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 Politics  

A broad alliance in the making and President's diplomatic headaches


Mahinda Rajapakse, Basil Rajapakse, Rauf Hakeem, Ban Ki Moon, P. B. Jayasundera, Mano Ganesanand R. Sampanthan

SLMC, TNA, CWC, and SLFP(M) in
preliminary talks for alliance

Mahinda rules out early presidential poll

APRC tells JHU to take a hike

Govt. faces financial crunch
and defaults payments

Govt. disassociates from Rajiva's
comments on UNSG

While the government was taking stock of the military situation following the devastating Tiger attack on the security forces headquarters in Vavuniya last week and the UNP continued to be bogged down with its internal battles, a new alliance was in the making that could if successful, change the political landscape of the country.

War basket

President Mahinda Rajapakse and his UPFA government have placed all their political eggs in the war basket, hoping military victory will eventually lead to electoral success be it at a presidential or general election notwithstanding the economic hardships faced by the people. And with that objective in mind Rajapakse has gone forward all guns blazing in the Wanni.

The seriousness with which the war is waged and the costs involved both in human and economic terms were underscored last week with the attack on the Wanni Security Forces Headquarters and the Prime Minister stating in parliament that for the month of August alone the security forces casualty figures were 155 dead and 983 injured.

That is a total of 1138 at the rate of 37 casualties every day. Mind you this figure does not include the missing in action or the deserters.

For the President, it is now an all or nothing gamble and he knows at best the government has one more year maximum before general election fever grips the country again and that before such time success in the battle field is essential. He has infact staked his political career on it.

And assuming such success can be achieved, Rajapakse was toying with the possibility of calling for a snap presidential election at the conclusion of his fourth year in office in November 2009 before a risky general election but all such calculations were dependent on Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse and Army Commander Sarath Fonseka delivering on the military front.

Elections

That at least was the thinking until last week but not any more with the general election option now taking precedence as the President looks at alternate political strategies to strengthen his position in the light of information the opposition may in the event of an early presidential election being called fielding a common candidate seeking a mandate to abolish the executive presidency.

The President in fact told confidants including Senior Advisor Basil Rajapakse, he was elected for six years and does not intend to lose two years by going for an early presidential election.

This view he  expressed in the face of repeated calls by senior party members he should go for a presidential poll before general election to capitalise on his personal popularity as opposed to that of the government.

His thinking as of last week was however to go for a general election first and make him the stabilising factor in government so that it will hold him in good stead at the 2011 presidential election.

Given the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist ideology that is driving this government, the President and his fellow travellers in the JHU believe in a situation where there is  military success, considering the electorate being almost 70 per cent Sinhala-Buddhist, electoral victory will be  assured at a general election when the minority vote gets divided as opposed to a presidential poll where there can be a concentration of forces.

Pedestrian logic

Pedestrian logic it may well be but that is the mindset of the Rajapakse administration and it is this very thinking of banking on the Sinhala-Buddhist majority which had President Rajapakse in a dither after the Supreme Court remanded a Buddhist monk over a sound pollution case, propelling him to pull all the stops to get the monk released lest it be seen as an act of his government (See Page 8 for full story).

It is to face upto this challenge and the extremist agenda on which the government is being run that the SLFP (M) Convener Mangala Samaraweera proposed to the UNP the formation of a grand alliance that can take the fight to the Rajapakse administration, but found only a lukewarm response given the party's preoccupation with clinging on to the 'elephant' symbol despite its repeated losses, not to mention the internal power struggles for positions.

That the SLFP went into such a grand alliance and contested successfully under the 'chair' symbol in 1994 and moved on to the 'betel leaf' after joining hands with the JVP and emerged victorious found no resonance within the UNP.

Symbol

Neither did the UNP even want to consider the fact it called on the party faithful in the Colombo municipality area just 10 days before the election after the 'elephant' list got knocked out to vote for the 'spectacle' and a three wheeler driver as mayor and emerged victorious.

Given this preoccupation of the UNP with the elephant symbol and its internal squabbles, the minority parties and even the SLFP (M) are now looking at other options which could well spell disaster for the UNP and change the entire dynamics of the country's politics.

For, the minority parties representing the Tamil as well as Muslim communities have now come to realise that the government's agenda is driven by the JHU on an extremist Sinhala-Buddhist policy framework and that they are as communities slowly but surely being marginalised from the mainstream and that urgent remedial action is called for, burying their personal and political differences. Moreso if military success is achieved whereby the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists will seize the upper hand.

Further, with religious intolerance also on the rise again in the backdrop of increasing attacks on Christian churches, the view is taking root in the minds of the ethnic and religious minorities that constitute nearly  30 per cent of the country's population, they cannot expect a level playing field unless this tide is turned.

Looking at options

Traditionally the minorities both religious and ethnic have tilted towards the UNP but with the party in somewhat disarray and unable to resolve its own issues leave alone those confronting the nation, the minority parties have started looking at their options especially with future elections in mind.

Interestingly, even minority parties supporting the government today like the CWC, EPDP, TMVP and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress are staying put only for their own survival but highly critical in private at the administration's trajectory and have been heard to say they will take stock of the situation when a decisive election is called.

Taking all these factors into consideration, several minority parties have started informal discussions to set up a broad alliance which could compel both the UPFA and the UNP to sit up and take notice, for if such an alliance takes root, no government could be formed by either party without the support of such an alliance, considering the proportional representation system in place.

Discussions

Towards this end, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauf Hakeem, has set the ball rolling and several rounds of informal discussions have been held between targeted members of the TNA like R. Sampanthan, SLMC, CWC, SLFP(M) and Mano Ganesan's WPF for starters. No doubt, Samaraweera will also lobby for former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to join the bandwagon at an election giving it an all-communities' flavour.

These parties collectively have 33 MPs in parliament today despite some members having broken away and joined the government and at a general election, if they were to contest as an alliance under a common symbol, that number may well increase with the national list allocation making it the decisive factor.

That was the thinking which led to these minority parties discussing the possibility of a broad based alliance, ensuring thereby they will not be relegated to a fringe group in a future administration.

Further, if the disillusioned EPDP and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress also bury their differences and throw the hat in for collective survival, the number could further increase, leaving the UPFA, UNP and the JVP to fight for the 70 percent Sinhala - Buddhist vote, or about 185 parliamentary seats.

Third force

Needless to say, no party in such a situation will be able to secure 113 seats to form a stable administration given the proportional representation system and would have to look to this new alliance for survival. They would effectively become the third force.

And then it is the collective of these minority parties and an assortment of Sinhala based parties such as the SLFP(M) that will determine who forms the next administration and on what terms.

No doubt the worst affected by such an alliance will be the UNP which has traditionally depended on the minority vote, especially in the Western, Central, Uva, North Western, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces but the party's stubborn refusal to compromise on the symbol is now set to push it back further in electoral terms.

However, that does not mean the UNP will be out of government permanently, but would have to look to the new alliance to make up the numbers after a parliamentary election which necessarily will come at a price in terms of a policy agenda.

Ironically, the government by pushing hard on a Sinhala-Buddhist extremist agenda is paving the way for the formation of such an alliance which will once again give the minority parties and the smaller Sinhala based parties the initiative in determining the policy agenda.

This would necessarily be so even if a presidential election was to come first, for the new alliance could then back a common candidate from either the UPFA or the UNP based on policy agreements or field their own candidate, once again becoming the determining factor at the election.

For in such a situation, with the UNP, UPFA and JVP running separate candidates and the broad alliance fielding its own nominee, no presidential candidate will be able to secure the 50.1 per cent required in the first  count, forcing a second count, the outcome of which would again be determined by the second choice of the minority front.

Thus on Thursday, September 11, several of the minority parties met in parliament and decided to nominate two members each from their respective parties to discuss the formation of such a broad alliance and no sooner the President got wind of this meeting panic set in. Discussing the development with Basil Rajapakse, the President said to ensure the CWC is removed from such an equation as a first step. 

Futile attempt

The need for such a broad alliance to the minority parties however was reinforced after last week's All Party Representative Committee (APRC) meeting where the JHU made a futile attempt to derail the process much to the chagrin of the minority representatives present.

Having decided to boycott the APRC after Committee Chairman Tissa Vitharana announced consensus was reached on 90 per cent of the subjects for power sharing with JHU participation, the party wrote to President Rajapakse announcing their withdrawal from the process and demanded the All Party Conference be summoned to take a decision on disbanding the APRC. A copy of this letter was sent to Minister Vitharana.

Stalemate

Thus, when the APRC met Monday, September 8, Minister Vitharana read the letter written under the name of JHU Leader, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thero to President Rajapakse calling for the suspension of the APRC.

The JHU letter said the APRC has reached a stalemate with the representative parties unable to reach agreement on several issues and therefore the committee should stop proceedings until such time a decision is taken on its fate by the All Party Conference.

Having read the letter, Minister Vitharana asked the members present for their response and the overwhelming view was  there was no merit in the case presented and that they should proceed with the deliberations and finalise the report reflecting the consensus of the committee.

Go ahead

It was further agreed by the APRC since the letter was addressed to Rajapakse there was no necessity for any action on their part and that until such time the President directs otherwise, they will proceed to meet.

The President of course has hinged his entire political solution on the APRC and will be hard put to now call it off even at the JHU's insistence and fully alive to this ground reality the committee proceeded to discuss the allocation of powers to the centre and provinces on the rights to minerals and mines at Monday's meeting.

But what the JHU missive did was once again bring home the reality the hard-line Sinhala-Buddhists were not prepared to concede any rights on devolution of power to the minorities, and that if the war was to end, then they would be in a worse situation unless precautionary steps were taken in advance - and hence the urgency to look at a broad alliance.

This development apart, the President had more headaches in the form of economic and diplomatic woes with the situation set to reach crisis proportions sooner than later.

Message from China Harbour

Already, the Supreme Court is breathing down Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera's neck over the LMSL deal and even as he sets about preparing the budget, news has reached President Rajapakse's pet project, the Hambantota Port Development maybe suspended later this month for want of funds.

And this message was sent in the form  of a letter to Ports Minister Chamal Rajapakse with copies to  Jayasundera  and the Chinese Ambassador in Colombo  amongst others,  by the China Harbour Consortium last week with a demand that US $ 117 million (approximately 12.5 billion) owed to them be paid up before September 30.

Giving September 30 as the day by which work on the port project would be suspended if the monies are not paid, the consortium had this to say: "The balance accumulated payments due to China Harbour from the employer amounts to US $117 million. As a result the contractor is now experiencing a serious cash flow deficit and will be reluctantly compelled to suspend work if this problem is not addressed as a matter of priority."

The letter could not have come at a worse time for Rajapakse since the Foreign Minister of China Yang Jiechi was in Colombo to sign an agreement on economic and technical cooperation with Sri Lanka and he was compelled to broach this subject.

Cash flow issues

Be that as it may, what this situation reflected as in several other areas was the serious cash flow issues confronting the  government as war expenses continued to mount and the administration found it increasingly difficult to meet its financial commitments.

The issue was further aggravated with the LTTE strikes as in the case of Vavuniya, where despite all the sugar-coating for public consumption, the damage both in security and economic terms was huge.

And it got the government into a diplomatic tangle as well with calls for purchasing 3D radars from China which India has in no uncertain terms said is a no-no given the serious security considerations to them if there was to be a Chinese presence in the north to man the use of such radars.

Lapses

In fact, after the Tiger attack on the Wanni Security Forces Headquarters in Vavuniya there was much finger pointing between India and Sri Lanka over whose lapses led to the disaster, the details of which cannot be disclosed due to national security considerations and the prevalent emergency regulations.

Adding to the President's troubles on the diplomatic front was the Peace Secretariat Chief and Secretary, Human Rights Ministry, Rajiva Wijesinha, whose critical comments on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had Rajapakse aghast.

The timing of Wijesinha's comments on the UN Secretary General could not have come at a worse time for the President, considering him having to meet with Ban Ki-Moon within the next fortnight at the UN General Assembly sessions, and immediate damage-control measures were set in motion.

The reason for Wijesinha's ire was Ban Ki-Moon's expression of deep concern over the escalating violence in northern Sri Lanka and the impact it was having on civilians.

This statement saw Wijesinha in characteristic style going for the Secretary General's jugular stating inter alia; "Since there have been hardly any civilian casualties during the recent offensives in Sri Lanka, it is possible that the Secretary General was prompted by reports of large numbers of civilian casualties on other theatres of war, which misled him into believing that all forces fighting terrorism are alike. It is to be hoped however that, even while he might want to send a message to other countries he will study the Sri Lanka situation carefully in the future.

"Perhaps with knowledge there will come wisdom, and he will publicly acknowledge the extra ordinarily good record of the Sri Lankan forces in this regard, their careful selection of military targets, the paucity of even collateral damage."

Pundits

Embarrassed at this outburst, President Rajapakse immediately directed Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the UN, H.M.S. Palihakkara through the Foreign Ministry to disassociate the government from Wijesinha's comments.

The President wanted it communicated to the UN Secretary General, Wijesinha's comments did not reflect his views or that of his government and was sorry at the development. Rajapakse also ordered Wijesinha's comments to be withdrawn from all government websites and for him to be told to guard his tongue and refrain from making any statements.

Thus as the war reaches a decisive stage the President has to fight not only the Tigers, but also an emerging alliance and his own pundits who are busy scoring own goals.

And this is the way of Paradise.


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