Fonseka — Knight in White Satin?
President Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly has his ear to the ground: he had a meeting with various local government members and consulted them on their views in respect of the forthcoming elections. The consensus, he told his colleagues in Cabinet, was that a snap presidential poll was required.
The President has always been of the view that politicians lower down the rungs, have a better appreciation of “ground reality” — networking and meeting with the people far more often than a typical cabinet minister. Having taken aboard these sentiments the President said that he would make up his mind and make an announcement by November 15.
Asking his ministerial colleagues to be prepared at virtually a moment’s notice, the President made an important announcement. He said that he was willing to forego two years of his presidency, if he acceded to the snap poll asked for by local government members.
It appears then, that despite the speculation to the contrary, President Rajapaksa is willing to take on board the decision of the Supreme Court given when President Kumaratunga sought a ruling as to the exact calculation of the term of presidential office following any election held prior to the end of the six year period.
The new term
At the time the Supreme Court ruled that the new term of an incumbent President would start from the day that the fresh election results were announced. President Kumaratunga sought an opinion that the second term of an incumbent president winning a second election, would start from the end of the full first term.
Not so ruled former CJ Sarath Silva. It is of course, a reasonable ruling to understand: after all what happens if an incumbent president actually loses an election mid-term? Does the winner have to wait for the loser to finish his term? Of course, it is not expected that Mahinda Rajapaksa will actually lose the next presidential poll.
The President visited Hanoi, Vietnam as part of his strategy of networking with the region. Prior to his visit, earlier he had opened a series of bridges including one at Dehiwela which he did whilst most of his citizenry were just waking up. He was accompanied by a collection of his Ministers including A.H.M. Fowzie who as an early riser would have had no trouble finding his way to Dehiwela by 5. 45 a.m.
He also opened the longest bridge in Sri Lanka, in Kinniya which was built with funding from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A brainchild of Rauf Hakeem, observers noted that Hakeem was not invited for the opening. So much for inclusive politics.
Sarath Fonseka factor
The Sarath Fonseka factor continued to dominate the political arena. Fonseka left the island on a part official part private visit to the United States. In Washington he was given some advice by the Chief Priest, Maharagama Dhammasiri Thera. The Venerable Thera told the General that he ought to be careful of people trying to drag him into politics and their own agendas; yet it was, the Thera reminded the General, these same people who said that he was not fit even for the Salvation Army.
Speaking at his diplomatic best, the Thera told the General that it was their earnest wish that the President, the Defence Secretary and General Fonseka himself, should all be united as one, as was the case when defeating the LTTE. The message had no ambiguity: united we stand divided we fall.
Sarath Fonseka, though, had earlier compounded speculation by stating at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the army, that it was possibly the last time he would be addressing his troops. His concluding remarks in the USA fuelled the already burning embers. He stated that he was even prepared to shed his uniform to conclude his work to the people of Sri Lanka.
The government’s attempts to sideline Sarath Fonseka appears to be a complete waste of resources and a futile exercise at best. Some of the events were downright petty: the parking of the General’s car outside for example, at the celebrations. Yet the untold story is that it was Sarath Fonseka, who took it upon himself to inspire confidence in the forces in the eyes of the President. This came about when the troops had lost about 600 lives in one single operation.
Loss of life
The President was appalled at the loss of life; the President wanted to tone down the war effort and go along the route of peace and engage in dialogue with the LTTE. It was Fonseka’s pleadings and lobbying of both the President and his key defence advisers that instilled Presidential confidence not to cave in but to push forward.
After the LTTE were defeated, Fonseka indicated that he would like to stay on as Commander until after the 60th anniversary celebrations were over. For an inexplicable reason perhaps short-termism even, Fonseka was removed swiftly in a dramatic power play — the details of which were known to an extremely small coterie of people.
The fact of the matter is that Sarath Fonseka as a candidate at a presidential poll, some speculate is only ever going to be a “vote spoiler.” But politics in Sri Lanka is fickle. Remember the huge response to Chandrika Kumaratunga?
If the planned opposition Grand Alliance were to appoint him as their candidate at the presidential poll, the chances are that the alliance would be totally ignored by the minority population. The Tamils would abandon their traditional UNP en-masse whilst the Muslims would give General Fonseka a wide berth — especially after the comments he had made in October 2008.
Sarath Fonseka got carried away at some point in 2008: he became the champion of advocating Sinhala supremacy. He forgot for a while the contributions and sacrifices made by the minority communities or at least if he did not, then he pandered to what he perceived was “popular opinion” at that point in time.
The professional in him would have “Estopped” him from seeking revenge — which in a non armed forces world would be understandable. He had all the motivation — having been the victim of a LTTE attempt on his life leaving him with serious injuries. Nevertheless, his dismissal of the minorities was viewed with grave trepidation by the Tamils and Muslims, especially compounded by the fact that the war was at a very crucial stage and with the armed forces enjoying unsurpassed power — quite literally — and influence over the nation as a whole.
And the General’s overt Sinhala chauvinism had made him the darling of the likes of the Hela Urumaya. The minorities understandably were nervous.
Significantly or not, the war came to an end not six months later. Unfortunately certainly for the General, savvy-as-they-come Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped in mighty pronto and removed him from the top job! And there lies the renaissance of the man.
He has been courted by the opposition, by the JVP and all the time being managed by the effervescent Mangala Samaraweera who famously held that the General was not even fit for the Salvation Army. Now that the General enjoys the virtual adulation of a generous number of voters, he also discovered new found appeal.
With the majority community: as we said therein lies the rub. He has kept his statements very low key, not that the state media would carry it in any event. Indeed his speech at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the army went unreported. This of the man who is easily the most successful Army Commander in all Asia to boot!
What the President ought to have done and what he did do — offering the Sports Ministry Secretary post — offers unparalleled opportunity for debate. He had done either by commission or by error the cardinal sin. He attempted to demote or maybe humiliate the General.
Ministry secretaries are, by protocol a rung or two under ministers. They would have to “Sir” the ministers. Including Karuna and even Pillayan! What a let down — an insult of the highest order. Ill-thought out certainly from the man who acted swiftly to remove the Army Commander in the first place.
If that was strategy then was this demotion strategy too? This act alone has gotten the President even more unpopular. The maha janathawa were aghast: their hero, the architect of the LTTE defeat had been as one said, “bola gahanda dala.” Quite. (Sent to play ball)
Would it not have been better strategy if the President allowed the General to go quietly, with some glory and adulation under his belt to last him his retirement? How much better a move than to ask Ratnasiri Wickremanayake to step down and appoint Fonseka as the prime minister? It would have been – or would be even – only for a few months more. A short period, in which the President would have scored many brownie points with the voters.
Fonseka would in effect have been bought lock, stock and barrel — never mind that the Prime Minister’s role is largely ceremonial with little real input but with lots of kudos which would have propelled Fonseka and the SLFP to victory at the parliamentary poll and leave Mahinda to stride across at the presidential with about 60% of the country with him.
Instead, Sarath Fonseka is set to be a veritable Knight in White Satin — never reaching the end. Consider, if Sarath Fonseka and Ranil Wickremesinghe both challenge the incumbent at the next presidential poll? Will anyone get the required 50% + 1? The minority vote will not go to the incumbent and perhaps Sarath Fonseka, leaving but little choice. Will the IDPs be allowed to vote?
The winds at the moment are blowing amazingly strong stuff the Presidential way: rising prices across the board and the spectacle of industrial action in key sectors like petroleum, power and transport loom very large. The depths of despair are hanging close to the Rajapaksa regime. It is surely a matter of time before it all starts crumbling.
Senior ministers have had top secret meetings with Ranil Wickremesinghe in an astonishing turn of events, sensing no doubt that these are not just winds but a full blown gale force 7 warning to the government. Fix the economy and do it now is a message that is filtering down fast from the people.
A people, who are war weary, victory weary and simply and ultimately want to live in a developed country. The people don’t really want to see and hear and read of murders carried out with impunity by whoever. They certainly do not want to hear that the justice system and the investigatory authorities are merely dragging their feet and their files from one office to another. The people are seeking action — which is what people in a developed country get.
To achieve this status of a well developed and balanced country, political parties will need to unite. In Sri Lanka today we have the entire opposition focused on one common issue: that of the Executive Presidency, despite previous positions and stands taken. The JVP is an unlikely ally of the UNP but on the issue of the Executive Presidency, they are as one.
It will be up to the leaders like Ranil Wickremesinghe to find a way out to harness this common purpose in the attempt to address the Executive Presidency issue. Of course, it is a post election issue and as Rauf Hakeem put it, we have had many promises from various presidents only to be overlooked at the end.
Sincerity of purpose
For the President to make the Executive Presidency more palatable for democratic ideals and to show sincerity of purpose, the President could well make some concessions prior to going into election mode: for example the President may wish to give up the Executive’s right to dissolve parliament after 12 months.
That is a tool that is an important and strategic weapon in the President’s arsenal. If the President is minded to show his commitment to — at least — amend the powers of the Executive, this would be as good a start as any and would augur well for all party unity on a matter of national importance.
The Grand Alliance is still in the making. It is due to be signed on November 3, but the SLMC has yet to obtain its own internal approval whilst Mano Ganesan and company have already indicated their willingness to go ahead — complete with a four-prong strategy to contest any parliamentary election that will be called anytime soon.
Political parties in Sri Lanka may well be ideologically, oceans apart: but at the moment we have a situation where parties as diverse as the JVP and the UNP have common ground. This quest for a palatable and equitable solution to these issues that ultimately affect good governance and democratic values by the opposition who are as one on this, is simply good news for the people of this country.
The matter that is of overriding significance is that from the government stand point there are no soundbytes at all as to whether the Executive Presidency should stand or be amended or whatever. The government used the benefits of the Executive Presidency to good effect against the LTTE. If the Presidential mindset is now different from that in the Mahinda Chinthanaya then the silence is deafening. Clarity on this important aspect is required. The silence is frankly almost synonymous with being deaf and dumb. November 15 will decide which way Mahinda Rajapaksa is headed.