The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the largest and key ally of the government, is now caught in a dilemma in selecting a date for the snap Presidential Election in January. The party, headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, initiated actions both overtly and covertly that gave rise to speculation that a snap election will be conducted during the early part of next year. In fact, the President asked the SLFP Central Committee members to get ready for such an election. Yet, he did not articulate what national election would be conducted first.
The other allies of the government, in the meantime, felt distraught by these SLFP initiatives as none of them was formally consulted on the viability of a snap election in January, a few months after the party had its vote base plummeted at the Uva Provincial Council Election.
The three leftist allies- Democratic Left Front of National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Communist Party of Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunasekara and Lanka Sama Samaja Party of Senior Minister Prof. Tissa Vitarana – sent the first alarm bell in this respect.
The three Ministers met with the President and had talks on current affairs for three years. Later, they made a public announcement against a snap presidential election in January.
Jathika Hela Urumaya(JHU), another key ally of the government that played a pivotal role in bringing it to power, has also not been consulted by the SLFP regarding this matter. The JHU is now slated to conduct its annual convention on October 19, and passed a set of resolutions to be communicated to the government for consideration.
Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), led by Water Supply and Drainage Minister, also remains disillusioned on the similar approach towards it by the SLFP in this regard.
Amid such stiff opposition to a snap presidential election within the government quarters, another hurdle has surfaced in selecting a date for the election in January, next year. That is due to the planned visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka for two days on January 13 and 14. Normally, as per the Vatican protocols, the Pope does not visit a country during election periods because his visit can be exploited for political gains at the end. So, the Vatican authorities do not like the politicisation of the papal visit here in Sri Lanka.
The final arrangements have already been made for the papal visit, and it was confirmed with the President’s recent visit to the Vatican. The Pope had one on one talks with the President for 15 minutes last Friday in conformity with the Vatican protocols. Soon afterwards, the Pope admitted First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa and other members of the delegation to his presence. Another team will arrive from the Vatican in November to finalise arrangements for the visit.
Likewise, the President can call for a snap presidential election only after November 18, on which date, he will complete his fourth year of his second term. In case, he declares it on November 18, the election should be conducted on a date between January 7 and 11, with six weeks spared for campaigning in terms of the Presidential Election Act. But, the Pope is scheduled to arrive on January 13 and 14.
In the light of these aspects, an arduous task lies ahead for the government in deciding on dates for the election in January at the moment, mainly because it should not clash with the papal visit.
Despite all that, in what appeared to be a strong indication of a snap election in January, the government has advanced the annual budget debate by two weeks this time. Instead of in November, the annual budget will be presented on October 24. The debate will be concluded on November 18 this time. Last year, it went on till December 8. Political analysts believe the government advanced the budget debate by two weeks in this manner to save time during the latter of 2014 for the election campaign covering the length and breadth of this country.
After the party leaders’ meeting conducted in the Parliamentary complex to discuss the budget programme on Tuesday, the members of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), informally, asked about it. But, the government representatives, including Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, did not say either yes or no. Instead, they nodded their heads, leaving scope for the UNP to interpret that a snap election is likely in January. However, it is learnt that the government is slated to announce a host of reliefs for the general public, expecting them eventually to be translated into political gains for the ruling party at the election. The government has already raised public expectations about such relief measures by making increased allocations for Ministries such as Public Administration and Local Government and Provincial Councils in the Appropriation Bill for the 2015 budget, presented in Parliament during the last parliamentary week.
There are two lines of thinking among the government advisers on the conducting of this election in January. One set of advisers press for its postponement till March. The point, they are trying to drive home, is that though budgetary proposals can be announced well ahead of the election, they will actually be implemented from January onwards only. In case, the election is scheduled for January, the general public will not have time to benefit from such relief proposals to be announced in the budget. In such an eventuality, relief packages will not yield in terms of political benefits for the ruling party. Nonetheless, a postponement will make way for people to enjoy such benefits at least for a couple of months, and the end result will be political benefits for the government at an election. This is important as the public servants, in particular, remain disappointed with the government over the failure on the part of it to give a substantial pay hike.
The other set of advisers argue that any postponement will be interpreted as a relenting of the government in the teeth of pressure from the Opposition, and it will reflect badly at the election. Therefore, they insist on conducting the election in January itself. The UNP, as the main Opposition, has called for a national election. All in all, as things stand today, it is indicative that the SLFP, as the key ally, keep on setting the ground for a snap presidential election. The party is in the process of opening up election coordinating offices throughout the country. Besides, a ministerial team headed by Vocational Training and Skills Development Minister Dulles Alhapperuma has been assigned media publicity campaign in the run-up to such an election.
By the time the election is announced; it is likely that the government will launch its campaign with an edge over the Opposition which is lagging behind in preparations for the election widely anticipated at the moment.
The UNP is also anticipating a snap election. The senior leaders of the party are discussing it at the moment. The party, buoyed by the increase of its vote base in the Uva Province, believes that it can position itself well for the election this time.
The politicians across the divide assembled at the funeral of Ven. Bellana Gnanawimala Thera. Both the President and UNP National Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were among the participation at the cremation. When the two leaders chatted to each other, they were mobbed by cameramen and videographers. Then, the ministers and MPs murmured to each other, “There is no time for the two leaders to say hello even due to this.”
Mr. Wickremesinghe, in his speech, recalled the fact that it was late Ven. Gnanawimala Thera who fixed the auspicious time compatible with late President J.R. Jayewardene for the inauguration of the Parliamentary Complex built at that time.
In addition to Mr. Wickremesinghe, the party’s National Organiser Daya Gamage, Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya , and MP Gayantha Karunatilake and others attended the cremation. Besides, there was a host of government ministers such as Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Susil Premajayantha and Dinesh Gunawardane.
At the event, Mr. Jayasuriya and Mr. Gamage approached and asked MP Gayantha Karunatilake who should be the party’s presidential candidate. Then, MP Karunatilake only remarked, “It is up to the senior members of the party to decide. I have nothing to say about it.”
In the event of a presidential election being declared, both sides are planning to engineer crossovers. Within political circles, talks are going on in this respect. It is too early to conclude who will cross over from what side to the other at the moment.
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the third largest political force, is to initiate a series of public seminars to educate the people that the President cannot contest for the third term. The first seminar will be conducted in Kandy on October 15, and the second one in Colombo on October 17.
The JVP-affiliated People’s Movement for Democracy will play a role in this campaign. Former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, who raised the matter first, will address seminars under the banner of this movement.
External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris left for Perth, Australia on Tuesday night to attend the summit of Indian Ocean Rim Association. On the sidelines of the summit, he is slated to have bilateral talks with his Australian counterpart Julia Bishop. Besides, he was seeking an appointment with his counterparts from several other countries including Egypt.
It was to be attended by the Foreign Ministers of countries such as South Africa, Singapore and India as well. Sri Lanka plays a key role in this Organization.
Besides, UNP MP Gayantha Karunatilake and party’s Treasurer MP Eran Wickramaratne are headed for Hongkong to participate in the conference of MPs from Asian countries.