YAHAPALANA ELECTIONS AND ‘REGIME CHANGE’ Part 12
Posted on October 30th, 2018

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The last essay in this series comes at a time when things have   drastically changed. The Yahapalana regime appears to have ‘fallen’ and Mahinda Rajapaksa has replaced Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister. This essay summarizes four important political events leading to this transfer of power.

The local government election of February 2018 was a landmark election in Sri Lanka. The electorate did not see the election as a mere local government election, they saw it as a chance to tell Yahapalana and the watching United States of America, what they thought of Yahapalana. The election was conducted with very high standards, reported the media. There were no serious incidents of election related violence, only some minor skirmishes.

A larger than estimated number of voters turned up at polling booths, contrary to expectations. They gave the less than a year old Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, Pohottuwa) an overwhelming victory in terms of the wards won in the councils, though with shaky total number of seats in some councils.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), utterly new and untested, emerged victorious, sweeping the polls in the vast majority of local government institutions. A new untested force had beaten two established political parties to become the single largest political formation in the country. Governments in power have never lost local government elections before.

The SLPP had won 239 of 340 councils on offer while the United National Party (UNP) won 41 councils. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) together, emerged victorious in 10 councils while the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) won 34 councils, mostly in the North and East of the country. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), despite their high profile campaign, failed to gain control of any council. The SLPP obtained 4.9 million or 44.65 percent of the votes and came first in a record 239 councils with 3,369 seats.

The SLPP polled 44.69% of the votes cast at the LG election.  The UNP obtained 32.61%. The UPFA polled 8.90%. The SLFP polled 4.48%. The two governing parties secured together 45.99%  SLPP had   got nearly 2% less than the other three parties put together.

There was a definite swing towards Pohottuwa and Rajapaksa. The SLPP nominations for Maharagama Urban Council were rejected. Mahinda Rajapaksa backed an independent group which had the motorcycle as its symbol .The motorcycle group won. Rajapaksa had gone for their rallies riding a motorcycle.

It was argued that Rajapaksa’s vote at this election showed a decline. At the Presidential Election held in 2015, Rajapaksa polled 47.58% and that was more than the votes polled at the LG election. This was rejected by analysts. Mahinda Rajapaksa not only holds the largest chunk of votes in the country, 45%, but he has also probably jumped the 50% mark by now, said Dayan Jayatilaka. These critics had conveniently forgotten that the vote received by the SLFP and the UPFA couldn’t be under any circumstances counted as anti-Mahinda vote.

The number of votes that the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Party actually got at the last local government elections may not be representative of the actual number of votes it should have got, analysts said. In reality, Rajapaksa and his party have a broader footprint countrywide. The SLPP and the Rajapaksas have proved that, three years out of office and out of power, they are still a force to reckon with. The election has paved the way for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, their leader, to more active Sri Lankan politics concluded analysts.

Rajitha Senaratne said Gotabhaya will be arrested and jailed after the election. Gotabhaya arrived the day after the Pohottuwa victory. He was not arrested. The Pohottuwa momentum did not end there. All 210 seats at the Atakalanpanna Multipurpose Cooperative Society elections were won by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), with the UNP and the SLFP failing to win any seats at all. This election was probably held in September 2018.

This Pohottuwa victory was followed by another important development in Parliament. 16 SLFP MPs crossed over and took their seats among the Opposition in Parliament on 8th of May, 2018.  They sat as an independent SLFP group in the Opposition.

This   SLFP cross over marks the largest number to cross over from Government to the Opposition at any one time, in the history of the Sri Lankan Parliament, observed Dinesh Gunawardena. Usually, traffic flows from opposition to government, therefore this reverse flow is noteworthy. Such reverse flows, as in 1964 and 1975 are signs of a government doomed to be defeated at the next election. This defection as also noteworthy for quality, not only in numbers, observed Dayan Jayatilaka. As Dayasiri Jayasekara pointed out on Derana 360, of the 16 rebels, 14 have university degrees, eight are lawyers and one is a specialist doctor.

When these 16 dissident MPs moved to the Opposition, the public were waiting outside to cheer them. The public were prevented by the police, from entering Parliament   premises. They yelled and protested and refused to move. The 16 MPs came out and were greeted with crackers, garlanded and carried on the shoulders of supporters. The 16 MPs then   got on to a mobile platform and addressed the yelling crowd. They made long political speeches, accompanied by loud cheers. These 16 MPs had helped in the   plans to  make Rajapaksa Prime Minister

The third event was the “Janabalaya Kolambata” held in Colombo by the Joint Opposition on September 05, 2018. The massive Janabalaya was organized by the youth wing of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party led by MP Namal Rajapaksa. “Janabalaya Kolambata” was a roaring success said Rohana Wasala. That it was going to draw huge crowds was clear to all. The turnout was estimated to be around 200,000 .

As a precaution against possible legal obstructions the organizers kept the routes of the march and the venue of the rally and sit-in protest under wraps until the morning of September 5. The protesters marched along five routes in Colombo, Kandy, Baseline, Negombo, Maligawatte, and Town Hall roads, and congregated at the Lake House Roundabout where they held a non-violent protest, reported Wasala. On the way, they hooted at the SLFP office in Union Place.

The protest marchers came from every corner of the island, from Jaffna in the north, from Devundara, Matara, in the south, from Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east, and converged in Colombo with others from the western province. A large number of Muslims from the East and Tamils from North and hill country   took part. People from every community participated in the Janabalaya said Rohana Wasala.

The gathering included political and non-political groups. A large crowd of Sri Lankan expatriates working abroad, intellectuals, professionals and entrepreneurs from Viyathmaga, retired army generals and other veterans of the military (people who normally do not take part in such public demonstrations) were also reported to be taking part in it observed Wasala. A large number of youth and professionals – especially lawyers, some doctors and engineers, took part, observed Vitarana.

These crowds extended close to the Hilton on the West and to the Cinnamon Lake Hotel on the South and for about 300 meters to the East on Wijewardena Mw. and the road to the Pettah on the North. Mahinda Rajapaksa came to ‘Janabalaya Kolambata’, surrounded by security in an open roof car, to   enthusiastic cheers.  It was a triumphant arrival.

The organizers provided food parcels, but they were not really adequate. A stage was set up on the road to the Hilton Hotel and various cultural programs with political messages were performed for about an hour. A novel feature was the night vigil by candle light which went on till about 11.30 pm when the crowd dispersed. The participants showed the highest level of discipline and restraint.

The performance of a peaceful ,quiet (as no loudspeakers were permitted) “sathyakriya” in front of Lake House, where people sat for hours patiently, though packed together like sardines in a tin, was also a good sign for the future and an indication of their commitment to the success of the event.

Participants were carrying lighted torches during the night vigil, which in the hands of the irresponsible, could have set the whole place to go up in smoke. However, to their credit, these were handled in a disciplined manner. Noteworthy features were the virtual absence of any incidents, the orderliness without disturbing pedestrians or vehicles, and the voicing of relevant political slogans in addition to “Kawdha raja, Mahinda Raja”, observed Vitarana.

Finally, all this goes to prove that our people are able to conduct themselves in a disciplined and responsible manner, sans any outside inputs or unsolicited advice. The threats of the government to attack if attacked also kept the protestors in check,

Through their well attended and meticulously organized demonstration the Joint Oppossiton made a direct hit on the government, said Rohana Wasala. There was enthusiasm and militancy. The public showed the government that they were fed up with it and they showed this to the whole world. This Janabalaya has helped to sustain, if not increase, the momentum generated by the victory at the Local Government Elections of February 10 this year, observed Tissa Vitarana.

On social media, Jana Balaya arguably created the most amount of engagement around any event of its kind on Facebook and Twitter. During the day, around live video feeds on Facebook alone, close to two million watched the political theatre of Jana Balaya as it unfolded. This included close to 400,000 on Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page alone. A staggering 600,000 watched live feeds over the Facebook page of a private TV station, said Sanjana Hattotuwa.

On Twitter, there were over 5,000 tweets with one or all of the three official hashtags used by the protest. There may have been many more that tweeted on the protest without using one or more of these hashtags. Each of these accounts acts as an amplifier, showing to their friends and followers what was posted or republished. The likely digital footprint of content around Jana Balaya potentially, if not demonstrably, runs into the millions over just two of Sri Lanka’s most used social media platforms.

Preliminary metrics around the scale and spread of content on Instagram – a photo sharing network that is also very popular – suggest Jana Balaya generated tens of thousands of likes.Overall then, the campaign was digitally unprecedented in Sri Lanka, generated the kind of engagement organically, that campaigns which boost content through paid advertising, can’t often reach.

Yahapalana has also seen the rise of Namal Rajapaksa, he has got a lot of exposure as a speaker  from 2015, he speak senses and uses words well.He is no longer ‘Namal baby’.Millions were interested, engaged, watched, commented, shared and reacted to  Namal Rajapaksa as an individual. Namal Rajapaksa as a vehicle or platform to communicate the JO’s discontent is unassailable, with an active, devoted fan base by order of magnitude larger than anyone else, even in his own family, observed Hattotuwa.

Janabalaya faced considerable obstruction by the government .The police went to courts to take out bans on the protests. Road Passenger Transport Authority ordered private bus services in various provinces not to accept private tours during the days that the Janabalaya people were expected to travel to and from Colombo. At Nittambuwa a trench was dug on the road”.

A bus carrying demonstrators to Colombo was intercepted at Hali-Ela in the Badulla area and was attacked by hooligans, inflicting grievous injuries on the commuters, and smashing up the bus beyond repair. Several young men who were decorating a stage in the city on the September 4th night were assaulted by an unidentified gang and were hospitalized. Several participants were physically attacked while on the peaceful march.

There was also the case of alleged distribution of poisoned or contaminated milk packets among the protestors on the march. Pohottuwa had used CCTV cameras to detect the activity. Milco said that a needle had been used to introduce something into the packets of milk, distributed among those participating at Jana Balaya Colombata”. This had taken place outside Milco premises.

Milco said As soon as they got to know the incident, Milco had collected the relevant milk packets and examined them. A JO delegation had met the Milco chief to inquire about their complaint.  Addressing the media outside Milco premises, MP Namal Rajapaksa reiterated accusations that the UNP made an attempt to harm those who joined Janabalaya. Rajapaksa said that the JO expected the company to fully cooperate in the inquiry or face the consequences.

An individual who was affected by this wicked deed has instituted an action at a court in Matara, reported the media.  UNP MP Mujibar Rahuman denied the allegation against him that he distributed milk packets injected with poison among  Janabalaya supporters

The fourth factor that led to the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister was the surge towards Mahinda Rajapaksa. The call for his return started the day after Sirisena became President. The call did not fade. Instead, it accelerated and was turning into a howl of despair, when Mahinda Rajapaksa suddenly became Prime Minister.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was seen daily, on television news attending some function or other usually in a temple, surrounded by cheering crowds. The media was always there and he was always asked for an opinion. So Rajapaksa was always in the public eye. Mahinda Rajapaksa was at Sri Sugatharama, Kalawana on 9.9.18 to open the bauddha mandiraya. There were crowds to greet him.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited to a gathering of theatre artistes on 20.9.18 to give away   nidahas kala bhushana awards. ‘Rata nathivegana yanawa’, he told the media.  Viewers would often see President Sirisena at a function, and then Ranil Wickremasinghe at another function and thirdly, Rajapaksa also like a head of state, gracing a similar function.  Viewers were getting quite used to this spectacle.

The public took every opportunity to show support to Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa May Day in Galle, in 2018 was the largest May dally rally in our history, said Rajapaksa. Derana news 10.8.18 showed paddy farmers coming to Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s home after alut sahal mangalya expressly to show gratitude.  They came with bundles of produce for him.

The Kettam Mahara Bonegala Bridge at Attanagalla built by Rajapaksa was to be opened by Chandrika Kumaratunga in September 2018, Rajapaksa supporters objected to this. They   launched a noisy protest and came across the bridge hooting and jeering.

When the Polwatu Modera Bridge at Matara was to be opened by UNP’s Sagala Ratnayake, two Pohottu local government members arrived before Sagala and had tried to carry out the ceremony saying that the bridge was planned and the money obtained during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time. There was a scuffle and the two Pohottus were arrested on the grounds of disturbing official activity and taken to courts by police.

As the presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s daily activities are increasing, reported the media. Other than political events, one of the demands on him is to sign as witness for weddings. One day, weeks ago, he had to go for 13 different wedding ceremonies signing either on behalf of the groom’s or the bride’s side. There were two different requests last month from two different places. On Mr. Rajapaksa’s suggestion, two different nekath (auspicious) times were found. He signed the wedding register with a time gap at his official residence at Wijerama Mawatha.

Within a few weeks of Janabalaya Kolombata, Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited by India and given a reception that, as some in the media said, is normally accorded to a visiting head of state.

HINDU commented: In an indication of warming of ties, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa will visit New Delhi this week and hold important discussions. Rajapaksa, will deliver a public lecture on India-Sri Lanka relation: the way ahead” organized by the Virat Hindustan Sangam, led by BJP MP Subramanian Swamy. He is likely to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. The External Affairs Ministry has not spoken about the meetings so far. A source said the visit was being planned by private parties”. The visit comes less than a week after thousands of demonstrators, led by Rajapaksa, protested in Colombo against the government’s economic policies and the delay in holding provincial elections. Though out of power for more than three years, Mr. Rajapaksa, who represents Kurunegala district in Parliament, remains a formidable political actor in Sri Lankan politics, often challenging the fractured coalition in power.”

Rajapaksa went to India on this three-day visit, in September 2018 accompanied by his son Namal. He delivered a public lecture in Delhi on India-Sri Lanka relations: the way ahead”. He met Prime Minister Modi. There is a photo of them shaking hands and posing.

Rajapaksa went on the invitation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Leader Subramanian Swamy, Swamy said he had invited his great friend” Rajapaksa in his personal capacity. “Ties with Sri Lanka have been weak over the last two years and I think we need to strengthen them,” Swamy added.  Swamy said that “an association with Rajapaksa would help improve ties between the two countries”.  Swamy has even attended the funeral of Chandra Rajapaksa, the younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka.

Speaking to The Hindu, the former President,  said  he was 100% confident his party will come to power in 2019,  Rajapaksa proposed a new mechanism for India and Sri Lanka to resolve all issues, especially economic issues. The mechanism would mirror the Troika” formed in 2008-2009 of three Indian officials — National Security Advisor M.K. Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh — and three Sri Lankan officials — Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Permanent Secretary Lalith Weeratunga — to coordinate India-Sri Lanka ties during the war against the LTTE in 2008-2009.

India is our closest relation, Rajapaksa continued, I would say, and our neighbor. And China has been a long-standing friend. In all our dealings with China, we never forgot about the interests of India. We had a very good understanding with the Indian government and we always told them that we would never allow our territory to be used for any activity against our neighbor.

My priority was always to develop my country and I always kept India informed and asked them first to build the port, to build the airport, to build the highways, we always came to India. We offered them first, and then the next offer went to China, because they were the only people who could do it. And within eight months the Chinese had started [construction].

I am not opposing India. I am opposing the privatization that is the policy of the Sirisena government. I never privatized the way they have. In fact I bought back the shares of the gas company, insurance company, and also the SriLankan Airlines that was sold to Emirates Rajapaksa concluded.

There is no single political personality in today’s Sri Lanka who can come close to the popularity of Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is no combination of personalities that cannot benefit from being partnered with him. With the right choice of Presidential candidate, it could be the most popular political and electoral combination that Sri Lanka has ever seen, said Dayan Jayatilaka.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa is no more, he will be elevated from folk hero to folk deity, for centuries to come, if not millennia. Yahapalana spokespersons may counter that Mahinda was defeated in January 2015, but his legend has grown and his iconic status elevated after that defeat—when the people realized just how much they missed him, just how much they had lost, said Dayan. (CONCLUDED)

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