People’s force or JO’s farce? | Daily News

People’s force or JO’s farce?

At the time of writing, the government and the Joint Opposition (JO) were bracing for a showdown on the streets of Colombo, with the latter planning a protest campaign, ‘Janabalaya Kolambata’ (literally, ‘Peoples Power to Colombo’), that was aimed at bringing large crowds to the capital.

The government has expressed its reservations against the protest, stating that law and order was at risk. Law and Order Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara stated that attempts may be made to storm institutions where documents relating to cases of corruption during the previous regime are stored.

Previously, three courts had rejected moves by the Police to restrict the protest. The Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court rejected a request made by the Cinnamon Gardens Police for a restraining order on the protestors from entering the roads adjacent to the President’s official residence in Colombo.

Similarly, a request by the Welikada Police to prevent the protestors from entering its jurisdiction was rejected by the Colombo Additional Magistrate and the Fort Magistrate’s Court rejected a request from Kollupitiya Police for a restraining order on protestors entering its Police division.

Protest against the government

This is not the first instance the JO is launching a mass scale protest against the government. In late July 2016, it staged a five-day protest march from Kandy to Colombo. The march was a moderate success in terms of participation but whether it had a lasting impact was debatable.

Yesterday’s march was aimed at fostering public opinion against the government. This is in the context of anticipating national elections shortly, with presidential elections due by January 2020 and general elections by August that year. Both elections could also be called earlier.

The JO has made no secret of the fact that, among the objectives of the march was to convince those members of the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) remaining with the government to break ranks with President Maithripala Sirisena and join hands with the JO.

Already, the so-called ‘group of sixteen’, parliamentarians who voted for a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in April, have quit the government and joined the opposition. Most of them have informally aligned themselves with the JO.

However, at least three of them- S. B. Dissanayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Thilanga Sumathipala- maintain a very close relationship with President Sirisena and have expressed the hope that they will be able to unite the two warring factions of the SLFP in time for the next national elections.

Dissanayake has gone so far as to suggest a ‘unity ticket’ for the elections, with President Sirisena running as the presidential candidate with Rajapaksa to be his Prime Minister designate in a government that would be formed. This idea though, has been pooh-poohed by both camps.

Dissanayake’s argument is that with the President and the Prime Minister being from the same party, they could work well together. They would also have the unified backing of a parliamentary group from a single political group instead of having to rely on support from two different parties.

Different political visions and allies

However, it has been noted that the personal chemistry between President Sirisena and Rajapaksa has never been great ever since the President quit Rajapaksa’s Cabinet in November 2014 and announced himself as the common candidate against Rajapaksa, surprising many in the then government.

Much has been made of the President’s recent visit to Rajapaksa’s ancestral home in Medamulana for the funeral of the latter’s brother, Chandra Rajapaksa. The duo had a very cordial meeting that lasted about half an hour. It was also attended by Chamal Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

However, the President’s associates say this was a courtesy call for a funeral and nothing more. To read anything more in to it and suggest that a rapprochement was imminent between President Sirisena and Rajapaksa would be too naïve and simplistic, they say.

The prospect of a joint Sirisena-Rajapaksa candidacy is also extremely remote because both of them will not relish the prospect of working with the other over a five year period. This is because they are individuals with different political visions and allies, though they are both from the SLFP.

President Sirisena’s associates note that his relationship with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe remains cordial although there have been times when there have been tensions between the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP), particularly during the no-confidence motion against the Premier.

They do not believe such a relationship would be possible between President Sirisena and Rajapaksa. This is because Rajapaksa has an authoritarian style of governance, President Sirisena prefers a more democratic and inclusive manner. Such a partnership would be conflict ridden, they say.

In the Rajapaksa camp, there are feverish moves to explore whether Mahinda Rajapaksa could run again for President, for a fourth time. His legal advisors are exploring whether the 19th Amendment, which imposes a two-term limit on individuals becoming President, applies to Rajapaksa as well. The JO argues that the 19th Amendment should not apply retrospectively and therefore will not disqualify Rajapaksa. It is very likely that the JO will canvass this matter before the Supreme Court. The head of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), G.L. Peiris has declared he will do so.

There appears to be consensus among most legal experts that such a move will not succeed. They note that the Supreme Court ruled that the five-year limit on the duration of office of the President, also introduced through the 19th Amendment, applied retrospectively to President Sirisena.

However, the fact that the JO is earnestly canvassing this before the highest court in the land betrays their thinking: given half a chance they will run their own race and they have no appetite for an alliance with President Sirisena. President Sirisena’s advisors say the feeling is mutual.

UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP

The JO also believes that, among the three major political alliances in the country- the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP- the SLPP has the upper hand now. This is based on their performance at the local government polls in February. As such, they see no need to form an alliance with the SLFP.

The UNP would, of course, be happy to ensure that the twain of the SLFP and the SLPP never meet. It is aware that the burden of incumbency has taken a heavy toll on its popularity. It is also frustrated that some of it development programmes are being thwarted by some SLFP elements in government.

It is in such a context that the political battle of wits is spilling on to the streets through the JO’s ‘Janabalaya Kolambata’ campaign. If the JO expects it to be a show of strength, the government and both its UNP and SLFP factions would be watching it closely to see what support the JO commands.

All parties are also very aware that masses at protests and rallies do not necessarily translate in to election victories. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2015 presidential election campaign consistently drew larger crowds than Maithripala Sirisena’s rallies but at the poll it was the silent majority that prevailed.

After all the noise and fury of yesterday’s street protest, it remains to be seen whether ‘Janabalaya Kolambata’ will be a turning point in the political equation or whether it will also be consigned to the limbo of forgotten things, as just another protest march. Time will tell.

 

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