Editorial/Opinion

All eyes on MS and SLFP

Even before the official announcement of a national election has been made, the fact that all political parties are gearing for a key election is evident, given the heated political discussions and posturing taking place these past few days.

All key political parties – the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – are engaged in drawing battle lines and developing their respective blocs.

Interestingly, the SLFP has now become a decisive factor at the next presidential election with its voter base probably deciding the candidate with the mandatory 50%+1 votes. Realising this fact, SLFP Leader President Maithripala Sirisena had opted to silently watch the political unfolding before making a final call.

However, the suspense over the presidential candidate of the UNP is now threatening to cause a split in the party if the matter continues further without resolution.

Whilst UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is employing various manoeuvres to overcome the crisis within the party with a majority of the UNP parliamentary group and Working Committee seeking the announcement of party Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa as the UNP presidential candidate at the forthcoming presidential poll, Wickremesinghe has yet been unable to fully resolve the issue.

The crisis over the announcing of the UNP’s presidential candidate even resulted in the formation of the proposed political alliance – the Democratic National Front (DNF).

A few weeks back, party leaders of the United National Front (UNF) reached an agreement to amend the draft constitution of the proposed alliance and to form the DNF before the end of August.

Be that as it may, despite the dawn of the month of September, the UNF leaders are now lost for words trying to figure out for themselves as to whether the proposed DNF would in fact materialise.

Leaders of the UNF met on Tuesday (27) at Temple Trees and held a lengthy discussion on the proposed alliance.

It was agreed that the DNF would definitely be formed, but no dates had been set.

Another letter signed

Meanwhile, a meeting of UNP parliamentarians to draw up Premadasa’s campaign was held at the Stanmore Crescent residence of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Wednesday (28) night.

However, some MPs who were to attend the meeting were prevented from doing so by Wickremesinghe. Most of them had received last-minute telephone calls to attend a discussion at Temple Trees.

It was decided at the meeting to hand over a letter signed by the parliamentarians to the party leadership calling for the announcing of Premadasa as the UNP presidential candidate.

While there are 75 UNP MPs currently in Parliament, it was believed that close to 60 parliamentarians would sign the letter.

There were 33 UNP MPs at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“We can get the support of the minority parties,” Samaraweera has said.

When a parliamentarian had queried if Premadasa was looking at forming a government with the President, Premadasa refuted such claims stating he had no intention of doing so at present.

The letter is currently being signed by the UNP MPs and is to be handed over to the party leadership by UNP Chairman MP Kabir Hashim.

Even once the party reaches a consensus on its candidate, the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will be a critical factor in the UNP’s chances of success in the 2019 election.

On 21 August, a TNA delegation led by Leader R. Sampanthan met for talks with Premadasa at Samaraweera’s residence.

The Premadasa faction of the UNP, now comprising some of the most powerful ministers in the Government, is confident it will win the support of the TNA.

A senior UNP Minister described to The Black Box the faction’s efforts to win the TNA over to the Premadasa camp, asserting that the main Tamil party would have no choice but to back the most serious anti-Gotabaya challenger at the presidential election.

He calculated that even without the TNA officially extending support to Premadasa, the Tamil people would still vote for the UNP candidate in order to try and prevent the former Defence Secretary winning the election.

The failure of the TNA to understand the fears of the Tamil people over the SLPP candidate and throw their weight behind Premadasa’s candidacy, could even result in grave electoral consequences for the Tamil party at a subsequent general election, the Minister said.

Ravi’s dinner

Another political gathering was held at the residence of Minister Ravi Karunanayake also on Wednesday (28) night.

The discussion was attended by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, and several foreign diplomats.

It is learnt that 19 diplomats including ambassadors and high commissioners attended the discussion.

The diplomats were briefed about the current political situation in the country, especially the ongoing rift within the UNP.

After listening to what the UNP leadership had to say, the foreign diplomats have urged Wickremesinghe to take steps to resolve the UNP’s internal crisis as soon as possible.

Temporary reprieve

In order to ease the growing tension within the party, Wickremesinghe sought the assistance of UNP Legal Secretary Nissanka Nanayakkara PC.

Nanayakkara, who is also a close confidante of the UNP leadership, said there was no provision in the UNP constitution to nominate a presidential candidate before a presidential election is called.

Citing Clause 9 (1) of the party constitution, Nanayakkara said the nomination of its presidential candidate could be done only by the party’s Working Committee, adding that there was no role for the Parliamentary Group, and that too, only once an election is announced.

A senior UNP Minister described to The Black Box the faction’s efforts to win the TNA over to the Premadasa camp, asserting that the main Tamil party would have no choice but to back the most serious anti-Gotabaya challenger at the presidential election

Clause 9 (1) stipulates that “the nomination of a candidate during a presidential election shall be done by the nomination board appointed by the Working Committee in consultation with the Working Committee.”

Sending a clear signal to the Premadasa camp, Nanayakkara said that discipline was crucial for any party and show cause letters had already been sent to four dissidents and that failure to submit responses would be deemed as being absent for disciplinary inquiries.

However, questions arise as to why Ministers Ajith P. Perera and Sujeewa Senasinghe were issued show cause letters prior to Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Ven. Athuraliya Rathana Thera, who had defected to Opposition ranks a long time ago.

In order to contain the situation, Speaker Jayasuriya held a meeting last week with Premadasa at the Speaker’s private residence on Amarasekera Mawatha in Havelock Town.

It was discussed at this meeting how to mitigate the situation in the UNP regarding the upcoming presidential candidacy. Premadasa’s wife Jalani Premadasa was also present at the meeting.

However, no finality had been reached, The Black Box learnt.

Emergency meet-up

In an eleventh hour bid to avoid a catastrophe, last Thursday (29), Wickremesinghe summoned Premadasa and Non-Cabinet Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva to Temple Trees in order to see whether the two camps could iron out its differences.

 

Premadasa was attending a ceremony held at the iconic Sri Sankapala Rajamaha Viharaya in Embilipitiya when he received the message from the Prime Minister of his intention to meet.

The newly-built Dhamma School building at Embilipitiya Sri Sankapala Rajamaha Viharaya was constructed under the patronage of the Minister while Ratnapura District Parliamentarian Hesha Withanage had organised the ceremony. When Premadasa arrived there at around 5 p.m., he immediately proceeded to deliver his speech.

“The Prime Minister has made an emergency call for me to meet him at Temple Trees. I’m so sorry I have had to change the agenda and start with my speech,” he said in his concise 14-minute speech.

Premadasa then left for Colombo at around 6.20 p.m. with the intention of meeting the Prime Minister.

The meeting had gone on for about one-and-a-half hours, after starting at around 9.30 p.m.

Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Non-Cabinet Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva were also present at the meeting.

The discussion was focused on selecting the UNP’s next presidential candidate.

However, media reports the following day stated that Wickremesinghe and Premadasa had agreed to stop holding meetings and making public criticisms of the failures of the UNP leadership.

Be that as it may, the Premadasa group, which is well aware of Wickremesinghe’s time-buying tactics, has decided to continue planning the next public rally in Kurunegala.

Minister Nalin Bandara had undertaken the task of organising the meeting together with the rest of the Kurunegala District UNP MPs.

Accordingly, the rally that would be attended by Premadasa and UNP seniors will be held on Thursday (5) at the Sathyavadhi Ground on the Kurunegala-Dambulla Road.

It would be quite an irony if Premadasa opts to contest from the DUNF, which Athulathmudali and Dissanayake used as a launch pad to attack and attempted to topple his father’s Government

DNF vs. DUNF

It is now learnt that in the event the UNP-led grand coalition, the Democratic National Front (DNF), does not hand over presidential candidacy to Premadasa, several dissenters had advised Premadasa to go solo and contest under the banner of the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) under the symbol of the eagle.

It is pertinent to note that the DUNF was established by late Lalith Athulathmudali and late Gamini Dissanayake after they broke away from Premadasa’s father late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Government in the early 1990s.

In September 1991, Premadasa faced an impeachment motion in Parliament led by these two formidable rivals (i.e. Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake) but managed to defeat it by adjourning Parliament.

Thereafter, then Speaker M. H. Mohamed, who initially accepted the impeachment motion, dismissed the same, saying it lacked adequate numbers of signatures after several of the parliamentarians who supported it withdrew their support reportedly under duress.

After President Premadasa expelled Athulathmudali and Dissanayake from the party, they formed the DUNF. Although the duo shared joint presidency of the DUNF and even presented the only impeachment motion against a president in Sri Lankan history, the party fell into obscurity with the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali during an election campaign rally on 23 April 1993 and with Gamini Dissnayake rejoining the UNP after the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993.

Thereafter, the fledgling DUNF split with Lalith’s widow Srimani Anoma Athulathmudali launching the Democratic United National Lalith Front as a separate political party. Currently, Ariyawansa Dissanayake is the Party Leader/General Secretary of the DUNF.

It would be quite an irony if Premadasa opts to contest from the DUNF, which Athulathmudali and Dissanayake used as a launch pad to attack and topple his father’s Government.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Friday (30) ordered the Elections Commission (EC) to hold elections for the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha after accepting the rejected nomination list of the DUNF.

The DUNF had sought redress from the SC in January last year after its nominations list was rejected at the previous local government elections.

The Party Secretary had challenged the rejection of the nomination paper for the local government polls held in February 2018.

The SC bench comprising of Justices Prasanna Jayawardena, Murdhu Fernando, and Vijith Malalgoda ordered the EC to accept the DUNF nominations list and hold the election for the PS immediately.

Accordingly, the EC is to hold elections to the Elpitiya local government body in the first week of October.

MS blocks RW

Given the growing public support for Premadasa, Wickremesinghe decided to take some action to “punish” several UNP seniors for giving strength to the Premadasa campaign.

While Wickremesinghe has targeted several UNP ministers, he decided to first test the waters by acting against one. The chosen one was party Chairman Minister Kabir Hashim.

Wickremesinghe last week had sent a letter to his Secretary Saman Ekanayake, directing him to make necessary arrangements to remove the subject of the Petroleum Corporation from Hashim’s purview and to re-assign it to Wickremesinghe loyalist Minister Lakshman Kiriella.

Ekanayake had forwarded the Prime Minister’s instructions to the President’s Secretary for action.

Be that as it may, inside sources say that President Sirisena had rejected overtures by Wickremesinghe to remove several institutions held by Hashim.

In fact, the President had said he would not make any changes to the Cabinet of Ministers at this juncture since there would be a presidential election in the next few months.

The next target in Wickremesinghe’s mind was Finance Minister Samaraweera who initiated Premadasa’s campaign.

However, Wickremesinghe has had to shelve his plans due to Sirisena’s firm stance.

Under Article 43(3) the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the President has the power “…at any time (to) change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers…”

However, many see this as a new constitutional glitch in the offing.

RW pushes 20A

As another means to resolve the existing crisis within the UNP and to once again reconsolidate himself as the undisputed “ever green” leader of the party, Wickremesinghe and his confidantes turned towards the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, aimed at abolishing the executive presidency, was presented to Parliament as a private member’s motion by the JVP in May last year.

However, the proposed piece of legislation has been on the backburner due to the inability in securing a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The JVP, despite many discussions with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the matter, has refrained from pushing the legislation due to the difficulty in getting it approved by Parliament.

However, it is in this backdrop that Wickremesinghe decided to once again push the legislation.

In the event the legislation is adopted by Parliament, it would have to be put for a referendum and that would effectively nullify the holding of next presidential poll.

Wickremesinghe and his loyalists believed that this would then push Premadasa into a difficult corner.

The UNP Leader also thought that it would be seen as a favourable proposal by President Sirisena, who is still undecided on his stance at the next presidential election.

It is with these facts in mind that Wickremesinghe together with Minister Ravi Karunanayake, made his way to the President’s official residence on Monday (26) night to discuss the possibility or resuscitating the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution.

The President had listened intently and said there was a lot of ground work to be done in order to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Sources close to Sirisena say that the President, like JVP Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, is well aware of the challenges.

Although Wickremesinghe had spoken of getting the UNP’s support behind the legislation and the belief that Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa would also support the move, Sirisena understood that the reality would be far from it.

Anura says no

Wickremesinghe had also sent a message to JVP Leader Dissanayake to go ahead with the proposed piece of legislation before the presidential election to abolish the executive presidency and replace it with a parliamentary democracy which was the original motive of the UNF Government.

Wickremesinghe had said the UNP would extend its fullest support if the amendment was taken up in the House.

Dissanayake too realised that the ground reality was much different from the plan drawn by Wickremesinghe and his loyalists within the confines of an office room at Temple Trees.

Dissanayake had informed Wickremesinghe that if the UNP wished to abolish the executive presidency, the UNP should present the amendment to Parliament and work towards mustering a two-thirds majority.

However, JVP Politburo member and trade union leader K.D. Lal Kantha had told several sources that the JVP would not budge from contesting the presidential election and that no party had openly proposed to the JVP to abolish the executive presidential system before the presidential election.

Confirming that such a discussion had taken place at the Presidential Secretariat, Lal Kantha added that the JVP was not willing to be the bait of any political gimmick and that there was no turning back from contesting the presidential election under the banner of the National People’s Power (NPP).

Wickremesinghe’s plan had now hit a temporary snag as a result.

Basil and several SLPP seniors had discussed that going by the results of the last local government elections in February 2018, it was evident that the SLFP’s vote base would be required for the SLPP to achieve a comfortable victory

SLFP gets tough

Meanwhile, the SLFP Central Committee (CC) met on Monday (26) evening at the President’s official residence under the patronage of Party Leader President Sirisena.

The meeting had to be confined to one-and-a-half hours since the President had to attend an event in Matara.

The CC discussed several matter including the party’s 68th national convention scheduled to be held on Tuesday (3) at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium and the issue of party members who had violated the code of conduct.

SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara had said that disciplinary action was to be initiated against the party’s local government members who had joined the SLPP. Members of the CC had asked Jayasekara as to why action was not being taken against the parliamentarians who had violated the code of conduct.

It was then decided to initiate disciplinary action across the board on all party members who had violated the party constitution.

It was also decided to remove several office bearers who had violated the party constitution.

Accordingly, MP S.B. Dissanayake was removed from the post of SLFP Treasurer and replaced by MP Lasantha Alagiyawanna. MP Weerakumara Dissanayake was appointed as the party spokesperson.

Meanwhile, on Thursday (29) evening, the SLFP decided to initiate disciplinary action against S.B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera, considering them to have vacated the party after they took SLPP membership earlier that day.

SLFP-SLPP alliance

Be that as it may, the SLFP and SLPP met on Tuesday (27) for a decisive meeting as it was believed to be the last meeting before finalising the proposed political alliance.

The SLPP was led by National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa and included Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris. The SLFP team was led by SLFP General Secretary Jayasekara and included United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary MP Mahinda Amaraweera and SLFP Treasurer Alagiyawanna.

While welcoming Basil’s participation at the meeting, Jayasekara and Amaraweera had noted that the SLFP had no intention of working with the UNP. However, they noted that the SLFP had a problem since the SLPP has already announced its presidential candidate.

Basil had said that the President had also communicated the message to the SLPP.

However, Basil had presented statistics and data on the voter patterns and the requirement to win the next presidential election.

While the SLFP proposed the need to amend the electoral system and to formulate a national policy, Basil also agreed with them.

The two groups also agreed to the need for ensuring the preservation of the identities of the respective parties when a political alliance is formed.

Though both parties announced that all were in agreement to form an alliance, no agreement was reached on issues such as the presidential candidacy, future general elections, and the formation of the coalition.

However, the SLFP representatives who participated in the discussions were satisfied that the SLPP has changed its stance of ignoring the SLFP.

It is learnt that Basil had expressed the importance of forming an alliance with the SLFP since its vote base would help the SLPP reach the target of polling over 50% of the votes at the presidential election in order to emerge victorious.

Basil and several SLPP seniors had discussed that going by the results of the last local government elections in February 2018, it was evident that the SLFP’s vote base would be required for the SLPP to achieve a comfortable victory.

Therefore, this was witnessed during the discussions between the SLFP and SLPP where the representatives of the latter had addressed the former with new found respect.

Nevertheless, SLFP strongmen say the talks are unlikely to reach a satisfactory conclusion given the re-entry of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga into the SLFP and the recent shuffling of party office bearers.

MR-MS meet

Following the meeting between the SLFP and SLPP representatives that lasted for over two hours, next up was the meeting between the two party leaders – the SLFP’s Sirisena and the SLPP’s Rajapaksa.

Basil told the media soon after the talks that a final decision would be reached by the two party leaders. The SLFP group directly made their way to meet the President after concluding the discussions.

The President then directed that arrangements be made for a meeting between him and Rajapaksa that evening.

The discussion between Sirisena and Rajapaksa focused on several areas ranging from the ongoing discussion between the two parties on forming a political alliance, the executive presidency, and the proposal to abolish the executive presidency.

Sirisena had informed Rajapaksa of the representations made by Wickremesinghe to move the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish the executive presidency.

Rajapaksa had also said that he too was informed about the proposal. However, he had noted that it was not the time to move such a piece of legislation. Sirisena had also agreed.

Be that as it may, the two leaders did not reach a final decision on forming the proposed political alliance between the SLFP and SLPP.

It was therefore decided to continue the dialogue between the two parties.

Gota meets the SLFP

The SLFP team holding discussions with the SLPP last week met with its presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well.

The meeting between the SLFP and Gotabaya took place on Wednesday (28) night at his residence.

The SLFP group had discussed the points that were taken up at the meeting with the SLPP the day before.

Dissanayake had informed Wickremesinghe that if the UNP wished to abolish the executive presidency, the UNP should present the amendment to Parliament and work towards mustering a two-thirds majority

The SLFP had said the party was agreeable to a programme that would defeat the UNP. Both, Jayasekara and Amaraweera had noted that the party focused on the policies and not the individuals.

Gotabaya had also said that he was working on a programme based on policies.

The SLFP delegation had noted that the party was focused on the need to limit the Cabinet of Ministers to 30, the scientific distribution of subjects to ministers, and amending the existing electoral system.

Gotabaya had also noted that he had no objections to such policies.

TheBlack Box learnt that despite Gotabaya’s pledge to take the country on a new path, the SLFP group had raised questions as to whether he would actually be able to do so, to which Gotabaya had responded by saying that election campaign times bring people from various backgrounds together, but not all of them would be able to stand by the policies that would help build a new Sri Lanka.

SLFP irked

The first official discussion between the SLFP delegation and Gotabaya lasted for over two hours and both parties considered the talks to have been a success.

It was agreed by the SLFP and Gotabaya that they should reach a separate agreement before the presidential election campaign.

However, the SLFP was irked the following day by the actions of SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa.

Basil, on Thursday (29) handed SLPP membership cards to MPs S.B. Dissanayake and Perera when the two of them were about to face disciplinary inquiries for violating the party’s code of conduct.

A senior SLFP MP told TheBlack Box that it was unethical for the SLPP to take members from the SLFP when the two parties were engaged in an official discussion to form an alliance.

“On one hand, they (SLPP) are discussing the possibility of an alliance with us (SLFP), and on the other, they are taking our members to their side,” the MP said.

It was further questioned as to why Basil would have resorted to such an act after holding discussions with the SLFP a few days earlier and before the lapse of even 24 hours since the SLFP held official discussions with Gotabaya.