New Govt. suffering from Foot and Mouth disease?

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Before the recently held presidential election, none of the political parties in Sri Lanka had a more sophisticated propaganda mechanism than the United National Party.

The UNP propaganda mechanism was more sophisticated than propaganda machinations of other parties as the UNP was in full control of its message. The ‘message’, more often than not, was created at the top and was passed down to the party’s spokespersons through proper channels and mechanisms. There was no firing all over the place. Messages were nicely articulated and carefully crafted, and the spokespersons were thoroughly briefed by the top rung leadership.

Although the United National Party held press conferences on a daily basis prior to the election, there were no PR blunders or faux pas. Most of their press conferences put the government on the ‘backfoot’ and its (Government’s) spokespersons often put their feet in the mouth when trying counter allegations made by the UNP.

However, after securing power, things have now taken a different turn.

It is clear that the ruling government is no longer in control over the ‘message’. Various spokespersons, who are not really informed about matters they are talking about, are making various statements to media, plunging the government into a state of embarrassment. There is no visible coherence and no sign of coordination in their messages!

The latest example was the publicity blunder the government made on the Colombo Port City project.  This project came under heavy criticism from the UNP when the party was in the opposition and repeated promises were made by the party to halt the project under a UNP administration.

However, Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne, who  addressed media on Thursday following the weekly cabinet meeting, had a different story to tell. Senaratne said the government had decided to proceed with the Colombo Port City project after what he termed as a reevaluation.

According to the Cabinet Spokesman, the main reason for the government’s willingness to proceed with the project was its bilateral relations with China. After President Sirisena’s ascension to power, many were of the assumption that Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with China would take a different turn. However, the President is scheduled to undertake a visit to China in March and the Cabinet Spokesman said the matters related to the project would be discussed with Chinese authorities.

The Cabinet Spokesman’s statement raised serious questions over the credibility of the Prime Minister who was a vociferous critique of the Colombo Port City project when he was in the opposition. Wickremesinghe, as the Opposition Leader, claimed that the Colombo Port City project had been approved without an environmental assessment or a proper tender procure. He said in no uncertain terms that the port city project would be abandoned under a future UNP government.

When Senaratne made this announcement to the media, he did not utter a word about Wickremesinghe’s serious allegations with regard to this project. At that point, a journalist at the press conference, reminded him of the opposition’s pledge to do away with the project, and Senaratne said, “We never criticized this project. In fact this was started when we were in the government.”

Then the journalist said it was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who promised to halt the project.

In response to this, the Cabinet Spokesman came up with an interesting reply.

“We only started working together after the presidential election was announced. I am only responsible for what he said after we started working together. What he said before that is none of my business.”

However, it was crystal clear that the government did not have a clear propaganda strategy regarding the Colombo City Project. Soon after this announcement was made, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe came under severe criticism from some quarters of the media for not staying true to his words. Some went on to say that the Prime Minister had risked his credibility in the eyes of the public as a result of the “Colombo Port City” publicity faux pas.

Ranil intervenes
A day after Senaratne’s announcement, the Prime Minister had to make a special statement in Parliament clearing the air on the matter. In his statement, Wickremesinghe contradicted the announcement of his own Cabinet Spokesman, saying the government had not made a final decision on proceeding with the Colombo Port City project.

“During our initial assessment, we found that all the necessary documentation was not there. There was a shortcoming in the environmental assessment report too. We have appointed a special committee to look into this. In addition to that a Cabinet subcommittee too has been appointed under my leadership. It is after this report is ready that decisions will be taken,” Premier Wickremesinghe told Parliament, responding to a question posed by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

The Prime Minister also added that the Port city is “a massive project” and that it has the sponsorship of the Chinese Government. “We are not taking the stance that this project should be completely stopped. We cannot abruptly stop such projects. We will make a decision after taking a look at the reports,” Wickremesinghe said.

This alone is sufficient to understand that there is some serious issue with the “internal communication” of the newly formed government. One should also understand that this was not the first “publicity blunder” that was made by government members after President Sirisena’s ascension to power. Probably, the UNPers may think that it is Cabinet Spokesman Senaratne who earns the public ire when irresponsible media statements are made by him. What they do not understand is the manner in which such ‘blunders’ affect the credibility of a government.

What requires emphasis here is the fact that the government is losing control over its propaganda machinations and things are running all over the place. This is not a healthy development especially a few months ahead of a crucial parliamentary election. Senaratne, on the other hand, should also understand that the Cabinet Spokesman cannot make off-the-hook statements like other politicians, or ministers, who are sitting alongside him, representing the same government.

SLFP sources on Saturday reported that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s son Vimukthi Kumaratunga is likely to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election from the Gampaha District under the Sri Lanka Freedom Party ticket. Vimukthi is the only third generation member of the Bandaranaike family who is capable of playing an active role in the country’s politics. His sister, Yoshodhara Kumaratunga, is married to a foreign national and has cut off her links with Sri Lankan politics.
Vimukthi, who is now in his late 20s, has no prior experience in politics. However, when her mother was President of Sri Lanka he did not get involved in any activity that is even remotely connected to politics. Therefore, Vimukthi is a ‘fresh face’ in Sri Lankan politics.

Meanwhile, a Facebook page has been created by a group supporting the Kumaratungas on Saturday, dubbing Vimukthi as a ‘politician’, But, it is still not clear whether this Facebook page is an official social media profile representing the former president’s sons.

However, there is one question that is wedded to Vimukthi’s candidature. Vimukthi, who had his tertiary educated in the United Kingdom, has dual citizenship and the new government is planning to introduce regulations banning dual citizens from engaging in active politics in Sri Lanka. Therefore, this new law, if passed, would compel Vimukthi to give up his dual citizenship to contest the forthcoming general election.

His would-be electorate too is something of interest to the SLFP supporters. Realistically speaking, Vimukthi has two strong ‘bases’ in Gampaha District.

His father Vijaya, when he played an active role in politics during the 80s, had a strong support-base in coastal electorates of the Gampaha District such as Ja-ela, Katana and Negombo. Vijaya also contested the interim election of the Mahara polling division which he lost with a thin margin amidst heavy violence unleashed by the then UNP government. It is learnt that some family members of Vijaya are keen on having Vimukthi in Katana.

Meanwhile, Attanagalla, the traditional ‘seat’ of the Bandaranaikes, is another viable option for Vimukthi at this point. But, President Maithripala Sirisena, despite being backed by former President Kumaratunga, was not able to secure a majority from the Attanagalla electorate at the recently held Presidential election. However, this may not apply when Vimukthi contests under the SLFP ticket.

Be that as it may, Vimukthi or his mother has still not made any announcement on the young man’s entry into politics. However, Basil Rajapaksa, the main obstacle standing in Vimukthi’s way in the Gampaha District, has now been thrown out of the equation and the  SLFP supporters in Gampaha are in need of a popular figure.

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