Where from here, presidential polls?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

After meeting with Narendra Modi while in New Delhi for his second swearing-in, President Maithripala Sirisena announced that the Indian Prime Minister would be visiting Sri Lanka as his second overseas destination after Maldives, and early on. Maldivian media reports, quoting their officials, had said that PM Modi would visit their country in the second week of June.

Sirisena also said that the presidential poll in the country would be held on 7 December. If his twin announcements were to stir up Colombo, no one really cared. Or, those who cared had already commenced processes to isolate him. Some may have had political motives, but some others have had only personal honour to uphold, in pointing fingers at Sirisena.

Topping the list of course is Inspector-General of Police (IG), now on ‘compulsory’ leave, blaming Sirisena for the Easter blasts, in a way. Challenging his ‘temporary removal’ from the IG’s job in the aftermath of ‘intelligence failure’ to check the blasts, Pujith Jayasundara has moved the Supreme Court, claiming that the President had stuck his name off for the weekly meetings of the National Security Council (NSC).

Jayasundara also discussed the top police structure and allocation of work, and how it kept his office out of serious decision-making on the ‘IS investigations’ front of any kind. It’s for the President and other respondents in the case to present their own cases to the Supreme Court, but it will all be on record, for the nation to discuss and debate in the TV talk-shows even more.

It’s all about ‘accountability’ within the police structure, going all the way up to the level of President Sirisena, if not Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, too. It’s the kind of ‘accountability’ issues that have dogged the armed forces in the aftermath of ‘Eelam War IV’ and UNHRC resolutions in Geneva.

Ironically in this case, some in the police force may be asking themselves if they did fair by the larger ‘security forces’ by arresting senior personnel, both incumbents and veterans, going all the way up to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Adm Ravindra Wijegunaratne. If some of them compare, how war-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa put his job on the line in terms of ‘accountability’ then, and how Sirisena stopped with sacking Defence Secretary Hemsiri Fernando and forcing out IG Jayasundara on ‘compulsory leave’, that’s how the human mind works.

Loses first round

At a public function in native Polonnaruwa , President Sirisena declared that there was no question of Sri Lanka giving a military base to any country. The declaration came long after the US envoy in Colombo, saying the same thing regarding reported American interest in the matter. Amb Alaina B. Teplitz had said that there was no question of the US seeking or wanting a base in Sri Lanka. It made sense as Diego Garcia is close for them.

If the reference was to the Indian neighbour, India has more bases of its tri-Services along the southern coast and hinterland within the nation’s territory, with the result seeking one is Sri Lanka would be both unwise and uneconomical. It is very much so about Maldives too, but then if ‘extra-regional powers’ were to meddle in the shared Indian Ocean waters, New Delhi would have its own concern. Such concerns do not seem to arise just now.

It is ironical that Sirisena should be talking about ‘foreign troops’ when the national debate is on ‘foreign terrorists’ –- or, terrorists with an ‘imported’ ideology or even techniques of the IS in this case. The debate is now also about fixing ‘political accountability’ for the ‘IS links’ of the Easter terror-blasts, for which there is acknowledged intelligence input from a ‘friendly nation’, that is India.

With the President’s chosen men in two Governors, Asath Saley (Western Province) and M L A M Hizbullah (Eastern Province) quitting office, so very reluctantly and so very late in the day, Sirisena has lost the first round of the political battle on that score. With that Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera ending his fast of the past days following these resignations, it remains to be seen what awaits the Prime Minister’s camp in the face of the Buddhist monk-politician’s demand for sacking Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.

In the midst of it all are the reports about former President Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting PM Wickremesinghe at the latter’s ‘Temple Tree’ office. The irony in the context is striking, considering the past, both of the mid and more recent terms. As is known, Wickremesinghe and Sirisena joined hands to remove Rajapaksa as President in Elections-2015. In October 2018, Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe, only to make Rajapaksa the Prime Minister.

The message is becoming clearer. Wickremesinghe’s UNP-UNF and Rajapaksa’s SLPP-JO seem wanting to tell all stake-holders that they alone matter in Sri Lanka’s politics and elections. The greater relevance pertains to the upcoming presidential polls, anyway due by December.

Forgotten agenda

Before the Easter blasts, Sirisena did try to gain certain political mileage through his overnight campaign against drug-smuggling, and reintroducing death penalty in the country, after decades. He was said to have signed the death-warrants of the early few, and was also expected to gain certain sympathy from women voters especially.

Post-blasts, no one is talking about drugs, though the security searches and combing operations could well unearth some of the hidden cache, and also force those involved into semi-retirement at least for a minute. The problem for Sirisena is that no one but the self wants him as President.

For the UNP, post-blasts, there are a lot of candidates for the presidency, but none possibly after the blasts. For the Rajapaksas, they are the candidates and they are also the problem for one another, until they are able to throw a common name and campaign together.

Given that the Rajapaksas have always got their 45 percent vote-share and still want another five percent to touch the cut-off mark in the presidential elections, they need a Rajapaksa who can bring it in, post-blasts. It can be Mahinda R in reality but under the Constitution he cannot have it, post-19-A.

Who is the Rajapaksa cat and who is going to bell the cat, when and how? That is the question, yes, but then, even in a ‘second preferential vote’ situation, they have a better chance than any other party or any other candidate, possibly including a non-Rajapaksa of their own choice.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)


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