A week of political posturing
The ongoing tug-o-war between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week saw the President scoring one over Wickremesinghe by convening Cabinet, discussing the issue of the appointment of acting ministers, and then re-appointing the United National Front’s (UNF) Kabir Hashim and M. Haleem to their previous portfolios.
It is indeed unfortunate to witness the nation being reduced to watching the first and second citizens of the country engaged in a personal battle, creating a situation of anarchy in the country.
Be that as it may, the Cabinet of Ministers met after two weeks on Tuesday (18) under the patronage of the President.
The President stopped convening the Cabinet following an impasse with the Wickremesinghe-led UNF Government over the conduct of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks.
However, the deadlock between the President and the Government was resolved following the intervention of Ministers Ravi Karunanayake and Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. The duo, after reasoning things out with the President, also mediated between the Speaker, PSC, and the President.
The President finally convened Cabinet last week.
Over 100 Cabinet papers were listed last week since the meeting convened after two weeks.
However, amongst the many cabinet papers that were taken for discussion that day, the President objected to the Cabinet proposal presented by Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam to distribute free tabs among Advanced Level students in government schools.
Sirisena has said that he was not agreeable to the distribution of 189,000 free tabs among 370 schools when the Cabinet had already approved a proposal to carry out a pilot project on the matter.
Also, the President has expressed concern over the move to spend an additional Rs. 2,275 million at a time when the Government was facing a financial crunch and looking at ways to cut costs.
Sirisena has proposed that the Government look at setting up smart class rooms instead of distributing free tabs. However, he has then said that it was not feasible to spend on building smart rooms when there were many schools in the country without proper classrooms or toilet faculties.
However, Kariyawasam has said that the programme was an election pledge made in 2015 and that it cannot be changed now.
It was finally decided to refer the relevant cabinet paper to the next meeting scheduled for this week.
Apart from the governing woes, the United National Party (UNP) has decided to launch its political programme on 1 July, targeting the next elections. The programme is to be aimed at repositioning the party.
Meanwhile, the UNP as well as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have been at the centre of many political discussions, especially on the subject of presidential elections.
President Sirisena last week, addressing a meeting of SLFP members of local government bodies held at the party headquarters, said that the next presidential election will be a battle between two parties and not among three parties as currently perceived.
“There are internal issues without both these camps. The SLFP will take a decision on the presidential election considering the pride of the SLFP membership. The decision will not be unfair to any party member. None of the party members will be left behind. The SLFP is the party that brought to power the world’s first female prime minister and the first female president. That is our heritage,” Sirisena has said, but refrained from commenting on his personal stance on the elections.
On the other hand, UNP Leader Premier Wickremesinghe meanwhile, in usual form, took a firm stand on the issue of presidential candidacy by putting a stop to his party members discussing the issue.
Wickremesinghe said at a meeting of UNP ministers held last Monday (17) that there were comments being made public of party organisers and ministers on the party’s next presidential candidate.
The Prime Minister has said that party members should refrain from commenting on the next presidential election since it was not the time for such an action and that it was too soon.
He has noted that instead of speaking about the presidential candidate, they should focus their energy on honouring the pledges made by the UNF to the people in 2015.
A senior minister who was present at the meeting had told another colleague that it was refreshing to see the party leadership remembering the people and the pledges that were made to them in 2015 at least four-and-a-half years later.
According to Wickremesinghe, the UNP should get active politically since there are many external elements trying to discredit the party and its work.
Therefore, it was decided that the 1 July programme would bring about the much needed reinforcements to the party.
Meanwhile, addressing a gathering at a housing development project in Katurodagama in Ratnapura last week, Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale said that Minister Sajith Premadasa would become the next President with the blessings of the party leadership.
“We are all waiting to see Minister Sajith become the President. That will definitely happen. I don’t have doubts about it,” Atukorala said.
“We will get that opportunity for Minister Sajith with the blessings of our Party Leader,” she said.
However, while a group of UNP parliamentarians are engaged in a campaign to promote Premadasa, Minister Karunanayake has taken a swipe at the party’s Deputy Leader and has called on the general public to pay attention to bringing professionalism into politics when casting their votes at the next election.
Addressing an event organised by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to grant employment to several individuals, Karunanayake has said that while even a peon appointed to the CEB is required to pass the GCE O/Levels and hold a credit for math, legislators in the country who make laws to govern the country are not scrutinised regarding their educational qualifications.
Muslim MPs meet
The Muslim parliamentarians group met on Tuesday (18) with MP A.H.M. Fowzie leading the group. The discussion was focused on the next course of action the group would have to take.
All legislators at the meeting have stated that while there are three party leaders among the group, all of them had come together for the sake of the community as well as the country.
Soon, the discussion was focused on whether the former Muslim ministers and deputies should re-accept the portfolios. The reason they said was the pressure exerted on them by their constituencies as well as the request by the mahanayakes during their recent meeting in Kandy with the chief prelates.
All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Leader Rishad Bathiudeen has said that he was not prepared to re-accept any portfolio until his name was cleared in the ongoing investigations.
UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim has said that he was under severe pressure from his constituency to re-accept his portfolio.
He has explained to the rest of the Muslim MPs that his vote base in Kegalle consists largely of Sinhala Buddhists and his supporters have continuously asked him to re-accept his portfolio.
“Even the party’s Deputy Leader has written asking me to rejoin the Cabinet. Therefore, if my party leader calls me, I will have to accept,” Hashim has explained.
After listening to the explanation, the rest of the Muslim MPs have agreed with Hashim’s plight. However, Fowzie has then pointed out that there were still important issues that have not been resolved in relation to the Muslim community. He has explained that there are hundreds of Muslims being held in custody without being charged since the authorities are worried to release them since they feel they will be criticised for their actions by people with vested interests, while the suspects who were taken into custody for attacking and causing damages to Muslim mosques and businesses have been released. Several Muslim MPs have added that the authorities have failed to crackdown on the Sinhalese extremist groups allowing them to freely propagate hatred against the Muslim community.
The MPs have further noted that it was still not the time for the Muslim MPs to consider rejoining the Cabinet of Ministers.
Nevertheless, the MPs have come to an understanding that the two UNP MPs would re-accept their portfolios if they were asked to do so by their party leadership.
It was unanimously decided that regardless of whether some in the group are re-appointed to Cabinet or not, the entire group would stand by the current issues raised by them and assist the authorities with the investigation.
It was also decided that the respective party leaders would make a final call on their party members in Parliament.
Accordingly, the group decided to re-evaluate the situation on 3 July – one month after the resignation – to make a final decision on their political path.
However, everyone was surprised when they found out that Hashim and Haleem were sworn in to their previous portfolios the following day, Wednesday (19).
This resulted in several Muslim leaders complaining to the UNP leadership, expressing displeasure at the manner in which the party’s Muslim MPs have acted.
Be that as it may, Wickremesinghe was also caught unawares about the re-appointment of Hashim and Haleem to the Cabinet by the President.
Wickremesinghe was in fact at the UNP’s Working Committee meeting on Wednesday when he learnt of the re-appointment news.
It was Minister Karunanayake who had first shown Wickremesinghe the mobile phone news alert received on Hashim and Haleem being sworn into their previous portfolios.
Ironically, the Working Committee at the time had just discussed the need to get all Muslim parliamentarians to work together given that a majority of them were stakeholders of the UNF Government.
A few minutes later, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera had also said that he too had received the news.
“I told him (Hashim) yesterday not to re-accept the portfolio at this moment,” a disturbed Wickremesinghe had said.
The Prime Minister had pointed out that the President had acted in violation of the Constitution. According to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the President does not have the authority to make Cabinet appointments without the knowledge of the Prime Minister.
Wickremesinghe had said that the President had earlier acted against the Constitution by appointing three acting ministers after the resignation of the Muslim ministers.
After listening to all this, Minister Ajith P. Perera had said that this was an indication of the need for a new party leader.
“This is a clear indication that you are unable to even control your own Party Chairman. Is there a necessity in such a leadership?” Perera had questioned.
It was then that the UNP Working Committee started to look at the story behind Hashim’s and Haleem’s swearing in.
The President had spoken to Hashim on Tuesday (18) evening and asked him to re-accept his previous portfolio. He had asked Haleem also to do the same. Hashim had responded that he would have to first speak to his Party Leader.
Sirisena had agreed and said to let him know and that everything would be prepared for the swearing in the following morning.
Hashim had then contacted Wickremesinghe and informed him of the President’s invitation. Wickremesinghe had then told Hashim not to accept the portfolio and not heeded to the issues the former was facing in his constituency.
After ending the conversation with Wickremesinghe, Hashim has had a private discussion with family and a few close associates. The final outcome of the discussion was for Hashim to accept the President’s invitation and to be sworn in to his former portfolio the following morning along with Haleem.
It is learnt that Hashim and Haleem had felt the party leadership was not prepared to see their grievances and political futures since focus was being given to building a negative image of the President before the people.
The sixth round of talks between the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that was scheduled last Monday (17) was postponed for this Wednesday (26).
The decision to postpone the talks was a mutual agreement since the next round of talks would be the decisive discussion that would finalise either the formation of the alliance or the parting of ways for both parties.
The SLFP and SLPP during the previous rounds of talks had reached an agreement on the agenda and policy framework the two parties should focus on in forming an alliance.
However, the discussion is now focused on the structure of the proposed alliance, which is the most important component in the formation of any partnership.
The SLFP had already prepared a draft structure for the proposed alliance and it had already been shared with the SLPP.
The SLPP, on the other hand, had not yet officially prepared such a draft.
The Black Box learnt that the SLPP was not agreeable to granting the lion’s share of the proposed alliance to the SLFP as done in the past.
“In the past, every alliance formed by the SLFP was led by the party. The SLFP held the lion’s share – 51% of the alliance. But this time around, it cannot be so, and there’s a lot that needs to be looked at,” a senior SLPP sources told the Black Box.
The SLFP however, does not seem ready to compromise on its stronghold in a political alliance as well.
Meanwhile, the SLPP is making preparations to announce its presidential candidate and to officially commence the party’s presidential campaign.
The SLPP has set 11 August as the date to announce the party’s presidential candidate. The auspicious event is to take place at the party’s convention scheduled to be held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.
The Black Box learnt that the SLPP had also set the date as the deadline to reach a consensus with all stakeholders of the “Joint Opposition” on the chosen candidate.
Black Box learnt that despite rumours of internal rifts and splits in groups among the candidate, the SLPP had already finalised its candidate.
Last week saw several social media outlets reporting that Rajapaksa sibling, former Minister Chamal Rajapaksa was also being proposed as the presidential candidate of the SLPP.
However, the group in the SLPP backing the candidature of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shot down the proposal, claiming the winning candidate had already been chosen by the party.
Making inroads to villages
The JVP has commenced its political campaign targeting elections with the launch of the anti-Government campaign carried out on the 12th of this month. The protest campaign held at Colombo Fort was the first in a series of protests planned by the party.
Accordingly, protests will be held in Matara, Panadura, Anuradhapura, and Embilipitiya.
JVP leaders last week met to discuss the current political situation in the country.
The party’s Propaganda Secretary MP Vijitha Herath had said that four years on, the Government had shown its failures in every aspect.
“The 21 April attacks showed that the Government was unable to safeguard its citizens. There’s simply no use for such a government,” he said.
Adding to the comments, MP Bimal Ratnayake had said that the tug-o-war between the President and Prime Minister had pushed the country towards anarchy.
However, Party Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake had stated that while most political dialogues are focused on racist politics, the JVP should bring the focus back on to the people and the real issues faced by them.
JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva proposed that the party launch a programme where a people-centric discussion was initiated at village level.
“We need to commence a good discussion at village level on the future political course of the country. There needs to be a proper political dialogue set around the people. Most of the media in the country have not created such a space for the people. Therefore, we will have to take up the task of reaching out to the villages and starting a grassroots level discussion of politics and the issues faced by the country as well as people,” Silva has said.
The party’s politburo had unanimously agreed to this proposal saying that it was a decisive juncture for the people since elections were not too far off.