The Sri Lankan opposition, fuelling the Presidential ambitions of the former Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka against the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, suffered a setback on Monday afternoon as one of the senior members from its side broke ranks and announced not only all help to Mr. Rajapaksa but also joined the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
S.B. Dissanayake, the national organiser for the United National Party (UNP) and the opposition leader of the Central Provincial Council, at a hurriedly convened crowded news conference here said the entry of the commander into politics was ‘dangerous’ for the UNP and the island nation.
The travails of the General are not only from the ranks of the main opposition. Despite the backing of most of the main opposition parties, his campaign so far, has been lack lustre. The lack of coordination among them is too glaring to be missed.
Though it is nine days since he jumped into the Presidential fray Gen. (retd) Fonseka is still to announce the name of the party under which he will file his Presidential nomination.
He is also finding it difficult to balance the interests of the two principal opposition parties behind him. At his first media interaction on November 29 in response to a question on the 13th Constitutional Amendment — which came after the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord — pertaining to the devolution of powers to provinces, the retired General had said that since it was the by-product of certain circumstances, the Amendment and issues related to it needed a re-look in the present context.
Fonseka vague on 13th Amendment
Gen. (retd) Fonseka seems to have deliberately kept his answer vague on the contentious subject as the two main opposition parties propping him up have diametrically opposite views on the subject. The United National Party (UNP) led by former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe wants what is known as the 13th Amendment plus, the meaningful full implementation of the provisions of the Amendment with further improvement in the powers to the provinces. However, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) is totally opposed to the Amendment and wants it to be scrapped on the grounds that it has been imposed by India.
“Though I have no doubt Mr. Rajapaksa would win the January 26 contest by a margin of five to six lakh votes, I believe, thanks to the backing of the UNP and the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) the General has become a candidate to reckon with and it is not good for the democracy of Sri Lanka.”
A colourful politician, who turned 58 in September this year, in response to a question, admitted that President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited his residence in Hanguranketa on Sunday afternoon to discuss the current political situation and he had come to the press conference venue straight from the Presidential Palace after an audience with Mr. Rajapaksa.
“My support to Mr. Rajapaksa is unconditional. I chose to switch my allegiance to the President and his party as my leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is out to destroy the UNP. It was our duty to save the UNP and I am doing my bit,” he said at the news conference where he released a 22 page booklet in Sinhala titled ‘My responsibility’.
The politician who was jailed for two years on charges of Contempt of Court has a running feud with the UNP chief over issues related to running the affairs of the party. In a bid to assuage him Mr. Wickremesinghe had named him as the National Organiser of the party early this year.
Mr. Dissanayake, who had desired to contest the Presidential election on the UNP ticket, is not the first party member to raise the banner of revolt against the party decision to back the Presidential candidature of the prematurely retired General.
On November 27, a day after the UNP formally announced its support to the General, the UNP expelled former Colombo Deputy Mayor Azad Sally from its Working Committee on charges of violation of the party constitution.
Verbal attack on Wickremesinghe
In the course of his nearly two hour press conference Mr. Dissanayake launched a no-holds-barred attack targeting Mr. Wickremesinghe and accused him of driving away all capable leaders from the party. The dissident leader was planning to bolt from the UNP stable became evident when he stayed away from the party convention on Saturday where Gen. (retd) Fonseka made his first public appearance.
The former UNP strongman in the hill districts was at one time, a close confidant of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and political observers here believe that his decision to align with Mr. Rajapaksa could alter the political equations a wee bit.
SLFP is not an unknown entity for Mr. Disssanayake as he entered politics through the party and gained prominence as a member of the SLFP and was instrumental in Ms. Kumaratunga’s 1994 political campaign. He was the SLFP general secretary and a Minister in the Kumaratunga administration widely respected for his capabilities in organising political campaigns.
However, relations between Mr. Dissanayake and Ms. Kumaratunga soured, and he was removed from the party post in 2001 and in 2004 he was convicted and sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment for contempt of the Supreme Court for a speech criticising the judges.
Though there was no immediate reaction from the UNP on the defection of Mr. Dissanayake, the UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake is already on record that he knew about the rumours that have been circulating regarding Mr. Dissanayake’s possible decision to switch political parties.
With ten days left for the filing of papers for the Presidential election, defections from the ranks of both the ruling party and the Opposition are widely anticipated in the coming days. In addition, charges and counter-charges from the ruling party and the Opposition have become the order of the day.
Gen. (retd) Fonseka chose the platform of UNP to launch a broadside at the President, his family members in general and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and younger brother of the President.
On Sunday the Defence Secretary replied with full force. He accused the retired General of distorting facts to gain public sympathy and asserted that he had provided everything Gen. Fonseka had asked for from the State, including a piece of prime land in Colombo and a car worth Sri Lanka Rs. 44 million ($1 is equivalent to Sri Lankan Rs. 113).
“The President appointed Gen. Fonseka as Army Commander though the then Commander, Shantha Kottegoda, had two more years. Had that not been done, Gen. Fonseka would have retired in some other rank,” the Defence Secretary noted.
Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told the channel that the moral support given by the President was a great incentive to the battling troops. The same Opposition which once claimed that Gen. Fonseka was not even suitable to be the Commander of the Salvation Army, had announced him as its candidate, the Defence Secretary said.
On charges of nepotism and corruption levelled by the former Army Chief the government on Sunday charged the Opposition of carrying out a vicious campaign against the family members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and challenged that the charges be proved.