Politicking hits centre stage

“Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on offices, a rottenness begins in his conduct” – Thomas Jefferson

With less than two weeks for the Election Commission (EC) to receive the power to announce the presidential election due to be held towards the end of the year, the country’s political parties and politicians are engaged in real-time politicking both day and night.

The crisis with the United National Party (UNP) over deciding its candidate at the next presidential election continued intensely last week with Party Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreeing to discuss the issues in a one-on-one meeting with UNP Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa this week.

Meanwhile, the pro-Premadasa camp held its third public rally at the Sathyavadhi Ground in Kurunegala on Thursday (5). Like the ones held in Badulla and Matara, the Kurunegala rally also saw a large number of party parliamentarians, provincial and local government representatives as well as organisers extending their support to Premadasa.

The Kurunegala rally was held by the pro-Premadasa camp despite directives by party seniors loyal to Wickremesinghe not to hold public rallies and meetings in support of any individual.

The plan is to hold the next rally in Polonnaruwa to muster the support of the UNPers in the North Central Province. A date for the rally is yet to be fixed.

The pro-Premadasa camp also convened a meeting yesterday (7) at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium with the UNP members who contested last year’s local government elections.

The Black Box learnt that several senior party members loyal to Wickremesinghe had told the party’s local government members that they would lose their seat in their respective local government bodies if they attended the meeting at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.

However, a senior minister in the pro-Premadasa camp told The Black Box that the threat by several Wickremesinghe loyalists would only affect the UNPers who were elected to local government bodies.

“There were around 8,000 UNPers who contested at the last local government elections and around 2,000-odd members were elected. The rest of the UNPers who contested cannot be intimidated by such threats,” the Minister said.

The UNP’s local government representatives adopted a resolution to urge the party leadership to appoint Premadasa as the party’s presidential candidate. As the direct representatives of rural Sri Lanka, the local government members claimed they were the ones who knew the reality in the country more than the leaders who make decisions from the confines of their offices.

The motion called for Premadasa to be the presidential candidate not only of the UNP but also of any alliance that the party would form in the run up to the presidential polls.

The motion was proposed by Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Y.M.K. Priyananda and was seconded by the Chairman of the Seruvawila Pradeshiya Sabha A.J. Ranasinghe. The proposal was unanimously adopted.

The event organised under the theme of “A new Sri Lanka with Sajith” was a success with UNP local government members and candidates turning up in their thousands to fill the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.

The Party Chairman, Treasurer, and many UNP ministers, MPs as well as provincial council and local government members attended yesterday’s event.

“This meeting is not one of a group, it is a meeting of the party,” UNP Chairman Minister Kabir Hashim said addressing the gathering.

Hashim explained that the party’s election plan will be first taken to the district committees and then to the electoral divisions in order to ensure that the campaign is implemented at the grassroots level.

Alliance delayed

The arguments and counter arguments within the UNP over its presidential candidate have resulted in the formation of the proposed political alliance – the Democratic National Front (DNF) – being indefinitely postponed. The DNF was to be formed by the end of last month, but the UNP’s internal issues have delayed the DNF and thereby left leaders of coalition parties in the United National Front (UNF) wondering whether to explore other alternatives come presidential election campaign time.

Meanwhile, UNF party leaders have expressed their displeasure at the UNP’s failure to resolve its internal strife.

Minister Mano Ganesan of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) said that the delay in forming the proposed political alliance would eventually be detrimental to the UNP.

He said that the UNP as the main party in the United National Front (UNF) should initiate the discussion on forming a political alliance with other political parties.

Ganesan noted that coalition partners of the UNF cannot intervene in the issue of selecting the UNP’s presidential candidate as it was a matter for the respective party to address.

Be that as it may, the delay in forming the DNF has left many minor parties in the UNF quite disgruntled with some of them already initiating discussions with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential hopeful, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

RW-Sajith to meet

Wickremesinghe, while accepting that Premadasa is heading several public surveys conducted on the party’s presidential candidate, at the meeting held on Friday (6) morning, had expressed his desire to contest at the next presidential election as well.

The meeting to discuss the party’s candidate was held under the Prime Minister’s patronage and was attended by Party General Secretary Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Chairman Minister Hashim, and Ministers Malik Samarawickrama, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Lakshman Kiriella, Vajira Abeywardena, Navin Dissanayake, Sarath Fonseka, and Daya Gamage.

Ministers Premadasa, Mangala Samaraweera, and Ravi Karunanayake were unable to attend the meeting since they had prior engagements.

Dissanayake had said that despite claims being made about public survey results, he had not seen such a report.

“Have you seen such a report of a public survey?” Dissanayake had asked Wickremesinghe.

The Prime Minister had accepted that Ministers Samarawickrama, Samaraweera, and Dr. Harsha de Silva had presented him with several reports on surveys conducted locally and internationally. Wickremesinghe had also said that he had assigned a separate public survey and had received the report.

Dissanayake had asked the Prime Minister as to what that survey had reported. The Prime Minister had said: “I have 20%, Karu Jayasuriya has 15%, and Sajith Premadasa has 35%. The main focus however should be on the fact that there’s a considerable amount of people who have not decided as yet. Therefore, we have to focus on who would be able to get the support of those undecided ones.”

Samarawickrama had then explained that the most recent survey had shown the Prime Minister having 17%, Karu Jayasuriya 15%, and Sajith Premadasa 42% support.

The Prime Minister had refrained from commenting on the surveys any further and agreed to meet with Premadasa on Sunday (today) for a one-on-one meeting.

Wickremesinghe had clearly indicated that he had every intention to contest at the next presidential election with the confidence that he would be able to muster the support of the undecided vote base.

However, yesterday (7) it was decided to postpone the Wickremesinghe-Premadasa meeting till Tuesday (10) since the latter had several prior engagements to attend to.

Meanwhile, Party Secretary Kariyawasam had said that six senior ministers of the UNP had threatened to quit the party if Premadasa was announced as the party’s presidential candidate.

Samarawickrama had immediately responded by saying that two-thirds of the UNP’s ministers and MPs would resign if the Prime Minister was named as the party’s presidential candidate.

Presence of ‘junior’ ministers

At the outset of Friday’s meeting, several ministers had questioned the presence of whom they termed as “junior” party ministers like Daya Gamage and Sarath Fonseka, when there were senior UNP ministers like Ravindra Samaraweera and Chandrani Bandara who could have been asked to attend the meeting. The Prime Minister however had avoided the question.

Gamage had responded saying that it was he who maintained the UNP head office Sirikotha when the party was in the Opposition. However, Gamage was silenced when a minister had noted that the Prime Minister had appointed Anoma Gamage as a National List MP and as a State Minister as a mark of gratitude.

Meanwhile, Daya Gamage had been accused by senior party members of failing to utilise the funds received by his company from other businesses to renovate and maintain Sirikotha when the UNP was in the Opposition. The Prime Minister had assigned Gamage to obtain private funds and use them through one of his companies to maintain Sirikotha during the Rajapaksa regime.

SF’s question

Sarath Fonseka has meanwhile asked as to why a decision could not be made to make him a candidate, since the UNP in 2010 decided to appoint him as the common candidate at the presidential election. Another Minister had responded saying that it could have been considered if Fonseka had not contested under another party at the 2015 general election.

Fonseka contested the 2015 general election from the Democratic Party (DP), which managed to poll only around 30,000 votes from the entire country. While the DP managed to secure seven seats after contesting the 2010 general election together with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the party was unable to secure any parliamentary seats at the 2015 election after contesting separately. The party’s vote bank also saw massive erosion.

However, the politically defeated Fonseka was appointed to Parliament through the UNP National List this time around following the demise of MP M.K.D.S. Gunawardena, who was appointed by the party’s National List.

Kiriella-Hashim clash

Meanwhile, Ministers Kiriella and Hashim locked horns and were engaged in a heated argument during Friday’s meeting.

The clash was over the move by Wickremesinghe to remove a subject under Hashim and to re-assign it to Kiriella.

The Prime Minister had recently requested President Maithripala Sirisena to assign the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) under Hashim’s purview to Kiriella.
The President had however turned down the Prime Minister’s request and conveyed this to Kiriella and another party senior who had met the President last week.
Angered by the failure to carry out the plan, Kiriella had raised this matter at yesterday’s meeting and blamed Hashim for the failure to add another subject to his (Kiriella’s) portfolio.

“What right do you have to block this move?” Kiriella had asked.

This resulted in a verbal clash between the two ministers.

Kiriella had accused Hashim of letting down the party on four counts.

He had said Hashim was sworn in by the President as a Minister despite instructions by the Prime Minister not to do so as he was known to have underhand dealings with the President against the party.

Kiriella had also said Hashim had met Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa in secret.

“You were exposed by Minister Navin Dissanayake regarding your surreptitious meeting with Gotabaya. Then, you admitted it. I am ashamed to associate with people like you in the Government,” Kiriella had charged, while also accusing him of conducting public rallies all over the country regardless of the party’s position.

“It is shameful that you do these things as the Chairman of the party. You better resign from the party and do what you want,” Kiriella has said.

Meanwhile, Hashim had resisted the move to take the CPC away from him because he was the only Cabinet Minister representing the Kegalle District.

“We do not have expressway projects leading to Kegalle. It is a poor district. I want to serve my people better,” he has said.

Hashim had earned Wickremesinghe’s wrath for supporting Premadasa’s bid to become the party’s presidential candidate.

Wickremesinghe is now targeting the party ministers who are supportive of Premadasa.

Presidential term

On the other side of the divide, it is learnt that several members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Central Committee continue to urge President Maithripala Sirisena to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on his presidential term.

SLFP Youth Wing Leader former MP Shantha Bandara had reportedly made this proposal to the President.

The discussion on seeking a clarification on the presidential term had been taking place for quite some time and given the hard-line stance maintained by the President during the past few weeks, it seems a high possibility.

However, the powers of calling for the next presidential election would fall under the purview of the EC from the 20th of this month. This would enable the EC to announce the presidential election after 20 September.

In the event the President plans to seek a Supreme Court opinion on his term, he would have to do so before 20 September since there is no law to prevent the EC from announcing the presidential election afterwards.

MS gets tough

Be that as it may, SLFP Leader President Sirisena, making a tough statement at the party’s 68th annual convention held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium on Tuesday (3), said the SLFP was now ready to show its power and strength.

Sirisena rallied his party members with pledges to establish a SLFP-led Government in 2020, noting that under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, more powers had been devolved to the Prime Minister. The President refrained from making any comment on contesting for a second presidential term.

Sirisena said that at the forthcoming presidential election, a broad, progressive front would be created to counter the UNP and in 2020, the SLFP will be a vital faction in forming a new government.

“According to the 19th Amendment, the next president will be powerless. The Defence Ministry too will be with the Prime Minister. Therefore, more than thinking of the next presidential election, we should pay attention to electing the next prime minister,” the President said.

He called upon all SLFPers to strengthen the party structure, enabling to form a SLFP government in 2020.

He said that a new path for development should be taken and that the people should try and understand which political structure possessed the best vision.

The SLFP should form a political movement free of corruption, malpractices, and unethical political practices.

“The entire political system has become corrupt, dishonest, and immoral. Our responsibility is to build a political force which is pure, without corruption, people-oriented, and ethical, to oust the current governance by the corrupt, elitist, and anti-populist groups.”

According to the President, patriotism is the last refuge of the political scoundrel, as evident from the actions of some politicians. He urged the people to properly study what politicians say to pick the best political leader for the country.

He noted that the SLFP should be strengthened to defeat the UNP, and the party should take the lead to create a new political culture in the country.

“We will mobilise people’s movements. We will create the 2020 government, adhering to SLFP policies. Be prepared to show our strength. Let us build the party and mobilise a new force within the next few months,” he said.

Speaking of the delay in holding provincial council (PC) elections, Sirisena said it was unfortunate that the provincial councils have become ineffective.

He pointed out that the Prime Minister had failed to present the review committee report to hold the election after the delimitation report was defeated in Parliament.

“Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is the key respondent who should be held responsible for preventing the provincial council polls from being held. I believe the provincial council system has been destroyed and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe hit the final nail into its coffin.”

He further noted that he had to face challenges within the Government during the last four-and-a-half years and that he had to fight within the Government against corruption and mismanagement in order to protect public interest.

“Bank robbers and the corrupt people should leave politics. All the documents are ready for the extradition of former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. Documents are also ready to punish the leaders responsible for the Central Bank Bond Scam,” Sirisena said.

The President said that he believed corrupt elite groups had come together, which had been one of the biggest challenges he had to address during his term.

“People do not know who those elite groups are. They should be exposed. They were all against me. Therefore, I had to fight against them,” he added.

“Whatever allegations were levelled against us for the past five years of my tenure, I was committed to building a corruption-free country, as well as attempting to ensure democracy. The neoliberalism concept is not suitable for our country. During my tenure, I was able to ensure maximum freedom and democracy in the country. As I said earlier, not a single civilian was targeted by the guns of the State during this time. I am proud to state that no media institution was burnt down and no journalists were threatened,” the President noted.

He said the country should achieve balanced development, and the development process must be sustainable and efficient.

He also said the country must move towards a green economy and emulate the success of emerging economies based on smart technology.

“I firmly believe our success lies in investing more on smart technology and robotics. We should move toward a technology-based economy to achieve our economic goals.

The development projects should preserve the environment for future generations,” he said.

According to the President, the Government and Opposition leaders were holding discussions with Tamil leaders purely to get their votes. “But nobody has a genuine plan for reconciliation. They are only thinking about the number of votes in the North of the country. It’s a tragedy,” he said.

Interestingly, following the hard stance maintained by him during the party convention, Sirisena on Friday signed the documents related to the extradition of former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran from Singapore.

Taking a stand

SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara said five national list MPs who had left the party had been sent letters to show cause within seven days.

Accordingly, letters had been sent to MPs Lakshman Seneviratne, Wijith Wijayamuni Zoysa, A.H.M. Fowzie, Dilan Perera, and S.B. Dissanayake.

On 4 August, the SLFP Central Committee decided to take disciplinary action against party members who violated the party’s code of conduct.

It is in this backdrop that the SLFP had sent show cause letters to the five MPs. While three MPs had joined the UNF Government, two others had joined the SLPP.

Despite much discussion on the SLFP’s stance at the next presidential election, SLFP Spokesperson, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MP Weerakumara Dissanayake said the party was to field a candidate at the forthcoming presidential election. Dissanayake observed that the SLFP General Secretary had informed the EC of the party decision to field a candidate at the presidential election.

The decision was made amidst negotiations between the SLFP and SLPP to form an alliance for upcoming elections.

SLFP MPs had requested President Sirisena to contest as the party’s candidate at the next presidential election. Sirisena however had remained silent on the matter.

SLFP-SLPP powwow

Amidst the politicking by the SLFP, the party held another round of talks with the SLPP to explore the possibility of forming a political alliance.

The two parties have held several rounds of discussions since March this year. The discussions came to a temporary halt from June and resumed on 27 August.

The SLFP was represented at the discussions on Friday (6) by Party General Secretary Jayasekara, UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera, and MP Lasantha Alagiyawanna.

The SLPP was represented by National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa, Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris, and MP Dullas Alahapperuma.

The discussion commenced at around 2.30 p.m. at the Opposition Leader’s Office.

Be that as it may, Friday’s discussions ended inconclusive as the two parties could not reach a consensus on the symbol of a proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.

The SLPP representatives have noted that such an alliance should proceed with the SLPP’s “flower bud” symbol since it had become popular on the election campaign trail.

The SLFP group however objected, saying a common symbol should be adopted if the two parties are to form an alliance.

The SLFP representatives stood firm in their stance that the SLFP could not contest under the SLPP’s “flower bud” symbol.

Interestingly, before the SLFP group arrived for the discussion with the SLPP, they had met with the President at around 12.30 p.m. to discuss issues related to talks with the SLPP.

The President, it is learnt, had directed the SLFP group on the areas to be given priority in the discussion.

SLFP meets Gota

The SLFP group also held a separate discussion with the SLPP’s presidential hopeful, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the meeting with the SLPP at the Opposition Leader’s Office. The meeting with Gotabaya commenced at 4 p.m.

It was the second round of talks between the SLFP and the SLPP’s presidential hopeful as the first discussion was held a few weeks back at Gotabaya’s residence.

The discussion focused mainly on the policies that would be adopted by Gotabaya in governance and how the SLFP, in the event the party chooses to back the SLPP presidential candidate, could extend its support while safeguarding the party’s identity.

However, it was agreed by both parties at the discussion that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) would be signed between the SLFP and Gotabaya on the presidential election.

The SLFP and Gotabaya are expected to meet for another round of talks.

All set for SLPA

Meanwhile, MP Alahapperuma last week said the draft constitution for the establishment of the proposed Sri Lanka Podujana Alliance (SLPA) by parties in the “Joint Opposition” (JO) was approved by all political parties in the alliance.

He said the “JO” leaders on Tuesday (3) resolved the main issue there was to form an alliance.

“At the party leaders’ meeting, all parties in the ‘JO’ agreed to the drafted new constitution,” Alahapperuma added.

According to Alahapperuma, the alliance would be officially formed by the end of the month.

JVP launches campaign

While the political stage in the country continues to heat up, the JVP is continuing with its campaign as the alternative force at the forthcoming presidential election.

The JVP’s campaign for the presidential election is to commence today (8) with a political meeting in Anuradhapura.

Party Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who is the presidential candidate of the National People’s Power (NPP), is to commence its district meetings from today. The campaign will be held under the theme of “Let’s rebuild our fallen nation”.

After the Anuradhapura meeting today, similar events have been organised in Kurunegala (11), Kalutara (12), Gampaha (15), Ratnapura (19), Hambantota (20), Galle (27), Matara (28), Badulla (29), Monaragala (30), and the North on 1 October.

All these meetings are aimed at building a dialogue with the public on the current political situation in the country and the alternative to address the existing issues faced by the nation.

The JVP’s trade union wing, the National Trade Union Centre (NTUC), has organised a convention on Thursday (12) at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium with the participation of a large number of trade unions to extend support to the NPP presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had expressed some positive sentiments about the JVP and its political stance. TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran said the Tamil political parties would discuss matters with all presidential candidates before reaching a final decision on whom to support. Although the TNA had held unofficial talks with the presidential hopefuls, official discussions have not yet commenced.

Sumanthiran noted that the JVP and the TNA had made the correct political decisions during the 51-day constitutional coup that was launched on 26 October last year.

The MP had further observed that the TNA had to be careful in making its final decision at the forthcoming presidential election.

The TNA has been facing criticism from people in the North due to the failure of the UNF Government to address the needs of the Tamil people.

Hence, the TNA is now seemingly showing leniency towards extending its support to an alternative force at the next election.

Warning shots from Geneva this week

By Easwaran Rutnam

Sri Lanka will face warning shots from Geneva this week over concerns related to human rights, when the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meets for its September session.

President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to appoint Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva as the new Army Commander will draw the attention of the Council.

The 42nd session of the UNHRC will take place from 9-27 September in Geneva.

Sri Lanka is not on the formal agenda of the session but several matters related to Sri Lanka will be raised at some of the meetings, including by some member countries and international NGOs.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will be delivering an opening statement tomorrow when the 42nd session begins.

At an informal briefing to members of the Council on Wednesday, Bachelet said that she will be formally updating the Council on a very wide range of human rights concerns around the world tomorrow (9), but she will not be able to cram every issue into one speech.

Bachelet’s office said that it was still not clear if she will mention Sri Lanka in her opening statement, but there was a possibility of her reiterating concerns on Silva’s appointment.

Last month, Bachelet had warned that the appointment of Lieutenant General Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army is likely to impact Sri Lanka’s ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts.

Last Wednesday at the informal briefing, Bachelet noted that her office was working closely with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to ensure that the UN’s own peace operations scrupulously adhere to human rights, international humanitarian law, and the UN’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse.

Bachelet had said earlier that she was concerned Silva was appointed as Army Commander despite being heavily implicated by a succession of UN reports in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The High Commissioner had already described his previous appointment as Army Chief of Staff as a “worrying development” in her last report to the UNHRC in March.

Disappearance issue noted

Apart from the controversy over the appointment of the new Army Commander, other issues which will see focus slightly shifting on Sri Lanka in Geneva is the issue on disappearances.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will be submitting a report on its work during the session and will also submit a follow-up report made after its visit to Peru and Sri Lanka.

An advanced version of the report by The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances handed over to the UNHRC noted concerns of the Working Group on the adoption of regressive legislation in some countries, which has an impact on the right to truth and justice of victims of enforced disappearances, or the lack of progress in implementing those rights.

The Working Group noted that in Sri Lanka, while the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) had been established as an institution, progress in dealing with individual cases was yet to be apparent.

“Co-operation from other parts of the State, particularly the security apparatus, remains essential for the fulfilment of its mandate. In addition, the continued lack of awareness and mistrust with regard to the Office will need to be addressed throughout its work,” the Working Group had said.

The Working Group also noted in its report that it had transmitted seven prompt intervention communications addressing allegations of harassment of and/or threats to human rights defenders and relatives of disappeared persons in Colombia, Iran (Islamic Republic), Iraq, Libya, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).

NGOs to raise concerns

Meanwhile, The Sunday Morning learnt that a few NGOs have booked rooms to host side events on Sri Lanka. The side events are both in support of the military and in support of the victims of human rights abuses.

Le Pont, Pasumai Thaayagam Foundation, Association Bharathi Centre Culturel Franco-Tamoul, African Green Foundation International, and Association Pour Les Victimes Du Monde are among the NGOs which have booked rooms to host side events on Sri Lanka on the sidelines of the 42nd session in Geneva, The Sunday Morning learnt.

Leading human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are also expected to note their concerns on Sri Lanka at the session.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in Geneva will be at hand to respond to the allegations and concerns during the main sessions.

The session in Geneva beginning this week will be the last one for this year and the next session will be in March next year.

A resolution on Sri Lanka passed by the Council last March called for a written update on Sri Lanka in March 2020 and a comprehensive report to be followed by a discussion on the implementation in 2021.

photo krishan kariyawasam