage and if it was not so, he had the opportunity to correct him. The reason for this “on-off” shift in position again highlights the differences within.

The section within the party that wanted the “no decision yet” line were the ones who were conducting behind-the-scene consultations with other Opposition political parties and civil society groups to form a ‘common platform’ and possibly decide on a ‘common candidate.’ The first meeting of these groups was to be launched from Matara last Friday. It was to be chaired by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera. Premadasa’s remarks that it would be Wickremesinghe who would be the candidate and he was the alternative if he was not willing, has dampened the mood. Hence, the exercise did not materialise with some of the backers pulling out.

The event was to be similar to the one held at the New Town Hall in July this year presided over by Ven Sobhita Thera. These tensions notwithstanding, campaign strategies for Wickremesinghe’s candidature are now being formulated. Suggestions have been made to hold the event on November 7 but whether the move will draw all the stakeholders remains a critical question.

There were some heated exchanges when the UNP’s Western Province MPs and organisers of electorates met at Siri Kotha last Thursday. Two of the strongest critics were Ranjan Ramananayake MP and Daya Gamage, National Organiser of the party. The former, an actor turned politician said it was unwise to stick one’s neck out for the party since no one would defend such persons. He said the UNP was a thankless party. More critical comments on the leadership and the role of General Secretary Attanayake came from the party’s National Organiser Daya Gamage. He rose to speak but there were protests. He was miffed that he was not allowed to make a speech. He walked out of the meeting. Wickremesinghe was to reject a selection of a party organizer by Attanayake. He directed that the person should be given another electorate.

With the launch of different political campaigns, notwithstanding the issue of a proclamation for the presidential election, both the Government and the main opposition UNP are stepping up preparations. At least one factor has emerged clear this week. Rajapaksa will meet Ranil Wickremesinghe as his main rival. Surprise moves by other Opposition parties cannot be ruled out as the political fever continues to rise.

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