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 Grand Alliance finalised as unp remains unsure of Pres. Poll 

Mahinda Rajapakse, Chamal Rajapakse, Vijitha Herath,
Karu Jayasuriya,
Mangala Samaraweera and Ranil Wickremesinghe

The Grand Alliance – the all party composition designed to provide an unified opposition – is all but completed. All that remains is for the various parties to actually sign on the dotted line. However this is an alliance designed to provide unified opposition to any parliamentary election and significantly not for a presidential election. The understanding reached is that at the appropriate time – political speak, for when the Presidential poll is formally announced – the different parties will sign agreements with whoever is chosen as a “common” presidential candidate to take on President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Unofficial, behind the scene discussions are also underway between the UNP and the JVP to establish how they can both work together within the format of a single, unified opposition coalition. These talks are at a very advanced stage, with both parties declining any comment other than to deny. Our sources, reliably inform us that both the parties have indeed had “exploratory” talks. The talks are going ahead without any reliance on brokers and kingmakers – the JVP stating that there was no need or place for brokers.

Earlier in the week, the JVP was forthright about the Executive Presidency. Their stated policy on this issue was that it needed abolition forthwith. Vijitha Herath pointed out that The Mahinda Chinthana had promised to address the issue but it was a stand the President had regrettably not addressed. The JVP would, they said, fight the cause “tooth and nail” and in that context there was no need to consider the question of a JVP candidate for any Presidential poll – lest it be construed that the JVP were providing tacit endorsement.

The JVP of course, have a formidable task in the southern elections: in 2004, riding on their popularity especially amongst the youthful voter as well as their coalition with the SLFP, the JVP votebase helped the UFPA to a very creditable result: gaining a total of 36 members out of 55 members. Yet, significantly in Hambantota they managed just eight seats with the UNP gaining four seats.

If we are to go by the spin the JVP put out regarding the “popular” appeal they enjoy in Hambantota, one would have expected a substantially better result than that. This on its own would prompt the hardened UNPer to assert that the UNP’s vote bank is rock solid and that not even a tsunami-type wave of support that the UFPA now enjoys would significantly change the UNP votebase.

The UFPA leader in the Hambantota District, Chamal Rajapakse was quoted as saying that they would look forward to a 90% return in Hambantota. The JVP dismissed this as mere wishful thinking, asking the Senior Rajapakse to consider that the JVP stronghold is deep in the south and that they were not ready to allow their long cultivated amicus with the southern voter to simply slip by the wayside.

There was of course no comparison to the Uva / Moneragala result where Sashi Rajapakse romped home with a record breaking 85% of the vote. The proof of the pudding will be when the results are announced and the country at large will be able to judge whether the JVP has in fact held on to their support. Having put the cat amongst the pigeons Chamal Rajapakse was off to Japan on Friday evening for a four day visit which is expected to bring in substantial aid from a long time ally and friend of Sri Lanka.

The President appears to have distanced himself from the issue of appointing the chief ministerial candidate for the south. Having run into some turbulent waters in his attempt to support his all-time favourite Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, the President is now waiting to be guided by results – which never did any harm in the past and is as good a yardstick as any. The UFPA has added not just colour but some glamour as well into the proceedings: actresses Susantha Chandramali and Anarkali Akaarsha have entered the fray. Anarkali adding glamour to Galle and Chandramali in Hambantota. Anarkali is being backed by none other than Namal and Sajin Vaas by his mentor the President himself.

The Executive Presidency’s swansong may well be the southern provincials. Almost unbelievably true, all the opposition parties have found it prudent to take on the abolition or at the least the amendment of the Executive Presidency as their principle mantra.

Taking on the Executive Presidency at this moment may not be the most prudent of decisions: the people at large have seen for themselves the beneficial effects of the Executive Presidency in as far as the war was concerned. The accountability to parliament is almost a mere token gesture for the incumbent President, when it came to the war on terror the Presidency’s all-powerful action came out all on its own with that of the armed forces. Whether the Sri Lankan voters’ penchant for a short memory will last till a presidential election or before is yet to be seen.

For the UNP to have fought the abolition of the Executive Presidency singularly would have been a folly of gigantic proportions – but with a unified opposition, meaning that at the least 45 per cent of the population would be able to digest the abolition motion rather well; the majority Sinhalese voter will not be able to blame it all on the UNP – certainly not when the opposition in its entirety backs the call for abolition or amended powers.

But the resolve of all the parties, save the JVP, to amend or abolish the Executive Presidency must be questioned – based entirely on previous form. As far back as 1972 the UNP took a decision that Sri Lanka would have an Executive Presidency – well back in the days that Dudley Senanayake was around. UNP luminaries like Gamini Dissanayaka supported the cause only to change track later on. Then again the Sri Lankan constitution has seen changes, many times to suit the needs of the era.  

Why is it that this singularly important topic flips on and off the radar screen? Is it that the incumbent once having got a taste is not committed to the change promised? Whatever said, done and has been written, President Kumaratunga did try to bring about the abolition though after her two terms permitted by the constitution were finished – prompted by the likes of Mangala Samaraweera – but unfortunately, the other mainstream parties did not support her moves at the time – purely for political gain. However, we now have a scenario where the opposition parties are collectively rallying round the cause of the abolition of the Executive Presidency – which is great news for proponents of change.

President Rajapakse has promoted change and he has not ruled out change. He has stated that change will be considered after the next Presidential election. Watch this space, more to follow.

Presidential sibling Basil left for a visit to Korea, in connection with the e-Initiative programme of the government. The President himself made a quick visit to Libya, to help celebrate 40 years of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Revolution. In the meantime the government’s various programmes for development was showcased during the Presidential visit abroad: some substantial progress is under way perhaps not all being given due prominence: the Southern Expressway, the Katunayake Colombo Expressway, Hambantota Port, a dedicated Economic Zone exclusively for Chinese companies and the allocation of 10 acres of land in the north east for a banana plantation. The government is also set to allocate further oil exploration rights shortly, though there is some form of controversy that surrounds that subject.

The Late Gamini Athukorala’s daughter’s wedding provided the perfect excuse for the UNP glitterati to be present en-masse in lighter circumstances. Thalatha Athukorala – who had taken on the responsibility of her brother’s children — was overheard saying that only selected guests were invited. The guest list though was an interesting collection — almost a “who’s who” of the United National Party, led of course by its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who arrived with his wife Maithree.

Ranil seen mingling

Mervyn Silva was also a guest and was seen in animated discussion with the Leader of the Opposition, much to the discomfiture of other senior UNP members standing close by.  Wickremesinghe breaking with his traditional reserve was seen mingling – an indication perhaps of a change of his electioneering style where party members are hoping that a “new” style of politicking will see Wickremesinghe increase his personal appeal with the UNP vote base at a future presidential election.

Wickremesinghe however, was not so sure of a presidential election, maintaining that a parliamentary election is more likely to be held initially. Since last week the dynamics appear to have changed and it is Wickremesinghe who appears to be emerging as the party’s candidate. The UNP Leader for his part was toeing the official line that an announcement will be made in the fullness of time. The party at the Cinnamon Grand however was a fitting tribute to Gamini Athukorala. The presence of so many of the party that remained ‘his life,’ was heart warming and fulfilling for Gamini’s family: he was indeed a figure much loved and revered within the UNP.

The ambience was warm and sincere even if Karu Jayasuriya was responding later in the week to this column, that in his life in politics he had seen it all including back stabbing, double and treble talk, impeachment motions and plots, people with vested interests – the whole caboodle – whilst he himself had never canvassed for position and leadership.

As we said in this column previously, Jayasuriya may well care to remember that he may be best remembered for his silence not for advocating an investment for leadership in the UNP. Jayasuriya is famed as a gentleman politician – in fact he is reported not to have accepted any of five duty free vehicle permits that he was entitled to; however in this day and age Jayasuriya being a gentleman will not bring about substantial change in the UNP. It is time his supporters say, that he comes out of the woods, takes a stance and propels the UNP forward once and for all – the biggest role he can play is advocating an “Investment in Leadership” programme for the UNP.

SLFP victory

Meanwhile strong rumours were doing the rounds in the opposite camp: it was said that the Rajapakses were revamping the party and that Namal would contest from Hambantota, whilst Chamal would contest from Ratnapura. Our information is that Namal would contest from Beliatta, Chamal from Tissamaharama, and Basil from Gampaha. For their part, the powers that be at the SLFP were certain that of the UNP crossers-over who now make up their alliance, perhaps two, maybe three members would be re-elected at a parliamentary election next time around and were preparing to throw their full weight behind their own candidates in order to seek a wholly independent SLFP victory.

Nandana Gunathilaka created quite a miracle by asking for the forgiveness of the entire country for having had the Hikkaduwa Beach Festival. Apparently the sun, sand, wine, song and whatever else that went on was just too much for the Minister of Tourism. It was an event much spoken about, welcomed by the young society of not just Colombo but Tangalle, Trincomalee and Anuradhapura as well as visitors from Germany, Wales, Italy, Norway and Japan. It is an event that has the possibilities of the Notting Hill carnival from London but the potential appears to have fallen short of  Gunathilaka’s attention.  

With correct marketing the Hikkaduwa Festival will become an event that will appeal to party goers from all over the world and is a miracle of whatever size that Tourism Sri Lanka must not discount.

British investments

In the meantime British Conservative Party MP Liam Fox made his sixth visit to Sri Lanka as the guest of Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. He has promised to promote British investments into Sri Lanka but at the time of his visit his co MP William Hague in London, was questioning the fate of the IDPs’ in Sri Lanka. MP Liam Fox has been invited to be present at the SLFP convention on November 15 and has indicated that he would be delighted to be present.

The government shored up her foreign reserves thanks to the first tranche of the IMF monies coming in. As per the agreement the second tranche would be in by October this year but therein lies the rub. The GDP stands at 8.9% of the budget deficit now and is expected to widen by year end. The IMF relief is to be dished out in eight instalments subject to initial review in December this year. One such requirement is to bring the deficit down to 7% by December which is a tall order.

Yet, the government has hedged its position by getting the Templeton Fund to come in on Treasury Bonds at around 12% which certainly is an attractive rate for the fund. In the event the IMF sticks to its guns on the required conditions the Templeton Fund inputs would relieve the reserve position, at least up to the point of the next two elections.

Be that as it may the withdrawal of the GSP + facility looms large and some seniors in government have already accepted this fact. Many within the industry fear that Sri Lanka would be uncompetitive without this facility or in the alternative have to manage with thin margins. The government would not be hard pressed other than from a possible political fallout from the loss of jobs in this sector. As for the losses — the private sector would have to grin and bear.

The week ended with Deputy Party Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Central Committee Member, Zhang Gaoli visiting Sri Lanka. He met with President Rajapakse on Friday morning and with UNP’s Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake in the afternoon. Gaoli flew into Sri Lanka in his privately owned aircraft.







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