Kurunegala: Politics on steroids
Posted on May 10th, 2015

Courtesy The Island

Not since 1992/93 has this country been on a political roller coaster as it is today. We are experiencing game changing events virtually every week. The game changing event of the past week was the pro-Mahinda rally in Kurunegala last Friday. It was held soon after the breakdown in talks between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions of the SLFP. One of the main points discussed at this meeting was the prime ministerial candidacy of the UPFA. When the talks broke down, one would think that the Kurunegala rally held barely 48 hours later would be a flop with disappointed Mahinda loyalists abandoning him because president Sirisena had denied him the PM candidacy. Yet, the crowd in Kurunegala was even bigger than the crowd at the Nugegoda rally. As always the TV footage did not accurately portray the ground situation in Kurunegala. Even the drone footage has not captured the larger body of the crowd that was present.

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Despite a party directive banning SLFP people’s representatives from attending this meeting, no less than 56 SLFP/UPFA parliamentarians were in attendance along with uncounted numbers of provincial councillors and local government representatives. (This is up from 26 parliamentarians at the Ratnapura meeting.) It was only a week earlier that this same group had held the second biggest May Day rally in Colombo. For them to be able to organise a large rally barely a week later clearly indicates a level of energy and motivation that no other political force in this country has at this moment. The UNP had a very successful May Day rally, but there was nothing before or since. In contrast to that, the Kurunegala rally was the fourth such rally that the pro-Mahinda faction has organised so far.

If the UNP had been able to put on shows of strength like the Nugegoda, Kandy and Ratnapura rallies of the Mahinda faction before the 19th Amendment was taken up for debate, they would have got what they wanted from the constitutional change instead of being browbeaten into compromising more and more until nothing was left of their original demands. What is most significant is that the Kurunegala rally was held in the midst of political repression unlike anything that this country has ever seen before. Parliamentarian Johnston Fernando one of the most popular politicians in the Kurunegala district and key organiser of this event was put behind bars days before the meeting. About two dozen key attendees were hauled up before courts on the very day of the meeting and arrived for the rally only after obtaining bail. Johnston Fernando had sent a message to the meeting from remand prison and it was read out by his son amidst wild cheering.

All the public rallies of the Mahinda faction have been held without Mahinda. The clearest message from Kurunegala was that even if Mahinda himself is put behind bars, the public will accept anyone acting on his behalf. His personal presence is clearly not necessary to make a success of any event held in his name. Video footage of the meetings of the UPFA during the recent presidential election will show everyone comfortably seated on the stage in an orderly manner on an un-crowded stage. But, at all the pro-Mahinda rallies held so far, from Nugegoda, through to Kandy, Ratnapura and now Kurunegala, the stage was always crowded with large numbers of people remaining standing due to the lack of seats. Even Johnston Fernando’s son who read out his jailed father’s message was among those standing on the stage in Kurunegala. One of the remarkable features of these pro-Mahinda rallies is the manner in which the personal egos of politicians have been subsumed in the cause. In normal circumstances, if a politician at any level is not given a seat on the stage at a public meeting he will take that as a mortal insult.

Even the seating order is always an issue at political meetings. Everyone knows what happened after Mangala Samaraweera was given a second row seat at the UNP’s Hyde Park meeting last year. But, at all, these pro-Mahinda meetings, nobody seems to bother about seating arrangements or even about getting a seat at all. Only the party leaders or those too senior or too important to be seen standing or those too old and infirm get seats – everyone else remains standing on the stage without any complaint whatsoever obviously because of their eagerness to identify with the cause. All that the audience sees on stage is a blur of faces, but the people’s representatives who come for these meetings get onto the stage nevertheless.

Even though politicians, especially at the parliamentary level, don’t like to attend meetings where they don’t get to address the crowds, the parliamentarians turn up for these meetings in their numbers even though there isn’t the slightest chance of them getting an opportunity to address the meeting. At most, a list of their names would be read out by one of the speakers. Most often though their names are mentioned, the audience can’t see the dignitary on the stage due to the sheer numbers present. The willingness of these politicians to subsume their egos in the common cause is in itself a phenomenon that has never been seen in this country. The many dozens of provincial councillors and local government representatives don’t even get their names mentioned yet they too come in their numbers when all they may get is a place to stand on the stage. At the Kurunegala meeting, there were three separate stages for politicians, artistes and bhikkus and large numbers of people remained standing on all three platforms.

All the pro-Mahinda rallies, in fact, amounted to politics on steroids – this without an election anywhere in sight. In fact, all this is taking place four months after an election when political heat in the country should have subsided. This writer spoke to Dayan Jayatilleke after observing the Kurunegala meeting and what he said was that that this is undoubtedly the biggest mass movement that we have seen in this country in our lifetimes.

The Kurunegala rally was held in a situation where certain members of the Sirisena faction had threatened to dissolve the local government institutions and hold the LG polls first before the parliamentary election. What this would have meant was that the local government representatives of the SLFP would have had to toe the party leader’s line in order to get nominations. But, nobody seemed overly concerned about the threat to hold the LG elections first or about not getting nominations through the SLFP.

The sputtering MR-MS talks

As was widely reported in the press, the talks between the MS and MR factions of the SLFP held at the parliamentary complex on Wednesday were a flop. The five points discussed at the meeting included the UPFA’s prime ministerial candidate, the question of dissolving the local government bodies, contesting together as the UPFA at the forthcoming parliamentary election, the nomination lists for the election, and the activities of the newly set up Financial Crimes Investigation Division. There was disagreement on all issues. SLFP spokesman Dilan Perera and Susil Premajayantha the National Organiser of the SLFP and General Secretary of the UPFA was dropped from the delegation representing president Maithripala Sirisena at the last moment. Their places were taken by Rajitha Senaratne, M. K. D. S. Gunawardene, Duminda Dissanayake and Faizer Mustapha all of whom are members of the SLFP who left the party with Sirisena.

The reason for the change of delegation at the last minute was obviously because president Sirisena would have felt that those who decamped with him should have a say in any decision he makes because their futures too were at stake. President Sirisena obviously brought these SLFP dissidents with him to support his position which he could not have expected from individuals like Dilan Perera, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and even Nimal Siripala de Silva. The interests of these latter individuals would be to rope in Mahinda Rajapaksa and build a united UPFA that could defeat the UNP at the next parliamentary election.

However, the four SLFP dissidents that MS brought into the discussion at the last moment are among those along with the JHU who believe that they can make it without Mahinda Rajapaksa – a view obviously shared by Sirisena himself. The difference is in the manner in which the term ‘making it’ is perceived. For individuals like Dilan Perera, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and even Nimal Siripala de Silva, who represent the interests of the SLFP at large, ‘making it’ would mean forming a completely SLFP/UPFA government and ruling the country with Sirisena as the president and Mahinda as the prime minister.

But for SLFP dissidents like Rajitha, MKDS, and Duminda, who do not represent the larger mass of the SLFP, ‘making it’ does not necessarily mean bringing in a completely SLFP/UPFA government – so long as they had the correct portfolio they would not be too bothered as to who held the other portfolios and the prime ministership.

In other words, Rajitha, MKDS, and Duminda would be more attuned to the ‘yahapalana’ mindset than Dilan, Susil, Nimal Siripala and Anura Yapa. So, the latter were kept out and the former were brought in. Thus, in an unanticipated manner the UNP’s interest was looked after. In actual fact, Maithripala Sirisena’s life should be revolving around the UNP, not the SLFP or the SLFP dissidents because it is the UNP for the most part that brought him into power. Since coming into power, he has not given the UNP its due except in making RW the prime minister and giving them the lion’s share of cabinet portfolios. He disappointed the UNP on crucial matters such as the abolition of the executive presidency and the early dissolution of parliament which were as important to the UNP as the cabinet portfolios – or perhaps even more so.

To say that the UNP was furious at this meeting between president Sirisena and MR would be an understatement. Pro-UNP websites like Lanka erupted in paroxysms of rage even publishing Sirisena’s likeness upside down. Obviously, stung by the furious rebukes coming from the UNP side, the presidential secretariat issued a press release late on the 5th May saying that this scheduled meeting was only to discuss matters relating to the SLFP and not matters of state. This tepid statement did nothing to assuage UNP’s fears. Even though the first round of talks between the MS and MR factions of the SLFP had ended inconclusively the UNP still remained deeply suspicious as seen in the biting comments made by websites loyal to it even after the MR-MS meeting ended in deadlock.

Things are not helped by members of the Sirisena faction of the SLFP going around expressing confidence that the talks will resume. What must be really disconcerting for the UNP to see would be the eagerness of so many members of the Sirisena faction to effect a rapprochement between MS and MR. The UNP is only too well aware that Sirisena is quite capable of going back on his word if it is in his interests to do so as he did on the question of the abolition of the executive presidency and in dissolving parliament. As of now, there is no election anywhere in sight. What worries the UNP is how MS will react once the parliamentary election is actually declared – whether he will cave in under pressure and take MR in as the prime ministerial candidate. The UNP is obviously aware that it is now virtually impossible to contest a parliamentary election without naming a prime ministerial candidate after the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Even before the 19th Amendment, the parliamentary election campaign was always led by prime ministerial hopefuls even if there were no designated prime ministerial candidates. At the parliamentary election of 1989, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali led the campaign. In August 1994 CBK led the campaign. In 2000 and 2001 it was Rathnasiri Wickremenayake. The UPFA won the 2004 election on the demerits of the UNP so the role of the campaign leader may not have been as visible or necessary as at previous elections. In 2010, the UPFA won on the war kudos and did not need a campaign leader. But, as in 1994, the SLFP/UPFA is not going to win the next parliamentary election unless they have a good prime ministerial candidate. It may be the case that president Sirisena is unaware that despite the watering down of the 19th amendment there is still a defined role for the prime minister and the people will have to know who will fulfil this role after the election. The acceptability or otherwise of the prime ministerial candidate will broadly determine the fortunes of the other candidates of a given political party as well.

Furthermore, the UNP knows that the Sirisena faction of the SLFP is bargaining from a position of weakness. Without Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group, the Sirisena faction runs the risk of being reduced to a rump as it was on May Day. The UNP knows that even the most hard-boiled anti-Rajapaksa types in the SLFP – the handful of dissidents who left with Sirisena – may come to a compromise with Rajapaksa if their own political survival is at stake. There is no such thing as permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics. For example, when it came to running the Peliyagoda fish market, Rajitha Senaratne and Mervyn Silva were bitter adversaries. Readers will remember how this fish market issue made headline after headline in The Island not so long ago. But when it came to joining up with the opposition to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mervyn and Rajitha were the best of friends.

Dissolving the LG bodies

So, it is quite possible that if their political survival is at stake, even the most die-hard opponents of Mahinda will arrive a compromise. As of now, the Sirisena faction needs Mahinda more than Mahinda needs them. The only reason why the SLFP dissidents who are closest to Sirisena think they will be able to do without MR is only because they have placed hopes on reintroducing the first past the post electoral system and they hope that MR would keep away from the election for fear of being labelled as the person who defeated the SLFP by fielding a third candidate in the electorates. But this is just wishful thinking. Firstly, the contours of the new electoral system has not been finalised as yet and one never knows whether it will ever see the light of day. Besides, the UNP itself is opposed to the first past the post system because it places them at a disadvantage.

Even if the 20th Amendment is passed and the first past the post system reintroduced and Mahinda does keep away from the election due to the fear of being labelled as the person who made the SLFP lose by fielding a third candidate, that is certainly not going to stop the political parties supporting Mahinda from fielding candidates. It should be remembered that at last year’s Uva PC election, when a Jathika Nidahas Peramuna candidate was not put on the UPFA list the JNP fielded a separate list and won one seat in the Badulla district. That will happen on a much large scale at the next election even if Mahinda keeps away from the election. Besides, quite a few of the MPs representing MR are so popular that they can take their electorates with them if they leave the SLFP. People have been under the proportional representation system for so long that they forget that in a first past the post system, the personality of the candidate and his relationship with his constituents counts almost as much as the political party system.

Once these realities sink in, the UNP fears that Sirisena may cave in to pressure coming from within his own faction in the SLFP and give MR the prime ministerial candidacy rather than risk getting wiped out at an election. News coming down the grapevine indicates that backchannels have already got activated negotiating with the Rajapaksas once again. The writing is clearly on the wall. The reason why 56 sitting parliamentarians of the SLFP/UPFA were present on the Kurunegala stage was obviously because they intend contesting the next parliamentary election as supporters of MR and couldn’t care less whether they get nominations through the SLFP or not.

If MR is not accommodated in the SLFP there is the possibility that some prominent members of Sirisena’s camp will be compelled to decamp and join MR. Nimal Siripala de Silva and Dilan Perera for example represent the Badulla district which has always been a bastion of the UNP. The eight parliamentary seats in this district have always been divided as five for the UNP and three for the SLFP for the past 25 years except in 2010, when the SLFP/UPFA won the district. The next time, (if the election is held on the present system) it will again be three for the SLFP and five for the UNP. If the pro-Mahinda group (with or without Mahinda) puts forward a separate list in the Badulla district, there is the possibility of both Dilan Perera and Nimal Siripala de Silva getting knocked out of the race.

The situation remains the same even if the electoral system is changed and next election is held under the first past the post system. Both Dilan Perera and Nimal Siripala de Silva will not win their electorates in the solidly UNP Badulla District and they will be dependent on coming in on the proportional quota as the ‘best losers’ among the contestants. If the Mahinda group fields a separate list in the Badulla district, they will siphon off the better part of the votes that should have gone to the SLFP. The interesting question is how much of the SLFP will Sirisena be able to retain if there is a split? As of now the clear signs are that MR will command the allegiance of the majority of the SLFP.

The acid test for Sirisena’s bona fides in relation to the SLFP will come within the next week when the already extended term of the local government institutions end. If Sirisena fails to extend the terms of the LG institutions again and he adopts the expedient of dissolving them and placing them under a special commissioner until the next LG elections are held, that will be the clearest signal to the SLFP rank and file that Sirisena wants to see the SLFP defeated at the parliamentary election. The vast majority of the LG institutions are at present held by the UPFA and at a parliamentary election, the LG representatives with the resources at their command will be a major source of strength to SLFP/UPFA candidates. For that reason, the UNP would like to see these institutions dissolved.

Sirisena, too, may not have much reason to like these SLFP local government representatives because the vast majority of them support Mahinda. But, the LG representatives cannot be blamed for this because they are merely going along with a demand coming from the grassroots, the very bowels of the Sinhala electorate, to bring Mahinda back into politics. Though some may think that it is a select group of politicians who are organising the people behind Mahinda it is really the other way about. Popular demand is making the SLFP politicians follow Mahinda. No government will hold an LG or PC election just before a presidential or parliamentary election as the result of the LG election will almost certainly skew the result of the major election that follows it. So time and again, what political parties in power have done is to give extensions to LG institutions until after the main election. If president Sirisena does not do this, he will lose even the little control that he has over the SLFP at present

2 Responses to “Kurunegala: Politics on steroids”

  1. Kumari Says:

    JAYAWEWA, Bring back MAHINDA.

  2. ranjit Says:

    No one can stop Mahinda’s comeback for sure. He must come back because the people of this country needs him more than any other time to lead the country again and rescue it from all evil forces inside and abroad. There is no other leader who is smart,strong and have the will power to face any threat from abroad and within at the current situation.

    If S.L.F.P. needs to win the elections they must sack the party president MY3 first if not all those who supports MR must leave S.L.F.P and form a new party with all the other parties who supports MR. MY3 cannot be trusted and he is now the best friend of Ranil, then there is Choura who is strongly against of MR so there won’t be any compromise between these groups at all. I hope MR will decide his future soon and take a bold decision and give us some hope for the future. MR,Gota combination is the best for the country rather than MY3/Ranil combination with Gays and Christians. We need a Sinhala Buddhist leader who works for the people not against the people and the country. We saw what Ranil/Choura combination did to the country in 2004 period so make your decision soon to oust these traitors for the good of the country.

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