- Crowd at JO rally bigger than both UNP and SLFP rallies
- President, PM taking action to stop internal battles; joint meeting of parliamentary groups proposed
- High-powered committee of ministers and officials to prevent disruption of essential services
Believing there would be a poor turn-out, not enough to fill the vast space, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared the vast expanse by the sea close to the Colombo Fort area should be given to the ‘Joint Opposition’. Even more, he wanted former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s security ensured by the Police.
Days later, not to be outdone, President Maithripala Sirisena demonstrated that he too concurred with his Premier that the JO would not be able to muster large crowds. However, in a game of one-upmanship, he made clear it was he who was responsible for ensuring that the Galle Face Green was given to the ‘Joint Opposition.’ He told a meeting of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Ministers and some Provincial Chief Ministers, “I directed that their (‘JO’) request for the venue be allowed.” Empty spaces at the event, a sign that Rajapaksa was now politically weak and no longer had any following, would have become a slogan for both. Each vied to be the architect of the move.
Although the duo had access to reports from different intelligence agencies, not to mention at least some grassroots level organisations of their respective parties, both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe had underestimated the ‘Joint Opposition’. Not surprisingly though. In the near two and half years of the Government’s existence, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has given de facto leadership to the main Opposition, had not made a significant impact against the Government on any major issue. The exceptions, if any, were some of his utterances at public events. In an otherwise obscure political environment, it became clear Rajapaksa and his group have been earning the many bonus points from the Government’s misdeeds, inactions, the spiralling cost of living and even allegations of widespread corruption. His May Day rally showed the negative fallout has snowballed in his favour and bolstered his political stock-in-trade.
Some heads of state investigation agencies argue there was as much activity now than during the tenure of the Rajapaksa administration. The absence of action against any high profile case so far has seemingly absolved those in the previous regime. It had led to the feeling that they were only smear campaigns and won public sympathy for those accused. A wide variety of allegations aired publicly have not been matched with tangible action. A main cause has been the divisions within the Government. When one faction is in favour, it is thwarted by the other through many devious means.
Rajapaksa perhaps was sceptical too. This is why he wanted to fix the stage covered by a canopy in the middle of the Galle Face Green. That would have meant crowds standing on either side would give the impression of a larger turnout. However, the Police was not in favour of the move. They insisted that the stage should be on one or the other end of the Galle Face Green.
By Monday night, the news of substantial crowds at Galle Face Green jolted Government leaders. This is how a senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Minister, who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons, described it: “The turnout at the ‘JO’ rally was unexpectedly good and shows there is anti-Government feeling in the country. We have to accept that. This is food for thought. We should not underestimate what took place. The fact that they were able to muster a vast crowd and have a good media strategy makes them a force to reckon with. It is time we get our act together and stop criticising each other…..”
According to Surveyor General P.M.P. Udayakantha, the Galle Face Green (together with the adjacent roads) is 18 acres in extent. The Campbell Park, (where the United National Party (UNP) held its rally) was only 3.5 acres and the Municipal playground in Getambe (where the pro-Maithripala Sirisena SLFP rally was held) was only 2.5 acres, he told the Sunday Times. The extents itself give one an idea of the numbers each venue could hold. It also explains why Sirisena and Wickremesinghe believed the Joint Opposition parties would not be able to fill the Galle Face Green with crowds.
Government intelligence agencies estimated the crowd at Galle Face Green to be well over 100,000 perhaps equalling the crowds that had gathered during the visit to Sri Lanka by Pope Francis in January 2015. During that visit, the 40 foot wide Galle Face Centre Road (from the Galle Face Hotel roundabout end to near the Kingsbury Hotel) was blocked for use by the pontiff’s motorcade. However, during the ‘JO’ rally, crowds jam-packed the roads too. The UNP rally in Campbell Park, according to intelligence assessments, came a second with an estimated turnout of 45,000 whilst at Getambe the turnout was around 40,000.
Arrangements to bring in crowds for the UNP rally were well organised. Banners in the rear of buses hired from state run services bore the same template exhorting support for the winning party. Only the names of the organisers or MPs differed. However, a large number of buses particularly from the Negombo District were half full as they drove along the airport expressway free of toll charges. There was some disarray and the crowds originally expected at Getambe was lower. That proved wrong claims by SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake who said he had ensured payments were made for 2,000 buses to bring in crowds. If his claims were correct, the turnout should have been more than 100,000. That would have been an easy task for the Government since it has all the resources at its disposal. That apart, the estimated figures show that the crowds at Galle Face Green had surpassed both the UNP and the pro-Maithripala SLFP crowds put together. Therein lay the crunch.
It is not just the large crowds at the Galle Face Green that was cause for worry for Government leaders. Some took comfort in the perception that they would not all translate into votes at an election. However, as the SLFP minister conceded, it demonstrated the “anti-Government feeling in the country” or in other words the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance had become unpopular. Added to that, the turnout showed that the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), Rajapaksa’s alternative to the SLFP, had come to stay and now has a substantial following. Thus, the Sirisena-led SLFP is being pushed to a lower ranking. This is expected to exacerbate when party organisers who supported the SLPP are replaced in the coming weeks. If the UNP remains a strong entity notwithstanding issues within, quite clearly the SLFP organisations are cracking countrywide into two groups, the larger one now supporting Rajapaksa and the relatively smaller group backing Sirisena. Thus, it has turned out to be a good political harvest for the UNP.
The crowds at the Galle Face Green had come in private coaches and smaller vehicles since state run buses were not hired to SLPP. Most SLFP ministers and even MPs are conscious of what they believe are disturbing developments. Privately some of these SLFP ministers complained of not being able to obtain appointments with the leadership to discuss issues. One of them, who held key portfolios and positions in the previous administration and represents the Colombo District, told his confidants just two weeks earlier that he was considering quitting politics.
The initial response of the Government to the ‘May Day blues’ at the Galle Face Green appeared to be kneejerk. If Premier Wickremesinghe wanted Rajapaksa’s security ensured at the rally, after it was over, President Sirisena ordered the withdrawal of 42 Police officers, including an Assistant Superintendent, from his personal protection group as news trickled in of a massive gathering at the JO rally. “The Director of the Ministerial Security Division (MSD) sent a letter withdrawing these Police officers. The letter came past 5 p.m. on Tuesday asking them to withdraw before 9 p.m,” Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. He said he did not wish to make public comments on matters relating to his personal security. However, he said, “I cannot understand how threat perceptions against me have reduced immediately after the May Day. This smacks of political vengeance.” Orders also went out to state investigative arms to proceed with Court action against members of the Rajapaksa family in cases where probes have been concluded.
The turn of events at the Galle Face Green formed the subject of discussion at the weekly ministerial meeting last Tuesday. It was chaired by President Sirisena. Minister John Seneviratne was to raise issue over references to him at the UNP May Day rally. He said ‘ugly’ references have been made by Minister Rajitha Senaratne. Later President noted that even Minister Sarath Fonseka had made some controversial remarks.
Addressing the UNP rally at Campbell Park Senaratne said “……..the President recently remarked that Sarath Fonseka should be given the power to look into these issues. When they heard Sarath was coming, Rajapaksas were in fear. There is John, not our John Ameratunga. I am referring to John on the other side. He has got worried. He goes to Ratnapura and tells that he is going to join Mahinda in one month’s time. He comes to the Cabinet. He keeps one leg on the other side. We will bring them before justice…..”
Fonseka told the UNP May Day rally “……..Two weeks after we won the war (against Tiger guerrillas), Rajapaksa signed an agreement secretly with Ban Ki-moon (the then UN Secretary General) to punish those involved in war crimes. Then he said he would face the electric chair if any member of the armed forces was tried. For those betrayals, he should be hanged from his satakaya (or shawl) and not placed on an electric chair….”
Minister Seneviratne told the ministerial meeting that he had no links with Rajapaksa or his group. He said the claim made by his colleague Senaratne was wrong and asserted he was with the Government. He said he had joined the Government with a strong conviction. Senaratne, however, was not at the meeting. He was in Singapore for a routine medical check-up following his by-pass surgery a few months ago. Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera insisted that such personal attacks should stop. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera noted that “our concern” should not be Rajapaksa. He said “we must do what needs to be done.”
Other than the turnout at the Galle Face Green, the issues raised by Seneviratne came as cause for concern for President Sirisena. He was worried that the issue reflected the sharpening of an internecine conflict between the UNP and the SLFP faction that backed him. They were sniping at each other. He declared that he agreed with Foreign Minister Samaraweera at the ministerial meeting that criticising each other would not help. He said it would only strengthen the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp. Sirisena said that the formation of the Government was a historic feat. They have been able to co-exist. As far as May Day rallies are concerned, he said, one should not talk about the others.
President Sirisena declared that there was a huge crowd for the SLFP rally at the Getambe playground in Kandy. It was larger than the crowds that turned up for the previous May Day rally in Galle. Minister Samaraweera interjected to say that the UNP rally at Campbell Park was larger than the previous year too. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said that the SLFP rally drew very large crowds and the processions were moving on two fronts while the meeting went on. President Sirisena said it was with sorrow (kanagatuwen prakasha karanawa) that he did not endorse the references made by the two ministers — Senaratne and Fonseka. At this stage Minister Malik Samarawickrema declared that in his capacity as the Chairman of the UNP, neither he nor the party endorsed the views expressed by these ministers. He said he would express regrets on behalf of the party over such utterances. Quite clearly, the issue had to be raised at the weekly ministerial meeting for UNP Chairman Samarawickrema to express regrets. Until then, the two ministers had not been told that what they said was in bad taste.
Sirisena is aware that a Council of Ministers representing both the UNP and the SLFP was in place to discuss issues related to the two sides. This included even matters of policy or differences of opinions over major issues. In addition, both he and Premier Wickremesinghe met ahead of every weekly ministerial meeting to discuss any outstanding issues. Sirisena now wanted a third mechanism in place. He proposed that the parliamentary groups of both the SLFP and the UNP meet together regularly so any issues that crop up could be discussed. That way, he noted, there would be no room for any misgivings. Moreover, there were also one-on-one meetings between the two regularly when the necessity arose. At present the parliamentary group meetings of the SLFP and the UNP are held separately.
Remarks by Minister Senaratne, the official spokesperson after the previous week’s (April 25) weekly ministerial meeting were to cause considerable confusion. During a discussion on impending strikes at that meeting, Minister Fonseka suggested the formation of a ministerial subcommittee. He volunteered to be a member or even head it. Perhaps in a lighter vein, Sirisena asked Fonseka whether he would like to head the body as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This post is held by a senior-most serving officer of the armed forces with command authority over the chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. For operational purposes, the Police are also included occasionally. On no occasion in the past has a politician been appointed to this high office.
Sirisena’s idea, whether it was a joke or not, appears to be to use the highly controversial military strongman to deal with the strikes or demonstrations and those responsible for them. The events that followed showed that even a joke is a serious thing. Other than the suggestion, there was no decision on any ministerial subcommittee either last week or the previous one. Nevertheless, the ministers decided to appoint a high-powered Committee of ministers and officials. The appointments will be made by President Sirisena after consultation with Premier Wickremesinghe to ensure essential services are not disrupted. The record was set right at a news conference yesterday by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. He said the committee is yet to be named.
Minister Senaratne not only announced the move to make Fonseka CDS at the media briefing that follows ministerial meetings but Fonseka took it seriously too. He was making public comments on his ability to deal with issues. The remarks were to resonate in different sectors including the military, police, the Colombo based diplomatic community and opposition political parties. It was not welcome news for most of them. There were serious apprehensions. There is a paradox in Sirisena’s suggestion, either jokingly or otherwise. Soon after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, then President Rajapaksa declared Fonseka was “the greatest Army Commander in the world.”
What is less known is the fact that the President Sirisena has also conferred a world record on Fonseka. He was made Field Marshal. Fonseka designed his own ceremonial uniform and baton for that role. He wears the regalia for military events including those attended by President Sirisena, who is Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. He salutes him whilst others in the military salute the Field Marshal. At other times he is in national dress as a parliamentarian and Minister. Nowhere in the world does such a dual military-politico position exist in a democracy.
It was not only at Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting that the ‘Galle Face May Day blues’ figured. Immediately after that meeting, Premier Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group at ‘Temple Trees’. There was a detailed discussion. That was to reflect the concerns of several UNP parliamentarians who cheered at the utterances of their colleagues.
State Minister Ajith Perera opened the salvo by declaring that the party has been totally unprepared. There was no development activity and no jobs were being given in the electorates. He said if there were proper arrangements, they could have brought larger crowds too for the May Day. The party media team, if there was one, was inactive. There were no good photographs of their rally. He said “if we go like this, we have to be prepared to lose. There would be dire consequences if Rajapaksa was to return.
Harshana Rajakaruna urged that the party should not propagate wrong things. They were talking of providing one million jobs though they were unable to give even ten. Deputy Minister Sujeeva Senasinghe said he was disappointed but claimed “we are not defeated.”
Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahman said “we are frightened to lose an election” and something had to be done. The remarks angered Premier Wickremesinghe who was in the chair. He said “if you are frightened, you should not wait. You can leave now.” Foreign Minister Samaraweera said he would “accept one hundred percent” that there was a large turnout at the Galle Face Green. “Don’t belittle or underestimate Rajapaksa,” he declared adding that “we should not be frightened.” He pointed out that Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka had told Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting that the opposition was bent on creating a crisis situation for the Government.” He said that the best way to deal with these anti-democratic activity was to act resolutely. There was a loud applause.
The Sunday Times asked Minister Kabir Hashim, General Secretary of the UNP, for his views on the large turnout for the ‘JO’ rally at the Galle Face Green. Despite assurances to provide his party’s response, he backed out. Calls and SMS messages to him were not answered. However, UNP leader Premier Wickremesinghe was upbeat. “Going by the crowds today at our rally, we are confident we can face the challenge of any election,” he declared during his May Day speech. He said the “public should give us time” to “gain economic stability” and declared “we need to improve the export market.” Wickremesinghe said the Rajapaksas believed that “we would not be able to revive the economy” and now he says he would capture power in two Vesak Poyas. “That will not take place in two centuries,” he added.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, now leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), said that the Government had challenged him to fill the Galle Face Green. “We took that challenge and proved we can do it. He told the Sunday Times, “I was pleased to see Sinhalese mixing in harmony with Muslims and Tamils at our rally. There were professionals like doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants — a broad cross section of society. It shows that people were fed up with this Government which has imposed great hardships on them. The economy is in a perilous state.
“The Government should accept my challenge and hold local government elections. But they will not. When we make the request, they shiver,” he added. He accused the Government of selling national assets, which none had done before to this extent, he pointed out.
That the large turnout at the Galle Face Green last Monday has come as a wakeup call to the Government is in no doubt. There is also little doubt, judging by their reactions, that both the SLFP and the UNP are shaken by the developments. The reactions of Ministers and MPs of both sides underscore this.
Most immediate measures to reverse the situation lay in the hands of President Sirisena who leads the Government. Long before May Day, for the past many months, he has been telling the nation of a cabinet re-shuffle. The last occasion was at a meeting of state and private media heads. He told them he would effect changes ahead of the Vesak Poya (next Wednesday). That would include shifting of officials too. It is just two more days to go. He has only Monday or Tuesday to carry out his pledge before Vesak Poya — either tomorrow or on Tuesday. Whether he would do so ahead of UN-backed international conference on Vesak is a critical question. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the chief guest for the event. In the wake of recent developments, sections of the Government believe Sirisena may not effect a re-shuffle.
The idea behind the proposed ministerial changes, even before the emergence of ‘Galle Face blues,’ was clear. Sirisena had acknowledged the need for change since there were many issues concerning ministers whose portfolios he has earmarked to be shifted around. He was also conscious that there was public discontent and a multitude of allegations were being levelled against them. Other than that, there are the many presidential election pledges, including the promise to crackdown on corruption.
During his May Day address in Getambe, Sirisena declared that he had made the SLFP a democratic party. “I was then the General Secretary of the party. Were there any voices then at ministerial meetings? The SLFP is an ‘open party’ today”. He said internal democracy had been established. He said he had not come there to make spaces for family members. There are no princes in the SLFP youth organisation today. “We have to move forward as a clean social democratic party, based on local ideology, free of fraud, corruption, waste, theft, as well as political dynasties. I have established these core values,” he said.
Apart from other issues, Sirisena also has to address the all-important issue of Fiscal Adjustments and Reforms towards a sustainable level of debt. These measures, essential on the medium to long term, are those difficult to implement. They lead to political unpopularity and discontent among civil society. That calls for alternatives like divestment of non- strategic/underutilised Government assets, another area where there is a hot bed of controversy. According to the Public Debt Department of the Central Bank, Foreign Currency Denominated debt service payment from this year to 2020 is over four billion dollars every year.
All in all, the challenges faced by President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe are increasing. One need hardly say that winning hearts and minds of the people amidst other economic and development woes becomes a priority for both. The question is whether it is a bridge too far.