Editorial/Opinion

Polls to the fore; National issues on the backburner

“Make the lie big, keep it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” – Nazi Propaganda Chief Dr. Joseph Goebbels.
Sri Lanka – one of Asia’s oldest democracies – is facing a testing time. With a presidential election around the corner, misinformation and mud-slinging campaigns are becoming the norm of the day followed closely with political bickering, posturing, and forming alliances.
Last Monday’s United National Party (UNP) Parliamentary Group meeting is said to be a turning point in recent party history with Party Chairman Minister Kabir Hashim raising the issue of presidential candidate and nominating Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa for the spot with a majority of MPs backing his candidature.
Even UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s closest confidante Minister Malik Samarawickrama along with Ministers Harin Fernando, Thalatha Athukorala, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Non-Cabinet Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, as well as State Ministers Eran Wickramaratne and Sujeewa Senasinghe spoke strongly in favour of Premadasa Jr.
The pro-Sajith camp pointed out that it was the politicos with grassroots level support and popularity who could steer the party towards victory at the polls and that Premadasa should be declared as the presidential candidate.
However, the only MP to disagree was Assistant Party Leader Minister Ravi Karunanayake who opined that such a decision should be unanimous and a collective stance was needed before promoting the candidate. He has further noted that the party needed to exhaust all options available before finally settling on one individual. It is learnt that the backbencher MPs have staged a walkout in silent protest of Karunanayake’s “leg-pulling” tactic.

Ranil upset?

However, it is now learnt that Wickremesinghe has been upset over the whole saga and his camp has been trying to downplay the debacle outside party circles.
In this backdrop, it is learnt that some Wickremesinghe confidantes have even suggested disciplinary action against Party Chairman Hashim.
Be that as it may, it is learnt that Wickremesinghe’s camp has been pushing for a broader coalition, stating that the UNP may be able to pass the 50%+1 threshold by banking strongly on minority votes regardless of the candidate.
It is also learnt that the Prime Minister has expressed confidence in gaining 50%+1 and has emphasised to his confidantes that they need not fear any changes to the party leadership. However, these developments have been troubling the reformist camp of the UNP. Although it now appears that Wickremesinghe is unwavering over the party leadership; he would be more flexible on the hierarchy of the broad alliance – Democratic National Front (DNF).
Some have even suggested Dr. Rajitha Senaratne as the General Secretary of the alliance as he appears to be the chief architect of the coalition, to which Wickremesinghe appears to have given his consented subject to the green light from other coalition members.
Names of Ministers Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ravi Karunanayake, and MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka are being considered for other top spots in the alliance.

Push for PC polls

Meanwhile, a meeting of several senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members was held at MP Duminda Dissanayake’s residence in Anuradhapura on Saturday (20).
The meeting was to discuss the party re-organising work in the Anuradhapura District where General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara, MPs Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Weerakumara Dissanayake, and other organisers were in attendance where the participants have discussed in length over expanding re-organising efforts all island.
During the discussion, the members at the meeting had each expressed the problems they face in their respective electorates in the process of party reforms.
However, all members have agreed to work towards the party’s victory at the elections. Afterwards, they made their way to the Sri Maha Bodhiya to engage in religious observances.
It is in this backdrop that the SLFP Central Committee (CC) met last Wednesday (24) under the patronage of Party Leader President Maithripala Sirisena.
Wide ranging issues were discussed at the meeting – from the discussion on forming an alliance with Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the holding of provincial council (PC) elections, and the party’s forthcoming 68th anniversary celebrations. However, no one broached the issue of presidential polls.
Meanwhile, a resolution was presented by Uva Province Chief Minister Chamara Sampath Dissanayake and was passed by MP Nimal Siripala de Silva at the SLFP CC that the PC polls be held before the presidential polls, which was unanimously adopted.
Sirisena too had summoned both the Polls Chief Mahinda Deshapriya and the Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera and instructed the latter to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court as to how PC polls can be held in light of the delimitation report not being adopted by Parliament. To this, the AG had replied that it was unnecessary and it was rumoured that the President was to issue an urgent gazette notification last Friday publishing the delimitation report.
However, in the event PC polls are held, it is likely to be conducted under the new hybrid methodology.
Several CC members inquired the progress on the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.
The President has asked Party Secretary Jayasekara to give a briefing on the matter.
Jayasekara has explained that the alliance should be broad based. MP De Silva has then said the discussion should now be held at the level of leaders and a final decision on all matters needed to be reached fast.
In order to break the stalemate, the SLFP CC had decided that a high-level meeting between Sirisena and SLPP Leader, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa should be organised to take the final policy decision over the coalition.
The CC was unanimous that in the event the alliance does not take off, the SLFP should field its own candidate at the presidential polls.
As for the party’s 68th anniversary celebrations, the event has been planned for 2 September at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium.

SLPP’s alliance blues
It is learnt that from the very onset, Rajapaksa had been somewhat uncomfortable with the direction of the SLPP.
During last week’s meeting with war veterans, although former military top brass had requested to organise a grand welcome ceremony for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it is learnt that Rajapaksa senior has walked out of the meeting advising the top brass not to try to teach him politics.
The week was a crucial week for the SLPP which went on a high with the signing of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with 10 not-so-big political outfits and the return of its potential presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Singapore.
Last Friday (26), the Opposition Leader’s official residence was abuzz with the SLPP inking agreements with parties, none of which were represented in the Parliament and some of which had been critical of Rajapaksa in the past and had joined the coalition led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
Mawbima Janatha Pakshaya led by firebrand ex-Minister Hemakumara Nanayakkara which recently antagonised Muslim countries by alleging that Saudi Arabia was giving soft loan for Muslims, which was later dismissed by the Embassy, was the foremost politico to join hands with his erstwhile leader.
In addition, Lanka Kamkaru Eksath Peramuna led by S. Sathsivam, Thamila Eksath Nidahas Peramuna led by one-time Rajapaksa regime minister and renegade Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (nom de guerre: Colonel Karuna Amman), Lanka Kamkaru Eksath Peramuna led by S. Sathsivam, Elawar Democratic Party led by Sarabavanathan Dushyanth, Mubarak Abdul Majeed led Muslim Ulama Party, Liberal Party led by General Secretary Kamal Nisshanka, Nawa Sihala Urumaya led by General Secretary Sarath Manamendra, Prajathanrawadi Jathika Viyaparaya led by Secretary Aruna de Soysa, Eksath Lanka Maha Sabhawa led by General Secretary Jayantha Kulatunga, and Sinhale Maha Sammatha Bhoomiputra Party led by Chairman Sarath Wijerathne joined hands with Rajapaksa.
The signing of the Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to form a new alliance targets the upcoming presidential election and other election victories.
Addressing the inaugural meeting, Rajapaksa claimed that there were serious concerns over the right to life of all races and creeds including Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers of this country. He stated that whatever is said by the people, this Government does not feel the pulse of the people, implying that the dual administration of the Maithripala-Ranil-led United National Front (UNF) Government was out of touch with the vibes, wishes, and aspirations of the general public. There is no doubt that this is somewhat the crux of the slogans of the SLPP in the run up to the presidential polls.
“Therefore, for the sake of future generations, we will have to overthrow this Government. This Government has sold this country. (The UNP) destroyed this country,” charged Rajapaksa.
The former President hurled criticisms at the incumbent President, hinting that any possible hitch with the Sirisena-led SLFP would be pipedreams. He criticised the President for claiming that he had not seen or read the 19th Amendment to the Constitution at the time he signed it.
“This has become a boomerang to the UNP. As a means of countering, they are trying to bring the 20th Amendment. Tell this Government that you have no right to change this Constitution again. I clearly state that only our government will have the mandate to change the Constitution.”
However, “Joint Opposition” (JO) stalwarts Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Dinesh Gunawardena were notable absentees.
It is now learnt that eight “JO” allies including the National Freedom Front (NFF), the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), Communist Party (CP) of Sri Lanka, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), and the Democratic Left Front (DLF) had decided to boycott the event in protest.

New constitution
Due to four years of instability, exasperation with the 51-day illegal coup, and the 21 April Suicide bombings, much-needed political reforms have been sent to the backburner. However, interest in the subject was rekindled with last Thursday’s (25) adjournment debate on constitutional reform in Parliament.
Opposition Leader Rajapaksa told the House in Parliament last Friday (26) that a future government under the aegis of the SLPP would bring in a new constitution targeting the next presidential election (i.e. 2025) hinting that the “JO” would not support the 20th Amendment promoted by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or any other reforms prior to 2019 presidential polls.
Rajapaksa said that after the next government comes into power, all the parties represented in Parliament would be engaged to make constitutional reforms and that a referendum would be held towards this purpose.
However, many still point out that as the 19th Amendment that inevitably led to the present political stalemate was transitional and that it was crucial to proceed to the next (i.e. 20th Amendment) in order to avoid any complications in the future. The purpose of the 19th Amendment was to limit the hitherto unfettered, discretionary, and arbitrary powers of the executive presidency and bring it under the checks and balances of the legislature (i.e. Parliament) via the Constitutional Council, independent commissions, etc.
Although the 2001-04 UNP Government brought in the 17th Amendment, in September 2010, riding on high popularity after the conclusion of the 30-year civil war, the President Rajapaksa regime abolished it, bringing in the draconian 18th Amendment.
With the 18th Amendment being passed, the restriction of the two-term ceiling on the executive presidency system was removed, allowing an incumbent president to contest any number of times he or she desired. The amendment also replaced the then defunct Constitutional Council, introduced (which was not fully implemented for four years) with a consultation process referred to as the “Parliament Council”.
Earlier, all three leaders (i.e. Rajapaksa, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe) announced to their inner circles that they would support the move to abolish the executive presidency and the 20th Amendment. However, pressure from the camps of presidential hopefuls within the UNP and SLPP seems to have blocked the move.
In fact, the one-time third force of Sri Lankan politics, the JVP, which believed that the final say over the 20th Amendment should be that of the people at a referendum as propounded in the Supreme Court ruling of the same amendment, already sought the support of political parties including the SLFP, SLPP, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), MP Rauff Hakeem-led Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), MP Arumugam Thondaman-led Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), MP Rishad Bathiudeen-led All Ceylon Makkal Congress, and Minister Mano Ganesan-led Democratic People’s Front.

Devolution
Summing up the entire constitutional reforms drama, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera delivered his address, emphasising that any future reforms should seriously include devolution of power and due recognition of the minorities.
“Following the attempted coup and Easter Sunday bombings, many of our fellow citizens ask why our country continues to veer from one crisis to another. They are right to do so. The history of Sri Lanka is a history of crisis. In the last seventy-odd years, we experienced the assassination of a prime minister, the assassination of an executive president, a failed coup, two youth insurgencies, and a long, bloody civil war.
“With one or two exceptions, the common thread uniting these crises is the national question – the question of how our many communities can live together in amity and flourish collectively. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated because of his attempts at conciliation with the minorities. The 1962 Coup was significantly induced by fear of discrimination against Christians. The war, as our academics and intelligence men have observed, was the direct result of treating minorities as second-class citizens.”

Black July

“At this point, Mr. Speaker, it would be amiss not to reflect on the lessons of Black July. In fact, this week, 36 years ago, from 24 July to 30 July, the State failed to protect thousands of its own citizens, who were slaughtered in their homes and on the streets. We all know that if there was any one cause for a rag-tag insurgency becoming a full-blown civil war, it was Black July. Similarly, it cannot be a coincidence that the Easter Sunday bombings took place following the Aluthgama and Digana riots. Although investigations are still underway, there is no reason not to think that these riots played a role in radicalising a few Muslim youth.
“Even though these issues consumed the energies of this House and the entire island since Independence, it is clear we have failed to resolve this matter successfully. Despite new constitutions, countless committees, and endless debates, we still have majoritarianism entrenched in our politics and law.
“The stakes could not be higher. It is our inability to resolve the national question that is at the very centre of our failure to make Sri Lanka peaceful and prosperous. Sri Lanka has been in crisis, remains in crisis, and will continue to be in crisis until we can create a just and equal Sri Lanka for all Sri Lankans.
“This House knows the solution to this problem. It has always known the solution to this problem. But, more often than not, its members have not had the courage of their convictions to address it.
“Ever since Independence, all our leaders, including Mahinda Rajapaksa, have known the actual solution to this problem. It has cowered before a small but vocal minority of reactionary forces. And I am sad to say that a truly united Sri Lanka – a Sri Lanka where Muslims don’t fear Buddhists, where Sinhalese don’t fear Tamils, and where Christians can worship in peace – is a cause of mortal danger for certain members of this House.
“…I believe that all of us, whichever party, side, community, whichever religion we believe in, must start asking ourselves, if we do not solve this issue, what the consequences are? Can Sri Lanka move forward unless we come to terms with the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi religious, and a multi-cultural nation?”