May day; stirring dismay! | Daily News

May day; stirring dismay!

With May Day looming, political parties are making last minute preparations to put on a show- and vying with each other to draw the biggest crowds, so they could engage in one-upmanship with each other.

The ruling United National Party (UNP) will hold its rally at Campbell Park in Colombo but the main focus of attention will be the tug-of-war between the two factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)- and the warning shots in this battle appear to have been fired already.

The mainstream SLFP, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, will gather at Getambe in Kandy. The hill capital is a stronghold of the UNP, but being away from the main political events in Colombo, the SLFP’s organisers are confident of attracting a large gathering to demonstrate its political strength.

The Joint Opposition (JO) where former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the de-facto leader will hold its rally at Galle Face Green. Previously, this has been a venue preferred by ruling parties. President Sirisena, at a meeting with media heads last week, indicated that it was his decision to provide the prime location for the JO.

Earlier, media reported that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had instructed Police to facilitate security for the JO and for Rajapaksa in particular, at the venue. At the time, some suggested that the decision to provide the Galle Face Green to the JO was a ploy to expose its lack of support as they claimed the JO would not have the strength to muster a crowd that was large enough to fill the venue. Rajapaksa too was asked about this and replied confidently: “Come to Galle Face and see!”

May Day celebrations

However, the tussle for supremacy between the two factions of the SLFP was evident, days before the May Day celebrations, with President Maithripala Sirisena taking action to remove two SLFP organisers in the Kandy and Matale districts.

On Tuesday, former minister and SLFP senior vice president Janaka Bandara Tennakoon and parliamentarian Lohan Ratwatte were sacked from their posts of electoral organisers by President Sirisena. Janaka Bandara Tennakoon was the electoral organiser of Dambulla while Lohan Ratwatte was electoral organiser of Pathadumbara. They were replaced by Dambulla Trade Union leader U.R. Dayanandasiri and Provincial councillor W.M. Yasamanna respectively.

Incidentally both Tennakoon and Ratwatte have strong family ties with the SLFP. Tennakoon is the son of T. B. Tennakoon a colourful and controversial character who held the portfolios of Social Services and Cultural Affairs in the Cabinet of Sirima Bandaranaike from 1970 to 1977. Having entered Parliament as an SLFP member in 1956 he remained undefeated until 1977 when he was ousted by the UNP’s landslide win that year.

Lohan Ratwatte is the son of Anuruddha Ratwatte who was Minister of Power and Energy and also held the powerful position of Deputy Defence Minister in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Cabinet. Ratwatte (Snr) was also a cousin of Sirima Bandaranaike and, during the Kumaratunga years, spearheaded the military’s battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Both Janaka Bandara Tennakoon and Lohan Ratwatte have been controversial characters, albeit for different reasons. At the outset of the last presidential election campaign, on the day the then General Secretary of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena announced that he would be the common candidate of the opposition, Tennakoon made a controversial speech in Parliament saying the party had been taken hostage by drug-dealers and those who import ethanol. He said the traditional SLFP old guard had become helpless.

As a result, his name was also mentioned in media reports as a ruling party member who might cross over to the opposition ahead of the presidential election. That however, did not eventuate. After the election though, he did pledge his loyalty to President Sirisena, accepting the post of Minister of Provincial Councils and Regional Development in March 2015.

Rajapaksa’s camp

Yet, Tennakoon’s stint as a Cabinet minister was short-lived. In July, Tennakoon tendered his resignation in protest against President Sirisena’s nationally televised remarks that Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister, even if the SLFP emerged as the single largest party at the August 2015 general election.

In contrast, Ratwatte is controversial for different reasons. Having acquired a reputation as a politician who does not hesitate to use strong arm tactics, he was implicated in the shooting death of Papua New Guinean Rugby player Joel Pera twenty years ago on May Day in 1997 but was subsequently released due to lack of evidence. Four year later, in 2001, during elections, Ratwatte was implicated in the shooting deaths of ten Sri Lanka Muslim Congress supporters. He was again exonerated by courts due to lack of evidence.

It is no secret that both Tennakoon and Ratwatte are now firmly aligned with the JO and have hitched their wagon to Rajapaksa. Their dismissal from their electoral organiser posts will push them towards Rajapaksa’s camp even more.

At the ‘ceremony’ to hand over new electoral organiser positions, a few ministers were at hand. Among them were S.B. Dissanayake, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. Observers say that Minister de Silva let the cat out of the bag when he said he hoped the newly appointed organisers would work towards forming a SLFP government in 2020.

It was only two weeks ago that the President moved to quell discontent in the Kurunegala district by reshuffling the organisers there. Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera was appointed as the SLFP organiser for the Panduwasnuwara electorate after he insisted on being reinstated there. In a related reshuffle, Dharmasiri Dasanayake was appointed as the organiser for the Bingiriya electorate, Jayarathne Herath for the Polgahawela electorate and Lakshman Wandaruwa for the Kurunegala electorate.

Jayasekera, a former UNPer, was previously a Rajapaksa loyalist, supporting the former President during the presidential election campaign and hurling insulting remarks at candidate Sirisena. Now however he has had a change of heart and is firmly with the President.

The President’s move to appoint new organisers, with only a week to go for May Day, appears to be a strategic move to isolate the JO. The President is in firm control of the mainstream SLFP because he commands a majority of the party’s decision making body, the Central Committee, even if he does not command the support of a majority of parliamentarians elected under the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) banner. As such, nominations from the SLFP at a future election will be definitely under the President’s direction.

The underlying message therefore is that those who wish to align themselves with the JO and the Rajapaksa camp will need to seek nominations from another source. The JO itself is preparing for this eventuality, propping up the Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya (SLPP).

2015 election

In fact, at the JO’s May Day rally, the role of the SLFP and its traditional ‘hand’ symbol is likely to be deliberately understated and the SLPP maybe unveiled to the public. However it is no secret that the SLFP and the ‘hand’ symbol are potent factors which attracts a strong voter base. To what extent a fledgling party, even with Mahinda Rajapaksa leading it, can erode the SLFP’s hard core vote base remains to be seen.

There are also rumblings of dissent within the JO that the SLPP ‘project’ has been taken over by former Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The younger Rajapaksa, the omnipotent Minister of Economic Affairs in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, was much maligned in the aftermath of the 2015 election defeats and left the country.

Now he has returned and is fashioning the formation of the SLPP. Many SLFP seniors who attribute Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat to younger brother Basil’s actions are apprehensive that they would be sidelined- yet again. Some are promoting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as a more credible alternative and others are proposing Dinesh Gunawardena for a leadership role.

It is not that the UNP does not have its issues. Recent moves to appoint several deputy leaders for the party have been put on hold- at least until May Day- but the difficulties the UNP leadership has pale into insignificance in comparison to the travails of the SLFP. 



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May Day is Workers Day - not the Stupid Politicians Day

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