A fortnight ago, President Rajapaksa received the report on the opinion poll conducted by the secret service, on the popularity of the government, post general election of 2010. He received an interim report prior to the final survey report.
This showed that the government was not popular in urban areas due to the escalating cost of living. Corruption was another issue which contributed to the growing unpopularity of the government. The report also showed that the government servants too were not happy, as the promised wage increase was not granted.
By the time the President received this report he had made a decision to dissolve the local bodies and go for mini-elections and felt that the urban areas would be lost by the government at these elections. His intention at the initial stages was to change the proportional representation system to that of a hybrid system and then hold the local government elections. Even though the senior ministers and chief ministers voiced their concerns on the new system being unfavourable to the ruling party, Rajapaksa wanted to change the system. He did however change his mind when he was convinced through unofficial channels that the new system would be detrimental to the government.
Changes put on hold
The Act to change the local government electoral system was debated in parliament but was later put on hold making a mockery of it. The real reason for not changing the system was clear now. The President was perturbed at the downward trend in the urban areas as per the survey and was wondering how he could avoid the elections in the urban areas without giving the impression that the government was running scared.
It was at this stage that DNA MP Arjuna Ranatunga raised a question in parliament and asked the government how they were going to hold local government polls during the Cricket World Cup matches which are to played in Sri Lanka at that time. No sooner Rajapaksa heard this he sent for the Minister for Sports, Mahindananda Aluthgamage and proceeded to instruct him to summon a meeting with the Cricket Interim Committee so that the Cricket Board could make a request for Mahinda to postpone the mini-elections in the areas where the World Cup matches were to be held. Mahindananda duly obliged and brought the request via the Cricket Board and the President being the great play actor he is, agreed to the proposal by the Cricket Board.
That evening Rajapaksa had scheduled a meeting with the SLFP Central Committee and had invited Minister of Public Administration Athaulla and his Secretary as well. The President was firm in his conviction that nominations should not be given to those SLFP members of local government bodies who voted against the passing of their budgets. He also spoke of the seemingly organised trend in the set backs and did not forget to slap the wrist of Minister Maithripala Sirisena for not taking disciplinary action against those councillors.
Thereafter, he informed the gathering that the Cricket Board had requested him not to hold mini-elections in the areas where the World Cup matches were being held. While saying, “If I agree to this proposal some will say that I am frightened to hold elections.’’ He had agreed to postpone the elections in the targeted areas. He said though the urban areas were not good for the government this sentiment had not reached the rural areas as yet.
He then proceeded to instruct Minister Maithripala to get in touch with the organisers of electorates and let him know by Thursday, which councils could not be won by the government. By Thursday morning the list of municipal councils where elections were to be postponed was compiled. The Cricket World Cup games would impinge only areas such as the Pallekelle Pradeshiya Sabha and the Sooriyawewa Pradeshiya Sabha, but Rajapaksa decided to postpone the elections of the Kandy Municipal Council on the basis that the cricketers would be staying in hotels in Kandy.
Not stopping there, the Kolonnawa Municipal Council, which was won by the UNP in 2006, and the Dehiwela-Mt Lavinia Municipal Council elections too were postponed due to the Cricket World Cup. The Tangalle Municipal Council where the budget was defeated recently has also been postponed for the same reason. The President’s plan is to hold elections in the other areas, win them and thereafter concentrate on those which are favourable to the UNP and try to win them on a roll. He is very keen on winning the Colombo Municipal Council by any means. His plan is to win in those areas where the UNP is seemingly weak and then show the people that the UNP has not won a single electorate and thereby win those favourable to the greens by holding them on a staggered basis.
Ranil on Chief Justice
Whilst the President was planning his strategy to win the mini-elections a most disturbing bit of news broke that the Chief Justice had resigned. A few web sites had broken this story but the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe did query the truth or falsity of this story in parliament. Minister Nimal Siripala denied this story. He said that the Chief Justice had not handed over a letter of resignation. Word was out that the Chief Justice had submitted his papers to go on retirement. His due date for retiring is not until May 9, 2011. However the story did take on a life of its own. All this was whilst the Chief Justice and a four member Bench was to give their opinion whether a court martial did constitute as a proper court within the meaning of the law.
The Appeals Court had referred this to the Supreme Court for an opinion. Sources within the legal circles opine that these rumours had emanated after the comments made by the Chief Justice during the hearing of this case were conveyed to the government. Yet, Minister Nimal Siripala’s explanation was that there was no letter of resignation. He is silent however on the issue of retirement papers being submitted.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is yet ruffled by the recent comments made by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and even though Rajapaksa himself had spoken to Kalutara MP Nirmala Kotalawela and the Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman of Horana to attack Ratnasiri, the latter seems unperturbed. Rajapaksa did speak to the other senior ministers to prevent them from following in Ratnasiri’s footsteps. He did however let the cat out of the bag when he said that it was Basil who gave him the idea of appointing “senior” ministers. He said that he wanted to appoint the senior most to separate ministries but it was Basil who changed his mind in doing so.
The Senior Ministers were flummoxed as it was Basil who was spearheading their cause at the injustices meted out to them. It is said, that it is Basil who listens to their grievances and tries to find solutions. When the Senior Ministers converged into one building to take office it was Basil who was present at the auspicious time. When they did get to the building they observed that Ratnasiri’s office was in the basement of the complex. They felt this was the first salvo at Ratnasiri. Whilst the others were given luxurious offices on the upper floors, Ratnasiri was relegated to the basement. The other senior ministers felt that this was a signal to them too.
Ratnasiri however was not present to take office at the auspicious time as he was yet in Brazil. Mahinda Rajapaksa is not on firm ground in the backdrop of the Chief Justice’s remarks followed by that of Ratnasiri and even the Mahanayakas’ complaints.
One of the President’s principal duties every new year was to visit the Mahanayakas to seek their guidance and to pay obeisance to the Dalada Maligawa. He has yet to visit the Dalada Maligawa or the Mahanayakas. It is rumoured that he telephoned the Mahanayakas on January 1 to wish them. The word is out that he did dispense with tradition after the Mahanayakas had written to him requesting the release of Sarath Fonseka from prison. Many feel that, had he stuck to tradition he would have had no reply if the Mahanayakas had asked what his response was to their letter. In fact some feel that Mahinda Rajapaksa is a bit miffed that the Mahanayakas had written such a letter to him.
Previously when such a request was made by them, he had said that had Fonseka or a member of his family made an appeal for clemency, he would consider such. This time around the Mahanayakas together with other religious leaders had written to Rajapaksa asking for Fonseka’s release without proviso of a request from him or his family but purely on the basis of his service to the nation. Evidence of Mahinda’s displeasure at this turn of events was seen with the dawn of the new year.
A Buddhist monk from Malaysia was in the habit of donating Buddhist literature, school bags and shoes for children attending Sunday Daham Pasal through the Dalada Maligawa. Each year, he obtains these from wealthy Malaysian donors. This year however the donation which was worth over 4 million Sri Lankan rupees was stuck in the port due to delays in getting a waiver of customs duty. As in previous years, though a duty waiver was requested the government did not respond positively. This was not forthcoming despite both the Mahanayakas of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters speaking to the Secretary to the Treasury, P. B. Jayasundera. Even the Diyawadana Nilame had brought this to the Secretary’s attention.
The Mahanayakas then proceeded to make this request in writing to P. B. Jayasundera. Yet they did not receive a favourable response. The Asgiriya Mahanayake then spoke to the President on the telephone and made a request for the duty waiver. Much to the surprise of the Chief Incumbent the President had replied saying, “The Dalada Maligawa has enough money. So pay the duty and clear the goods.” The Mahanayake had then explained to the President that these goods were to be given to poor children and he should consider the request. Though Mahinda said, “I will look into it”, there was no solution.
The Mahanayakas had somehow put together Rs 1.6 million, paid the duty, cleared the goods and invited Prime Minister D. M Jayaratne to be the Chief Guest at the subsequent ceremony to distribute these amongst the poor children. They were however unable to clear the shoes that was part of the consignment as it carried a duty tab of Rs. 2 million. The Mahanayakas expressed surprise at the attitude of the government especially as some wealthy business houses were the beneficiaries of duty waivers but in this instance not the poor children. Some felt that Mahinda Rajapaksa should not offset his anger by depriving poor children of getting school books, bags and shoes purely because the Mahanayakas’ wanted Sarath Fonseka released.
Recall that Mahinda was honored with the title “Sri Rohana Janaranjana” by the Mahanayakas, when he was a minister in Chandrika’s government? That was conferred on Rajapaksa as he constantly sought their advice in those early days. They expected him to be so in the future as well. Mahinda Rajapaksa did make full use of this title during his first election campaign for presidency. Yet, today he seems to be not acting on the advice of the chief prelates but in fact does seem to angered by their advice and requests. This is what Rajapaksa does to those who are his political foes. It is surprising that he follows this line of thought with the very same persons who bestowed him with this signal honour.
Lifeline for Ranil
It appears that Ranil seems to be in greater trouble than Mahinda. When his long standing ally and Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya made a request that he relinquishes his position, Ranil simply left Colombo on an extended holiday. His principal concern was to find a method of reversing the trend that has gone against him at grassroots level, and which has now reached right upto the second tier of command. Whilst on holiday Ranil planned to meet the three J’s considered amongst the senior members of parliament and those that represent the Catholic fraternity. They are Joseph Michael, John Amaratunge and Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene. He has John’s loyalty by making him the Chief Whip of the opposition.
When John was ready to undertake a tour to the UN he was kept back by Ranil to safeguard his position. Though John wanted to cross the divide and join the government he did not do so as the expected ministry was not guaranteed. Whilst Ranil did nothing to stop the other MPs crossing over he treated John in a different manner purely as he needed him as a foil to safeguard his leadership. Ranil also has agreed to appoint Amaratunge’s son-in-law, Dinesh Weerakkody as the Wattala organiser of the UNP after John.
Ranil bought Joseph Michael’s loyalty by appointing him to parliament on the National List in addition to nominating his son-in-law to the Western Provincial Council. He has also agreed to appoint Joseph’s son as organiser after him to either the Negombo or Ja-Ela seat. Jayalath’s problem is a rising star/ lawyer by the name of Shirantha Samarasekera and to stem his rise Jayalath required Ranil’s help. By allowing those three to the safest of UNP seats, Ja Ela, Negombo and Wattala, Ranil has cemented their loyalty.
Though these seats are now lost by the UNP they still are elected as MPs. It is akin to Ranil remaining as the leader though losing successive elections. Their task as seniors is to coax Sajith into accepting the position of Deputy Leader. Joseph Michael had asked Sajith to let Ranil remain as leader for another year. When Sajith rejected that offer, Joseph Michael in an interview with the Island newspaper said that the Sajith group has no proper agenda. After giving the interview he attended the Railway Trade Union’s Executive Committee meeting and when the Secretary of the Union asked him if he had made such a statement to the Island, Joseph had said that he was misquoted.
“You are making different statements at different fora. First you said that Sajith should be the leader. At the convention too you repeated that but now you say Ranil should remain as the leader,” the Secretary of the Union had said. When Joseph was asked if he was running after positions, he had replied, “I have needs just as others.”
The Secretary informed Joseph that they were to adopt a resolution that Sajith should be appointed leader of the party before the mini- elections. “We have agreed with Sajith that positions will not change prior to the local government elections and Sajith too has agreed to this”, said Joseph Michael. “You are lying to thwart our resolution,” said the Secretary. “If it is so you may adopt that after I leave this meeting,” Joseph replied. The Union proceeded to adopt the resolution in addition to writing to Ranil stating that unless Sajith is made leader they will not work at the upcoming elections.
The day before, a meeting had taken place at Bodhi Ranasinghe’s residence. Sajith and his group were present in large numbers. “It is here that seniors of the party are present,” said a former MP. They decided to hold a press conference to state that Sajith should be made the leader and that Ranil should step down in his favour. The next day they wrote to Ranil informing him of this position. Ranil was not present at Cambridge Terrace when they took the letter to be handed over. Since Ranil had gone to Parliament his Secretary Dayaratne accepted the letter.
The President had called the local government elections when Ranil was drowning as if to throw him a lifeline. In the meanwhile the Secretary of the UNP, Tissa Attanayake was overseas on holiday. The staff at Siri Kotha have not received their salaries as yet. Ranil has yet to sign the appointment letters of the Interim Ex Co members. His intention is to postpone the appointments till after the mini-elections. When the Parliamentary Group met it was MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara who said that office bearers of the party should be changed before the mini-elections. Ranil was of the view that in the absence of the Secretary this should not be done. Having placed the burden on an absent Tissa, Ranil left the meeting.
Some feel that Tissa is on a prolonged sojourn at Ranil’s behest. Ranil seems to be working to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s agenda on this issue. Sajith’s group is of the view that by pushing for changes in positions on the eve of an election they would be playing into Ranil’s hand in the event the UNP loses badly at the hustings. Therefore they have decided to hold their horses till the election is concluded. Ranil has been able to extend his life in the leader’s position by three months thanks to Rajapaksa’s benevolence. It remains to be seen as to how long he could prolong this. If the UNP takes a bad beating the honourable exit that Ranil seeks will be a pipe dream.