MR’s catch-22 with MS
Last week saw the fourth anniversary of President Maithripala Sirisena’s ascendance to power with the promise of introducing good governance principles and upholding democratic values. Last Wednesday (9) marked the fourth anniversary since the swearing in of Sirisena to office.
Good governance principles apart, four years later, the country is now at a crossroads once again. The state machinery is trying to limp its way ahead amidst chaos in all fronts of the country’s political arena. Be it the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), all parties are trying to reorganise themselves and gear up for election time, which is not too far off.
The UNP, SLFP, and the JVP are all engaged in programmes to form separate broad alliances as electoral fronts. Amidst moves to form these broad alliances, questions of the next presidential candidates have now arisen.
The next few weeks of Sri Lanka’s politics are likely to be dominated by moves to build political powerhouses around several characters likely to take on candidacies come presidential election time.
While UNP Leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be posed with many challenges to overcome in order to earn legitimacy for his desire to run for presidency, President Sirisena is also faced with the challenge of securing the legitimacy of the SLFP and getting the full force of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led SLPP to back his candidature.
Be that as it may, it is Rajapaksa who has the most difficult task – to strike an alliance with the individual who has created many political issues for him, to get the support of the reluctant SLPP membership to back his decision if he decides to back Sirisena’s candidature and to secure the political future of his progeny.
However, amidst all these politicking, it was governance as usual last week for the United National Front (UNF) Government.
The Cabinet of Ministers met last Monday (7) instead of the usual Tuesday cabinet meetings. The reason to hold the meeting on Monday was due to the President’s unavailability to attend the meeting on Tuesday.
Sirisena was scheduled to attend the opening of the new Laggala Town as well as the Kalu Ganga reservoir.
The cabinet meeting last week was a brief one that lasted for about half-an-hour and most of the cabinet papers taken up for discussion and approval were presented by the Finance Ministry. Key among the proposals submitted by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera was the Appropriation Bill for the 2019 Budget.
Several cabinet ministers presented proposals seeking approval to appoint consultants to ministries. Minister Samaraweera proposed that in order to avoid delays, the ministries could reappoint the consultants who served in the respective ministries prior to 26 October last year. The Cabinet of Ministers had approved Samaraweera’s proposal.
Minister Ravi Karunanayake had then raised an issue on the non-inclusion of objections raised by him at last week’s meeting in the cabinet minutes on the Government’s decision to raise a loan amounting to $ 1.6 billion to finance the foreign debt component.
However, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Minister Rajitha Senaratne pointed out that there had not been a tradition to record objections raised by ministers in the cabinet minutes. The issue was laid to rest after the Cabinet Secretary also expressed the same view.
At the end of the cabinet meeting, the President had extended an open invitation to all ministers to attend the openings of the new Laggala town and the Kalu Ganga reservoir.
The parliamentary group meeting of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was held in the parliamentary complex on Monday evening under the patronage of President Sirisena and former President, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Until recently, the UPFA parliamentary group held two separate meetings – the SLFP MPs and the “Joint Opposition” MPs representing the SLPP.
Apart from Sirisena and Rajapaksa, MPs Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera, and Dinesh Gunawardena sat at the main table of the Parliament committee room.
Amaraweera was the first to speak at the meeting and he explained the parliament debates scheduled for the week and asked for the list of names of MPs who wished to speak in the House.
SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara spoke and explained that he had always supported the unity of the SLFP and SLPP. He made this comment in reference to a recent statement attributed to him that was published in the media that earned the wrath of SLPP loyalists including Rajapaksa.
The President told Jayasekara that he needed to be mindful of the fact that he was no longer just a parliamentarian, but the general secretary of a political party. Rajapaksa then cut in and said that Jayasekara needed to be mindful that he was the general secretary of the President’s political party. “Therefore, your responsibilities are more than the others,” Rajapaksa has said.
The President then observed that the UPFA group needed to raise a voice in Parliament as well as outside on the need to hold provincial council elections. When Dinesh Gunawardena pointed out that the delimitation report review committee appointed by the Prime Minister was yet to submit its report, Sirisena said the Opposition MPs needed to raise these issues and push for a provincial council election.
The UPFA group agreed and also discussed the need to continue with the push to call for an early general election.
After assuming office as Opposition Leader of Parliament, Rajapaksa now faces an issue of getting himself an official secretary to work in his office.
When he was named as Opposition Leader last December, Rajapaksa submitted a request to the Prime Minister seeking the appointment of Public Administrative Service Officer Harsha Wijewardena as the Secretary to the Opposition Leader and Attorney Chaminda Kularatne as the Additional Secretary to the office.
The Prime Minister submitted the request to the Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday (2). The cabinet paper was kept aside to be considered the following week. However, the Cabinet approved the removal of Secretary to the former Leader of the House Sumith Wijesinghe and replaced him with Abdul Naufer Rahuman.
The cabinet paper on the Secretary and Additional Secretary to the Opposition Leader’s Office was taken up last Monday (7). However, the Cabinet decided that a final decision on the matter should be taken after seeking approval from the Speaker of Parliament.
However, the acting Secretary General of Parliament in writing informed the President last Monday that the Speaker did not have any objections to the appointment of the Secretary and Additional Secretary requested by Opposition Leader Rajapaksa to his office.
When questions were posed as to why the Opposition Leader’s office required an additional secretary, the Opposition MPs justified the request claiming that while the Leader of the House and the Chief Government Whip both had offices with two secretaries looking into the affairs of the governing party legislators, it is only the Opposition Leader’s office that looks into matters related to Opposition legislators. Therefore, they claimed that the Opposition Leader should have the services of a secretary and an additional secretary.
Nevertheless, Rajapaksa was unable to officially assume duties at the Opposition Leader’s Office since he is yet to be assigned a secretary to the office. Since the cabinet paper on the appointment of a secretary to the Opposition Leader’s Office is scheduled to be taken up at this week’s cabinet meeting, Rajapaksa will likely assume duties at the office sometime this week.
The SLFP membership, which is not in favour of forming an alliance with the SLPP, last week, decided to make public the matter of deciding its next presidential candidate.
President Sirisena has at several meetings of the party’s decision-making bodies indicated his desire to contest at the next presidential election. Although he is yet to publicly express his desire, Sirisena made his intentions clear to the group of 18 SLFP MPs, who remained in the National Unity Government with the UNF until 26 October last year.
The President’s decision to align with the SLPP and push for the formation of a broad alliance between the SLFP and SLPP to contest the next key elections is based on mustering the support Sirisena would require when contesting at the next presidential election.
The likes of SLFP MPs Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Samarasinghe, and Duminda Dissanayake made public statements last week that Sirisena is the SLFP’s choice for presidential candidate.
The move by the SLFPers was aimed at pushing the SLPP to respond by either claiming their support to Sirisena or their alternative.
However, the response by the SLPP to the SLFP salvo on the presidential candidate was that it would be their Leader Rajapaksa who would make a final call on the next candidate and that it would be best for Sirisena to support a Rajapaksa to become the next president of the country.
It is in this backdrop that several UPFA parliamentarians claimed that the decision on the SLPP’s presidential candidate would be decided after the discussion between President Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The UPFA MPs, who are SLPP loyalists, said at the SLPP head office in Battaramulla on Friday (11) that the two leaders would make the appropriate decision following a discussion, and others should refrain from making statements that could create a crisis within the party.
The MPs have also added that the SLPP and SLFP would contest the next election under a broad coalition and there could be various views within the party, but a decision has not yet been taken on who the common candidate would be.
UPFA MPs Janaka Wakkumbura, Indika Anuruddha, Kanchana Wijesekara, and many others participated in the press briefing where these sentiments were made public.
However, Premitha Bandara Tennekoon announced that the SLPP provincial councillors decided not to support the candidature of President Sirisena at the next presidential election.
The growing dissention among the SLPP on a move to field Sirisena as the next presidential candidate is likely to have an impact on Rajapaksa, who is to make the final call on the candidate the SLPP would back at elections.
The SLFP membership on the other hand, knowing very well the dilemma faced by Rajapaksa in supporting Sirisena’s candidacy, is likely to continue pushing for President Sirisena as the party’s preferred candidate.
Sajith’s push for candidacy
Meanwhile, a weekly Sinhala newspaper has reported that the majority view of the UNP is to push a UNP leader as presidential candidate at the next presidential election with a majority view being that it should be Minister Sajith Premadasa.
According to the news report, UNP Leader Wickremesinghe is also agreeable to the proposals that are likely to be taken up at the party’s Working Committee meeting scheduled for this week.
The newspaper quoting a senior UNP minister who wished to remain anonymous, stated that a majority of the UNP members wanted UNP Deputy Leader Premadasa as the common candidate.
Nevertheless, when The Sunday Morning inquired into the matter from several senior UNP members who said that apart from a discussion within the party membership on fielding Premadasa as a candidate, a decision on such a move had not yet been reached.
It is evident that Wickremesinghe has still not given up his desire of contesting as the presidential candidate of the broad alliance in the making – the Democratic National Front.
Be that as it may, while Wickremesinghe is supported by a few party seniors who are looking at promoting the UNP Leader as the next presidential candidate, the young UNPers are drawing plans to push for a fresh change in the party leadership and candidacy at the next polls.
JVP to field candidate
As for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), party strongman K.D. Lalkantha said the JVP will field a candidate if a presidential election is called.
He has told a weekly Sinhala newspaper that the party would field a candidate at the next presidential election in the event the executive presidency is not abolished by the incumbent Parliament.
According to him, it seems practically unlikely that the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced by the JVP, would be passed.
Lalkantha, in the press interview, stated that the basis of the amendment would be the expansion of democracy.
He added that the next presidential polls would require a representative of the forces opposed to Sirisena, Wickremesinghe, and Rajapaksa.
The JVP is currently in the process of forming a broad alliance with the participation of professionals, intellectuals, and artists. The party is likely to launch the broad alliance this year in preparation of the elections scheduled for this year.