Sirisena and common front leaders sign agreements outlining reforms package for first one hundred days Large number of dummy candidates with ulterior motives for presidential poll Rajapaksa confident, says Ranil would have been a better opponent, hits out at Chandrika SLMC likely to split if it does not quit; Fonseka seeks rank of Field Marshal [...]


UPFA, NDF all set for do-or-die battle on Jan. 8


Sirisena and common front leaders sign agreements outlining reforms package for first one hundred days
Large number of dummy candidates with ulterior motives for presidential poll
Rajapaksa confident, says Ranil would have been a better opponent, hits out at Chandrika
SLMC likely to split if it does not quit; Fonseka seeks rank of Field Marshal and post of Defence Minister

The crowd waving blue, green and red falgs at the common opposition candidate's Hyde Park meeting which was much less than expected. Pic by Ranjith Perera

The official countdown for the January 8 presidential election gets under way with tomorrow’s nominations where more than fifteen candidates will be in the fray. That the political battle will be between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his main rival Maithripala Sirisena, the main contenders, is all too well known. What remains to be known are the allegiances of at least some of the other candidates. That they will ‘back’ one of the two main contestants is of great interest in what is politically termed “dummy candidates.” It is only their stated stances after nominations that would highlight who they are in support of.

The “dummy candidates” are fielded to enable their backers to seize maximum benefits that are afforded to candidates in terms of election laws. Among others, they are entitled to have two agents at every polling booth, assign counting agents and more importantly obtain free slots on state television networks to explain their policies. An example in point is the candidature of attorney Namal Rajapaksa who will represent the Apey Jathika Peramuna (AJP) or Our National Front with the telephone as his symbol.

The candidate is not the president’s son. Earlier, the AJP was the hot favourite for Maithripala Sirisena to contest as presidential candidate with the symbol of the telephone. With this in mind both the AJP President (Senaka de Silva) and Secretary (Ruwan Ferdinandes) tendered their resignations. They have now withdrawn those letters and reverted to their original positions. Another candidate is being fielded by the Prajatantrawadi Jathika Viyaparaya or Democratic National Front whose Secretary is Chathura Senaratne, son of Rajitha Senaratne, the former Fisheries Minister and Kalutara District MP who crossed over to the Opposition. That party’s symbol is the motor car.

The reason: The Opposition troika — Maithripala Sirisena, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe – have decided on the New Democratic Front (NDF) with Swan (or Hansaya) as the symbol. The prime mover in this regard was United National Party Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, who is “in possession of the party.” A group of lawyers including Tilak Marapana PC, Wijayadasa Rajapaksha PC, Ronald Perera PC, J.C. Weliamuna, and Saliya Peiris were also in favour of this move though they advised that a few “dummy candidates” too would have to be fielded. Karunanayake countered claims that this party’s image has been tainted since former General Fonseka, who had contested the presidential elections in 2010 and lost.

He said if one were to go by that argument, even the UNP’s Elephant symbol had suffered defeat at different elections but was still being retained. Moreover, he said, that the NDF and its symbol had been accepted at the 2010 presidential election and hence there would be no legal snags. Sirisena was to say any decision based on the recommendation of the lawyers was acceptable to him — the same view was expressed by Kumaratunga. One UPFA source said at least four “dummy candidates” may contest to espouse their candidate’s cause in “different ways.” They include a former MP who once represented the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

Coming as a curtain raiser for tomorrow’s event was a breakfast meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa held with representatives of print and electronic media on Friday. Sounding cheerful Rajapaksa said he believed his “strongest opponent” would have been UNP national leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said he now felt that he was facing Kumaratunga together with Mangala Samaraweera and Wickremesinghe. He said he did not “at all” regret calling for presidential election with two years remaining from his term. On the question of cutouts and posters, Rajapaksa argued that the polls laws would become effective only after tomorrow’s nominations. The ones that were on display now, he said, were those placed by the public to mark his birthday.

He charged that former President Kumaratunga was speaking with a lot of anger and hatred. This, he claimed, had been the case even in the presidential election in 2005 and 2010. Questioned on reports that Rajapaksa had files on errant Ministers and MPs, he laughed and downplayed the issue. “I was only referring to cabinet papers and other confidential documents. These days there is a gap between me and the media leading to misapprehensions,” he claimed. On the costs of food for large groups visiting ‘Tempe Trees’, Rajapaksa said, extending hospitality to visitors was a village tradition. He announced that his manifesto for the polls campaign would be made public after tomorrow’s nominations.
As for the NDF candidate, Sirisena signing agreements with different political parties took a good part of his time. Last Monday, at the Vihara Maha Devi Park, he signed what has been termed a “Common People’s Agenda for Just, Democratic and People-Friendly Governance.” Sirisena has also signed a separate Agreement with Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thera of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). It is yet to be made public. An English translation of a Sinhala copy obtained by the Sunday Times states:

“Agreement signed between the leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thera and the Common candidate Maithripala Sirisena
“As Sri Lanka in 2015 will reach an important milestone in the country’s history with its presidential election;
“As the country’s administration is today cankered with power hunger, injustice, corruption, chicanery and deception;
“As society, the economy and the environment are being destroyed due to exploitation by a small, privileged fraction;
“As the country has an urgent need of social, economic and environmental reforms;
“As the most pressing need of the hour is to reinforce the democratic institutions and other decision-making bodies and reinstate good governance;
“We agree that the following political reforms must be implemented within hundred days after the presidential election.
“1. Constitutional reforms pertaining to Executive Presidency, the electoral process, and Good Governance must be implemented through a national consensus in parliament.

“2. In keeping with those reforms, the executive powers of the president will be removed with no impact on national security or territorial integrity. It is proposed to have a stable government which reflects thinking of the majority of the public, a strong Opposition and an electoral process that will include a first-past-the-post system at the electorate level.”

“3. Agree to pass an Act on Right to Information to ensure that people have the right to know anything regarding development and finance of the country excluding matters pertaining to national security.

“4. The following commissions will be instituted through the Constitution: an Independent Judicial Commission to ensure that all appointments to the judiciary are independent; an audit commission that is independent and strong; an anti-corruption commission to detect and punish technical, administrative and financial corruption, an Election Commission to be established through the Constitution to ensure that no candidate will misuse power during elections and to hold fair and independent elections.

“5. Agree that the above mentioned Constitutional amendments will make no changes to the existing Constitution regarding the Unitary Status of the state and in regard to the Buddha Sasanaya and other religious institutions.

“6. We agree to work against attempts to take action by any foreign war tribunal against the President as the chief of the armed forces for his actions in combating terrorism in Sri Lanka.

“7. A Presidential Commission will be instituted to investigate into large scale cases of corruption, chicanery and misuse of power in implementing development projects. All citizens will be allowed to send written complaints. In the first three months of the commission, legal action will be instituted against those who have been involved in major cases of corruption and punished.

“8. An economic policy to reduce the cost of living, reinforce free education and free health services, to eradicate narcotics and other forms of abuse, to increase the Government’s income, to encourage and support export of minor crops and to improve small and medium scale businesses, to encourage permanent agriculture, to rejuvenate the plantation sector, to create equal opportunities in the finance and commerce sector, will be drawn up.

“9. The Jathika Hela Urumaya offers its assurance that the party will work for the victory of common candidate Maithripala Sirisena based on the above mentioned agreements.

“10. In order to realize the above mentioned, short term political goals, a national common alliance government will be formed, and all ministerial positions will be distributed among all parties in parliament for a specified time frame. After achieving the above mentioned goals, and after the necessary amendments are implemented regarding the executive presidency, the electoral process and regarding good governance, we agree to hold a fair general election which will allow every party to contest on equal terms, keeping to the policies of each party.”

President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday distributed jewellery to about 2,000 Jaffna people who had deposited this jewellery in LTTE banks. Whe they arrrived at the Kompannaveediya railway station on their way to Temple Trees, they were issued propaganda material by supporters of President Rajapaksa.

Signing the memorandum at the Vihara Maha Devi Park last Monday were UNP national leader Wickremesinghe, Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, leader of the National Movement for Justice and Equality, Sarath Fonseka (Democratic Party), Mano Ganeshan (Democratic People’s Front) and 32 civil society organisations. Here are highlights of the memorandum they signed:

“As Sri Lankans we face several grave challenges. The country, which was once seen as a model of democracy, has degenerated in recent years into a place where its citizens cannot live with dignity and in safety. Among the manifestations of this situation are:
the total breakdown of the Rule of Law,
the erosion of democratic institutions essential for governance,
an unprecedented widening of social disparities and social injustices,
severe strains on co-existence between different ethnic and religious communities and increasing disharmony and distrust.

“In this situation, the following programme is presented so as to re-establish democracy, good governance, social justice and the rule of law. Accordingly, it is proposed that the present authoritarian and corrupt regime be defeated by fielding a common candidate acceptable to all those in agreement with the programme. The immediate tasks will be implemented within a hundred days, including abolition of the current executive presidency and the re-establishment of a parliamentary form of government. Through a new Parliament the rest of the programme will be fulfilled.

“To fulfill the immediate tasks and objectives given below, an All-Party Government will be formed for a period of not less than two years.
“Immediate Tasks
1. The present executive presidential system will be abolished within a hundred days and replaced by a Parliamentary form accountable to the people. Under the Parliamentary system, the President will symbolise national unity and have duties and powers appropriate to the position.
2. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution will be repealed and the independence of institutions essential for democratic governance, such as the judiciary, police, public service, election authorities, Attorney-General, Auditor-General and independent Commissions re-established and further strengthened.
3. The current preferential voting system will be abolished. The new electoral system will provide for the just representation of all communities and political opinions and will be a mix of the first-past-the-post system, which ensures that every electorate has its own Member of Parliament, and proportional representation.

4. The oppressive burden of the cost of living of the people will be reduced through granting of a commensurate increase in salaries of the public service and the private sector; strengthen the industrial, agricultural, plantations, fisheries and small industries components of the economy and guarantee a fair price for local produce; develop an effective social safety net for marginalised groups and the poor and, in particular, for women and children, the elderly, pensioners and disabled persons………”

Besides the Vihara Maha Devi Park Agreement, former General Sarath Fonseka has also signed two other agreements, one with NDF candidate Sirisena and the other with Wickremesinghe. These two agreements have not been made public yet. However, a source familiar with the talks said that with Sirisena, the agreement related to the restoration of Fonseka’s rank and titles. The former General who led troops for the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas has sought due recognition for his contribution, possibly the conferment of the title of Field Marshal. With UNP national leader Wickremesinghe, the same source said, Fonseka had sought his inclusion in Parliament on the National List.

Thereafter, with the constitutional changes done, he has sought to be appointed as the Minister of Defence. He has also included a provision that the parties that are members of the NDF should not recruit members from his Democratic Party. Both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, the same source said, had agreed to “consider” his requests. At the NDF’s public rally in Matara on Thursday, Sirisena made a public declaration that all honours conferred on Fonskea including his rank as a General would be immediately restored since it is he who led troops to victory. Two notable absentees at the rally were UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and JHU’s Champika Ranawaka. Whilst Premadasa was unhappy his name did not figure as one of the speakers at the rally in newspaper advertisements, Ranawaka was equally angry his name was not in posters announcing the event.

The absence of a substantial Muslim presence in the National Democratic Front, though the community is represented in the UNP, seemed a shortcoming. The All Ceylon People’s Party (ACPC) led by Minister Rishard Bathiuddin has decided to remain in the Government and support President Rajapaksa. “Our party’s high command took this decision on Friday. Accordingly, Ameer Ali, Eastern Provincial Councillor will resign his position (from the Provincial Council) and will soon be sworn in as an MP,” Bathiuddin told the Sunday Times. Ali will fill the National List seat rendered vacant by A.H.M. Azwer. On Thursday, Rajapaksa appointed Azwer as Senior Advisor to the President on parliamentary affairs, mass media and communication. Also on Thursday, Rajapaksa appointed one time ITN Chairman and Ambassador to Myanmar, Newton Gunaratne as a Presidential Media Advisor. Gunaratne is also a member of the Police Commission. Other sources said Ali met President Rajapaksa on Thursday and explored the possibility of obtaining a Deputy Minister’s position. The move was ruled out on the grounds that it could trigger demands from other MPs too.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is in a dilemma with pressure from its grassroots level organisations mounting to quit the Government. The party’s usually media savvy leader, Rauff Hakeem shied away this week. Yet, his deputy, Hassan Ali, was in a defiant mood. He said that an SLMC delegation had met President Mahinda Rajapaksa early this week. Thereafter, he had entrusted the Congress to discuss matters with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. “We told President Rajapaksa our grievances and our concerns. There are only four weeks for the election. We are not sure whether they can meet our demands within this period,” Ali told the Sunday Times. Asked what the issues were, he replied there were “land issues as well as security concerns for the Muslim Community.” On security concerns, he was alluding to the incidents in Alutgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala in June. He said that the SLMC was “most upset” and declared “we will take the right decision once the nominations are over if our demands are not addressed.”

Attempting to fill the Muslim void in the NDF through a new National United Front (NUF) is former SLMC parliamentarian and Ambassador to Iran, M.M.Zuhair. He was a signatory to the common agreement by the UNP led opposition at the Vihara Maha Devi Park on behalf of the new party. A one time confidant of President Rajapaksa, Zuhair said in a statement that the “leadership roles played by respected Buddhist monks Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, leader of the Movement for Just Society and Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thera of the JHU have ushered in a new era of welcome change for just governance in our country. This change will hopefully free this country from the manifestly confrontational communal racist politics that had engulfed Sri Lanka.” Yet, an SLMC decision to quit, which its senior members say, was almost likely. In the alternative, they point out that the party would face a split.

For the UPFA, which had launched its campaign only weeks earlier, events seem to have pushed it on the back foot. The UPFA leaders had made plans for an aggressive campaign presuming that UNP national leader Wickremesinghe would be the presidential candidate. Archival material in television stations were scoured to pick on material for humorous skits on Wickremesinghe. Formats for posters depicting the UNP leader in bad light were on the drawing boards. So much so, UPFA General Secretary and Minister Susil Premajayantha declared publicly that fifty per cent of their campaign was now over. The emergence of Maithripala Sirisena as the candidate did take them by surprise. Until yesterday, the main UPFA focus had been a string of news conferences addressed by ministers. At least two of them harped on their pet subject during not only past presidential but provincial and local elections — that there was an international conspiracy behind Sirisena’s candidature. The frontrunner in this exercise was Minister Dullas Allahapperuma. Joining him recently was Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who was until recently the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights.

Other ministers, like Nimal Siripala de Silva chose to pick holes in the Opposition’s strategies. A point he made was that 100 days was not enough to abolish the Executive Presidency. None of them had anything substantial to offer. Adding to that situation was the ‘crossover’ of two members of the main propaganda team that were having daily breakfast sessions at “Apey Gama,” across the road from the Parliament complex. That project was originally meant to highlight rural living conditions for tourists and other visitors to Sri Lanka. They have told the NDF propaganda team details of some of the campaign strategies much to the embarrassment of the ‘top rungers’ who were directing them. However, there are strong signs that these strategies are now changing. The first UPFA propaganda rally after the nominations, is to be held in Anuradhapura on Thursday and will be telecast live and streamed via the web. Several other new measures are also on the drawing boards.

The first NDF rally will be held on Tuesday (December 9) in Kandy. In the morning on that day, candidate Sirisena will offer flowers at the Dalada Maligawa and make a pledge to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected President.

This is not to say that the Opposition’s National Democratic Front (NDF) has seized the momentum. It appears to be having teething troubles. This is a new political alliance encompassing different shades of political opinion having grouped together. Last Sunday, Sirisena had what the UNPers said was a “highly successful” meeting in Polonnaruwa where large crowds had turned up. People had come to the meeting without public transport being made available to them. In marked contrast, the meeting on Tuesday at Hyde Park turned out to be a flop with a much lesser turnout. Some UNPers were apologetic saying there were “too many meetings”. Some said that large rain water puddles prevented filling up the park, but the question others raised was why have these meetings if they could not take steps to draw crowds. Blame was placed on the party’s Colombo organisers for the poor show. In marked contrast, it picked up again at the NDF rally in Matara.

Yesterday, the United National Party’s well attended annual convention at Siri Kotha unanimously endorsed the candidature of Maithripala Sirisena
Both, for the UPFA and the National Democratic Front (NDF), the outcome of the January 8 polls will be a virtual do-or-die battle. A victory for Rajapaksa will no doubt be viewed as an endorsement of his policies both domestically and internationally. That would be significant for him particularly in the light of the ongoing international investigations by the UN Human Rights Council into alleged human rights violations. On the other hand, a victory for Sirisena would pave the way for the abolition of the executive presidency and the subsequent birth of a new government. Either way, for the Sri Lankan voter, the decisive moment is just four weeks away.

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