There’s a kind of hush that has descended upon the land. Now the hour’s come to stop passing the buck, wondering how the other fellow and the rest of the nation will be voting for a new president. This Thursday morning it will be zero hour. Time to clasp your future in your hands and [...]


Will Lanka chew the same betel or change to waltz the Swan Lake


There’s a kind of hush that has descended upon the land. Now the hour’s come to stop passing the buck, wondering how the other fellow and the rest of the nation will be voting for a new president. This Thursday morning it will be zero hour. Time to clasp your future in your hands and decide what is best for Lanka and you.

Mahinda Rajapaksa: The Defender

The question that awaits answer is: Whether Lanka should chew the same old betel or opt for change and dance the new Swan Lake waltz?

On the surface, the choice before you seems simple enough. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are Sinhala Buddhists of the majority farming caste, Govigama. They come from average middle class backgrounds and both claim to be sons of the soil. Such has been the eagerness of each candidate to present himself as being the best embodiment of the grassroot peasant that while President Rajapaksa went to the extent of referring to himself at the end of his budget speech in November as a ‘game baiya’, village yokel, to emphasise this factor, the contender Maithripala Sirisena surrounded himself with a group of farmers after releasing his manifesto to portray himself as the true rustic son of the soil from a rural farming family who, after washing off his mud, had come to claim the Sinhala Buddhist Govi throne.

Both are in the same generation though Mahinda is on his seventieth year while Maithripala is the younger man, being sixty three going on sixty four. Both wear the same national dress though Maithripala does not flaunt Mahinda’s theatrical sash. Instead he has begun to don what Prof. G. P. Malalasekera who wore it himself when he returned from India in the 1940s called the ‘Jawahar’ sweater worn first by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and now also worn by Modi to camouflage his bullet proof vest with chic sartorial elegance.

But in the battle as to who will wear the purple on January 9, the similarities end and the complex differences emerge. Born and bred blue, Percy Mahendra ‘Mahinda’ Rajapaksa is the second son of Don Alwin Rajapaksa who in 1951 followed S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike when the latter crossed the floor of the House, resigning from the sole reigning UNP to found the SLFP. Mahinda’s grandfather, Don David Rajapaksa held the post of Vidane Arachchi in Ihala Valikada Korale, Giruvapattuva in the Hambantota District. The family property consisted of paddy fields and coconut cultivations. It was here in Hambantota, in the village of Medamulana, Weerakatiya, long regarded as the political fort of the Rajapaksa dynasty, that Mahinda Rajapaksa was born. His life is no rags to riches tale but rather a paddy to power epic.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has always been the consistent party man who, after playing second lieutenant to his friend and colleague Anura Bandaranaike, emerged from his shadow to shine in his own light as the rising star of the SLFP. Even when Anura crossed over to the UNP, Mahinda remained, like the Rock of Gibraltar, firmly fixed to the party. And, as a testament to his unswerving loyalty to the party his father helped to form with SWRD, proudly boasts how he stayed the course during the lean years in the opposition while SLFP founder Bandaranaike’s own daughter, Chandrika broke away to form her own party until her triumphant return to the family’s ancestral political home to become President.

Though Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena was not born with a proverbial political dynastic ladle to feed and nourish him with political ambition, it was paddy that grew under his feet; and the sweat that fell from his brow were the pouring from his toil in the fields that earned him his daily rice. His father, Albert Sirisena was the village headman in a small village in Polonnaruwa. He was also a war veteran in World War II and as a reward was granted five acres of paddy land near the Parakrama Samudra Tank by D. S. Senanayake.

To the conservative village headman, Albert, his teenage son was showing signs of rebelling against tradition by flirting with the radical dogma of Marxism that held religion to be the opium of the masses. But though his troubled father, aghast at the lad’s wayward ways, threatened to banish him from the family, Maithri continued undaunted to dabble in the dangerous sea of revolutionary ideas and nearly laid down the indigenous mammoty to take up the Russian sickle of communism.

But before the family could disown him, the State did. In the 1971 JVP insurrection, suspected as an insurgent for his radical ideas, he was arrested, locked up and spent 18 months behind bars before being released after he was proved innocent of having links with the rebels.

Maithripala Sirisena: The Challenger

As Maithripala recounted his salad days last month at a media meeting on December 3, “I have read the SLFP Communist Party papers from the age of 14. I have read Marxist philosophy and then joined the SLFP. It has now been 47 years in politics. And therefore as President Premadasa said, “Mama hondata themperadu wela thiyenne.”

While Mahinda hails from a political family with connections to the Bandaranaike political heritage, Maithripala lays no claim to a political inheritance. He has had to climb the ladder alone without family help, without the lustre of a colourful family background. But though it has slowed his ascent, it has not proved a handicap to the well harboured plans of reaching the summit of power. And his surprise defection which came as bolt from the blue to the nation, including to the President, was not a crossover to the UNP camp but a crossing of the Rubicon to conquer or perish as an independent presidential candidate in the same way S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike did when he left the UNP to found the SLFP and become Prime Minister of Ceylon.

For the incumbent president seeking an unprecedented third term of office who even sought an opinion from the Supreme Court as to his eligibility to contest and received a near unanimous all clear from the apex bench, these last two months have not been the best of times. And the bad news is that it could get even worse. Ever since he decided to go for an early presidential election while having two more years of his tenure of office remaining, the question on every one’s lips has been whether he jumped the gun when he issued his irrevocable proclamation announcing the presidential poll in January.

But with the coast clear and with no credible cloud of opposition in the skies to portend even the slightest drift of drizzle, it would have appeared to all that it would be but a charismatic cakewalk to yet another easy election triumph. In an excess of exuberance, complete complacency may have drowsed his politically sensitive antenna to drown any possibility of defeat and little would he have dreamt that the trusted minister, the longest serving SLFP secretary of over twenty years, to whom he had bestowed the singular honour to bear the sacred Buddhist relics to the all night pirith ceremony held at Temple Trees to commemorate his sixty ninth birthday on the 18th of November, to whom he had fed a choice piece of his birthday cake, had had enough of carting bags or being fed the crumbs of office but harboured higher ambitions, aspired to the highest post in the land; and would, within three days on the 21st of November, decamp and covet the very crown he wore. Maithripala Sirisena had delivered a potential coup de grace behind his back, in utmost secrecy that foiled his best laid plans and reduced to naught the smugly composed prophecies of his star gazers, soothsaying an easy predictable walkover, a summer stroll on a well-tended verdant lea.

But once the initial sudden shock of personal betrayal had settled, the President roared back into action. Soon, in a bid to counter the damage created by the various crossovers, tit for tat crossovers became the order of the day. Tissa Attanayake was the first turncoat to crossover from the UNP and became UPFA’s prize catch richly rewarded for his betrayal by being appointed as the new Minister of Health. Udaya Gammanpila, who along with his party the JHU in which he was the deputy secretary had splashed across the river over to Maithripala’s camp, became the first double crosser when he hung his principles on the nearest available clotheshorse to dry and crossed back to the UPFA bank; and there rested to proudly bray the salvation of his laundered conscience by doing the ‘dirty’ twice within two weeks.

But crossovers alone will not swing the masses and even the converted may view such antics with skepticism. The value of crossovers depends on the calibre of those crossing over and the sincerity of their motives. When tainted with allegations of bribery, crossovers may well have a negative impact. The accent will be placed on how the parties have conducted themselves so far and in this regard comparisons will be made as to whether the conduct reflects the promises made of ushering democracy and good governance.

For the UPFA the last two weeks have been dogged by blunder after blunder committed by those who have misread what is required of them and gone over the top to demonstrate their articles of faith to their sworn leader. One of the most outstanding blunders has been the destruction of Maithripala’s stage in Wanduramba. Three suspects, members of UPFA’s Galle strongman Deputy Minister Muthuhettigama, were arrested but the subsequent action taken by Muthuhettigama to remove the suspects by force from police custody by marching into the police station and flaunting his bulk and his political power has not succeeded in making the voting public take a shine towards the Government. Worse followed when despite a warrant for his arrest issued by the Baddegama Magistrate on the charge of abducting suspects from police custody, he was allowed to flee the country at the midnight hour through the VIP lounge at Bandaranaike International Airport to Singapore.

The feeble and nauseating attempt by the police spokesman, who has steadily bloated in tone and tenor of arrogance to resemble more the image of a political spokesman representing the Government than a spokesman for the Police Department, was that no policemen were present at the time of Muthuhettigama’s departure. If that was indeed the case, that there were no policemen on duty at night, shouldn’t there be an investigation for this gross breach of security at Lanka’s high security zone international airport? Or do the cops only do the day shift at BIA?
Other blunders followed notably the import of Indian actor, 50-year-old Salman Khan, who started his career as a brand promoter and still does it, to endorse the candidacy of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Star of the latest Bollywood movie ‘Kick’, Salman, may have been brought down to kick some life into the campaign but the move backfired. Lanka may have embraced her religious beliefs from India, imbibed her artistic traditions from India, received her cultural impetus from India but hasn’t still hit that despicable low to get her election cues on whom to vote from a celluloid Indian actor more known for flexing his biceps on the big screen. That same day, injury was added to this affront to the Lankan psychic when a group of Lankan artists were brutally attacked by thugs in Kurunegala led by the UPFA Wayambe provincial councillor who has since been arrested for the attack. These attacks do not reflect well on the presidential campaign and serve only to shift the focus away from the policies advocated.

Apart from the question “who won the war” still being regarded as an important vote winner five years after the war ended, the need to amend the Constitution has taken pride of place amongst the policy issues in the election campaign. The President has pledged to introduce a brand new Constitution that would reflect people’s aspirations within one year. Thereafter a national referendum will be held. Thus how long the entire process will take is still uncertain.

Maithripala on the other hand has announced the abolition of the executive presidency within 100 days of taking office. Though. in his election manifesto, he has expressed his confidence to obtain the vital two thirds majority in Parliament by garnering the support of the SLFP MPs, the MPs of the JVP and JHU, and the UNP MPs by considering any proposed changes to the present proposals, whether he will be able to successfully achieve his goal and keep his promise is anybody’s guess.

Crucial as all these issues are, the candidates should not lose sight of something far more important, burning in the eyes and stomachs of the people. Claiming the kudos for ‘who won the war’ question or gaining credit by appearing to be the most likely candidate to abolish the executive presidency, seems like child’s play when faced with the all important question on how best to solve the cost of living problem. That will be a major issue that will figure prominently in the minds of the people when they finally decide between Mahinda and Maithri.

Other concerns that will dominate on equal note and should dominate the decision making process are who will best ensure that laws will be enforced equally and not on a selective basis dependent upon one’s political colours, ensuring no one’s above the law; who can best restore the impartially and independence of the judiciary; who can best guarantee that a people’s fundamental rights are not confined to the statute book but are allowed to be enjoyed freely without fear, and who best recognises that all roads lead to a stable government only if democracy is first secured.


The mind of the voter

On New Year’s Eve, the University of Kelaniya announced the result of a survey done by them as to who will win the election. It predicted a win for Mahinda with 53 per cent of the vote. The same day, the University of Colombo also announced the result of its survey. It predicted a win for Maithripala with – wait for it – 53 per cent.

No doubt many, who would rush to scoff, had these predictions been given by a team of astrologers based on the Krishnamurthi Paddathiya or some ancient Vedic text, would fall on their knees to believe in the survey bunkum because it has been done ‘according to the scientific method’ as the two universities claimed.

But let this be a warning to astrologers who predict the winner from observing movement of planets in the sky and to academics who predict the victor by conducting surveys on the streets and guess the outcome from the spurious answers received to loaded questions asked from passersby and to anyone else who dares hold that he can read the pulse of 20 million Lankans that: The mind of the voter is like a ‘whodunit’ novel, an Agatha Christie murder mystery…. with the last page revealing the murderer’s identity torn off.



Election chief’s
curious request

The Election’s Commissioner on Friday made a curious request to all presidential candidates that must indeed baffle their minds. He asked them to refrain from campaigning through telephone networks without first obtaining the consent of the individual subscriber.

What can that possibly mean?

Does it mean that the candidate must first call the subscriber and ask his permission whether it’s ok to call him back with his campaign message? Or does it mean he must first send a text message asking whether it’s okay if he sends an sms with his campaign appeal? Does it mean that the candidate must first send the subscriber a stamped self addressed envelope asking him to give his permission in writing that he has no objection to the candidate phoning him and making a campaign plea? Or does it mean that the candidate must first pay a house call and ask the subscriber whether it will be all right for the candidate to phone him with his campaign message?

Maybe its the mounting pressure of election. But wonder whether, along with the candidates and their lackeys, the election chief too is in danger of going off his rocker?

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