Game Of Thrones SL Version: Maithri Takes Early Lead In Headline-making

A week into the presidential campaign, the common opposition, led by candidate Maithripala Sirisena, has shown progress on some fronts while experiencing certain setbacks internally.

The major progress on the part of the common opposition during the first week of the campaign is taking an early lead in the propaganda war – which plays an important role when determining the final result of the election. At this stage, the opposition is making headlines in the mainstream media every single day, putting the government and its propaganda mechanism on the backfoot. That was one reason why the common opposition did not want the SLFP defectors to cross over en masse to the opposition, along with Maithripala Sirsena and Rajitha Senaratne. In the face of headline-making developments in the opposition camp occurring almost on a daily basis, the propaganda mechanism of the government has gone into a “lull” of some sort – so to speak. This underscores the fact that the government’s propaganda machination should bounce back fast where the mainstream media is concerned – without confining itself to Facebook pages and several gossip websites that have been started afresh, ahead of the presidential election.  

What gave the opposition the advantage of going ahead of the curve was nothing but Maithripala Sirisena’s sudden defection which took everyone by surprise. Even the top echelons of the ruling party were caught by surprise when Sirisena chose to join the opposition to become the common candidate, just a day after the Elections Commissioner announced the presidential election. Therefore, the campaign material the ruling party had been preparing– probably over the past few months – had to be changed with Maithripala’s candidature. Not only did it require more time, the entire re-designing process also involved a higher cost.

As for the main opposition party, they were preparing a “generic” campaign from the outset. The media room at the opposition leader’s office had all the slogans up on the wall without the name of the candidate and his photograph. Everyone knew that a common candidate was arriving, but no one knew who he was. So, it was only a matter of inserting the candidate’s name and his picture into a campaign that had already been designed! One has to give that credit to the opposition leader who narrated a brilliant script until the very end – deceiving everyone, including his closest associates. While pretending to be positioning himself as the presidential candidate of the party, Wickremesinghe has been conducting secret negotiations with Maithripala Sirisena, a powerful minister of the government and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Also, the United National Party has been saving money and energy for the final phase of the battle – something the UNP National Leader has been saying over the past two years. So it was one occasion when Wickremesinghe clearly demonstrated his political acumen and astuteness in formulating strategies. 

In response, President Mahinda Rajapaksa too made a smart move soon after Maithripala Sirisena’s exit mainly to prevent more defections from the SLFP, especially before and after the third reading vote on the budget. The President, who is a smart politician by all means, managed to get the list of SLFP defectors which was given to UNP National Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. In other words, someone, who is working under the nose of the common opposition, leaked the list to President Rajapaksa.

The President, following this development, personally contacted each and every ruling party MP whose name was on that list to assure that he would look into their grievances. The way President Rajapaksa approached the problem prevented the crossovers that were scheduled to take place on the day the third reading vote of the budget was taken. That was why the seniors of the UPFA, who addressed two press conferences over the weekend, told that there would be no crossovers in the future. Almost all the ‘possible’ SLFP defectors, when contacted by the President, pledged to support him at the forthcoming presidential election. This was certainly a setback for the stalwarts of the common opposition who were expecting at least five ruling MPs switch camps during the third reading vote of the budget. 

With this unexpected development, the opposition resorted to a new strategy of approaching ruling party members on an individual basis. According to highly placed opposition sources, this new strategy has shown some success although it has not produced tangible results so far. However, on Monday, Wanni District UPFA MP Hunais Farook, joined the opposition at a public meeting that was held at ‘Sirikotha’ the UNP headquarters. It was also revealed that two Cabinet ministers and one highly popular female provincial councilor of the ruling party had held discussions with the opposition for a possible crossover. 

One of the two Cabinet Ministers, who is ready to join the opposition, is Navin Dissanayake, the son of the late Gamini Dissanayake and the son in law of UNP Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya. According to highly placed political sources, Dissanayake is to announce his move tomorrow at a press conference that will also be attended by several parliamentarians of the United National Party. It was also reported that another Cabinet Minister, who was brought into politics from a ‘popular industry’ by the former President in 1994, was also holding secret discussions with the common opposition. However, it is learnt that he has come under pressure from his immediate family – especially from his daughter who is also connected to politics - to remain in the government. Therefore, the Minister’s next move, at this juncture, is somewhat uncertain.

Meanwhile, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s involvement in the political campaign of the common opposition has also raised concerns among some parties – especially among some key members of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. CBK’s policies came under severe criticism from the likes of Champika Ranawaka during the pre-2005 era and now the two parties are compelled to appear on one stage, supporting the common candidate of the opposition. They have indicated – through various channels - to the opposition leader that CBK’s role in the presidential campaign should be reduced, at least in open forums. 

In addition to Champika Ranawaka and the top rung leaders of the JHU, a section of UNP stalwarts too have threatened to stay away from the campaign of the common candidate if the former big lady continues to play a leading role in the campaign of the common candidate. Their biggest complaint is that certain remarks that have already been made by the former President are suggestive of a hate-campaign against the first family. They are of the view that former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka lost the battle in 2010 as he gravitated towards a hate-campaign against Rajapaksa during the latter part of his election campaign in 2010. 

One of the controversial remarks made by CBK was her impromptu statement on the “files” of the Rajapaksa family. She said they would unearth the files of Mahinda and those of his brothers and sons, after securing power. The UNP stalwarts opine that such statements can backfire on the opposition throughout the election campaign, resulting in far-reaching issues. Therefore, the opposition, especially the JHU and a section of the UNP, is trying their best to avoid a venomous campaign against the Rajapaksa family. 

The importance of the former President is the clout she has in the Si Lanka Freedom Party – especially among the old guard of the ruling camp. According to UNP Parliamentarian Lakshman Kiriella’s calculation, the Bandaranaikes still possess at least 20 percent of the SLFP votes. But, more than anyone else, the former President should realize the ‘limited role’ she can play in the entire operation and should not try to override the campaign of the opposition. 

Many are of the view that former President Kumaratunga and Mangala Samaraweera were instrumental in the defection of the SLFP General Secretary from the ruling party. Strongly challenging this widely-held belief,  JHU stalwart Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera has stated that the former Minister and SLFP General Secretary was first approached through him – a third party. It was an interesting statement that did not draw media’s attention. 

In an interview with Daily Mirror, Rathana Thera had said that he  was the one who approached Sirisena and suggested to UNP Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe that the former would be the suitable candidate to lead the common opposition. The clandestine operation, according to Rathana Thera, had happened just over two months ago. What needs to be highlighted in that interview is the fact that Ven. Rathana Thera’s silence over the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s involvement – suggesting that she did not play any role at the initial stage of the operation. However, it was a “public secret” that she was holding secret discussions with a number of ruling party Parliamentarians who were dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the ruling party. Did Maithripala also attend those discussions – is a question!  If this interview is something to go by, Ven. Rathana Thera was the person who first realized the potential of Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate of the opposition.

“It was a very difficult task. Until it happened, I was not sure whether our plan would be successful,” Ven. Rathana Thera said 

“Mr. Sirisena did not approach me. This was actually the result of logical reasoning. When we tried to bring a candidate from the UNP, there were disagreements within the party. Whether it was Karu Jayasuriya or Mr. Wickremasinghe or Sajith Premadasa, there were certain people in the party who opposed these people. This was when we realised that bringing an external candidate would be a better option. I would like to add here that we have certain pre-conceived notions about Mr. Wickremasinghe based on past incidents. However, this has proved that he is a very flexible, mature and an intelligent leader,” Rathana Thera said during the interview. The former President is yet to come up with her response regarding this matter. 

Before the opposition started negotiations with Maithripala Sirisena, the JHU had indicated to the United National Party that they are willing to work with Karu Jayasuriya, if the main opposition party fielded the latter as the presidential candidate of the party. However, a section of UNP members, including its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, vehemently opposed Jayasuriya’s candidature. 


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