December 11, 2019
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    Strategic struggle for survival

    May 23, 2019

    Just over a month after the Easter Sunday bombings carried out by Islamic extremist terrorists, life in Sri Lanka is slowly returning to normal, despite subdued Vesak celebrations and crippled tourism industry. Meanwhile, the political fallout from the attacks is beginning to take shape, with both the government and the opposition weighing options in what is an election year.In the wake of the attacks, the opposition was quick to allege that the government would use the promulgation of emergency regulations as an excuse to postpone presidential elections. Some civil society groups known to be allied with the Joint Opposition (JO) were also making similar accusations.

    However, Chairman of the Elections Commission (EC), Mahinda Deshapriya was categorical in his assertion that the presidential polls, due later this year, would be held as scheduled. The EC will announce the presidential election in mid-October and hold the election between November 9 and December 9, Deshapriya said. “The Constitution dictates that the presidential election has to be held one month prior to the expiry of office of the incumbent President. The Constitution also says the election has to be announced at a minimum of fifteen days prior to the nomination day,” Deshapriya explained.

    “The EC is not bound to consult the legislature, executive or the government on matters related to the presidential election. Therefore, it has full independence to declare and conduct the election,” he said, pointing out that in the past, presidential elections had been conducted under emergency regulations and that this would not be an obstacle to holding the poll as scheduled.

    Despite the Easter Sunday attacks being the work of Islamic extremists with apparently no particular domestic political agenda, the bombings have had a significant impact on the political fortunes of the three major political parties in the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the de facto leader of which is Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

    Security negligence

    The admission by the highest echelons of the government- President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe- that they were unaware of the threat posed by the bombers, despite the country’s intelligence services being aware of them had led to accusations that the country’s security has been neglected and needless to say, this has had a negative impact on the popularity of both the SLFP and the UNP.

    On the other hand, the attacks have allowed former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to claim the moral high ground, harking back to the days when he held that office. Rajapaksa- who is now almost certain of being the SLPP’s presidential candidate barring any legal hiccups- is claiming that he was a more astute manager of the country’s security apparatus, even at the height of the Eelam war.

    The UNP’s response has been to suggest that former Army Commander and now parliamentarian Sarath Fonseka be appointed as Minister of Law and Order or the Minister of National Security so that security-related matters could be brought under his purview.

    Nearly one hundred UNP parliamentarians signed an appeal to this effect and submitted it to President Sirisena. Fonseka himself made two powerful speeches in Parliament where his acumen regarding security issues was in full display and earned the plaudits of even Mahinda Rajapaksa who acknowledged that he was among the more knowledgeable persons in government regarding matters related to national security. In these speeches, Fonseka, with his characteristic off-the-cuff, devil may care attitude, was not complimentary to the President who has reportedly declined the UNP parliamentarians’ suggestion.

    Meanwhile, the opposition is moving to sponsor motions of no confidence against the government, based on its conduct in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. The JO is moving a no-confidence motion against Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is sponsoring a motion of no confidence against the government for failing to avert the Easter Sunday attacks, despite receiving warnings from the intelligence services.

    The motion against Bathiudeen comes in the context of allegations that he had links to some family members of some of the Easter Sunday suicide cadres. Bathiudeen has strenuously denied these allegations and stated that he was prepared to face an inquiry in this regard, asserting that any links he had with the alleged attackers were -co-incidental, arose in the course of his duties as a minister and that he in no way supports their extremist agenda.

    The motion itself ran into some controversy when it emerged that the document submitted to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was erroneously dated May last year. Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella was quick to point this out, suggesting that the Speaker would have no alternative but to reject the motion because of this. However, this is an error that could be easily rectified and the motion is likely to be taken up for debate.

    “When the motion signed by 64 opposition MPs was handed over to the Speaker last Friday, it was placed in the Order Book. We will urge the Speaker to take up the motion in parliament on an early date,” JO parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila said, adding that a request has been made to Speaker Jayasuriya to allocate two days for the debate on the motion, which contains ten allegations against Minister Bathiudeen.

    Whatever the merits of the motion of no confidence against Minister Bathiudeen, it is useful as a political strategy. This is because parliamentarians are facing pressure from the electorates in an election year, with a general election also due to be called next year. At least some of them feel that they should respond to the concerns regarding national security if they are to retain public support.

    NCM against Bathiudeen

    Among them is State Minister for National Policies and Economic Affairs, Niroshan Perera. Perera stated that he would use his vote in favour of the no-confidence motion against Minister Bathiudeen if he does not resign from his ministerial post.

    State Minister Perera, who represents the Puttalam district in Parliament, said this was his own decision and was taken to get justice for the people who died and were injured during the Easter Sunday attack. The State Minister said that he had informed the government hierarchy of his decision. Whether Perera would defy party lines and indeed vote against Minister Bathiudeen remains to be seen.

    Meanwhile, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Wanni district parliamentarian Charles Nirmalanandan said that he would vote in favour of the no-confidence motion regardless of the stance adopted by the TNA. Nirmalanandan alluded to the fact that previously, ministers Ravi Karunanayake and Wijayakala Maheswaran had been removed from their portfolios when investigations were conducted against them but the same protocol has not been adopted against Bathiudeen.

    The UNP’s Muslim MPs have reportedly taken a collective decision to vote against the motion of no confidence. UNP parliamentarian Mujibur Rahaman described the motion as ‘frivolous’ and said the party’s MPs would not endorse it.

    It will be recalled that the ruling UNP does not have a simple majority in Parliament. It relies on the support of the sixteen TNA parliamentarians to have legislation passed. While this arrangement gives it a comfortable working majority in the legislature, if some of its own parliamentarians and those of the TNA were to defy party dictates and vote for the motion against Bathiudeen, the outcome could place the government in a precarious position.

    Meanwhile, the JVP has its own strategy, submitting a no-confidence motion against the government as a whole, citing its failure to prevent the Easter attacks. This too was submitted to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya this week and is awaiting the allocation of days for debate.

    However, this motion attracted criticism from the JO which alleged that while its own no-confidence motion against Minister Bathiudeen has succeeded in ‘splitting’ the government, the JVP’s motion has only resulted in government parliamentarians closing ranks.

    “There is visible division in the government. A faction of UNP parliamentarians have announced that they would vote in favour of the motion against Bathiudeen,” JO parliamentarian Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena noted and claimed that the actual purpose of the JVP’s motion was to bring the scattered government MPs together and uphold unity within the government. “This is not the first time that the JVP has acted on behalf of the government,” Abeywardena said.

    Sri Lanka’s return to normalcy has been slow and laboured since the April 21 attacks. There is a cloud of uncertainty regarding public security despite repeated assurances given by the Police and the Armed Forces.

    This is despite the rapid arrest of suspects and the unravelling of the terror network responsible for the Easter bombings. It will take time for average Sri Lankan to feel safe and secure once more.

    In that process, how the political landscape reshapes itself in the aftermath of the Easter attacks is of vital significance. Wittingly or unwittingly, the terrorists who masterminded the bombings have now left their indelible imprint on the nation’s next national elections.

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