By Dharisha Bastians –
Somewhere in Temple Trees, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is probably jubilant after an alliance that was to rally the collective opposition to agitate against the absolute power of the executive presidency, descended into chaos late last week.
The UNP Working Committee, the party’s apex body decided last Friday (12) to ban its membership from attending the inaugural rally organised by the alliance, placing several of its members in a precarious position, many of them having already pledged their support for the cause. A key figure of the opposition alliance, the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) set up by the United Bhikku Front to abolish the presidency is the President’s archrival and former presidential contender Sarath Fonseka.
The ex-Army Chief, credited with having defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009 was fielded as the common opposition candidate at the 2010 presidential election. With the poll called less than a year after the victory over the LTTE, it was widely believed that the only candidate capable of tapping into the national euphoria and spirit of triumphalism as well as the incumbent President himself was the Army Commander that led the troops to that much touted victory. At the time, the combined opposition fielding Fonseka which included the UNP and the JVP claimed that the main thrust of the common candidature was the abolishing of the executive presidency.
With the introduction of the 18th Amendment to the constitution that removed presidential term limits and vested final authority over key public service and law enforcement appointments with the executive president, the presidency has assumed a far more authoritarian role and the movement to abolish the system should have garnered greater support.
Abandoning the General
Yet it is clear now that neither the main opposition UNP nor the Marxist JVP any longer see Fonseka as the face of any campaign to stall dictatorial trends in the country. The UNP is still irked at Fonseka’s reticence to approach the party following his release from Welikada Prison in May this year. As the party’s presidential candidate Fonseka enjoyed the support of a predominantly UNP support base both at the presidential election and during his years in prison.
The main opposition party felt that it was up to the former Army Chief to reach out to the UNP and join the party to agitate against the Rajapaksa regime. But joining the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNP was a deal-breaker as far as DNA MP Tiran Alles was concerned and with the Fonseka family beholden to Alles after he negotiated the former General’s release from prison with President Rajapaksa, Sarath Fonseka chose to refrain from irking his party’s General Secretary.
Moreover, Fonseka’s own nature played no small role in preventing him from reaching out to the UNP. Sarath Fonseka is and always has been a lone wolf and continues to believe, his confidants say, that the 40% of votes cast in his favour at the 2010 presidential poll was a result of his popularity and little to do with the UNP’s traditional support base. Since his release from prison, even though he has nothing to offer a political movement since he cannot contest an election following his convictions, Fonseka continues to believe that any major opposition collective must be formed around him.
In the run up to today’s rally calling for the abolishment of the presidency, Fonseka has been engaged in feverish attempts to canvass UNP MPs to participate in what he persists in calling his ‘mangala’ or inaugural rally at Hyde Park on 18 October. In fact, given Fonseka’s leading role in the affair, the rally has effectively ceased to be one led
by the sangha in public perception. While the rally is expected to garner a significant crowd, mostly because there is very little else opposition mobilisation taking place at the moment, Fonseka’s overzealousness has also cost him the support of the main opposition party and the JVP with members of both parties somewhat disconcerted by the former Army Chief’s attempts to steal their thunder.
With Fonseka effectively blockaded from joining UNP campaigns of agitation thanks to the Alles factor, the UNP is now questioning the rationale for joining in campaigns led by the former General. Yesterday, Attanayake acknowledged that fielding Fonseka as the party’s candidate at the last presidential election was a mistake, highlighting the fact that the UNP now seeks to distance itself from the former General. Earlier, on Tuesday, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told a news conference charged that Fonseka had flatly refused to join in the common opposition protest organised by the UNP some time ago and was now engaged in an effort to divide the opposition by soliciting the support of some UNP members.
New intra-party conflict
Attanayake’s comments refer to renewed intra-party conflict that has now spilled into the public domain following the his party’s Working Committee week last week, banning UNP members from attending the United Bhikku Front rally. Several UNP members had already accepted the invitation by members of the Sangha to attend today’s rally. Chief among them was former UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, MPs Palitha Range Bandara, Palitha Thewarapperuma and Asoka Abeysinghe and provincial councillors Shiral Lakthilaka and Maithree Gunaratne. The Bandara, Lakthilaka and Gunaratne are all key figures in the UNP’s reformist movement led for the most part by the party’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, while Jayasuriya lost his position as an office-bearer of the UNP and his membership in the Working Committee after he contested Wickremesinghe for the leadership in December last year.
The Premadasa led reformist movement within the UNP urged Jayasuriya to contest the leadership but once the battle was lost, has done little to safeguard the former Deputy Leader’s position within the party. Since December last year, Jayasuriya is being sidelined by Wickremesinghe who considers the fact that he contested for the leadership a major betrayal. Jayasuriya continues to credit Wickremesinghe with having brought him into politics and despite his ongoing discussions with Premadasa’s reformist group, was never willing to challenge the UNP leader for that precise reason. He finally gave into the reformists’ demand that he challenge the leadership only after Wickremesinghe, angered by Jayasuriya’s dalliance with the Premadasa group chose to appoint John Amaratunga Acting Leader while he was on an official visit overseas, which as Deputy Leader at the time, Jayasuriya felt was a grave insult.
Wickremesinghe loyalists say it was magnanimous on the UNP Leader’s part to not only accept Jayasuriya back into the party fold after he crossed over to the Government with 17 others in 2007, but to also return him to the party with the same position he held before the crossover. The challenge Jayasuriya posed to the leadership therefore was the final straw as far as Wickremesinghe is concerned and he has since been engaged in a vindictive effort to sideline and undermine the senior politician.
Since December, the UNP has refused to allow Jayasuriya time to speak in parliament and has turned down several requests by other members to have the former Deputy Leader re-inducted into the Working Committee. Despite the treatment meted out to him and even though he has lacked any solid support from the reformists group who put him in the difficult situation to begin with, Jayasuriya has continued to hold weekly press briefings and played his part in alerting the public about the excesses of the incumbent regime.
This has not gone unnoticed by the UNP leadership which resents its former Deputy Leader gaining any kind of prominence. Over the months following the leadership challenge last December, Jayasuriya who has always been viewed as a Buddhist friendly figure within the UNP, has continued to foster ties with the Sangha and finds himself in an awkward position now given the party’s position on him and other UNPers attending the Bhikku Front rally.
Once the party’s Working Committee made its decision on the rally, it also became clear that this was a thinly veiled attempt by the party leadership to checkmate several members of the reformist group. In a strange turn of events, UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa also expressed his support to the UNP Leader privately, saying that tough action should be taken against those who attend the Hyde Park rally. Wickremesinghe quipped to several MPs that they would be surprised if they knew the kind of people pushing for action to be taken against those who defy the party order alluding to Premadasa’s position on the issue.
The matter has caused grave concern amongst some UNP members who feel it is unethical for Premadasa to take this position and urge action against prospective attendees, especially when the list includes members of his reformist group and the MP he wanted to make UNP Leader as recently as December last year. But Premadasa vows that he stands against this campaign to exact vengeance by the UNP Leadership, and has reportedly expressed this sentiment with special reference to Karu Jayasuriya at the party’s last Working Committee meeting.
It is not clear whether Premadasa’s opposition to the rally stems from a perception that the UNP needs to be the leader of any common opposition alliance striving to take the ruling administration on or whether his position is a result of something entirely different. Premadasa is a close associate of DNA MP Tiran Alles who has reportedly broken ranks with Sarath Fonseka and is unlikely to extend political support to the former General. Along with Alles’ decamp from the Fonseka fold, Premadasa too has distanced himself from the former Army Chief, barely acknowledging the latter when the two meet. Political analysts wonder whether Premadasa would be such a vociferous opponent of the rally if the Alles-Fonseka alliance was still as strong as before or whether in fact, Premadasa would be one of the reformists on the NMSJ platform at Hyde Park today.
Be that as it may, the UNP Deputy Leader has made several appeals to Jayasuriya since the working committee decision was announced, urging his predecessor to refrain from attending the rally and angering the party leadership further. Premadasa has voiced his opinion to Jayasuriya both in person and subsequently over the phone in the last four days. UNP MPs Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim and other party moderates have visited Jayasuriya’s residence at Amarasekera Mawatha, Colombo 5 over the last three days to reason with the senior politician to reconsider his attendance at today’s rally.
Other MPs close to Wickremesinghe argued that his attendance would make things ridiculously easy for the leadership which could then expel Jayasuriya and other irritants from the party for flouting party regulations. In fact, Wickremesinghe told confidants earlier in the week that nobody in the UNP should attempt to stop Jayasuriya and the other members from attending the rally, indicating that it would be best to let the irritants go and take action against them later.
Declaring war on Karu
Karu Jayasuriya, sources say, has found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. On Tuesday, the former Deputy Leader released an open letter to Ranil Wickremesinghe urging him to reconsider the decision to ban UNP members from attending today’s rally.
“In my opinion, the UNP should rally its membership under this common banner and in your capacity as Opposition Leader and the Leader of the single largest political party in Sri Lanka, you yourself should be the front and centre of this campaign. If you reconsider your decision and allow me and other members of the UNP to attend this rally, and perhaps encourage others to join the campaign, it will signal to the people of this country, all of whom are seeking alternatives and leadership, that UNP remains committed to causes that truly matter to the masses, and does not make political decisions based on petty personal calculations,” Jayasuriya’s letter which got wide media publicity said.
Far from reconsidering the party’s decision, Wickremesinghe commissioned the party’s General Secretary Attanayake to issue an open letter to Jayasuriya, charging that the Gampaha District MP was attempting to bring the party into disrepute. Adding that there would be no future for Jayasuriya in the UNP unless he respected the party leadership and abided by the decisions of the Working Committee, Attanayake’s letter claimed that Jayasuriya had betrayed the party and was attempting to ally with forces that included former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who was “responsible for various undemocratic acts. He has admitted that he gave rulings for the strengthening of executive presidency.” Attanayake’s letter makes it abundantly clear that while the UNP moderates are keen to keep senior hands like Jayasuriya within the party fold, a faction affiliated to the party leadership are fairly determined to let him go.
Dilemma of conscience
Jayasuriya is facing a dilemma of conscience, confidants say, with regard to attending today’s rally. On the one hand, the United Bhikku Front and Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero are closely affiliated with Jayasuriya. The senior politician is reportedly wary of disappointing the monks, many of whom have put their faith in him as one politician who will stand by the cause and will in fact abolish the presidency, if he ever gets the opportunity. In a bid to express their solidarity with him, the Theros leading the alliance have promised to bring thousands of monks from around the country to surround the UNP’s Sirikotha Headquarters in Kotte in an unceasing satyagraha if the party moves against Jayasuriya because of his decision to attend the rally.
But a majority of Jayasuriya’s advisors and colleagues feel that it is important that he bow to the party dictates at this point in order to safeguard his own political future and also reinforce the notion that he is ultimately a party man. They argue that Jayasuriya’s image suffered from his crossover, and he cannot afford to be seen as a UNP member that flouts party discipline ever again. It is also true that Jayasuriya’s political future lies within the UNP, despite the shaky position in which he finds himself with the party today. Jayasuriya’s advisors have warned that while attending the rally and flouting the party order would be a short term victory, and one that would be a popular move publicly, it would damage his credibility with UNPers in the long run and leave him politically isolated. Furthermore, if Jayasuriya chooses not to attend the rally today, that will effectively checkmate Ranil Wickremesinghe and thwart his plans to destroy the careers of his detractors within the UNP.
Overall, the UNP appears divided on the issue of the rally with even some of Wickremesinghe’s own associates voicing concern that the party’s anti-rally stance will further damage its credibility with the Sinhala Buddhist population. They argue that the last election report of the UNP highlights the fact that the party’s distance from Sinhala Buddhists over the last few years cost them votes at elections. These UNP members claim that banning members from attending the rally and attempting to take action against Jayasuriya and others who attend the rally led by Buddhist monks would further erode the UNP’s ties to the Buddhist population in the island.
The woes of Bob Blake
When US Assistant Secretary for Central and South Asian Affairs, Robert O. Blake visited Sri Lanka last month, he came with a list of several key LLRC recommendations that his Government was keen Colombo implement with utmost haste. Among them was holding Northern Provincial Council elections immediately, reducing the military involvement in northern development projects, resolving land issues in the north, expediting accountability cases to showcase at least one as soon as possible, allowing the National Anthem to be sung in Tamil and releasing the results of the 2011 census as soon as possible.
According to diplomatic sources, when Assistant Secretary Blake was about to leave for Colombo, the State Department handed him a Sri Lanka dossier based on the US Government’s current engagement on the island’s post-conflict issues and other matters. However, Blake with his vast experience in Sri Lanka, sought to engage Sri Lanka on these key recommendations, urging the authorities here to comply even as the clock is ticking towards the next UN Human Rights Council Session in Geneva.
Seven months after a UNHRC resolution was adopted against Sri Lanka, the US feels that Colombo has been dragging its feet on the issues. However, Blake got no traction with the Sri Lankan authorities, on any of the issues he raised, with the Sri Lankan Government continuing to make promises but refusing to follow through. Informed sources say that if Sri Lanka fails to act in the next few months leading up to the next UNHRC session in March 2013, it is likely to face stronger criticism from the US and other Western member states, and even another resolution if things go badly awry in the days ahead.
Executive vs. Judiciary: Battle lines still drawn
Opposition shenanigans have provided a significant distraction for the ruling administration, in the aftermath of the attack on Judicial Services Commission Secretary Manjula Tilekaratne and its full throttle bid to enact the Divi Neguma legislation as soon as possible.
Last week, taking the lead from Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe’s suggestion that an international commission should be appointed to probe the conflict between the Executive and the Judiciary, the Government has opted instead to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee to go into the matter.
The first time a Select Committee was set up to probe the conduct of the Chief Justice was when Lalith Athulathmudali led a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon. Leader of House Nimal Siripala De Silva last week assured the media that there were no moves afoot to impeach the Chief Justice. However, analysts warn that the select committee could be the entry point for legal action on that score at a later date.
Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella last week charged that the JSC Secretary had overstepped by issuing a statement alleging influence in the Judiciary. He told the media last Thursday that the Government had several reasons to probe the conduct of the JSC Secretary and make a decision on his appointment.
While it is true that the statement by the JSC Secretary was unprecedented, legal observers argue that it could also be that the levels of interference with the Judiciary could also have been unprecedented, prompting the Judiciary to sound the alarm bells.
Under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, while the President is the final authority on many public sector appointments, the power to appoint the JSC Secretary was retained by the Chief Justice. With Tilekaratne having fallen afoul of the regime, the Government is now mulling an amendment to the 18th Amendment in a bid to vest the authority over JSC appointments also with the President. This may also include a specific term and restriction on the functions of the JSC Secretary, analysts said.
Meanwhile the battle of wills between the Judiciary and the Executive continues with the Government having presented the Divi Neguma bill to Parliament together with approval by eight provincial councils in the island. The Tamil National Alliance which has filed action seeking to restrain the Northern Governor from endorsing the Divi Neguma bill in the absence of a provincial council in the north, requested a full bench of the Supreme Court to grant a ruling on the matter.
The case was filed in the Court of Appeal and referred to the Supreme Court for interpretation. The current Supreme Court bench comprises Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and Justices K. Sripavan and Chandra Ekanayake. The case has been fixed for hearing on 22 October. The TNA is hoping to prevent the Government from referring the ruling by a three judge bench for review by a fuller bench by its request. A ruling by the full bench would render review impossible and thereby allow a judgment favourable to the TNA upheld.
New Delhi keeps an eye
Despite all the hurdles thrown in its path, the Government is determined to follow through with the enactment of the Divi Neguma Bill. President Rajapaksa has reiterated that his Government will not hesitate to remove any obstacles placed in the way of having the Divi Neguma legislation passed into law. Irrespective of the Supreme Court judgment, the Government is now mulling enactment by a special majority – two thirds of Parliament – with the bill applicable only to the provinces that have endorsed the bill as per the provisions of the 13th Amendment.
If this path appears to deny the Government what it really wants from the enactment of Divi Neguma – to render the Provincial Councils effectively redundant and thereby denying the North any real power sharing deal – it will then move to amend the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, sources say.
However such a move will no doubt ruffle feathers across the Palk Straits since the 13th Amendment was a product of the Indo-Lanka Agreement signed in July 1987. The TNA freshly returned from New Delhi where they held talks with Indian authorities regarding reconciliation and a political solution to the Tamil question, have warned that India is watching the progress on the Divi Neguma matter very closely.
Naturally, New Delhi having supported this regime to defeat the LTTE would not take kindly to attempts by the Rajapaksa administration to usurp the powers of an elected body that offers some semblance of autonomy to the Northern Tamils. With India and the US both pushing hard for Northern Provincial Council elections, the Government is also frantic to have the Divi Neguma legislation passed before it runs out of excuses for delaying the Northern poll.
Courtesy Daily FT