A poll like no other! | Daily News

A poll like no other!

Local government polls are now due in nine days and the cacophony of political rhetoric has reached unparalleled levels for an election that will not change a government or elect a President. The poll will however determine future political alliances and strategies for all major political parties, hence the scramble for the vote of the average citizen.

Since President Maithripala Sirisena’s emotive outburst at a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago, the United National Party (UNP) and its parliamentarians have, for the most part, refrained from making direct references to the President. This follows instructions from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Meanwhile, President Sirisena has been campaigning on the theme of crusading against corruption. The President who has been outspoken regarding the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Central Bank bonds has now expanded the scope of his campaign speeches to include the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate and inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC).

The focus of the Central Bank bond inquiry was former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake and his alleged links with former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and his son-in-law and Director of Perpetual Treasuries Limited, Arjun Aloysius.

PRECIFAC reports

In contrast, the persons of interest identified in the PRECIFAC reports are parliamentarians and others loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa himself has been investigated. The Rajapaksa camp is contesting the local government election as the newly established Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Although there has been somewhat of a truce between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in their campaigns, it was clear that the President was keen to take his message to the public, especially with regard to the Central Bank bond sale. That is why, addressing a SLFP rally at Panadura he declared that “a coalition of VIP robbers” had met a residence at Borella and conspired to delay a parliamentary debate on the issue. The President also threw a challenge, daring the debate to be staged before the February 10 election.

As a result, the debate itself has now become a bone of contention. In what appeared to be a response to the President’s challenge, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe declared that the UNP was prepared to conduct the debate on February 8, two days before the local government election. However, the Premier was to say that the PRECIFAC reports should also be debated on that day.

“There is no issue in having a debate on the bond commission report as it is nothing new. We have had several debates on the bond issue,” the Prime Minister told a meeting in Deniyaya. The Prime Minister stated that the PRECIFAC report was more important. This was because it had recommended that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa be stripped of his civic rights, he said.

Former President Rajapaksa has also entered the fray, throwing a challenge for the debate to be held on February 7 instead of a day later, so it would not contravene election law. However, Rajapaksa was alluding only to a debate on the Central Bank bond inquiry and not to the PRECIFAC findings.

The other major opposition party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), was demanding that the President summon Parliament immediately using the executive powers at his disposal, without awaiting agreement from political parties.

Political party leaders

The Prime Minister’s offer to debate the Central Bank and PRECIFAC Commission reports placed the Elections Commission in a quandary. Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said this week that the day chosen for the debate falls within the ‘period of silence’ prior to the local government elections where all propaganda activities would have to cease. A Parliamentary debate on a topic with electoral sensitivity could have a bearing on the election, Deshapriya noted.

However the Elections Commission Chairman was quick to note that the Elections Commission had no authority or moral right to overrule the Supremacy of Parliament. “The Elections Commission cannot even think of doing it. There is no provision for it,” Deshapriya said.

A meeting between leaders of political parties represented in Parliament and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, with Deshapriya also in attendance, was held on Tuesday to resolve the issue where it was agreed that the debate would be held next Tuesday, February 6.

Meanwhile, other comments by President Sirisena have raised eyebrows in the corridors of power. For instance, in a meeting with media heads and newspaper editors last Friday, the President said that he had “not decided” whether he would run for President again.

The question had been dominating conversation in political circles, especially after the President referred the issue of the duration of his term of office to the Supreme Court, seeking a determination as to whether it was five years or six years. The Supreme Court determined it was the former.

“I have not decided whether to contest the next presidential elections or not. Yet, I will continue to do politics as long as I am alive. I am a political animal. It is in my genes. I will do politics with or without positions,” the President said.

While this explanation will not end speculation, it certainly indicates that the President is open to the proposition of running for office again. Previously, soon after assuming office and thereafter at the funeral of Maduluwawe Sobitha thera, he had pledged not to run for Presidential office again.

Another remark made by the President that attracted much attention was his remarks, at a campaign rally in Ratnapura, that he was prepared to form a SLFP government “even tomorrow” if all 96 parliamentarians elected through the SLFP-led coalition at the last general election stood by him. At present these 96 MPs are divided into two camps: 45 have pledged their support to President Sirisena while 51 remain loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Some have interpreted this remark, taken together with President Sirisena’s remarks over the Central Bank bond sale, to signal an imminent parting of ways between the two major partners in the government of National Unity, the UNP and the SLFP.

Local government elections

They point out that the Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties has not been formally renewed after it lapsed on December 31, 2017. The initial agreement, formulated in the aftermath of the 2015 August general election was for a period of two year but was extended in September 2017 until the end of the year but no further renewal has been undertaken in December.

Others however believe that the current verbal jousting between the UNP and the SLFP is merely part and parcel of electoral politics and that issues will “settle down” after the local government elections. There was similar banter in the lead up to the August 2015 general election but they didn’t escalate to the current level of acrimony because the SLPP didn’t exist then as a separate entity. Therefore, the President didn’t have to compete with the SLPP for SLFP votes, these analysts argue.

The other issue that is very likely to come to the fore in the coming days is the purported recommendation by PRECIFAC to strip former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of his civic rights. The SLPP has already protested loudly about this claiming that Rajapaksa has a wide public following and would become even more popular if this is done. That there will be much more discussion on this issue in the coming weeks is certain.

The next nine days will be fraught with much discussion, debate and divided opinion. This local government election will be like no other before it as political parties will be compelled to reflect on its outcome, take stock and reinvent their strategies as they look forward to the next major polls which could either be the provincial council elections or, in their absence, the next presidential election, now due at the end of next year. 


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