Sajith draws unprecedented crowd for inaugural Galle Face rally, but bigger challenge will be to draw supporters to polling booth Gotabaya also draws massive crowd for first rally; gets a major boost from Elpitiya election results Skulduggery in politics or politicians changing the truth for lies or vice versa is a global phenomenon. The days when [...]


SLFP support for Gota – how Sirisena chose to remain “neutral”


After nominations last Monday, the two main contenders at the November 16 presidential election held huge rallies to launch their campaigns. Pictures show the New Democratic Front candidate Sajith Premadasa’s huge rally at Galle Face on Thursday and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s massive rally in Anuradhapura on Tuesday. Pix by M.D. Nissaka and Priyantha Wickremachchi

  • Sajith draws unprecedented crowd for inaugural Galle Face rally, but bigger challenge will be to draw supporters to polling booth
  • Gotabaya also draws massive crowd for first rally; gets a major boost from Elpitiya election results
Skulduggery in politics or politicians changing the truth for lies or vice versa is a global phenomenon. The days when they would resign in honour taking responsibility over a tragedy are now rare. The comedy is they would have a shipload of reasons no matter if the people believed in it, or not.

Even the most powerful nation on earth, the United States, is not free from this growing malaise. President Donald Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry over a call he made to his Ukranian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky in July. He called upon him to investigate Joe Biden, one of his Democratic rivals for the 2020 presidential election, as a quid pro quo to release military aid to Kiev, already approved by Congress.

In Sri Lanka, such unscrupulous activity has spiralled with just over three weeks to go for the November 16 presidential election. It took a more grotesque form when two key stakeholders in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) made public statements to the media just last Sunday. SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera declared, “A firm decision has not been made by the (SLFP) Central Committee on Saturday (October 5) night. It would be announced to the media only when one is made.” He made Sri Lankans believe the SLFP demand for the Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to change its Pohottuwa symbol still stood and the SLFP had not decided to tie up with the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance. However, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera was more to the point. He said, “The CC on Saturday night decided to support candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the President was to announce it himself at a news conference.” He too contradicted himself later saying no decision had yet been made. That they were performing at President Sirisena’s behest was one thing. Whether the discerning public believed in them is another.

Ameraweera at first confirmed the report in these columns as well as the Sunday Times front page lead story. Reporting on his party’s Central Committee decision on Saturday (October 5) to unconditionally support former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, the reports said an official announcement was to be made at 11 a.m. last Sunday. That was not all. There were other decisions, too.

An SLFP delegation, including Jayasekera and Ameraweera, was to take part in the signing of nomination papers by candidate Gotabaya at his residence in Mirihana, Nugegoda, last Sunday morning. And on Monday (next day), a representative delegation from the SLPP was to show their presence when nomination papers were handed over to the National Election Commission.  President Sirisena had asked that not only the news conference be cancelled but the SLFP teams should not go. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, something had gone wrong.

The gullible, as usual, swallowed what Jayasekera and Amaraweera said. The not-so gullible or the discerning among them began to wonder what happened just hours after the Central Committee decided to support SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Why did President Maithripala Sirisena change his mind for the umpteenth time just hours after saying so personally to the Rajapaksas?

That is the very reason, after all, why he invited the Rajapaksa brothers — Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil — to the Presidential Secretariat that Saturday (October 5) night. “Hetama assang karawa ganna,” or get it signed tomorrow itself, he declared in remarks that showed he was very keen on the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). During the conversation, a source close to the Presidency said, SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa asked President Sirisena, “why are you not contesting?” Though not in line with the positions he has taken, he replied there were two reasons for it. One was a pledge he had made once when he spoke from outside Dalada Maligawa that he would not contest the presidency again. The other — he would have needed at least one of two formidable parties (meaning the SLPP or the UNP) for victory. When the meeting ended, Rajapaksa brothers clasped their hands in ayubowan and withdrew. First to the words of Mahinda Rajapaksa, twice President and once Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. He was the leader of the SLFP for ten years. He told the Sunday Times, “We went there on Saturday – October 5 – at the invitation of President Sirisena. He told us that he and his party would join the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) and support the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. We were pleased with that message. Our meeting was very friendly and cordial. That is all I can say.” At the SLPP’s first major rally in Anuradhapura, Rajapaksa thanked the “SLFP for supporting” the SLPP (and not President Sirisena). As hours went by last Sunday morning, the Rajapaksas were worried. They learnt that the news conference had been cancelled and there would be no SLFP delegation when nomination papers were signed. Nor would they be there at the nomination day at the EC office, they learnt.

One is reminded of the words of Chris Hughes, a roommate of Facebook icon Mark Zuckerberg at the Harvard University and their spokesperson. He said, “A lie is like a snowball, it starts off small and then grows and grows until a point where it gets so big, it falls apart, and then the truth is discovered.” Since Sri Lanka does not experience snow, it would be appropriate to call it a mud ball. The end is a mud bath when it explodes. The predicament of both Jayasekera and Amaraweera in coming out with one smokescreen after another is understandable. They had run out of excuses and found themselves in an unenviable position. They were forced to change facts into fiction and keep a straight face to defend their leader.

Sirisena’s meeting with UNP duo

The real reason for the cancellation of plans last Sunday was because President Sirisena has had second thoughts again. One of the first to meet him that morning was United National Party (UNP) Chairman Kabir Hashim and Krishantha Prasad Cooray — frontliners in the Premadasa campaign. The duo told Sirisena that his decision to support candidate Rajapaksa could be construed as a move to defeat Premadasa. They were alluding to Sirisena’s own public remarks that whoever held the support of the SLFP would be the winner. Pressure built on Sirisena. Sajith Premadasa also spoke with him and made the same point. Adding to this, the Sunday Times learnt, was the displeasure of a section of President Sirisena’s own family.

There were more telephone calls from backers of Premadasa. That forced him to re-think for two long days, deliberating with his SLFP inner caucus including the two General Secretaries – Jayasekera and Amaraweera. The caucus was unanimous in their stance that the decision of the CC on Saturday night to support candidate Rajapaksa should be adhered to. A backroom debate was sparked off.

There was a dilemma for President Sirisena. His position in the SLFP had weakened so much that he could not carry his own party together over his line of thinking. If he tried, he realised that a section would breakaway and be present at the SLPP rally in Anuradhapura on Tuesday. There were others set to go to the UNP. A section of his Secretariat had already defected to the Premadasa campaign. Hence, he declared his only other available choice in the circumstances. He said he would stay “neutral” and temporarily step down from his post as Chairman of the SLFP. That way he would not be accused if Premadasa is defeated or so he thought. Nor would he be accused of not supporting candidate Rajapaksa. There was, he perceived, a plus for him in that position. That is notwithstanding SLFP organisers countrywide urging him to contest when he conducted an opinion poll among them. Furthermore, the Court of Appeal decision to dismiss a petition challenging the National Identity Card and dual Sri Lanka citizenship of Gotabaya Rajapaksa put paid to it. He had thought the judgment would go against Rajapaksa.

Whoever wins the presidential election, he believes, he would still have the leverage to further negotiate some suitable deal. Therefore, he named Rohana Luxman Piyadasa as the acting Chairman of the SLFP. He was a former General Secretary and a professor at the Mass Communication Faculty at the University of Kelaniya. A former Minister from the minority community was also caught in the crossfire and was given a strong telling off by Sirisena. He was accused of “passing information to the other side.”

Even those in President Sirisena’s inner caucus were not so pleased at the events and were making uncharitable remarks to close friends. Some cannot be printed. “This is like the Commander of the Army recusing himself and ordering only officers and men to go to war. He will take over command only after the war and will not lead from the front,” said one irritated front liner. Another, who could be described as very active, declared “there is a nauseating (maha pilikula) paradox. Others, however, said that Sirisena ought to have been “neutral” from day one of his presidency and he could have been the ‘common candidate’ once again.

The truth is that the Premadasa faction has been successful in reversing part of the decision by the Central Committee, the SLFP’s main policy making body. Premadasa himself was active in trying to coax Sirisena to bring the SLFP to back his candidature. He had long been in contact with Sirisena who had offered the premiership to him as well, something both parties have confirmed.  The question is how long the SLFP, one of the oldest in the country, could survive.  There were also concerns among most that Sirisena has used his position as leader as the SLFP for (davedda) or dowry or as a personal bargaining tool.  Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga expressed her disgust at the SLFP decision to back Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a tweet she sent out. Though Sirisena declared at first that he and his party would be the decisive factor for any winner, he divested himself to remain “neutral.” He plans to take over the party leadership after the polls. He has already announced that he has no desire to quit politics after the elections.

President Sirisena conveyed his decision to the caucus last Monday. He asked that senior deputy chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva to preside at a news conference the next day (Tuesday) with 17 other party MPs present. The decisions of the CC, as reported in these columns and the front-page report last week, were announced by him on Tuesday. There was only one new factor – President Sirisena would remain “neutral.” The pressure on him from the Premadasa faction and sections of the family, and others, had worked.  That was the reason for vacillating for two days. Two Anuradhapura district MPs — Duminda Dissanayake and Weerakumara Dissanayake took part in the first main election rally for candidate Rajapaksa. Duminda Dissanayake, an archrival of the Rajapaksas, read out a message from SLFP expressing support. He looked rather embarrassed in performing the task. His colleague was earlier in Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) and crossed over to the SLFP.

De Silva told the news conference on Tuesday: “The main question was whether we would field a candidate. The President said he does not want to be the third main candidate. We were left with three options — to support Sajith Premadasa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa or stay neutral. We cannot stay silent when the country is in a difficult situation. The country must be saved. So, we chose to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” That indeed was an interesting viewpoint. It was not necessarily something shared by their leader. Saying that the party even considered voting with Premadasa was interesting. The SLFP was now a ship without a captain being towed by the SLPP after a political shipwreck at mid sea.

On Saturday (October 5), the CC meeting began some half an hour late. President Sirisena was delayed by his meeting with the Rajapaksa brothers at the Presidential Secretariat. He told CC members that he would like to know their frank views over whom they would prefer to back at the presidential election. The first to speak was Uva Chief Minister Chamara Sampath Dissanayake. He set the trend by saying that the party should support Gotabaya Rajapaksa. All others who spoke thereafter followed suit backing the proposal. They included Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Faiszer Musthapa, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Thilanga Sumathipala and Senior Professor Sampath Ameratunga, Vice Chancellor of the Sri Jayawardenapura University. The CC decided to empower President Sirisena to make a formal announcement on Sunday. In turn, he urged those present not to speak to anyone about the CC decisions until he announced it next day.

“Some twenty CC members taking part in the meeting on Saturday night decided unanimously to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” Galle District SLFP MP Nishantha Muthuhettigama told the Sunday Times. The decision was endorsed by President Sirisena, and no one had dissenting views, he said.

Just after the two-day delay, the SLFP and the SLPP signed their first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) on Thursday. Through this, the SLFP has gained membership in the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) by accepting its constitution. Thus, the SLFP accepts the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the alliance leader, and remain, like other parties, a partner member.

SLFP General Secretary Jayasekera told the signing ceremony that he had to carry out “many tasks” and “make statements” to protect the SLFP. He said, “We have never betrayed our party; therefore, we could join forces easily.”  He said the President, CC members, electoral organisers and supporters took a great effort. SLPP architect and national organiser Basil Rajapaksa paid tribute to leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and to “the President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena” for his anusasanawa or guidance. The qualified “thank you” seemed one for paving the way for the tie up. He said his “first love” was the SLFP and their new party will not “bulldoze” over the SLFP.

Sirisena’s two minute appearance

Placing their signatures for the first MoU were Jayasekera on behalf of the SLFP and attorney Sagara Kariyawasam, General Secretary of the SLPP on behalf of his party. The latter had taken time off from his mother’s funeral that day to attend the ceremony. There were some awkward moments after the ceremony had ended and those present had adjourned for lunch. President Sirisena arrived at the area where the signing took place, took a seat but did not remain for more than two minutes, an eyewitness said. He left thereafter without talking to a group of SLFP organisers, who were present there.  The group had been told to wait by party Secretary Jayasekera until the lunch was over so they could discuss their proposed election campaign.

As is clear from the SLFP-SLPP MoU, the SLFP is extending support to candidate Rajapaksa unconditionally. This is a significant compromise by the SLFP which had earlier insisted on its counterpart changing its Pohottuwa (lotus bud) symbol. The MoU signed will apply only during the parliamentary elections. In terms of this, the SLFP would be entitled to 31% each for candidates for parliamentary, provincial and local council elections. The same ratio will apply in selections to the Cabinet of Ministers and in naming MPs for the National List.

A more significant MoU is the one to be signed by the SLFP with candidate Rajapaksa. Some serious issues have already arisen after President Sirisena declared that he would stay “neutral.” In terms of the SLPA constitution, the leader of every political party which joins it is entitled to be Deputy Leader and could nominate a Deputy Secretary. They will also serve on the SLPA policy making body, the Executive Committee. It is highly unlikely that Maithripala Sirisena will find a slot in the SLPA since he has chosen to “remain neutral” and distanced himself from the SLFP. The subject is to be discussed in the coming week but SLPP leadership is firm that they should not yield since Sirisena had taken that position after making different assurances to them. That will become a knotty issue and there is a likelihood that the SLFPers, particularly the hierarchy, having tied up with the SLPA, leaving Sirisena alone to fight this battle. That is, if he should take over the SLFP leadership later. On the other hand, the Executive Committee now in place would have to decide if they would want to accommodate a replacement for Sirisena.

The SLFP has proposed to the SLPP that the signing of the second MoU be held on October 13 Vap Poya Day (today). This is when the SLFP was planning to hold a convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. However, they learnt on Friday that the venue had already been booked by another party. Other than the impending MoU, there has also been “understanding” between the two sides on some important issues but SLPP seniors remained silent on what they were.  The SLFP will carry out its own campaign in favour of candidate Rajapaksa in coordination with the SLPP. That way, neither side will be on each other’s political platforms.

Campaigns begin

The campaigns of the two most formidable candidates have got under way. The first major rally launched by the New Democratic Front (NDF) for Sajith Premadasa at the Galle Face Green drew a record crowd. They filled the Galle Face Green and vast stretches of the Galle Road in the vicinity. Live television coverage using drones for aerial shots boosted Premadasa’s image. His campaign officials appear to have taken a leaf from the US presidential campaign. The one liner used in the US has emerged here. It says, “Forward Together.” Like in the US, family members are also present at campaign rallies. A nuanced shift in emphasis is seen in speeches made recently by Premadasa including the Galle Face rally. Assurances or promises are prefaced with a self-centred words “Mey Sajith…..”  or “this Sajith”…..  That was in place of using the words UNP or NDF. Premadasa’s speech was also reminiscent of the old Sinhala adage Oluva athagala tokkak aninava or patting the head and knocking on it thereafter. He noted that he had to fight his way to become the candidate but praised Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for ceding the candidacy to him.

The very large turnout for Premadasa’s rally at the Galle Face Green cannot be dismissed lightly. It no doubt represents the substantial support the UNP commands in different areas. However, a turnout is more important much more to polling booths. In the past, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has been able to fill the Galle Face Green. So has the SLPP, though both turnouts were less compared to that of Thursday’s rally. However, Premier Wickremesinghe had advised that the rally be held after the Pradeshiya Sabha election in Elpitiya so the impact of the crowd would leave a lasting impression on the voter, at least for a longer time. Premadasa loyalists felt a meeting earlier with a larger turnout would inspire more votes at Elpitiya. That was not to be. The outcome of these polls has in a sense overshadowed the spotlight from Premadasa’s Galle Face rally.

The SLPP won all 17 wards in the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha. Thanks to the Proportional Representation system of voting system, they had to be content with 17 seats ceding seven to the UNP and just three to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) won a paltry two seats. The SLFP being placed third and the JVP fourth is also reflective of the voter preferences. For the SLFP, it is confirmation that its grassroots level support had eroded as its leaders bargained for positions and ignored other priorities. The JVP, which has played a proxy to the UNP-led UNF, has also received a drubbing. The percentages: SLPA 57%, UNP 24%, UPFA 13% and JVP 6%. The SLPP and the UPFA percentages added together total 69.1%. At the presidential election in 2015, the betel symbol (UPFA), the precursor to the Pohottuwa, won 52.7% of the votes and the UNP-backed National Democratic Front 40.83 %. That reflects the gradual erosion of the UNP vote over the past more than four years. During the parliamentary elections in August 2015, the UPFA polled 34,275 while the UNP polled 26,559.

Defence role for Field Marshal

At his first rally, Premadasa, in an unprecedented move, announced that Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, he would ensure, would be responsible for defence and security matters when elected President. The fact that he had been in discussion with the war winning General became clear the day after the rally. Full page advertisements in newspapers on Friday declared “Sajith Premadasa puts national security first” and in bold type exhorted “Chooses the right man for the right job.” Premadasa devoted nearly three minutes of his speech to FM Fonseka. A joke went viral in the social media where a video clip of Premadasa in casual clothes was shown interviewing persons for jobs. He is seen telling a candidate “Usa nam security. Kota nam labourer” or if you are tall, you can join state security. If you are short, you will be taken as a labourer. A photo of FM Fonseka’s carried the same wording by the social media outlets.

The Sunday Times learnt that ahead of a dialogue he had with Premadasa, FM Fonseka spoke with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary. One source said those talks did not meet with success. This duo executed the separatist war together to militarily defeat Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, but ended up becoming bitter enemies. According to Premadasa’s campaign staff, FM Fonseka was their answer to candidate Rajapaksa in respect of matters military. They said he led troops to military victory against Tiger guerrillas and candidate Rajapaksa’s slogan was ‘national security’. If Premadasa’s assertions come right, it would mean FM Fonseka receiving political command of the military and the police, something which President Maithripala Sirisena has resisted despite many pleas by the UNP including its leader Premier Wickremesinghe.

There are, however, travel bans on the war hero from the United States and several other European states on allegations that he violated human rights. Of course, President Sirisena ignored such protests and appointed Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Army. As a direct consequence, the UN asked the Sri Lanka peacekeeping contingent in Lebanon to leave at the end of its term last month. However, this has now been delayed till December.

Candidate Rajapaksa also reached out to the military during his first main rally in Anuradhapura which also drew record crowds. He said “war heroes” now serving sentences in jails on “false” charges would be released on the morning of November 17. That appeared to be a top priority to him if he becomes President and would come even before a new Cabinet of Ministers is named. The move does raise some serious concerns since those in jails have gone through a judicial process whatever the merits or demerits of such cases may be. To that extent, it could also cause international concerns and responses.

He told the Anuradhapura rally, “You have seen how this government treated the proud war heroes whom we created. They were termed war criminals. Intelligence services were destroyed. They should know in 2005 when President Rajapaksa took office you could not travel beyond Vavuniya. Two thirds of the east had also been lost. They should know that these are the war heroes who gave the lead to President Rajapaksa to recapture the lost land. Thereafter we allowed free movement of people from Dondra to Point Pedro, but in less than 10 years people lost their freedom and they could not go to a church without being bombed. People have lost their freedom to go to religious places. Your security will be ensured. That will be our responsibility. There are many security persons in jail for “absurd” charges. Also, the Civil Defence force that protected you will be provided a pension if they have completed 22 years, as promised by President Rajapaksa earlier.”

For President Maithripala Sirisena, born just a day after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was formed on September 2, 1951, the decision to stay “neutral” at the presidential elections will continue to reverberate in the political firmament for a long time. The future of the SLFP too remains a critical question as it loses its identity gradually at the grassroots level with the SLPP taking over its place.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to Colombo on Friday night after a visit to Singapore for medical reasons. He will now resume his campaign which has been buoyed by the victory in Elpitiya.

For Sajith Premadasa, the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, the challenge no doubt, is going beyond mustering crowds for public rallies. He must go for the votes and that will be most decisive for him. He holds a major rally in Moneragala today. The campaigns are now heating up.



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