News

Hedging between fortune and survival

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

The major political parties are hedging their bets this week, as their fortunes and, in some cases, survival depend on the outcome of the legal battle before the Supreme Court (SC) on the fate of the dissolved Parliament and postponed general election.

The United National Party (UNP), smelling blood in the water, lashed out by suspending the party membership of its members who had filed nomination papers through the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) that is led by former Opposition Leader and UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. Letters announcing the suspension of UNP membership were sent via registered post on Wednesday (27), to a group that includes the vast majority of UNP MPs from the last Parliament.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said the move was aimed at UNP members who had sought to be elected to
Parliament from other political parties at the forthcoming general election.

“Any member who wishes to have his name included in the nomination list as a candidate of another political party is mandated in terms of Article 3(c) of the UNP Party Constitution, to obtain prior approval from the Working Committee (WC) of the UNP.

The members in question have not complied with Article 3(c) of the Constitution, and have not obtained the prior approval of the WC.

The said conduct of the members has compelled the Leader of the UNP to act in terms of Article 3(h) of the Party Constitution in
order to protect and safeguard the best interest of the party,” Kariyawasam said.

He also hinted that several of these candidates have now expressed regret at their decision to sidestep the UNP and are seeking to
return to the party fold. “However, acting in terms of Article 3(h) of the Party Constitution, letters have been sent out to all members who had placed their names on the nomination lists of other political parties, calling for their explanations,” he said, adding that any explanation which will be forthcoming from the members will be placed before the WC of the UNP at its next meeting for appropriate action.

The suspension is a compromise by Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to please those in his party that wish to outright purge the SJB faction, which makes up over two-thirds of the UNP’s parliamentary strength, from the party, and rebuild the UNP anew. These UNP heavyweights have advocated cleansing the party and seeking to take a loyal UNP faction into an alliance with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the form of a national government.

Others in the UNP wish to oppose the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government, and wish to see the UNP and SJB factions unite with the other Opposition parties to hold a unified front against the Government over serious divisions on policy and principle with regard to handling the public health crisis and its resulting economic fallout.

Turn around

At Friday’s (29) WC meeting, the UNP Leader insisted that the UNP would not form a national government under any
circumstances, and proceeded to turn the party upside down, by appointing new office bearers and taking formal steps to ratify the purging of almost two-thirds of the party’s outgoing MPs and provincial council members from its ranks. The nearly 100 suspended members of the UNP are those elected to Parliament in 2015 or local government bodies in 2018 who have accepted parliamentary nominations from the SJB on 19 March.

The Party Leader appointed a new UNP Treasurer, Attorney-at-Law A.S.M. Misbah, to replace former Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva who resigned in March. UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa were formally removed from their posts.

All UNP office bearers’ positions expired on 31 March following a temporary extension provided by the Party Leader.
The Party Leader appointed a new UNP Treasurer, Attorney-at-Law A.S.M. Misbah, to replace former Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva who resigned in March. UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa were formally removed from their posts as well. The WC on 29 May ratified the re-appointment of the General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, the Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, and National Organiser Navin Dissanayake.
Eight new members were appointed to the WC. They are Sandith Samarasinghe, former MPs Palitha Thewapperuma, Prof. Ashu
Marasinghe, Shanthini Kohenege, Nalaka Kollana, Chanaka Illeperuma, Azmi Thassim, and Kasthuri Anuradhanayake. All eight are considered extremely loyal to Wickremesinghe, and their votes would be essential in the event of a renewed leadership tussle if the general election was stymied by the SC.

Battling the virus

The Covid-19 crisis and its role in the elections became front and centre in the SC on Wednesday (20), when a junior of Presidents Counsel Romesh de Silva, who is representing President’s Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, rushed into the ceremonial courtroom to hand over several copies of a letter from Health Services Director General Dr. Anil Jasinghe that de Silva said was an expert opinion that supported his client’s case that elections could proceed under the current pandemic conditions.

“As you are aware, Sri Lanka has been successful in containing the spread of Covid-19 with the number of persons infected and the number of deaths also being very low at present, due to concerted efforts being made by the Government and by the health
authorities,” the letter read.

“Based on findings of continuous assessments being made by the health authorities on an islandwide basis and also considering
continuous advice and guidance given by the WHO (World Health Organisation), it appears that the parliamentary election process could be continued whilst maintaining social distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and other measures which the people are gradually getting used to and will have to continue as a part of their daily routine.

“The health authorities will provide the suitable guidelines to the Election Commission (EC) on request so that the election process can be continued.

“As there is no vaccine or medicine of choice for Covid-19, there is a risk that any country can be subject to importation and spread of the disease.

“In this context, it is necessary that regulations be gazetted under the Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Ordinance with a view of long-term prevention and control of Covid-19.

“In the circumstances, I see no reason why the election process cannot be continued,” the letter concluded.

Dr. Jasinghe tried to toe the line, not stating unequivocally that elections can be held, so as to not contradict his previous stance
conveyed to the EC.

During a TV programme on the state-owned Sri Lanka Rupavahini, the senior health official said that although he had issued health directives with regard to holding an election, he firmly said it should go hand in hand with several other factors such as strengthening quarantine laws and introducing this new normalcy to the country through social marketing.

“Without these, if Covid-19 returns in three more weeks, it won’t be possible to do anything, let alone hold elections,” he sternly noted, adding that everyone including the Government and the Opposition should understand this.

“Do not class us into the same lot as politicians. We do not engage in politics. We have worked hard in the government sector for 30 years amid many challenges. We have never lobbied for any politician or any political party. Anyone can engage in political
dialogues and debates, but please don’t involve us in those,” he said.

Speaking further, Dr. Jasinghe said: “As the first officer in the public service, Secretary to the President (Dr.) P.B. Jayasundera
formally inquired from me on the health situation with regard to holding the general election.

“I responded by mentioning the prevailing condition of the country. It was not done from a political standpoint,” he said.
Love thy neighbour

A telephone call between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Saturday (23) saw Sri Lanka appealing for the extension of $ 1.1 billion in urgent financing support to manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If the Government of India could provide (a) $ 1.1 billion special swap facility to top up $ 400 million under (the) SAARC (South
Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) Facility, it would enormously help Sri Lanka in dealing with our foreign exchange
issues,” Rajapaksa has told Modi over the telephone.

In turn, the Indian Premier had assured that he was committed to helping Sri Lanka, saying: “We are ready to help under terms that are favourable to Sri Lanka.”

Modi had suggested to Rajapaksa to appoint an official to work directly in this regard with the Colombo-based Indian High
Commissioner, Gopal Baglay.

Meanwhile, the conversation between Rajapaksa and Modi had also focused on the Indian-funded development projects in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa had sought Modi’s intervention to revive some of the key projects as Sri Lanka is looking at restoring the economy. The President had asked the Indian Prime Minister to “direct those responsible from India’s side to expedite construction of the East Terminal of the Colombo Port as early as possible as it will be a significant boost to our economic landscape”.

“I am trying to promote value-added industrial and agricultural activities,” Rajapaksa had explained, adding: “And will be happy if you could encourage Indian investors to start such investments, including Indian companies already in Sri Lanka to increase domestic value addition in the context of Covid-19 economic priorities.”

The two leaders had agreed to continue with the ongoing bilateral projects that bring direct benefits to people and prioritise food and health securities.

The telephone conversation had been very constructive and cordial and in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, they had agreed to further strengthen all aspects of the bilateral relations.

President Rajapaksa had also appreciated the opportunity to discuss matters of mutual interest with the Indian Premier and had
thanked him for the support extended by India to help Sri Lanka face these difficult times. India’s gift of 10 tonnes of medical
supplies proved to be very useful, said the President in appreciation.

Responding, Premier Modi had noted that even though it is not easy to manage a population of more than 1.3 billion, about 75% of the spread of the virus has been contained.
“According to the information I have received, Sri Lanka has managed the crisis successfully,” Modi had said.

Sudden demise

The sudden demise of Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) Leader Minister Arumugam Thondaman on Tuesday (26) evening left the country’s political circles in shock.

In the few short hours prior to his sudden demise, Thondaman held several meetings including discussions with the new Indian High Commissioner in Colombo Gopal Bagley and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In fact, his last meeting was with the Premier where he had discussed implementing the payment of the promised Rs. 1,000 daily
wage to the estate sector workers.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, who rushed to the Thalangama Hospital, where Thondaman was pronounced dead on admission, said the CWC Leader’s last request was to grant the Rs. 1,000 daily wage to the estate workers.
Thondaman died of a heart attack suffered at his residence. His funeral is to take place today (31) in his constituency.
A group of CWC representatives on Wednesday (27) met with Prime Minister Rajapaksa and requested the Premier to give
nominations to Jeewan Thondaman, Thondaman’s son, to contest the impending general election from the Nuwara Eliya District in lieu of demised Minister Thondaman.

The Political Committee of the CWC had taken this decision and the committee members conveyed the message to the Prime
Minister at his residence at Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo. The request was officially conveyed by CWC Vice Chairman Senthil
Thondaman.

The CWC is a constituency of the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sandanaya (Sri Lanka Freedom People’s Alliance). Since the late
Minister’s nomination has already been handed over for the Nuwara Eliya District, the CWC requested to substitute the slot with
Jeewan Thondaman’s name.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, after commending the move to field Jeewan Thondaman for Nuwara Eliya, assured the CWC that he
would do his best to see that their wishes are met by the SLPP.

CWC members D. Mathi Yogarajah, M. Romeshwaran, A.P. Shakthivel, A. Philip Kumar, K. Kanagaraj, L. Barathidasan, and
SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and Party Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam were also present at the meeting with the Prime Minister.

MR’s milestone

Last Tuesday (26) marked a major milestone in the political journey of the Prime Minister, who first entered Parliament on 26 May 1970 – 50 years ago. In this time, Mahinda Rajapaksa became a political icon with unprecedented and almost religious grassroots support among the working people and the Sri Lankan heartland.
As a leading SLFP opposition figure in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was loyal to SLFP Leader Srimavo Bandaranaike and rallied
the party together, often galvanising his party and the political left into the streets against the excesses and human rights abuses of the UNP-led J.R. Jayawardena and Ranasinghe Premadasa Governments.

As Labour Minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, he earned a place in the hearts and minds of Sri Lankan workers by developing and singlehandedly implementing Sri Lanka’s first Worker’s Charter against the fierce opposition of many in his own party.

As Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity grew around the country and within his party, so did his ambitions to lead both. By 2004, he
was the prime ministerial candidate of choice among the rank and file of the SLFP, much to the chagrin of then President and Party Head Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had hoped to nominate her brother Anura Bandaranaike or Lakshman Kadirgamar to the post.

It fell to fellow SLFP heavyweight Maithripala Sirisena to go toe to toe with Kumaratunga and insist that Rajapaksa be made Prime Minister. As President from 2005 to 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa hand-selected and empowered the team of military and civil service leaders who defeated the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), shielding them from scrutiny, red tape, or economic anxieties so they could do their jobs. This victory led him to an easy re-election in 2010, followed by his signature political manoeuvring, that brought him a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Through a series of excesses, such as the 18th Amendment and indulging violent excesses by elements of the burgeoning defence
apparatus, President Rajapaksa saw his popularity wane, leading to his shock defeat in the 2015 presidential election, making him the first elected President in Sri Lanka’s history to be defeated while seeking re-election.

Far from treating the defeat as a permanent fall from grace, Rajapaksa made his comeback by the August 2015 parliamentary
elections, winning by a huge majority in the Kurunegala District, and leading the Joint Opposition and eventually the SLPP into a
popular revolt against the Yahapalana Government. The abortive constitutional coup of October 2018 did little to blunt Mahinda
Rajapaksa’s political momentum.

While he was barred from contesting the presidency by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, his political popularity was such that his chosen candidate was destined to be the next President at the November 2019 presidential election. That chosen candidate was former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who with the full-throated support of his brother and his party, won a resounding majority at last year’s election.

As his younger brother’s Prime Minister, the elder Rajapaksa remains the constitutional Head of Government and Finance
Minister.

The oft opulent Prime Minister had little fanfare to mark his 50th year in parliamentary politics. He has hosted no ceremonies to
celebrate the occasion, and the state media and SLPP have not drawn much attention to the occasion. The accolade drew barely a
mention at this week’s Cabinet meeting, where the Prime Minister focused on presenting and getting approved the measures sought by late Minister Thondaman at their final meeting just hours before the latter’s untimely demise.