MIDWEEK REVIEW

Does SF’s unexpected move portend confrontation?

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Sarath Fonseka

During a violent protest campaign to oust President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka threw his weight behind the project. Fonseka was the only parliamentarian allowed to address large crowds as they gathered near the President’s House on the morning of 09 July, 2022. The Field Marshal didn’t mince his words when he urged the military not to crack down on violent public protests, obviously staged by outside forces with financial and other resources, to oust the then government. Overwhelmed by the massive gathering, the Army quietly abandoned the President’s House, paving the way for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s succession, on whose orders the military then swiftly cleared the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat and other government buildings. Now Sarath Fonseka wants to take on the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government. The People’s Revolution is meant to inspire a countrywide protest campaign. But the task seems difficult in the absence of an environment conducive for such a project without the clandestine backing of outside elements.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, MP, recently declared his intention to chart a new political course amidst continuing turmoil in the Opposition. The war-winning Army Chief, 72, on 11 August, launched a campaign of his own, at the expense of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), as further differences emerged in the breakaway UNP faction. How could Gampaha District SJB lawmaker Fonseka, the current Chairman of the party, initiate a protest campaign, dubbed ‘People’s Revolution,’ targeting waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement?

The Sinha Regiment veteran declared that the national economy couldn’t be restored, under any circumstances, unless the utterly corrupt governance system was done away with.

The protest, held outside Viharamahadevi Park, drew a mixed crowd. The deployment of a sizable police contingent, backed by anti-riot squads and water cannons, was meant as a warning sign not to test the government’s will. The writer quite comfortably felt that the protesting group didn’t have the intention of blocking the road, or marching on any government building. Some displayed placards demanding proper implementation of the ‘Aswesuma’ social security scheme, leave EPF and ETF out of the debt-restructuring process, and media freedom.

The former Yahapalana minister Fonseka seemed alone in that crowd in the absence of any other known face. The SJB Chairman appeared to have lost faith in his own party, struggling to counter President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Regardless of his own party being reduced to just one National List slot (Wajira Abeywardena) at the last parliamentary election, Wickremesinghe has managed to consolidate his position in Parliament.

MP Fonseka’s move should be examined taking into consideration the presidential election due next year. Would parliamentarian Fonseka consider himself as a candidate at the next presidential election? Having served as Regional Development, as well as Minister of Wildlife and Sustainable Development, during the Yahapalana administration (January 2015-November 2019), is he really interested in another go at the presidency. Or will it be used as a bargaining chip to join the increasingly confident possible UNP-SLPP future government. Remember the old adage there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics. Garadihewa, as his name denotes, is from a true warrior stock, and, with a sixth sense in battle, he no doubt proved his mettle by leading the fight to defeat the world’s most ruthless terror outfit against the advice of all pundits, and carried out the war even after the Tigers nearly killed him in his own den with a suicide bomber, who inflicted life threatening injuries on him.

In our humble opinion, may be Fonseka should have quit when he was far ahead with an almost unblemished record as a General. Now this once true lion, having jumped headlong into the political cesspit, is no longer fighting brave tigers, but many more two legged hyenas, jackals and whatnot.

Similarly, see what has happened to our erstwhile cunning comrades in the JVP, FSP and their trade union cabal. Remember they were ready to lay down their lives for the country, but are now more like kittens as if on cue from Uncle Sam, despite New Delhi and Washington clearly running roughshod over us. Even Comrade Kumar Gunaratnam seems to be enjoying the best of both worlds in Australia and Sri Lanka. We should not also forget the NGO quislings, who clearly know on which side their bread is buttered.

The protest at Viharamahadevi Park gravely underscored the war veteran’s dissatisfaction at the way the SJB is addressing the burning issues. The brief but fiery speech delivered there meant that he didn’t have faith in the top management of the party. It would be pertinent to mention that in the run-up to the last presidential election, in 2019, Fonseka, on numerous occasions, declared that he was prepared to contest that election if Ranil Wickremesinghe was not in the race. Then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, too, indicated his desire and was chosen by a group of academics as the best challenger to SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But MP Fonseka’s overtures were ignored. Maybe Fonseka felt he could contest the presidential poll.

Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka contested the January 2010 presidential election as the common candidate. Having spearheaded the Army-led all-out offensive to defeat Tiger terrorism, during a three-year-long campaign, backed by the Navy and Air Force, Fonseka declared his intention to contest the first national level election, after Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, in May 2009. Fonseka had the backing of a US-led coalition that consisted of the UNP, TNA, JVP and the SLMC. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the UNP and JVP forming a political alliance. In their haste to bring the Rajapaksa presidency to an end, they quite conveniently forgot that their partner, the TNA, served the separatist LTTE agenda until the very end. They disregarded how the TNA recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people in 2001 and set the stage for the final showdown, eight years later.

But, Sri Lanka’s greatest ever Army Commander couldn’t deprive Mahinda Rajapaksa of a second consecutive term. Rajapaksa polled 1.8 mn votes more than Fonseka, though the latter comfortably secured all the predominantly Tamil speaking districts, including Digamadulla, thanks to the TNA’s support. The SLMC also played a crucial role in the East on his behalf.

The then General Fonseka’s performance in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts proved beyond any doubt that unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, propagated by interested parties, didn’t hold water.

SJB’s woes

MP Fonseka seems to have distanced himself from the SJB, struggling to cope up with defections and its failure to reach consensus on a common strategy. The elevation of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the President, in July last year, to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, has undermined not only the SJB but the SLPP that elected him.

Wickremesinghe lured SJB MPs Manusha Nanayakkara (Galle district) and Harin Fernando (National List) to accept Cabinet portfolios in May 2022. They switched sides immediately after Wickremesinghe accepted the premiership from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In spite of their treachery, the government couldn’t entice other members of the SJB parliamentary group. Nanayakkara and Fernando, having repeatedly accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa of being the direct beneficiary of the April 2019 Easter Sunday carnage, joined his government without qualms. In the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa being forced to flee the country, due to a well-organized violent campaign to oust him, with massive protests, while law enforcers merely stood by idly, in July 2020, Nanayakkara and Fernando joined Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet.

MP Fonseka has declared his intention to contemplate a different path in the wake of two more elected on the SJB ticket, namely Kumara Welgama (Kalutara district) and Patali Champila Ranawaka (Colombo district) seeking to chart their own courses. Welgama and Ranawaka launched the Nawa Lanka Nidahas Pakshaya and the United Republican Front in 2020 and May this year, respectively.

The SJB won 54 seats, including seven National List slots, at the parliamentary election. Even before the SJB settled down, as the main Opposition party, one of its NL members, first time entrant to Parliament, Diana Gamage, switched her allegiance to the SLPP. Diana Gamage didn’t even bother to hide her contempt for the top SJB leadership when she declared her support to the controversial 20th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in late October 2020. She simply dismissed the SJB’s decision to vote against that Amendment, meant to further strengthen the executive, as irrelevant. Further deterioration of the SJB parliamentary group can be disastrous as Wickremesinghe steps up pressure on the breakaway faction, ahead of the presidential election.

Fonseka switched allegiance to Sajith Premadasa immediately after the UNP split that followed SP’s heavy defeat at the presidential election. Fonseka contested the last general election on the SJB ticket, amidst simmering controversy over the circumstances under which the then Election Commission allowed the Ape Jathika Peramuna to be named as Samagi Jana Balawegaya in 2020. Diana Gamage’s husband, Senaka de Silva formerly of the Army, had been a one-time influential member of General Fonseka’s staff when he contested the 2010 presidential poll. The cashiered junior Army officer had been the leader of Ape Jathika Peramuna at the time the breakaway UNP faction, under Sajith Premadasa’s leadership, negotiated for the taking over of that party. In the wake of MP Diana Gamage voting for the 20th Amendment, a major issue erupted after the SJB demanded an explanation from her as to why she voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s amendment, regardless of the party decision to move against it. Diana Gamage threatened to take back the party. The bone of contention is whether Diana Gamage could have taken things for granted just because her husband gave up his party for the benefit of Sajith Premadasa’s group.

SP declares his prez candidature

In May this year, the SJB hurriedly named its leader, Sajith Premadasa, as its presidential candidate. The party announced the decision on May 16, following a meeting of its decision-making Working Committee. The announcement was made in the wake of speculation that President Wickremesinghe contemplated introducing a simple amendment to pave the way for presidential election. Declaring that there was no one they could have faith in, except party leader Sajith Premadasa, former UNP MP Sujeewa Senasinghe proposed their leader as the presidential candidate. One-time State Minister and SJB Gampaha District MP Harshana Rajakaruna made a joint proposal in this regard that received the unanimous approval of the Working Committee. A one-page statement, issued by the SJB soon after the meeting, said that MPs S.M. Marikkar and Chamindra Wijesiri, Rehan Jaywickrema and President’s Counsel Upul Jayasuriya and several others appreciated the Working Committee decision.

Did the SJB at least unofficially consult other political parties, which contested under its symbol at the last parliamentary poll, before the announcement on the 2024 presidential candidate was made? The SJB cannot afford to ignore efforts made by the SLMC and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) to pave the way for a consensus between the SJB and President Wickremesinghe. The SLMC and three political parties, represented in the TPA, contested the last general election on the SJB ticket, therefore the main Opposition party should be mindful of the interests of its constituents. Its failure to address the concerns of partners, as well as individual members, can be quite catastrophic ahead of the next presidential election.

President Wickremesinghe stands to gain by the SJB’s shoddy approach to the next presidential election, followed by parliamentary polls. Undeterred by being reduced to just one seat in the 225-member Parliament, the UNP leader seemed quite convinced of his chances at the next presidential election with the backing of a section of the SLPP parliamentary group. A debilitating SLPP split is now almost certain with Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera openly declaring his support for the UNP leader. The Matara district parliamentarian is on record as having said that the majority of the SLPP parliamentary group supported President Wickremesinghe’s candidature. Lawmaker Wijesekera has repeatedly declared that though the UNP and the SLPP currently carried out meetings separately, a tie-up between the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe is inevitable.

If Wijesekera is proved right, the main contenders at the next presidential election would be UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. If that happened, the electors would face the challenging task of choosing one as essentially the two leaders’ economic strategies won’t clash. Would Wickremesinghe’s current policies be acceptable to the SLPP? Perhaps the UNP leader is not looking at a formal agreement with the SLPP but a consensus with a sizable breakaway group ready for its chances with the UNP leader. Whatever the bombastic declarations made by Wickremesinghe’s depleted group, the UNP hadn’t been able to engineer crossovers from the SJB as intended. Over a year after receiving the presidency, Wickremesinghe hadn’t been able to win over a single SJB MP. Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando switched allegiance to the government at a time Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the President. Facts are stubborn. In fact, the President totally depends on the SLPP for his survival in Parliament. Their relations are in deepening crisis due to the inordinate delay on the part of the President to accommodate SLPP nominees in his Cabinet. That particular SLPP request has been on the backburner for over 11 months. That is the truth.

With the JVP-led Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB) certain to field a candidate of its own, the rebel SLPP group (Prof. G.L. Peiris-DA [Dallas Alahapperuma] led 12-member group) plus Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya, too, would be compelled to contest, thereby causing further setback to the Opposition effort. The decision-makers will have to examine two key issues: (1) can there be an understanding among the GL Peiris-DA led group and Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya? And (2) is there a likelihood of an alliance involving the SJB, SLPP rebels, including Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya?

Tough times

Having lost badly to Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 presidential election, Fonseka sought to contest the general election on the UNP ticket on his terms. Wickremesinghe however swiftly rejected Fonseka’s move. That prompted Fonseka to contest the election, under the JVP-led Democratic National Alliance (DNA) ticket. It was nothing but an odd marriage of convenience. The DNA managed to secure seven seats. The DNA parliamentary group consisted of Sarath Fonseka, Arjuna Ranatunga (no longer in active politics), Tiran Alles (National List/the incumbent Public Security Minister) and four JVPers, including incumbent leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The subsequent arrest of Fonseka and denial of his parliamentary seat under questionable circumstances prompted the war hero to form the Democratic Party aka DP. That party suffered a catastrophic setback in its debut at the 2015 general election with its leader Sarath Fonseka failing to get elected from Colombo. The DP couldn’t poll 30,000 votes countrywide. Fonseka’s party couldn’t at least secure a National List seat and was relegated to history. However, Yahapalana Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe rescued the former Army Chief by accommodating him on his National List. Fonseka was brought into Parliament on the UNP National List, in early 2016, and accommodated in the Cabinet of Ministers, though Wickremesinghe simply ignored calls to appoint him the Law and Order Minister.

Could Fonseka have averted the 2019 Easter Sunday attack if he was tasked with the Law and Order Ministry? At the time of the Easter Sunday suicide attacks, Ranjith Madduma Bandara served as the Law and Order Minister. Fonseka suffered due to his running disputes with the then President Maithripala Sirisena who strongly opposed giving that particular portfolio to the wartime Army Chief under any circumstances. They failed to iron out differences though Sarath Fonseka was granted the Field Marshal’s rank during Sirisena’s tenure as the President. Sirisena owed a public apology for his failure to award the same to Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Marshal Roshan Goonatilleke.

The 2019 presidential poll campaign saw UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa declaring Fonseka as the Defence Minister, if he ended up victorious.

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