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2020 General Election: History in the making?

 

With days to go for the much awaited 2020 general election, political parties are engaged in last ditch efforts to secure their slots in the ninth Parliament.

All campaigning for Wednesday’s (5) polls will have to be concluded by midnight tonight and the wait till begin for the final results to be released on Thursday.

The 2020 general election is likely to go down in history for several reasons.

It will be the election that has been held under unique circumstances after being postponed on at least two occasions. It will also see two former presidents contesting to return to Parliament and interestingly, by contesting from the same political party.

However, this week’s polls will capture much attention in Sri Lanka’s political history as it will bring about the downfall of the two main political parties that have existed in the country post Independence – the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The election will see the emergence of two new political parties that have sprung from the UNP and SLFP – the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), respectively.

SLPP Founder and theoretician, former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, in a recent interview with an English daily newspaper, was quoted as saying that the SLPP had learnt much from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Indian Bharatha Janata Party (BJP), which he had stated are two of the best political parties in the world.

“I want our party to be a party like the Chinese Communist Party and act how they act. The party has its say because the party has responsibility. When a minister is appointed by the people, the MPs can come, but the ministerial portfolio is given by the President and the Prime Minister. We can also be like the Indian Bharatha Janata Party. We have learnt from many political parties in the world. The best two are the BJP and CCP,” Basil Rajapaksa had said.

However, the run-up to the election has also been quite an intense period with much infighting between candidates contesting from the same alliance (seen mostly between the SLFP and SLPP) and the suspension and sacking of party members (witnessed in the UNP and SJB).


RW gets tough

Last week, so many changes took place within the UNP with the party hierarchy deciding to take action against its members who have joined the newly formed SJB under the leadership of former UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa.

The UNP has so far either suspended or expelled its members who have taken nominations to contest the 2020 general election under Premadasa’s SJB. The party had also taken steps to expel the party’s local government members backing the SJB.

On Friday (31 July), the UNP announced that the party had suspended 37 of its members, which included more local government members.

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, last weekend, hinted at the action that was to be taken against its members who had sided with the SJB, during his visit to the Central Province.

He had said that all UNP members in the local governments should decide whether to remain with the party or not, before action is taken against those who joined the SJB.

Addressing an election rally in Nuwara Eliya last weekend, Wickremesinghe had made this observation whilst referring to the recent Appeal Court decision to dismiss the petition filed by the SJB against the suspension of their party membership.

“The Appeal Court has held that the SJB has misled courts by suppressing information. (The) SJB is not the alliance for which the UNP Working Committee (WC) gave its approval. It is clear that the SJB is a separate political party. It had fielded candidates at this year’s general election as a rival party of (the) UNP. (The) SJB has misled the court and had suppressed information,” Wickremesinghe had been quoted as saying at the rally while reading out the Appeal Court decision at the meeting.

“Therefore, what can we do about those who have formed the SJB? We will have to take disciplinary action against them. Our candidates should distribute copies of this judgment among the voters. I would like to tell the pradeshiya sabha members, in particular, to come and join us now before disciplinary action is taken against them,” the UNP Leader had said.

“No one can change this decision made by courts. It was the decision of district courts, and the Appeal Court. One cannot change this judgment even if he or she goes to the international courts and near Skraya,” he had added.

Speaking further, Wickremesinghe had noted that the UNP had more of a right to ask for the votes from the estate sector Tamils than any other estate Tamil politicians as the party had done more for the estate sector Tamils.

“It was the UNP who gave citizenship to estate Tamils who were without citizenship after 1977. It was I, as the Minister of Education, who opened estate schools and provided buildings and teachers,” Wickremesinghe had noted.


Expelled

The UNP WC last Tuesday (28) expelled 105 members from the party over disciplinary issues.

The UNP announced that 54 of its members were expelled for obtaining nominations under the SJB for the general election while another 61 members were suspended for not supporting the UNP during the ongoing election campaign.

In May, the UNP had announced the suspension of 102 members who had obtained nominations under the SJB for the general election.

The SJB in response insisted that the alliance was formed with the approval of the UNP WC and SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara even took the matter before court.

However, on 21 July, the Civil Appeal High Court of the Western Province rejected, without a hearing, the appeal submitted by Madduma Bandara against the UNP WC decision to suspend the party memberships of several members of the SJB.


SJB bigwigs left out

The names of several bigwigs of the SJB, including its Leader Premadasa, were not included in the lists of expelled members and the list of suspended members issued on Friday.

However, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam had told the media last week that the UNP will expel top SJB members and that the list could include its Leader Premadasa in the second round.

He had told the media that the names will be announced in a few days.

“I cannot exactly say whether Mr. Premadasa will be included in the next expulsion list, but it is likely that he will be included. The expulsion process will be carried out on a phase-by-phase basis,” Kariyawasam had told an English daily newspaper.

He had said that some who were contesting under the SJB might rejoin the UNP after the general election on 5 August.

Only a few SJB seniors were included in the list of expulsions, such as Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, Ranjan Ramanayake, Nalin Bandara Jayamaha, Ajith P. Perera, Sidney Jayarathna, Asoka Abeysinghe, Bandula Lal Bandarigoda, and Vadivel Suresh. However, Premadasa, S.M. Marikar, Dr. Harsha de Silva, P. Harrison, Lakshman Kiriella, Eran Wickramaratne, Kavinda Jayawardena, Harshana Rajakaruna, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Aluwihare, Wasantha Aluwihare, and Thalatha Atukorale were not included in the list of 54 candidates expelled on Tuesday.


Legal action

SJB General Secretary Madduma Bandara meanwhile said the SJB will initiate legal action against the suspension of its supporters’ UNP membership including 60 local councillors.

Madduma Bandara, addressing a news conference last week, said that local government members elected by the people cannot be removed without a disciplinary inquiry.

He had noted that the SJB will safeguard all the local council members ousted by the UNP and that they had already made the necessary arrangements to take the matter to court.

The full list of the 53 candidates of the SJB and 60 local government members is published on this page.

Meanwhile, former Minister and UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake had said that several more groups of UNP members who left the party to join the SJB will be sacked from the party under several phases.

He had noted that another batch is expected to be expelled from the party this week.


Sajith in hot water

The Committee appointed to probe the alleged financial malpractices reported at the Central Cultural Fund from 2016 till 2019 handed over a 142-page report to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last week.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, as the Minister of Buddhasasana, Cultural, and Religious Affairs had appointed the committee consisting of former High Court Judge Gamini Sarath Edirisinghe, former Cabinet Secretary Gotabhaya Jayaratne, and Senior Attorney-at-Law Harigupta Rohanadheera.

The report submitted to the Prime Minister has noted that Rs. 11,059 million (Rs. 11 billion) has been misused from the Central Cultural Fund between the period of 2016-2019.

The Committee has instructed to institute legal action against those who were in charge of the administration of the Central Cultural Fund during the said period.

The Committee has further noted that funds had been illegally released via the dollar account of the Central Cultural Fund and Rs. 400 million had been released from the Fund’s fixed deposit without approval during the presidential election in 2019.

A further 25 current accounts had also been created under the Central Cultural Fund without the approval of the Treasury, the Committee had stated.

It was Sajith Premadasa who was Housing, Construction, and Cultural Affairs Minister during the period in review and the Central Cultural Fund was under his purview.

The allegation of the misuse of monies of the Central Cultural Fund first surfaced last year and Premadasa, making a speech in Parliament at the time, denied any misuse of public funds.

In September last year, Premadasa explained to the House that the funds were used for the development of the country and not for the benefit of individuals or companies in particular. He had noted that Rs. 1,598 million was withdrawn from the deposits to face the damages of the Easter Sunday attacks.

“The Easter Sunday attacks reduced income. None of the funds were utilised for anyone’s personal wellbeing. The Ministry aims to complete the construction of 1,000 Dhamma schools this year. We have commenced a programme called ‘Sisu Daham Sevana’ concurrent with the ‘Tripitaka Bhiwandana’ programme where Rs. 3 million is spent on constructing 361 Dhamma schools. Is this wrong? We have commenced several projects centred on Hambantota, amounting to Rs. 78.5 million. We have commenced the Abhayagiri project at a cost of Rs. 49 million.

“For the 11 projects in Mirisawetiya, Thuparamaya, and Mihinthale under the Maha Vihara project alone, Rs. 384 million has been allocated; further, Rs. 10.2 million for the Sigiriya project, Rs. 116.1 million for the Kandy project, Rs. 8.3 million for Polonnaruwa, Rs. 65.5 million for Kuragala, Rs. 11 million for Badulla, Rs. 6.2 million for Kegalle, Rs. 6.8 million for Yapahuwa, and Rs. 8 million for Batticaloa. We have targeted to construct 1,000 Dhamma schools this year. We will also construct 1,125 Chaitya within a year,” Premadasa had said, listing out the expenses incurred by the Central Cultural Fund.

Apart from the money used for Buddhist religious establishments, Premadasa had said: “We are doing a project at the Thalawila Church for Rs. 50 million. We are also doing a huge project at the Madhu Shrine. They are trying to give wrong interpretations regarding the work we do. We have received Cabinet approval to implement all these projects by State institutions.

“This will strengthen these government institutions. Based on the valuations of the District Officer, all damaged mosques were assisted. If anyone wants, they can see what has been done with the funds. We have not played out anything. We have spent every cent for the benefit of the Buddhasasana and other religions. Every penny has been accounted for and nothing has been misused.”

Nevertheless, given the timing the final report on the probe has been released along with the increasing number of allegations levelled against members of the SJB, the action taken on these individuals is likely to depend on the outcome of the 2020 general election.


Candidate in tears

While the UNP-SJB battle keeps intensifying, the clashes between SLFP and SLPP members also continued last week.

Verbal clashes between candidates have been common during the election campaign period.

Last week saw a teary outburst of an SLPP candidate on stage after being continuously slighted by the Government.

SLPP candidate from the Monaragala District Jagath Pushpakumara last week expressed strong disappointment, alleging that there is a plot to murder him before this week’s parliamentary poll.

“How they are treating us is disgraceful,” an emotional Pushpakumara had told a public rally in Wellawaya.

“What is the value of a position that is achieved by murdering a person?”

Pushpakumara had said he remained committed towards fulfilling his responsibilities on behalf of the people, regardless of the plot to murder him.

He had further recalled that he had been a staunch member of the SLFP from which a breakaway group had formed the SLPP.

According to Pushpakumara, it was he who brought in massive crowds to attend the rallies of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Pelwatta in a bid to make him victorious at the 2015 presidential poll.

“I engaged in politics by coming face to face with the UNP. I uplifted the SLFP,” he had added.


SLFP blues

Amidst the ongoing clash between the SLFP and SLPP, lawyers of the former party have said legal action would be initiated against the SLPP members who insult SLFPers.

SLFP Lawyers’ Association President Bandula Wellala last week noted that the SLFP would send “letters of demand” this week to several SLPP candidates who had insulted the SLFP hierarchy.

Wellala said the letters would be dispatched after receiving approval from the party leadership.

According to Wellala, character assassinations, mud-slinging, intimidations, and slanderous comments by SLPP candidates were witnessed in the districts of Polonnaruwa, Gampaha, Matara, and Colombo. The SLFP official had noted that the SLPP candidates had resorted to criticising SLFP members in places where the SLPP campaigns were weak.

“They have been doing this from the very beginning of the election campaign, violating the conditions of the agreement signed between the SLPP and the SLFP. We wonder whether this is an attempt to wipe the SLFP out from the political landscape of this country. If they think so, they are wrong because the SLFP has weathered many more storms since its inception, such as the assassination of its leader, conspiracies against the SLFP governments, deprivation of civic rights of its leader, etc.,” he had told a news conference last week.

Meanwhile, former SLFP General Secretary and senior advisor of the party Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa had also blamed the existing election laws in the country for the current clashes and confusion related to elections and campaigns.

“At some stage, we feel that carrying out election propaganda is impossible if we follow the rules, regulations, and protocol set out for political parties and candidates by the Election Commission (EC). If I give you an example, I don’t understand how a candidate could project himself to his voters without displaying his picture and preferential number,” Prof. Piyadasa had told the media.


Gearing for polls

While a turbulent election campaign period comes to an end at midnight tonight, the EC has been busy making the final preparations for the 2020 general election scheduled for this Wednesday.

The EC met with the district secretaries last Sunday (26 July) to finalise arrangements for the upcoming parliamentary election.

EC member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole said that details such as Covid-19 preparedness were discussed.

“We went over a number of things, such as what would happen if a Covid-19 patient comes, how he/she would go to their home, how the mobile unit for those under self-quarantine would operate, etc.,” Prof. Hoole said. He noted that the meeting was held at a separate government building opposite the Election Secretariat. “Due to the large number of participants and the need to observe social distancing measures, the meeting was held in another location,” he stated.

The EC in its entirety took part in the meeting which took place between 10 a.m. and noon last Sunday. On Monday (27 July), a meeting was held between secretaries of political parties contesting this week’s general election and the EC.

Future proceedings of the upcoming general election scheduled for 5 August were also discussed during the meeting.

“Measures are underway to ensure that all ballot boxes and other election material are distributed to all districts before 29 July,” the EC had further said.


Preparing the House

Meanwhile, a group of health officials representing the Health Ministry along with Deputy Director General Dr. Lakshman Gamlath had visited the parliamentary complex last week to instruct parliament officials on the measures to be adopted in line with the health guidelines to combat Covid-19 prior to parliament sittings after the general election.

The officials had noted the importance of protecting parliamentarians of the ninth Parliament, the parliament staff, security forces, as well as the visitors to the House, from Covid-19.

Parliament Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake, Deputy Secretary General and Chief of Staff Neil Iddawala, and other senior officials of Parliament were present during the inspection process.

The officials had first visited the chamber of Parliament, library, members’ lobby and canteen, staff canteen, and many other places within the premises including the public, media, and VIP galleries. The health officials had pointed out the importance of restricting visitors to Parliament until the Covid-19 situation subsides in the future.