Editorial/Opinion

Basil back in the game; Hobson’s choice for SLFP

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

  • UPFA leaders to meet tomorrow
  • SLFP to discuss with Prez. and Basil
  • Ranil displeased with Sajith’s actions
  • Sajith continues planning alliance

The political pendulum that kept swinging towards the United National Party (UNP) during the past few weeks due to its leadership crisis last week swung towards the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

The reason for political circles to buzz over the future political course of the SLPP and SLFP was triggered by the return of SLPP Founder and theoretician Basil Rajapaksa to the country. Soon after the presidential election last November, Basil flew to the US on a private visit and his return to the country was much anticipated by the SLPP rank and file in order to get the SLPP’s election machinery up and running for the upcoming general election.

After weeks of speculation, Basil finally arrived in Sri Lanka last Monday (3) morning and with it, heated up the political work of the SLPP and also the SLFP.

Walking out of the arrivals terminal of Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Basil was greeted by several senior SLPP members. He was accompanied by a few of them in the vehicle.

Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, who was at the airport to welcome Basil, had said that it was the view of a majority of the SLPP members to contest the next general election under the SLPP’s “flower bud” symbol.

“We must discuss that. We must contest from a winning symbol. Let’s talk with everyone and reach a consensus on the matter,” Basil had said. The issue raised by Ranatunga and Basil’s response created ripples within the SLPP, but mostly within the SLFP.

The SLFP is in the process of making arrangements to form a new political alliance called the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sandhanaya (Sri Lanka Freedom People’s Alliance [SLFPA]) with the SLPP and 17 other political parties.

By now, the SLFP as well as other constituent parties of the proposed alliance have heard that the SLPP as well as its theoretician Basil is looking at making changes to the proposed alliance.

In fact, rumours started to spread by mid last week that the proposed SLFP-SLPP political alliance was no longer on the cards with the SLPP indicating a likelihood of going solo at the upcoming general election.

The political chaos that followed this indication resulted in many high and low-level talks on how to resolve the situation and move forward along the lines of the initial agreements reached last October to form the SLFPA.

In fact, a weekly Sinhala newspaper quoting Basil Rajapaksa had stated this weekend that the proposed alliance between the SLFP and SLPP would progress as planned without any change.

Be that as it may, The Black Box, during conversations with the SLPP hierarchy, uncovered that the prospect of “contesting separately and governing together” was very much a live discussion within the SLPP.

So much so that the SLPP last week reached a decision that it would only contest the general election under its “flower bud” symbol.

As learnt by The Black Box, it is the thinking of the SLPP seniors that the party should put its efforts behind securing 113 seats in Parliament, which will give the party a singular majority hold in the House.

However, this sentiment expressed by the SLPP is clearly indicative that the party is no longer pursuing the establishing of a two-thirds majority in the House.

“Seeking a two-thirds is not practical. We must focus on getting 113 seats in Parliament and secure a majority in Parliament,” a senior SLPP source told The Black Box.

The source further explained that forming an alliance with some political parties could be problematic in the long term as they could make unreasonable demands or even try to stifle the Government’s path at decisive junctures.

“That would be a problem for us. Therefore, we must look at contesting as the SLPP and later join together to govern the country,” the source said, adding that these are matters that need to be discussed further.

SLFP in discussion

However, with the term of Parliament nearing its end, SLPP members are clearly drawing battle lines where the SLFP is concerned.

Another SLPP member told The Black Box that the party should focus on getting as many of its members to Parliament as possible and not let that opportunity go to waste by letting another party like the SLFP encroach on the SLPP vote base to send its own members to the House.

The SLFP on the other hand claims that the SLPP is duty bound to adhere to the signed agreements between the SLFP and SLPP, and the SLFP and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last October in the run-up to the presidential election.

It is in this backdrop that the country celebrated its 72nd Independence Day at the Independence Square last Tuesday (4). Former President Maithripala Sirisena was a notable absentee at the celebrations held last week.

It was later speculated that that the former President had boycotted the Independence Day celebrations due to issues regarding the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.

However, The Black Box learnt that Sirisena was suffering from poor health from early last week and was in fact admitted to a private hospital in Colombo last Thursday (6) night. It is learnt that he is suffering from the flu.

Several members of the SLFP parliamentary group however had discussed the growing crisis over the proposed SLFPA. All arrangements were made a few weeks back to resurrect the former People’s Alliance (PA) led by Sirisena to be reconstituted and re-registered under the SLFPA and to use the PA symbol of the “chair” as the symbol of the SLFPA.

Following the executive meeting of the PA that met late last month, the registration of the new SLFPA was to be carried out last week. However, the latest situation in the political circles has delayed the registration process of the proposed alliance.

Meanwhile, leaders of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) are scheduled to meet tomorrow, (10) under Sirisena’s patronage, to discuss the issues pertaining to the proposed political alliance with the SLPP and to discuss a backup plan if required to contest the general election.

The SLFP parliamentary group is also scheduled to meet this week to discuss how to move forward with the finalising of the proposed alliance.

Symbol issue resolved

However, it is also learnt that the SLFP has overcome the issue of the symbol of the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.

During the past few weeks, the SLFP was continuously objecting the stance of a majority of SLPP members that the symbol of the proposed alliance should be that of the “flower bud”. The SLFP members continuously maintained that the proposed SLFPA should contest under a neutral symbol or else under the symbol of the former PA.

The SLPP members believe that their party symbol is now well known around the country and that the past few elections have proven that it was a winning symbol.

After several rounds of discussions within the SLFP, a majority of the SLFP members have reached an agreement that there was no harm in contesting under the “flower bud” symbol.

“We don’t have a problem with the ‘flower bud’ becoming the symbol of the alliance. The SLPP will have to change its party symbol once it is assigned to the newly registered alliance,” a senior SLFP member told The Black Box.

The SLFP’s logic in agreeing to contest under the “flower bud” symbol is that after campaigning for the SLPP candidate at the presidential election, the SLFP membership is not averse to casting their votes before the “flower bud”, but it should be under an alliance.

“The SLFP cannot contest under the SLPP, it will politically destroy us. We can contest under the symbol but as an alliance with all parties including the SLPP,” the SLFPer said.

Interestingly, it is this very notion that most of the SLPP members are expressing their disagreement to.

The questions in the minds of the SLPPers are, “why should we form an alliance and let the SLFP get an advantage from that?” and “should we not try to get as many of our members in to Parliament without letting the SLFP get that benefit?”

In this scenario, the SLFP would be left with only two choices – agree to contest under the SLPP or contest separately.

However, the SLFP is now faced with Hobson’s choice – given the hostility of SLPP members towards the SLFP, the latter would most likely be pushed into contesting separately if it is to safeguard its already dwindling political base. Otherwise, the SLFPers will face yet another 2015 general election scenario where its members will be pushed to be defeated by the SLPP candidates.

Nevertheless, in order to seek clarity in the current situation, the SLFP has sought meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa. SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara had dispatched the relevant letters on Friday (7).

GR’s agreement

The agreement signed between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and 17 political parties including the SLFP in the run-up to last November’s presidential election clearly states that the SLFP and SLPP will form a political alliance for the presidential election and future elections.

The agreement signed between the current President and the SLFP on 19 October 2019 states in the first clause that the SLFP will form a political alliance with the SLPP, namely the SLFPA, in a manner that would not affect the identity of the SLFP.

Rajapaksa, in the agreement, had pledged to uphold the policies agreed upon by the two parties and to honour them when carrying out his duties following electoral victory.

The SLFP is now likely to hold on to Clause 3 of the agreement signed with Rajapaksa, which states: “As President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would fully intervene and be committed to ensure that the memorandum of understanding signed between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna is properly implemented.”

Clause 4 of the agreement states that the SLFP, its public representatives, or its members will not be subjected to any form of unfair treatment and equal rights and fair play will be ensured during the tenure of Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Clause 6 states: “Gotabaya Rajapaksa agrees to give hearing to matters raised by the SLFP, its public representatives and members, and reach consensual decisions following discussion with the SLFP leadership during his term of office.”

The agreement in its entirety sees assurances given by the SLFP and the President to ensuring the smooth functioning of the SLFP-SLPP alliance.

However, the current issues that have arisen with regard to the proposed SLFPA will now definitely require the President’s intervention for smooth resolution since President Rajapaksa has continuously expressed his appreciation towards the SLFP’s role at the last presidential election.

Sajith’s alliance

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, the UNP-led political alliance seems to be getting off the ground. The final works on the proposed alliance to be led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is currently ongoing and the registration of the alliance is likely to take place during this week.

Premadasa last week convened a meeting of United National Front (UNF) electoral organisers at a committee room in the parliamentary complex.

A large number of organisers attended the meeting and at the outset of the meeting, Premadasa announced the appointment of MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara as the General Secretary of the proposed alliance.

The organisers at the meeting had all approved Madduma Bandara’s appointment.

Afterwards, Premadasa opened the floor for the organisers to express their ideas and opinions.

Several organisers had asked whether some members of the UNP would carry out acts of sabotage to hamper the general election campaign like during the presidential election campaign.

“I’m used to being pulled by the leg and other such tactics. I will not fall and I will not retreat,” Premadasa had said.

However, news of Madduma Bandara’s appointment as the General Secretary of the proposed alliance was not too pleasing for the supporters of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. They immediately expressed their displeasure at Premadasa’s unilateral decision to appoint Madduma Bandara.

By then, some members of the Wickremesinghe faction were already in discussion with the party leadership on proposing the name of MP Navin Dissanayake to the position.

Wickremesinghe loyalists immediately started circulating messages among party loyalists that Madduma Bandara’s appointment was invalid since Premadasa had not officially announced his decision to accept the post of Alliance Leader and if so, he should make an official statement to the UNP Working Committee (WC). They also noted that Madduma Bandara’s name would have to be ratified at the WC meeting.

GS appointed

Hearing the displeasure being echoed by the Wickremesinghe camp over Madduma Bandara’s appointment, the Premadasa faction decided to take the battle to another level.

The Premadasa faction decided to take the matter before the UNF parliamentary group. It has always given prominence to the parliamentary group since they believe that elected public representatives should have a bigger say in decision making than a committee filled with cronies of the party leadership.

At the outset of the parliamentary group meeting, UNP MP Ajith P. Perera had made an emotional speech on the path tread by the UNF.

The issue of the proposed UNP-led alliance was taken up afterwards.

It was Premadasa, in his capacity as Alliance Leader, who named Madduma Bandara for the post of Alliance General Secretary. UNP MP Ashok Abeysinghe proposed Madduma Bandara’s name and MP Thushara Indunil seconded the name.

“Is there anyone who is opposed to this name?” Premadasa inquired from the parliamentary group.

When there was no objection from the gathering, which included Wickremesinghe, Premadasa had invited Madduma Bandara to take a seat at the head table.

“I firstly thank the Opposition Leader for naming me as the General Secretary of the proposed news alliance,” Madduma Bandara said.

“Parliamentary group of @officialunp plus UNF alliance just now endorsed @RanjithMadduma1 as Gen Sec of the broad alliance to be registered to contest the upcoming #SriLanka general election led by @sajithpremadasa. UNP working committee will ratify on Monday. Positive move,” MP Dr. Harsha de Silva tweeted.

Disgruntled Ranil

Although the Wickremesinghe faction remained silent at the UNF parliamentary group meeting where Madduma Bandara was named the General Secretary of the alliance, they decided to take their cause before the UNP WC that was scheduled to meet last Thursday (6).

However, the WC meeting had to be postponed till tomorrow (10) after Premadasa said that he was unable to attend the meeting since he had duties as the Opposition Leader of Parliament as it was a sitting day of the House.

Premadasa is therefore expected to attend the UNP WC meeting scheduled for tomorrow (10).

If all goes as planned, the Wickremesinghe faction is likely to take up the issue of the alliance general secretary and try to create a ding over the matter by emphasising the need for the WC approval for the appointment.

However, it will be up to Wickremesinghe, who has continuously stood against any form of voting within the WC due to the division of the party, to ensure that all members of the UNP, at least now, stand united and work towards the upcoming general election.

It is learnt that the Premadasa faction has already informed the party leadership that they are not interested in engaging in petty battles as they are now focused on campaigning for the general election.