n November 5, President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa perhaps unknowingly set off the ignition for what is turning out to be one of the most momentous and historic periods in Sri Lanka. The use of the phrase ignition of a motor vehicle is appropriate because of the passion for expressways, racing cars and even spacecraft.
Phrases and symbolism apart, it was on November 5 that Mr. Rajapaksa sought an opinion from the Supreme Court on whether he had the right to call for an early presidential election during his second term and whether he had the right to contest for an unprecedented third term. He wanted the opinion by Monday November 10. Despite objections by Sri Lanka’s premier legal body the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and other independent legal experts that the time period for the opinion on a crucial national issue was too short because there was only one full working day, the full ten-member Supreme Court bench on November 10 gave a unanimous ‘Yes’ to Mr. Rajapaksa.
Acting strictly and precisely in terms of this opinion, the President on November 20—the day after he completed the fourth year of his second term—issued a formal proclamation with “know ye” and all that, telling the Elections Commissioner of his intention to contest for a third term. This was done at the auspicious time of 1.02 pm on November 20. Fourteen hours later there was a political earthquake, an implosion as many independent political analysts had predicted. The Health Minister and the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s long serving General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena called a news conference, shown live to millions of people on television and radio, to make the dramatic announcement that he would be the Opposition’s common candidate for the next presidential election. The same day, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya—acting fast and independently—issued a special gazette notification announcing that nominations would be received on December 8 for the early presidential election to be held on January 8, 2015. Although 8 is known to be a lucky number for the President, the Rajapaksa Government had wanted the election to be held on January 2, to allow at least 10 days space for the much-awaited visit of Pope Francis from January 13 to 15.
The Vatican and the Sri Lankan Church authorities had reportedly sought at least 10 days space, but the Elections Commissioner’s decision to hold the election on January 8 has now raised questions about the Pope’s visit. Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini, spokesman for the Church’s Media and Information Committee for the Papal visit, told our sister newspaper the Sunday Times that the Church would be acting in faith and is going ahead with arrangements for the Pope’s visit despite the possibility of election violence. That possibility has become more of a probability since Friday November 21 with the Campaign For Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) yesterday reporting at least four major incidents of violence against opposition politicians and supporters.
Today is likely to be a vital day in this historic period. The third reading debate on the 2015 budget will be concluded in Parliament today and there is much speculation as to what would happen. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who played a key role behind the scenes in the historic political turnaround, is reported to have predicted that at least 30 other members of the UPFA will cross over while UNP frontliner Lakshman Kiriella has put the figure at more than 50, though Temple Trees officials are saying it would be restricted to 11. Whatever the figure, there is widespread speculation about the dissolution of Parliament if the budget is defeated, but other reports say there may be a Vote on Account if the budget is defeated because dissolution would complicate matters too much.
In any event, most analysts are predicting that the final battle on January 8 between President Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena would be too close to call. Whatever the result, as the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena has requested, we hope that the Elections Commission, the Armed Services and the Police would ensure a free, fair and peaceful election so that the sovereign people could make an informed choice. We also hope this choice will be respected by all, without getting any ideas that might mean political suicide for a democratic Sri Lanka.