An Echelon Media Company
Wednesday May 12th, 2021

Sirisena’s strongman presidential campaign in full swing

As a nation we Sri Lankans are great followers of Astrology and among the keenest of them are our politicians some of whom boast that they are amateur Astrologers themselves.

As the New Year celebrations drew near and the cities emptied and the villages filled up, there is a nervousness developing among the political leadership.

The reason,  according to those who follow the stars, is that  there are celestial changes taking effect on Monday the 15th, making President Maithripala Sirisena’s star powerful.

They predict that “he is likely to make an important decision.”

So in this coming week all eyes will be on the President, somewhat like the many Fridays we waited with bated breath to see what he would do during the first part of last year’s 52-day political crisis.

But it does not take an Astrologer, professional or amateur, to see that Sirisena has begun his campaign for a second presidential term in earnestness using all the public resources he commands.  

He has been crisscrossing the country aboard the SLAF’s VIP Bell 412 Helicopter, declaring open numerous new buildings, projects and such. He has attended scores of events ranging from the funerals of deceased artistes to the annual gathering of the Independence Square Walkers Association.

Sirisena’s War on Drugs

Sirisena inspecting the destruction of billions of rupees worth of Cocaine seized by the Navy and STF

It is the war on drugs that is the centerpiece of his campaign and what is building up his strongman persona. He has vowed to execute drug lords on death row and has launched the Police Special Task Force and the Armed Forces against the narcotics peddlers.

The biggest show was on April 4 when millions of Sri Lankans from schoolchildren to state sector workers and the highest in the land took an oath to rid the nation of narcotics and drugs. This was Sirisena putting his strongman stamp on the anti-drug drive.

It is a popular move as many people across the nation have begun to fear the drug mafias and the terrible toll Heroin in particular is taking on the young people of this country.

The size of the detections have been unprecedented, several running into into billions of rupees, sometimes stretching credulity.

President Sirisena has not shied away from taking credit for this work. Often he has said that progress in detecting these huge hauls has taken place only after he took over the Ministry of Law and Order.

Sirisena, now armed with the 13.5 billion Rupee chunk of public money parliament voted to grant his office in the current year, will go all out to build his candidacy.

In a race that has yet to see a starter’s gun, Sirisena is galloping along nicely.

Before this year began he had already spent a massive 60 billion Rupees in his home district of Polonnaruwa on development projects, to strengthen his base.

Schoolchildren join the rest of the country in taking the April pledge to fight drugs/Handout photo

Sirisena needs a strong party

Despite all that his is still mostly a one-man show. In order to win a presidential election Sirisena needs a strong party machinery with boots on the ground.

The party he currently heads – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – is a shadow of its former self. Splintered in various directions, many of the foot soldiers have left and joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna the party created by the Rajapaksas for the Rajapaksas which is now a dominant political force.

This party which proved itself at last year’s Local Government elections is pushing forward Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its ‘presidential nominee.

Sirisena is coming to the realization that despite him appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister on October 26 the Rajapaksas will not back his candidacy for president.

Attempts to build an alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP are stuttering along and relations between the two parties have hit a rocky patch.

Two recent issues have widened the differences. The first was the way each party voted during the Budget. The SLPP vowed to defeat the government’s budget and urged the SLFP MPs to vote against the government. But although the SLFP MPs were fierce in their criticism of the government they either voted for the budget or absented themselves from voting.

The SLPP’s nominal leader Prof G L Peiris told RepublicNext “there’s a mismatch between their words and their deeds.”

The SLPP’s nominal leader Prof G L Peiris told RepublicNext “there’s a mismatch between their words and their deeds.”

The UNP had engaged in some gamesmanship before the vote to ensure the SLFP MPs would end up supporting the Budget. They had the UNP backbenchers threaten to vote against the president’s generous allocation, making Sirisena ask his MPs to abstain. Without that cash Sirisena could not have funded his current campaign.

The second dispute arose when the SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara floated the idea that perhaps Sirisena’s term does not end in January next year but in June because the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya had signed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution into law only in that month of 2015.

Jayasekara also very controversially said that the president would seek the Chief Justice’s opinion on the matter, not from the current CJ but the person who is to succeed him. The current CJ Nalin Perera is due to retire at the end of the month and of course Sirisena would be appointing his successor. Jayasekara’s statement has been seen as coercive and an attempt at interfering with the Judicial process.

The claim prompted immediate reactions. Constitutionalist and government MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickremeratne called it “absurd,” and referred reporters to a recent Supreme Court judgment that ruled that the 19th Amendment had a retroactive effect.

From the SLPP came a stronger rejoinder with its Chairman Prof. Peiris threatening to take the president to court if he made such a move.

Certainly neither the UNP nor the SLPP want Sirisena in power when the next Parliamentary General elections are due any time after March next year.  

Ranil turns him down but SB dreams of a broad alliance

In this situation Sirisena has tried in some ways to see whether at least some part of the UNP would support his candidacy.

About ten days ago Sirisena sent a message to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a senior UNP Minister asking whether he figured in any of the plans the UNP has for the presidential elections. In return, according to well-informed sources, Wickremesinghe had asked the emissary to tell Sirisena he could not make any promises as the decision whom to support would depend on the UNP Working Committee. That was a diplomatic way of saying no.

Therefore it would appear that Sirisena will not have the substantial support of either of the major parties. But all is not lost, there is one small group that does want to build a Left alliance to face the UNP-led United National Front.

Enter former Minister S B Dissanayake.

On the eve of the New Year on April 11th Dissanayake revealed what he is working towards in terms of political alliances.

Addressing a press conference Dissanayake said that it was Thilanga Sumathipala, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, Dilan Perera and himself who brought Sirisena and Rajapaksa together to form a government on October 26 in the deal that is best known as #CoupSL on social media.

He appeared proud of that achievement saying “we succeeded.”

But, he said, plans went awry because the new coalition partners could not agree on one point; whether they should work towards building a stable majority in parliament or go for a General election. It was clear at that point that it was the Rajapaksa faction that preferred the election.

“We must not forget that because of this mistake we stumbled, we fell. The SLPP and the SLFP as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena fell and were diminished,” Dissanayake pronounced.

The SLPP and the SLFP as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena fell and were diminished,”

But he remains hopeful. “We are now picking ourselves up again and when we contest the election with our presidential candidate we will have Maithripala, Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil and Dinesh all on the same stage bringing all the Left leaders together.”

Leftist politics is where the voluble Dissanayake began his political life trying to enter parliament as a Communist Party candidate in the 1970s. Eventually he entered parliament in 1994 under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunge and has since then flitted from party to party blithely crossing the floor several times. In one avatar he was the National Organizer for the UNP under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Once a fierce critic of Mahinda Rajapaksa he gleefully accepted a ministry from him and then abandoned the strongman to join the National Government under Wickremesinghe after Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015.

Wickremesinghe, Sirisena and Premdasa at a recent event/Sudath de Silva

Options are available which one will the president pick?

Dissanayake’s plans aside, what would Sirisena do if he were to press on as the SLFP candidate?

One option would be is to declare a snap presidential election which only he can do.

This would be a logical decision as the main candidate opposing whoever will be the UNF choice, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has yet to renounce his US citizenship to qualify for a presidential run. The recent cases filed against him in California will not have a direct bearing on the renunciation process but could act as a nuisance to delay it.

On the UNP side the presumed candidate is Wickremesinghe but there are rumblings within the party that RW may not be able to beat Gotabaya. Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya have strong backers as well for a possible presidential nomination.

So in that situation, Sirisena may hold the whip hand.

Another option is to persuade some part of the UNP to support him. Wickremesinghe is unlikely to support Sirisena again after what happened last year. Sirisena has openly shown his preference for Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa to whom he offered the Premiership several times last year.   

But supporting Sirisena would be a poor choice for Premadasa as the UNP rank and file detest the president after he sacked Wickremesinghe last year. They see the president as an ingrate who forgot that he got the presidency because of UNP votes.

All this maneuvering is of course for Sirisena to stay in an office he had passionately vowed to relinquish after one term.

None of it is what most of the people of this country either want or need.

So until Sirisena decides which crisis he wants to create we wait to see the next twist and turn in the tragicomedy of Sri Lanka’s politics.


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