Editorial/Opinion

5 August general election announced: A divided Opposition gears for polls 

Black Box by Capt Vasabha  

The 2020 parliamentary election, which was postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is scheduled to be held on 5 August, according to the Election Commission (EC). 

EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya said that its members unanimously decided to hold the general election on 5 August. 

Last Tuesday (9), the EC issued the Gazette indicating the preferential numbers of the candidates and the designated polling stations islandwide. 

The parliamentary polls were initially to be held on 25 April but had to be postponed due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Later, the EC postponed the poll to 20 June, but it was again deemed not suitable to hold an election. 

However, the EC last Sunday (7) held a mock poll in the Galle District to test the Covid-19 health guidelines and its preparedness for the parliamentary polls. 

The first mock poll was held at the Ambalangoda Vilegoda Dhammayukthikarama Temple. 

The main aim of the exercise was to identify the challenges that could emerge in a live poll setting and making the necessary arrangements to address them while conducting the polling in line with the health regulations. 

The simulation was a success according to Commissioner General of Elections Saman Rathnayake. He said the mock elections ran smoothly and did not take as much time as anticipated. 

“The mock election was held today (7) to ascertain variables such as how long voters would take at a polling booth while adhering to health guidelines,” he said. 

Rathnayake said within two hours, 240 persons were able to vote. He explained that two voters were able to vote within a minute as opposed to 2.3 voters recorded in a normal scenario. 

He added that the number of officials at a polling booth may have to be increased by one. 

He said members of the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) also participated to observe the mock election. 

According to Deshapriya, there will be several more mock polls soon to estimate the time needed to cast each vote while sticking to the guidelines. 

According to EC member Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole, the advice given by health authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), is positive. The WHO has given the green light to hold the election, but has also urged caution and stressed the importance of following all relevant public health guidelines. 

Furthermore, a concern was raised at the meeting regarding the inability to take legal action against those who violate the guidelines issued by the health authorities while preparing to hold an election. 

“The health guidelines given by the health authorities clearly mention that the maximum number of people that could attend a meeting is 100. But it has not mentioned what action the Police can take against those who violate that guideline,” Prof. Hoole stressed. 

Therefore, Prof. Hoole noted that the Commission had decided to make a formal request from the Government to gazette all health guidelines under the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Act. 

The next EC meeting was scheduled for Wednesday (10) when the final announcement of 5 August as the date to hold the election, was made. 

Tension at Sirikotha 

With election heat gathering momentum, the United National Party (UNP) headquarters, Sirikotha, became a hive of activity on Monday (8) when a group of the party’s trade unionists voiced objections against the party leadership and seniors. 

A meeting of the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS) representatives was held at Sirikotha on Monday morning under the patronage of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

The tense situation was reported when a group of UNP members representing the JSS had raised objections over the conduct of the party higher-ups. 

The trade unionists had charged that the party had failed to support the trade unions even while in Government and had now turned a blind eye to the problems faced by them since the conclusion of the presidential election. 

“The party leaders are too busy fighting with the UNPers and striking deals with members of the Government. They have failed to address the issues faced by the trade unions,” several trade unionists had shouted during the meeting. 

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said that by spying on the trade unionists, the party had determined that the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) had been behind the commotion at Sirikotha. 

“We sent people to follow these trade union members and observed that the members went straight to the SJB Headquarters from Sirikotha,” he noted. 

The meeting was adjourned due to the tense situation. 

Meanwhile, former UNP parliamentarian Palitha Range Bandara had assured the trade unionists that a meeting had been organised with the Party Leader the following evening to resolve their grievances. 

UNP takes in Arjuna 

After the tense situation resulted in the end of the JSS meeting, the UNP Leader convened the previously scheduled meeting of the Working Committee (WC).

However, the WC meeting that day did not see any major decisions being taken since the discussions were focused on the JSS meeting that had turned sour a few hours earlier. 

Trying to move on with usual business, the WC had discussed the inclusion of former MP Arjuna Ranatunga as an advisor of the UNP and invited him into the UNP’s main decision-making body. 

Therefore, Ranatunga will be a likely inclusion at the UNP’s next WC meeting. 

As for discussions on appointing new electoral organisers and replacements to the positions fallen vacant after the suspension of 99 party members, the WC had decided to defer the discussion and decision to the next meeting. 

The UNP has already appointed a four-member committee to spearhead the party’s general election campaign. 

The four-member committee comprises former MPs Karunasena Kodituwakku, Ruwan Wijewardene, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, and Sudath Chandrasekara. 

Chandrasekara, who served as a Private Secretary to the UNP Leader, was the Director of Operations for UNP presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa at the last presidential election. He has now returned to the mainstream UNP fold and is once again aligned with Wickremesinghe. 
UNP’s defeat at SC 

Meanwhile, last Monday saw the Colombo District Court turning down a request by the SJB to issue an enjoining order preventing the UNP from suspending members who have extended support to the SJB.

The motion was filed by SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara. 

The enjoining order was sought against the suspension of 99 members from the UNP. Due to the short notice of the petition, the presiding judge had ruled that the request could not be accepted.  

The judge had however requested that the UNP file a Limited Objection by Friday (12) so that a final verdict regarding the case could be issued tomorrow.
During the hearing, the lawyers appearing for the UNP have informed court that those members who had been suspended had been provided with one-month notice to respond to their suspensions.
The UNP had further argued that bypassing the appeal process with the party’s disciplinary committee and seeking a court ruling is contrary to fair justice. 

However, the UNP’s negative streak continued on to Tuesday (9) as well when the Supreme Court (SC) dismissed the petition filed on behalf of the party seeking the cancellation of nominations submitted by the SJB. 

The Supreme Court bench comprising justices Buwaneka Aluwihare, L.T.B. Dehideniya, and Preethi Padman Surasena issued the order to dismiss the petition filed by UNP Colombo District candidate Oshala Herath. 

Herath had named the three members of the EC, Leader of the SJB former MP Sajith Premadasa, SJB General Secretary former MP Madduma Bandara, Our National Front party Chairman Senaka Haripriya de Silva, and Secretary Diana Gamage as respondents. 

When the petition was taken up last Tuesday, Deputy Solicitor General Nerin Pulle, appearing for the EC, had said the point of the petition was interference in the internal affairs of the EC and in terms of Section 8 (3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, even the SC cannot interfere in the internal affairs of the Commission. 

Pulle had further told the court that the EC must accept when a recognised political party informs the Commission of amendments to its Constitution in terms of Section 8 (3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act. 

The EC has no powers to investigate the truthfulness of information or the party’s internal affairs and the SC had no jurisdiction to hear the petition in terms of the provisions of the Constitution, the Deputy Solicitor General had noted. 

Attorney-at-Law Neranjan de Silva appearing for the petitioner Oshala Herath had noted that according to the Constitution of Our National Front, a person who is a member of another party cannot obtain the membership of the party. 

De Silva has told the court that the letter issued by the EC on 12 March, changing the name of Our National Front to Samagi Jana Balawegaya and accepting Sajith Premadasa as its Chairman and Ranjith Madduma Bandara as its General Secretary, is not in accordance with the party Constitution. 

The petitioner’s counsel has further noted that although according to the Constitution of Our National Front, the powers of amending the Constitution of the party have been vested upon the WC of the party, the amendment had not been made. 

However, when no formal announcement had been made regarding the amendment of the party Constitution, the decision of the EC to change the name of the party to Samagi Jana Balawegaya and to accept Sajith Premadasa as its Chairman and Ranjith Madduma Bandara as General Secretary was illegal. 

President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva appearing for the SJB Leader and former Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara had then told the court that the petition had no legal basis and requested the bench to dismiss the petition. 

After considering the submissions, the three-judge SC bench decided to dismiss the petition. 

UNP withdraws 

 

Also on Tuesday, UNP General Secretary Kariyawasam withdrew a fundamental rights (FR) petition filed by him challenging the dissolution of Parliament. 

Accordingly, the SC two-judge bench comprising Justice Vijith Malalgoda and Justice Murdu Fernando ordered the dismissal of the petition. 

Counsel who appeared on behalf of the petitioner sought the court’s permission to withdraw the petition stating that the petitioner is not expecting to proceed with the petition. 

The Attorney General (AG) submitted to court that the petition could not be maintained since the SC had already made a ruling in this regard after dismissing eight FR petitions filed over the same issue. 

The UNP General Secretary, in the petition, requested the SC to issue an injunction invalidating the Gazette notification issued by the President on 2 March dissolving the eighth Parliament. 

The petition, filed by Vidanapathirana Associates Lawyers, stated that after the dissolution of the eighth Parliament, the EC decided to hold the election for the ninth parliament on 20 June and pointed out that the election date was after three months from the date of the dissolution of Parliament and the decision of the EC was illegal. 

The petitioner stated that the new parliamentary party should be summoned not less than three months after the dissolution of the Parliament, but the failure to do so and the absence of the old Parliament is a violation of the Constitution. 

The petitioner had also noted that according to the Constitution, the new parliament should be summoned not later than three months after the dissolution of Parliament and failure to do so and not reconvening the old Parliament was a violation of the Constitution. 

Mangala’s bombshell 

While the UNP has been engaged in trying to minimise the continuous negative impact suffered by the party, the SJB’s internal rift brewing within the new kid on the block, erupted with the withdrawal of a senior political figure from the election race.

Former UNP Minister Mangala Samaraweera last Tuesday dropped a bombshell with the announcement of his decision to step down from the politics of being a member of Parliament. 

He had addressed two letters to UNP Leader Wickremesinghe and SJB Leader Premadasa, informing them about his decision to refrain from contesting in the parliamentary election. 

Accordingly, he requested the people of Matara to refrain from casting their preferential votes for him at the upcoming 2020 election, although his name appears in the electoral list as a candidate from the SJB. 

Samaraweera also held a meeting on Tuesday at his Matara residence with local government representatives from Matara and briefed them regarding his decision.  

Expressing his views at this meeting, Samaraweera charged that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership has been inefficient and short-sighted, and that this has been proven within a brief span of six months. 

He further alleged that under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ethnic, racial, and religious divisions among the people of the country are being widened while the state is being militarised, and that the Opposition does not seem to have a clear understanding of what its role and duty should be at a time when the nation is faced with such grave challenges. 

Samaraweera stated that, in his view, if our nation is to be resurrected, it is necessary that the fundamental values and principles of the UNP are activated. He therefore expressed his deep regret at the division that has occurred in the party. 

Speaking further, the former Minister said that for over 30 years, he worked towards united principles and policies within parliamentary politics, with the objective of raising the standard of living of all citizens of Sri Lanka, as well as forging reconciliation and enhancing a sense of humaneness. He stated that during this time, he succeeded in achieving progress for Matara as well as the country at large, yet a lot more still remains to be done. 

He emphasised that it is necessary to initiate a movement towards a progressive political trajectory in Sri Lanka in partnership with the people in this country who respect democracy, and the different social identities and cultural traditions in the country, and people who are not overwhelmed and consumed by hatred towards one another. 

He urged the people in this country who are not governed and guided solely by their racial, caste, religious, ethnic, and gender identities at birth and those who are free of political, cultural, and social hypocrisy, to come together and join forces for this purpose. 

Soon after Samarweera announced his decision, the SJB appointed former MP Buddhika Pathirana as the SJB’s Matara District Leader.

Racism in the SJB 

 However, Samaraweera’s exit from the SJB’s election race and the SJB itself was a long time in the making. 

Former Minister Samaraweera has continuously been on the receiving end due to his liberal and vocal stance against any form of racism in the country. This stance had posed a challenge for some of the senior members of the SJB, who are eyeing the Sinhala-Buddhist majority vote bloc for their electoral victory. 

It is reliably learnt that Samaraweera was constantly under pressure to stop making statements against racism and from standing up to what he claimed to be the “racist and fascist” elements in the hardline Buddhist clergy. 

In some instances, even the SJB Leader had discussed the issue with Samaraweera, saying that while he endorsed Samaraweera’s stance and agreed with it, there was a need for the firebrand southern politician to appease the hardline monks until the conclusion of the general election. 

Meanwhile, there were also messages sent through some of Samaraweera’s aides to stop supporting and defending former Minister and Leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Rishad Bathiudeen against government persecution, since defending Bathiudeen was seen as offensive to the extremist and hardline vote bloc that the SJB was seeking to win over. 

However, the final straw for Samaraweera was when gossip columns started publishing news of former Minister and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka raising objections over Samaraweera’s comments and the eventual clash of certain sections of the Buddhist clergy with SJB Leader Premadasa.  

The SJB senior in turn had tried to explain to Samaraweera, the need to “lay low” until polls are over. 

Samaraweera finally decided that if he was unable to stand by his beliefs and engage in principled politics while being part of the SJB, it would be better to stay out of the electoral political process and take to a more public platform together with the public.