Budget blues hit PM's campaign as corruption cases boomerang
Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mangala Samaraweera,
Sarath Amunugama and Ranil Wickremesinghe
With just 10 days to go for the November 17 presidential election Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's campaign has started running out of steam given the sharp differences of opinion which have surfaced internally even as the UNP's Ranil Wickremesinghe stole a march over his opponent in crucial opinion
That the Prime Minister shot himself in the foot at the very outset by entering into politically suicidal agreements with the JVP and JHU was plain to see though the candidate failed to realise at the time the extent of damage it did to his campaign, which has in hindsight dawned at Temple Trees.
In fact after the initial euphoria over the agreements which were signed on the insistence of Campaign Managers Basil Rajapakse and Mangala Samaraweera, the blunder became evident with the finances immediately drying up, prompting the Prime Minister to look at foreign governments for help, particularly China.
Then came the backlash from President Chandrika Kumaratunga, running mate Anura Bandaranaike and senior SLFPers who saw the party being hijacked by the JVP with Rajapakse a willing accomplice and it was decided that their candidate should be reined in.
And with a clamp down on the excessive abuse of state property also coming into force, the Prime Minister's campaign started looking like the Titanic on its maiden voyage as members started leaving what seemed to be a sinking ship. Not only were SLFPers endorsing Wickremesinghe but also JHU monks and even JVP members.
To make matters worse, with each passing day, Rajapakse was pushed into extreme positions by the Marxists, which were completely contradictory to stated SLFP policy and he was looking more and more like a JVP candidate rather than a moderate true blue, leading to alarm bells at President's House.
The final nail in the coffin came with the Mahinda Chinthana which had relegated the SLFP policy on the ethnic issue to the dustbin of history and with it, what President Kumaratunga strove to achieve - albeit chaotically - for 11 years.
From thereon it was open warfare sugar coated with the occasional call to ensure Rajapakse's victory on the condition he abides by SLFP policy. The caveat was not lost on the SLFP voter who by now was regularly dished out television footage and photographs of the Prime Minister flanked not by SLFPers but JVP stalwarts.
The SLFP seniors were understandably furious and made it clear they will not play second fiddle to the reds.
If having to negotiate the SLFP's political landmines was bad enough, Rajapakse was further handicapped by the failure to get all his alliance partners including the JVP and JHU on to the same platform, once again creating a perception in the electorate of the chaos which would ensue if he was to govern with his motley coalition.
No lose scenario
It is in this backdrop Wickremesinghe made his offer to work with the SLFP on a national agenda, thereby presenting to the country a picture of stability in the event of his victory, an offer the President indicated she was seriously considering not just to proceed with the peace process but also preserve democracy.
Thus the choice before the nation was a SLFP-JVP coalition under a Rajapakse presidency or a UNP-SLFP government under Wickremesinghe and there is no gainsaying which option moderate SLFPers backed by the Kumaratunga-Bandaranaike duo preferred.
Given this scenario, many SLFP organisers decided the better option was to sit still and await the outcome of the election since it was a no lose scenario for them and did not want unnecessarily to burn their boats with either camp by campaigning extensively.
For, the SLFPers realised they will find no place in a UNP-SLFP government if they were seen to have openly campaigned for a JVP inspired presidency notwithstanding Kumaratunga's clarion call to protect the party from extremist forces.
And driving home that point forcefully last week was Kumaratunga who took the bottom off the Rajapakse-JVP campaign by charging from poverty stricken Bibile, the only Sinhala leader who stood for the division of the country was the JVP's Rohana Wijeweera.
The President said Wijeweera in 1982 went to Jaffna and promised a separate state and that no other Sinhala leader had tried to divide the country, a message which exploded right in the face of Rajapakse's campaign that Ranil Wickremesinghe was out to divide the nation.
Praise for the CFA
Not stopping at that, the President hailed the ceasefire agreement despite what she said were its shortcomings, adding it has not only stopped coffins of innocent youth coming to the villages but also dramatically improved the economic climate in the country.
No sooner news of the President's statement reached Rajapakse, he directed the state media to block out the negative aspects and instead to claim Kumaratunga has rejected the UNP's call for a national government.
This the state media proceeded to do only to see the Presidential Secretariat dispatching a sharp rejoinder giving the essence of her statement on the peace process, which they were forced to broadcast and publish.
That apart the Premier's preoccupation the previous week was the presentation of the budget through which he planned to create an impression all the goodies promised in the Mahinda Chintana will be delivered after November 17.
With that intention, Rajapakse persuaded Finance Secretary P.B. Jayasundera to include in the budget proposals his manifesto pledges despite the fact the Appropriation Bill had not made provision for it.
However given the brief he received, despite its non-workability, Jayasundera presented the same to Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama and urged him to incorporate the proposals in the budget, much to the Minister's surprise.
Amunugama for his part indicated, the budget cannot be balanced in the manner Rajapakse wanted and that it would make him the laughing stock of the intelligentsia of the country if all the proposals are included as suggested.
"It may help hoodwink some people but our credibility will be in tatters," Amunugama pointed out, adding he would have to consult the President before making any final decision.
With Rajapakse being informed of Amunugama's thinking, he made a personal call to the Minister and asked whether there was a problem in including his proposals in the budget only to be told, the final decision would be in the President's hands since it was going to be her budget.
Amunugama also explained to the Premier the impracticality of incorporating all the manifesto pledges in the budget but Rajapakse would hear none of it and insisted his proposals be included especially since Wimal Weerawansa has already gone on public record stating they would be.
The practicality of implementation, Rajapakse said, can be dealt with after the election.
The Prime Minister went on to say that he wanted Amunugama to include in the budget special projects for rural areas with tax concessions thereby creating the impression of job creation as well as business promotion of small industries.
The plan could be obtained from Jayasundera and Divaratne, the Premier had said, much to Amunugama's consternation.
Not too happy with this situation, the Finance Minister spoke with President Kumaratunga and she told the Minister the budget must reflect her vision and development plans for the country and not a set of promises aimed at misleading the people.
"But you can include some of Mahinda's proposals in the budget if it can be balanced though I have not even seen his so called Mahinda Chinthana," the President told Amunugama.
It is now left to be seen what Amunugama presents on November 8, but it may well turn out to be a Pandora's box for Rajapakse's campaign, given the initial draft which the President approved.
That the President was none too please with the Mahinda Chintana was also evident Thursday, October 3, when she made it clear the SLFP will have nothing to do with the proposals contained therein, especially those relating to the peace process.
This thinking Kumaratunga made known when Minister Felix Perera urged her Thursday to campaign vigourously in the Gampaha District because the Prime Minister was fast losing ground.
The Minister told the President just prior to the cabinet meeting, the situation in the Catholic belt in the Gampaha District was particularly bad and unless Kumaratunga extended her full support at ground level, the district could be lost.
Shot back Kumaratunga - "How can I get involved in the campaign when Mahinda has got involved with extremist parties like the JVP and JHU? Do you think any religious or ethnic minorities will vote for him? When we entered into an agreement with the JVP, the SLFP policies were protected. Today they have been completely subjugated
to the JVP."
Continuing, the President said, she has not even been sent a copy of the Mahinda Chintana yet by the Prime Minister, whereas Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesing-he, no sooner he released his manifesto, sent her a copy and solicited a discussion on his proposals.
Realising the President's mood, Minister Perera did not push the issue any further but went to a corner and called the Premier and disclosed the details of the discussion and urged him to bring a copy of the Mahinda Chintana and present it to Kumaratunga.
Not long after, Rajapakse trooped into President's House armed with not one but three copies of the Mahinda Chintana and placed it on Kumaratunga's table much to her amusement.
President finally given manifesto
Said she - "So now I am given a copy of this Chintana. What is the date today? It is November 3? The Chintana was released on September 17. In contrast, Ranil forwarded his manifesto the very day it was released."
Not wanting to battle Kumaratunga on the issue, the Prime Minister simply smiled and moved away.
More trouble for Rajapakse was brewing elsewhere in the meantime due to the mishandling of his campaign, particularly by the Basil Rajapakse-Samaraweera-Weerawansa-Sooriyaarachchi combine, with the full impact of it to explode this week.
Dogged by the 'Helping Hambantota' tsunami scam, the campaign minders of the Prime Minister came up with the bright idea of making a complaint against UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesin-ghe despite advise to the contrary by the Premier's Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga.
The Prime Minister's Secretary informed Rajapakse's strategists, there was no basis for the allegation on the computer issue since all necessary approvals had been obtained and procedures followed.
It will boomerang on Rajapakse, Weeratunga said.
But the gang of four decided otherwise and proceeded to make a complaint under Samaraweera's signature to the Bribery Commission only to see Wickremesinghe turning tables by calling for a full and impartial inquiry.
"I am not going to take cover under a court order and stop the investigation because I have nothing to hide. My hands are clean. I hope the Prime Minister follows my example," Wickremesinghe said, much to Rajapakse's embarrassment.
Not stopping at that, Wickreme-singhe proceeded to challenge Rajapakse for a debate both on the 'Helping Hambantota' scam as well as the computer case only to see the Premier ducking for cover.
And now the whole issue is about to blow up in the face of the Rajapakse campaign with the Bribery Commission coming to a finding that there is no merit whatsoever in the allegations made by Samaraweera against Wickreme-singhe.
In fact, the commission submitted both the complaint on the computer case as well as the 'Helping Hambantota' scam to its investigators and they found no merit in Samaraweera's allegations but decided to investigate the charges against Rajapakse further.
Thus, having gone through all the documentation submitted by Samaraweera against Wickreme-singhe, the commission on Friday came to a finding there was no merit to the allegation and decided to close the file.
And this week the commission is to formally write to Samaraweera and inform him of their decision in terms of the Bribery and Corruption Act which no doubt will give another boost to the UNP candidate's campaign and enhance his image as 'Mr. Clean.'
Interestingly, the case was so weak that the commission decided there was not even a necessity to record Samaraweera's statement on the complaint since the documentation did not support his allegations.
The commission found that the necessary cabinet and Treasury approvals had been obtained for the computer purchases and hence there was no merit in Samaraweera's complaint.
Now, another formal complaint is to be lodged against Samaraweera for making false allegations, which attracts a maximum term of 10 years imprisonment if found guilty in terms of the Permanent Commission Investigating Allegations of Bribery and Corruption Act
In fact a complaint has already been lodged with the commission by former public servant Dixon Nilaweera, who too was one of the people accused together with Wickremesinghe in Samaraweera's complaint.
In contrast, the commission having perused the documentation produced by UNP MP, Gayantha Karunatilleke on the 'Helping Hambantota' case decided there was merit to proceed and called for the recording of Karunatilleke's statement.
This statement Karunatilleke gave before the commission on Thursday, November 3.
It will be recalled, UNP MP Kabir Hashim originally made a complaint to the CID against Rajapakse but that investigation was stopped after the Prime Minister petitioned the Supreme Court by way of a fundamental rights application.
'Helping Hambantota' scam
Subsequent to this development, UNP MP Gayantha Karunatilleke went before the Bribery Commission, which too the Prime Minister moved to stall through his lawyer, President's Counsel D.S. Wijesinghe claiming the Supreme Court order was applicable to the Bribery Commission as well.
But it now transpires, the commission has decided to proceed with the investigation going by the recording of Karunatilleke's statement.
Thus, as the campaign heads for the last lap, Rajapakse continues to be haunted by the tsunami scam, a bad case made worse not only by its mishandling but also by trying to make baseless counter charges as a diversionary ploy.
Notwithstanding these developments, the opinion polls also suggest, Wickremesinghe will be a winner by at least a margin of six percent given the current indications.
The last NIB report submitted to the President on Tuesday, November 1 gave Wickremesinghe 54.9 percent as opposed to 44.3 percent for Rajapakse. Likewise, surveys done by private organisations such as Tobacco, Singer and Hatton National Bank all place Wickremesinghe in the 54 percent region.
Interestingly, even an in-depth survey carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives shows Wickremesinghe having a clear margin on the two most crucial issues affecting the nation - the cost of living and the peace process. All opinion polls have identified the peace process and the cost of living as the two most crucial issues
at this election and the findings will be a cause for concern in the Rajapakse camp.
And passing home the advantage, Wickremesinghe toured Jaffna on Thursday and struck a chord with not only the people but also the security forces by visiting the bunker lines and a kovil.
One moment to remember was when Wickremesinghe visited the hospital and spoke to the soldiers and pointed out that in the past, the hospital was filled with soldiers injured in battle whereas today it was illnesses caused due to playing volleyball on natural causes.
Wickremesinghe also used the opportunity to reassure the soldiers he would look after their interests, that of the country and never allow the disbanding of the security forces as pledged by JVP's Somawansa Amarasinghe.
Hardly 24 hours later, addressing a public rally in Maharagama, the UNP candidate spoke of the need to unite the Sinhalese and develop a southern consensus to solve the ethnic issue and bring permanent peace to the country, towards which Wickremesinghe said he hopes to bring the SLFP in to his government.
This repeated message was hitting home with the SLFPers and was cited as a reason for the Prime Minister's mainstay in the Hambantota District, Provincial Councillor Ajith Rajapakse crossing over last week to support the UNP.