By Dharisha Bastians –
As long suspected, allegiances are shifting far right in the upper echelons of the ruling administration. As the country gears up for battle in two key provinces and a frantic effort to rescue a deteriorating situation overseas, Geneva offers the ruling party a massive advantage
In a strange irony, the first major controversy of this season’s provincial polls campaign erupted on the stage of the self-professed ‘Mr. Clean’ contesting on the ruling party ticket.
Since his days as Chairman of the Central Environmental Authority and throughout his career as a provincial councillor, the Jathika Hela Urumaya’s Udaya Gammanpila has purported to champion good governance and transparency. For the upcoming provincial election, Gammanpila has tried to style himself as a Sri Lankan Aravind Kejriwal, the New Delhi Chief Minister and electoral wild card whose Aam Aadmi Party made a stunning debut at the Delhi Assembly elections last December. Kejriwal may have resigned on principle after a 49-day stint in office, but the former Indian tax-collector’s anti-corruption crusade has resonated with Gammanpila. With the candidate field that flooded with unscrupulous, cosmetic and sometimes downright criminal elements, the JHU politician has chosen to tap into voter disillusionment about politics as usual in a corruption ridden state. Gammanpila’s Rs. 100 public campaign financing programme is a first for a country in which political parties and candidates are traditionally financed by businessmen with vested interests. He has championed the call for all electoral candidates to declare assets and liabilities ahead of polls. His party refused to support the Rajapaksa Administration’s mega casino plans last year, forcing the Government to withdraw legislation that would permit James Packer’s Crown Casinos to set up operations in Colombo.
A flaw in the plan
Despite its Sinhala nationalist ideology, JHU members have a reputation for running Ministries and state institutions efficiently. Minister Champika Ranawaka, in fact was considered to have run his Power Ministry too efficiently, standing in the way of bad energy deals and proposed projects earning him a demotion to Science and Technology in last year’s cabinet reshuffle.
But Udaya Gammanpila’s decision to invite Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to speak at his inaugural election rally last week drew fire from the opposition, polls monitors and the Elections Commissioner. Ironically, opening Gammanpila’s campaign, the senior defence official hailed the Rajapaksa Administration’s commitment to good governance. His appearance on campaign platforms also frequently draws criticism because despite the power he wields over Government policy, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa remains an appointed member of the public service and a bureaucrat whose conduct is governed by the Establishment Code. The E-Code is most famously known for prohibiting public officials or civil servants from participating in election campaigning on behalf of any party. The clause was written in long before the public service was heavily politicised following the removal of permanent secretaries to ministries, and was intended to insulate the country’s professional administrative service and bureaucracy from the hurly burly of electoral politics. Despite the erosion of those standards and the rampant politicisation of the public service in recent times, the infusion of ministry secretaries and chairman of statutory boards and state banks into the campaigning process remains a technical violation of government regulations and an abuse of state resources and a reason for Government critics and independent observers to cry foul.
Forced to apologise
Last Thursday was hardly the first time that the Defence Secretary has campaigned on behalf of ruling party hopefuls. He often picks and chooses which candidates to campaign for. It was the first time however that his appearance forced the candidate who had hosted him to apologise publicly for the move. That he was encouraging errant behaviour by high officials in the Government bureaucracy was out of tune with Gammanpila’s good-governance themed campaign in the Western Province. Acknowledging that Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya shared the view of the opposition and other critics about public campaigning by the Defence Secretary, Gammanpila has pledged to never invite public servants to campaign events again. His response to criticism from opposition candidate President’s Counsel Srinath Perera however, revealed his position on the issue was far removed from the opinion of the Elections Commissioner. The JHU politico, a lawyer by profession claims that as a politically appointed member of the bureaucracy, Rajapaksa is not bound by the regulations governing the conduct of public servants and free to campaign. The second facet of Gammanpila’s response to Perera’s criticism was more revealing. The UNP candidate charged that it was deeply ironic that a JHU candidate was drawing onto his stage a member of the ruling Government that had thrown his weight behind casinos, when the party was so vehemently opposed to the projects. Gammanpila claims that the Defence Secretary has never backed casinos and challenges Perera to prove the senior official’s involvement.
For the main opposition UNP and Perera, the challenge should be simple enough.
James Packer’s Crown Sri Lanka integrated resort with gaming facilities is a USD 350-400 million investment on 2.5 acres of waterfront property at D.R. Wijewardane Mawatha, Colombo. The land has been transferred to Crown and its local partner on a 50 year lease by the Urban Development Authority at Rs. 2.9 billion. The Defence Secretary is also Secretary of the Urban Development Ministry. In August last year, Secretary Rajapaksa requested Crown’s local partner Rank Holdings to shift the location of the Crown Casino to another area along D.R. Wijewardane Mawatha, so that the resort would not block the view on the lake and specifically the Lotus Tower that is currently under construction and will be Sri Lanka’s tallest building once complete. He told a newspaper last August that the UDA’s old plans had envisioned that all casinos would be situated along one particular stretch of D.R. Wijewardane Mawatha. No opposition to the lease of the property to casino mogul Packer or the tax holidays granted to the project by the Government was registered by the usually vocal senior official.
The attempt to distinguish certain officials of the Rajapaksa administration from other more allegedly corrupt and run of the mill political movers and shakers is a hallmark of right wing political parties and hardline movements. It is telling that the Defence Secretary attended the inaugural rally of a candidate from the JHU, a small constituent ally of the ruling UPFA, instead of a member from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, to which his brother, the President belongs. But it is equally symbolic that President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the JHU strongman Gammanpila as the UPFA Group Leader for the Western Provincial Council election, overlooking Prasanna Ranatunga, the staunch SLFP candidate and former Chief Minister of the province for the top slot.
Shifting to the far-right
The move has fuelled speculation that the regime is now mulling appointing Gammanpila its Chief Minister in the Western Province if the JHU candidate performs reasonably well at the March election. The subtle but crucial moves illustrate clearly now what has long been suspected about the trajectory of the ruling administration. While the JHU may be a small minority in the ruling coalition, it continues to be a loud voice within the regime because its ideologies find partnership and resonance among the administration’s top officials. Much more so than the beleaguered and sidelined SLFP. While the Blues have traditionally been more right wing than the UNP, with the party’s founder having harnessed the power of nationalist monks, the inclusion of parties like the JHU and the regime’s own proclivities have pushed the ruling coalition to extreme nationalist politics. The ruling UPFA may be a colourful mix of political parties, communities and ideologies, playing host to the Muslim Congress, Douglas Devananda and parties of the Old Left movement, but it is the JHU rhetoric and narrative that rings out loudest from the heart of the Rajapaksa Administration.
This position alienates minority communities and the liberal citizenry, but it galvanises the Rajapaksa regime’s core support base within the Sinhala Buddhist community. It permits the administration to find favour with this critical mass of voters by flogging the triumph over the LTTE to death at election campaign after election campaign. It is the only electoral constituency that will be moved to tears and righteous indignation over Presidential proclamations that the international community was attempting to send Sri Lanka’s war winning head of state to the electric chair with resolutions in Geneva. It is whipped up into frenzy over claims of international conspiracies and war crimes investigations against heroic troops. Poll after poll, it will vote to keep the defenders of the nation in power. As far as the Rajapaksa administration is concerned, it is the only constituency it needs.
The crucial polling date
The Government’s decision to hold the Western and Southern polls on 29 January was motivated by keeping this constituency on its toes after what promises to be a month filled with dire threats about the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. Street protests and media campaigns about international intervention will accompany hectic polls campaigns throughout the month of March. It remains a mystery that Elections Commissioner Deshapriya gave into the Government’s timeline on the date of the polls. Long before the nominations process was begun, a UPFA Minister claimed that elections would be held for the two provinces on 29 March. Although the Polls Chief has the prerogative to set the election date anytime before the lapse of eight weeks after the nomination period ends, Deshapriya pulled 29 March out of his hat, one day after D-Day for the Rajapaksa Government in Geneva.
On 28 March, after the Council votes on what will be the third US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka – that may or may not call for an international mechanism to investigate allegations of major abuses during the last phase of the war, it is widely expected that President Rajapaksa will make an address to the nation. In the event this prediction is realised, the address will be an electoral call to arms, a rallying of the citizenry against neo-imperialism and attempts at regime change by powerful and unscrupulous nations.
Flash in the pan?
Comprehending at last that the Government will campaign primarily on a Geneva platform at the March provincial election, the slumbering and rift-ridden United National Party made a surprise move last week. Issuing its first clearly articulated position on the country’s human rights crisis, the UNP laid blame for Sri Lanka’s dire predicament internationally squarely at the door of President Rajapaksa and his Government. His Government’s inaction and false promises about domestic investigations into alleged abuses in war time to the international community for five years after the war ended had placed Sri Lanka on a razor’s edge of devastating international action, the UNP said in a hard-hitting statement last week. The country’s main opposition said it was trying to rise above partisanship in the national interest and pledged its full support for a credible, independent domestic probe into the allegations being made about the last phase of the war, in order to ward off international action against Sri Lanka next month. Refusing to stop with the last phase of the war, the UNP raised the issue of the Mannar and Matale mass graves, Weliweriya and the prison riots in the south post-war that require urgent attention and credible inquiry and called for an investigation into atrocities by the LTTE and the prosecution of those members of the organisation that remain within the Government’s capacity to haul to trial. It was a master stroke uncharacteristic of the UNP in recent times. The demand for a domestic probe by Sri Lanka’s main opposition, just ahead of the UNHRC session next month, drew international attention. For the first time in years, on paper at least on this one issue, the UNP made a brief appearance as an alternative political leadership with the move that may be criticised locally in the short-term, but will be hailed globally.
In times of such acute international crisis, that is at least as crucial as winning public support at home.
Courtesy Daily FT