Editorial/Opinion

Parties hit by make or break scenarios

It is now evident that the forthcoming presidential election would be one that would result in a nail-biting finale.

The general public now has two candidates – Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the National People’s Power’s (NPP) Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is still rife with internal conflict over the decision of the party’s presidential candidate while the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena has remained non-committal on the presidential election race.

The SLFP is however making grand plans for the party’s anniversary convention scheduled for 3 September at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. The party, it is learnt, is to release a policy document outlining the key policies the SLFP would support at the next presidential election.

Meanwhile, several leaders of the United National Front (UNF), Ministers Mano Ganesan, Rauff Hakeem, and Rishad Bathiudeen, are expected to meet Wickremesinghe this week to push for a quick resolution of the UNP’s internal conflict since it is delaying the formation of the proposed political alliance – the Democratic National Front (DNF).

It is also learnt that these leaders would express their willingness to back UNP Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa’s candidacy at the next presidential election.

Finally delivered

UNP Chairman, Minister Kabir Hashim and Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara managed to hand over the letter signed by 53 members of the party’s parliamentary group to Party Leader Wickremesinghe on Monday (19).

Ten MPs, however, had refused to sign the letter. They are Ravi Karunanayake, Vajira Abeywardena, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sagala Ratnayaka, John Amaratunga, Sarath Fonseka, D.M. Swaminathan, Sirinal de Mel, Navin Dissanayake, and Thilak Marapana.

Hashim, since the previous week, had tried on many occasions to meet with the party leadership to hand over the letter. Wickremesinghe however, had avoided meeting with Hashim until last Monday.

The letter signed by the MPs calls on the party leadership to convene a joint meeting of the UNP Working Committee and parliamentary group to discuss and finalise the party’s candidate at the next presidential election.

However, after accepting the letter and going through it, Wickremesinghe had expressed his displeasure at the manner in which Premadasa and his supporters were trying to resolve the issue of the presidential candidate.

Wickremesinghe had said that it was not a tradition of the party to make such demands as issues are always resolved internally through discussion.

However, the two Ministers have explained that the UNP MPs were forced to take such a step since the party leadership did not respond positively to the requests made by the parliamentary group.

The Prime Minister had then reminded Hashim and Madduma Bandara that in 2010 and 2015, he had ceded his bid for the two presidential races due to the requests made by the party as well as friends and political forces supportive of the party.

Wickremesinghe had then promised to convene a meeting with the senior ministers of the UNP on Wednesday (21) to discuss the presidential election and the party’s candidate. The two Ministers had then informed UNP backbench MPs that the party leadership had responded positively to the request and the MPs should therefore not raise the issue of the UNP’s presidential candidate at the group meeting that was to be held later that evening.

The UNP parliamentary group were until then prepared to make a firm call on the party leadership to immediately resolve the issue of the party’s presidential candidate by naming Premadasa.

Meeting the TNA

As promised by Wickremesinghe, a meeting was convened on Wednesday (21) with several senior UNP ministers.

The meeting was attended by Ministers Hashim, Madduma Bandara, and Malik Samarawickrama.

The ministers had once again explained to the party leadership the reasons for backing Premadasa as the party’s next presidential candidate.

After listening for a while, Wickremesinghe had responded by saying that he was aware of the public’s perception and that he would act accordingly. He had also asked the ministers to make a similar representation to Minister Vajira Abeywardena and the group of UNP ministers who are not supportive of Premadasa.

Wickremesinghe had once again dodged the bullet by making such vague statements about what the next step would be. He had also refrained from stating if he was willing to convene a joint meeting of the party’s Working Committee and parliamentary group or even the Working Committee as requested by a majority of the UNP MPs.

Hashim and Madduma Bandara however, could not proceed for too long with the discussion with Wickremesinghe as they had to rush to another meeting in Colombo.

The meeting was between Premadasa and several senior members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that was organised at the official residence of Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

The Black Box learnt that the meeting between Premadasa and the TNA had gone well, with the latter getting a clearer idea on Premadasa’s policies towards the minority communities.

Addressing the rally, Premadasa reiterated that he would contest at the next presidential election as the UNP presidential candidate. Also addressing the rally, UNP Minister Harin Fernando claimed that all UNP members supporting Premadasa were prepared to face any disciplinary inquiry that would be initiated against them by the party leadership for publicly supporting Premadasa

Strategising with Premadasa

Meanwhile, a discussion between Premadasa and the UNP parliamentary group was organised at Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe’s sister’s residence on Barnes Place, Colombo 7.

The meeting was first organised for Monday (19), but was later postponed to Tuesday (20) since Colombo Mayoress Rosy Senananayake’s son’s wedding was held on Monday.

Senasinghe organised a dinner at his residence for the UNP parliamentarians after the meeting with Premadasa.

UNP ministers and MPs started to make their way to the meeting at around 7.30 p.m. and Premadasa arrived at the residence at around 8.30 p.m.

Ministers Samaraweera, Hashim, Samarawickrama, Thalatha Atukorale, Chandrani Bandara, Eran Wickramaratne, Dr. Harsha de Silva, Dilip Wedaarachchi, Ajith P. Perera, Madduma Bandara, J.C. Alawathuwala, and backbench MPs attended the meeting.

One of the MPs had listed down the participants and had recorded the attendance of over 50 MPs including Minister Bathiudeen and several MPs from his party.

Several parliamentarians had questioned as to what alternative the UNPers backing Premadasa would have in the event the party leadership prevents his appointment as the UNP presidential candidate.

A confident Premadasa had said: “I will definitely be made the UNP presidential candidate. Don’t think negatively. Just continue with the campaign work.”

Several senior UNP ministers had expressed their opinions at the meeting saying that Premadasa will have to contest at the presidential election to secure victory for the UNP.

UNP MP Hesha Withanage had proposed that the UNP should appoint 25 campaign managers to cover the 25 districts and should also appoint a campaign representative to cover each of the 14,022 grama seva divisions.

After the conclusion of the meeting, Premadasa had made sure to engage in friendly discussions with every UNP MP who had attended the meeting.

However, a UNP State Minister who had attended the meeting had taken several video recordings of the meeting and sent it to the party leadership to score brownie points.

Meanwhile, another meeting of UNP provincial council representatives was organised at the Grand Monarch Hotel in Thalawathugoda on Tuesday (20) evening. The meeting was also attended by Premadasa.

Minister Ajith P. Perera said that out of the 123 UNP provincial councillors, 97 had attended the meeting with Premadasa. The 97 councillors had turned up at the meeting when officials from Temple Trees had informed the UNP councillors to refrain from meeting with Premadasa.

The provincial councillors had said the UNP has the chance of winning the next presidential election if it nominates Premadasa as its candidate. Ministers Atukorale, Bandara, Wickramaratne, and Nalin Bandara as well as MPs Hector Appuhamy, S.M. Marikkar, and Withanage had also participated at the meeting.

All-out campaign

Addressing the media after meeting with UNP provincial councillors, Premadasa confidently said that representatives from many political parties, including the SLPP would join him in his election campaign.

When asked about his views on the SLPP presidential candidate, Premadasa said: “Individuals don’t matter to me. What matters are the issues faced by the country.”

As for the prime ministerial candidate of the UNP, Premadasa said first things first and the initial focus should be on concluding the presidential election.

He then posed a question to the media on whether they were able to pose any questions to the SLPP presidential candidate. “Do you have the opportunity to pose these kinds of questions to other opposing presidential candidates or have you been banned from speaking to him? The media has been banned from posing questions. It is always stage-managed where the questions and answers are prepared prior to meeting with the media,” Premadasa said.

Be that as it may, it was visible that the Premadasa camp had launched an all-out, full-steam, all-guns-blazing campaign, with last Friday’s (23) mega rally organised by former Wickremesinghe confidante, Finance Minister Samaraweera in Matara, in support of Premadasa at the upcoming presidential election.

It is learnt that despite a surprise dinner meeting organised by the Wickremesinghe camp at Temple Trees, in a possible move to undermine the Matara rally aptly themed “Mulu Ratatama Sajith Enawa. Obath Enna Matarata”, a stark majority of MPs had turned up at the rally, showing signs of the curtains coming down finally for the Wickremesinghe era.

Addressing the rally, Premadasa reiterated that he would contest at the next presidential election as the UNP presidential candidate.

Also addressing the rally, UNP Minister Harin Fernando claimed that all UNP members supporting Premadasa were prepared to face any disciplinary inquiry that would be initiated against them by the party leadership for publicly supporting Premadasa.

He explained that the reason for calling for Premadasa’s candidature was because he is the only person who would bring victory to the party at the polls.

Gota’s banquet

However, taking a break from all the politicking, SLPP’s presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week held a banquet for all Opposition parliamentarians and their spouses. The event was organised at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

Gotabaya and SLPP Leader, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa stood at the entrance and welcomed the MPs arriving at the venue with their spouses.

The consumption of liquor was strictly prohibited at the event. Initially, arrangements were made to serve wine, but were later changed after Gotabaya said that since he did not drink even wine, it would not be appropriate to serve wine at the function.

The message to not serve wine at the event was communicated at 6 p.m. just before the guests started arriving. Guests had started to arrive at the venue from around 7.30 p.m.

SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary MP Mahinda Amaraweera had arrived together in Amaraweera’s vehicle.

Making a short welcome address, Gotabaya had said that he was happy to see all Opposition parliamentarians together and that it was an opportune time to meet and celebrate four years of being colleagues in Parliament.

However, several SLFP MPs did not attend the event. They were MPs Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Samarasinghe, and Malith Jayathilake.

Dissanayake told the media the following day that he did not attend Gotabaya’s banquet since it was organised by a presidential candidate.

“Since the SLFP has not taken an official decision to support his candidature, it would have been inappropriate for me to attend the banquet,” Dissanayake said, adding that there was no truth to rumours that he had not attended the function due to personal reasons.

He added that he had no personal issue with the Rajapaksas and that he would be attending MP Namal Rajapaksa’s wedding scheduled for next month. Dissanayake also attended Namal’s youngest brother Rohitha’s wedding earlier this year.

SLFP-SLPP talks

Meanwhile, a decisive round of talks between the SLFP and SLPP on forming a political alliance is to be held on Tuesday (27).

The Black Box learnt that the discussions on Tuesday would most likely be the final round of talks that would be held between the two political parties on forming a political alliance.

The SLFP side will be represented by Party Secretary MP Jayasekara, UPFA General Secretary MP Amaraweera, and MP Lasantha Alagiyawanna.

The SLPP will be represented by Party Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris and MP Dullas Alahapperuma.

The Black Box reliably learnt that SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa would also attend the discussion between the two parties. The outcome of the discussions will lay the foundation for a meeting to be held between SLFP Leader President Sirisena and SLPP Leader Rajapaksa to finalise the SLFP-SLPP alliance.

It is further learnt that among the matters to be taken up for discussion will be the structure of the proposed alliance, including office bearers as well as the presidential candidate the alliance would back.

Despite claims being made by some members from both political parties to expedite the formation of the proposed alliance, it is evident that such a formation takes time, especially when it’s being formed between two Opposition political groups.

In 1970, the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike took nearly two years to form a political alliance with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) while more recently, the SLFP took nearly one year to finalise an agreement to form an alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 2004.

SLPP alliance

However, the proposed alliance of the SLPP is to be launched next month under the name of Sri Lanka Podujana Sandhanaya (alliance).

The Black Box learnt that the alliance would be launched in grand style during the latter half of September.

The SLPP’s presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to play a key role in the proposed alliance.

The final meeting on forming the SLPP-led alliance of “Joint Opposition” (JO) political parties was held last Tuesday (20).

The SLPP was represented by Prof. Peiris and MP Alahapperuma while MPs Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and many others had attended the meeting.

The draft constitution of the proposed alliance was approved by all parties that are going to be signatories to the alliance.

Accordingly, 13 political parties along with the SLPP are to form the new alliance. Out of the 13 political parties, seven have parliamentary representation, a senior SLPP source told The Black Box.

Last Tuesday also saw Gotabaya participating in the discussion chaired by Opposition Leader Rajapaksa held at his official residence on Wijerama Mawatha with the leaders of political parties represented in the “JO” in Parliament.

The SLFP meanwhile, had stated that the party would hold separate discussions with Gotabaya since he was not an official member of the SLPP; UPFA MP Amaraweera said the SLFP would therefore hold separate discussions with the SLPP and Gotabaya.

Meanwhile, the TNA last week met with Gotabaya. TNA sources said the meeting was an unofficial one.

However, the proposed alliance of the SLPP is to be launched next month under the name of Sri Lanka Podujana Sandhanaya (alliance). The Black Box learnt that the alliance would be launched in grand style during the latter half of September. The SLPP’s presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to play a key role in the proposed alliance. The final meeting on forming the SLPP-led alliance of “Joint Opposition” (JO) political parties was held last Tuesday (20)

Citizen’s Agenda for 2019 polls

It is in this backdrop that the National Movement for a Just Society, which was initiated by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera to herald in good governance with the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime, along with civic organisations such as Citizen’s Power and Left Centre, presented a 19-point Citizen’s Agenda for the presidential election last week. It implored that the winning candidate should implement the following within one year of being elected.

1) Structure of the State – executive presidency must be completely abolished and replaced with the parliamentary governance that existed before, along with checks and balances to prevent arbitrary use of power by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

President should be appointed by Parliament and the Second Chamber and not directly elected by the people.

2) National security – ensuring national security would be the top priority for the Government. It should be made the responsibility of not only armed forces, civil defence, the Police, and law enforcement, but of all citizens. The National Security Council must be instituted by the Constitution and a national security policy framework must be formulated.

3) Constitutional Council (CC) – other than the Speaker, Prime Minister, and Leader of the Opposition, who are appointed ex-officio, the remaining seven members must not be parliamentarians. The appointment of the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) must be entrusted to the CC.

4) Independent commissions – the independence, accountability, and efficiency of the commissions must be ensured. Two new commissions for media and minority affairs must be established and the University Grants Commission (UGC) must be brought under the purview of the CC.
5) Electoral system – the proportional representation (PR) system must be retained, but the pre

ferential voting system must be done away with. Provisions must be made for the ruling party to appoint members in order to ensure political stability. A minimum education qualification must be mandated for the National List and appointed members. If a member votes against the party stance, he or she will lose the seat and a by-election will be held.

6) Second Chamber – a second house of Parliament consisting of nominees of provincial councils (PC) who are not elected MPs should be established.

All laws must be passed by the Second Chamber.

7) Provincial councils – PC system must be strengthened with Parliament having powers to dissolve a PC that threatens territorial integrity or sovereignty.

8) Fundamental rights – the scope of civil and political rights must be further expanded with right to life also being included in fundamental rights. The death penalty must be abolished.

9) Judiciary – in order to interpret the Constitution, a new Constitutional Court must be set up with authority for judicial review to invalidate laws, acts, and governmental actions that are incompatible with the Constitution. The Court of Appeal must be further devolved to the provinces. Judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the Court of Appeal must be appointed by the President upon nomination by the CC with a mechanism to obtain recommendations from the Attorney General, Chief Justice, and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) being in place. Impeachment of judges of higher courts must be done according to accepted international standards, away from Parliament.

10) Eradication of bribery and corruption – the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) must be strengthened and legal provisions must be passed to be enacted immediately. The efficiency of the staff should be upgraded and its Director General should also be appointed by the CC.

11) Peace and reconciliation – short-term and long-term measures must immediately be implemented to achieve peace and reconciliation. All forms of discrimination that exist between races and religions must be abolished and constitutional reforms to involve minorities in governance should be given importance.

12) Economy – economic vision should move away from the neoliberal economic approach to ensure the balance of global-local factors under the concept of “Shared Prosperity” under short-term, mid-term, and long-term measures. Indirect taxes must be reduced to 40% and proper regulations must be brought to rein in microfinance. A fully fledged National Development and Planning Council must be set up under the chair of the President.

13) Foreign policy – must be reformed.

14) Education – 6% of the Gross Domestic Production (GDP) must be allocated for education, and learning of Sinhala, Tamil, and English should be made mandatory for all schoolchildren. All international and private schools, along with tuition classes and madrasas, must be brought under regulation by the Government. Power to appoint vice chancellors must be removed from the President and entrusted to the UGC which would be placed under the CC.

15) Healthcare – universally free healthcare should be strengthened and private sector should be duly regulated.

16) Agriculture – proper competition must be ensured to guarantee fair prices for small-time agro producers and government intervention in buying their produce must be safeguarded.

17) Trade unions and rights – Total revamping of the public sector.

18) Transport – a national policy must be formulated with the concurrence of both the central government and provincial councils. Infrastructure must be enhanced and an appropriate pension scheme must be implemented for over 45,000 engaged in private transport services.

19) Arts and culture – ensure the protection of all social identities of the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Vedda, and Gypsy cultures under the public culture policy.