All parties draw battle lines

The Chinese say it is good to live in “interesting times” and so it is, especially in the context of Sri Lankan politics. The past few weeks have seen many twists and turns in the local political arena with all parties engaged in political posturing in preparation for the presidential election.

The formation of political alliances have taken centre stage while objections raised on the formation of one such alliance has resulted in a total change in one of the presidential candidates while another key alliance is set to announce a candidate outside of the traditional political structure.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that was founded by former Minister Basil Rajapaksa is to become a fully-fledged political force from today (11) after the holding of its first convention, which would see the appointment of former President and incumbent Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as its leader.

The convention is to take place this morning at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium with much pomp and pageantry.

The SLPP is also scheduled to announce the party’s presidential candidate – former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa – after the official induction of elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Party Leader. Also, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the SLPP’s prime ministerial candidate.

Despite the many discussions casting doubts over Gotabaya’s candidacy, it has now been finalised that the candidature of the former Defence Secretary will be announced at the SLPP convention.

The SLPP presidential propaganda has already been kicked off with the party’s National Organiser taking the lead. The campaign was official launched on Saturday (3) at the auspicious time of 7.54 a.m.
Although the propaganda took off with much vigour, the campaign material stopped short of mentioning the presidential candidate till today’s announcement.

In addition, the SLPP marked digital history by launching its own mobile app named – V CAN – which was used to gather information on voters during the house-to-house e-canvassing campaign.

MR’s seat

However, attention is now being focused on the possibility of Opposition Leader Rajapaksa losing his parliamentary seat after he officially assumed his role as SLPP Leader.

Rajapaksa, like all other members of the “Joint Opposition” (JO) in Parliament were elected to the House at the last general election under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena.

The SLFP Constitution has clearly stipulated that in the event a member of the party decides to officially join another political party, he/she would automatically lose the SLFP membership.

Therefore, Rajapaksa would stand to lose his SLFP membership the minute he assumes the office of SLPP Leader, which would eventually have an impact on his parliamentary seat.

When Rajapaksa ceases to be a member of the SLFP, he would lose his seat which he secured as a member of the SLFP under the UPFA.
It is therefore highly likely that Rajapaksa would lose his seat and thereby create a vacancy for the post of Opposition Leader of Parliament.

Nevertheless, the final decision on Rajapaksa’s parliamentary seat would be in the hands of the SLFP leadership and the General Secretary of the UPFA MP Mahinda Amaraweera.

A similar scenario was witnessed last year when a group of “JO” MPs, occupying seats secured under the UPFA, decided to take membership of the SLPP during last year’s 51-day coup that saw Rajapaksa briefly occupying the office of Prime Minister.

The “JO” MPs posted photographs of them taking membership of the SLPP on their social media accounts.

However, they later retracted them saying they had not taken membership when the SLFP seniors called for their removal from the party and their parliamentary seats.

At the time, President Sirisena intervened along with Amaraweera to declare that Rajapaksa and his loyalists were still members of the SLFP and thereby had the right to occupy their parliamentary seats.
However, SLPP National Organiser Basil says that Rajapaksa losing his parliamentary seat after taking over as SLPP Leader would not be an issue for the SLPP’s political path.

According to Basil, even if such a development takes place, it would not hinder the political journey of the former President.

“He has been President, he has been the Prime Minister, the Opposition Leader and he has held various ministerial portfolios. Losing his parliamentary membership will not be an issue. It will not hinder his or our journey in any way,” Basil told the media.
Basil has made this observation in response to a question posed by the media on the possibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa losing his parliamentary seat obtained as a member of the SLFP.

“We will be announcing our new party leader at our convention. It will be former President and current Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Basil said.

Meeting SLFPers
Rajapaksa meanwhile has held several meetings with local government representatives of the SLFP at his official residence in Wijerama Mawatha.

A group of SLFP local government members met Rajapaksa on Friday (9) and discussed the current political situation and Rajapaksa’s move to assume the role of SLPP Leader.
Rajapaksa had explained the reasons behind the decision to distance himself from the SLFP. He has noted that he did not agree with the SLFP’s decision to form a government with the United National Party (UNP).

He had said that it is the view of all progressive forces in the country to defeat the UNP.

Rajapaksa had however added that since the SLFP was no longer a coalition partner of the UNP-led Government, the SLPP was agreeable to work with the party.

The SLFP members have then pointed out that the UNP had never been defeated in the Kandy District and that the support of the UPFA along with the Tamils and Muslims, who constitute 32% of the District’s overall votes, was a must for the SLPP, if it was to win the district.

Rajapaksa had later met with a group of SLFP representatives from the Batticaloa District as well.

SLFP boycott

Be that as it may, the SLFP parliamentary group that met under its Leader Sirisena last Tuesday (6) unanimously decided not to attend the SLPP convention.

According to SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara, the party took the decision as discussions for a broader alliance with the SLPP were still ongoing.

Jayasekara earlier said that disciplinary action would be implemented against any members of the SLFP who violated the party decision and attended the SLPP convention.
However, MPs Dilan Perera and S.B. Dissanayake have publicly expressed support to the SLPP and they are likely to attend today’s convention.

Interestingly, the unanimous decision to boycott the SLPP convention by the SLFP was taken the day after Sirisena and SLPP Leader Rajapaksa held a two-hour discussion on the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance.

The meeting between Sirisena and Rajapaksa took place on Monday (5) at the President’s official residence. Both leaders made it a appoint not to divulge details of the discussion to outsiders, but briefed their respective parliamentary groups.

The Black Box learnt that Sirisena has responded positively to the proposed SLFP-SLPP alliance, indicating that the SLFP could consider backing the SLPP’s candidate at the presidential election.
Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are due to meet again this week to further discuss the political alliance.

Also, Gotabaya is expected to meet with Sirisena after he is officially announced as the SLPP presidential candidate today.
Meanwhile, the SLFP continues to maintain that Sirisena should consider contesting as the party’s presidential candidate at the next presidential election.

Both Jayasekara and SLFP National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake have repeatedly asserted that the SLFP was still in the process of fielding Sirisena as its presidential candidate though the latter is yet to make a public announcement of it.

“That is how the SLFP would be strengthened. That is why we continue to make the request from the President. However, the final decision is vested with the President. We are unable to tell the media of the agreements reached between President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, they will be clear with the decisions that would be taken in the future,” Jayasekara said.

Be that as it may, the final outcome of the SLFP-SLPP alliance would be decided according to the agreement reached between Sirisena and Rajapaksa.

Ranil-Sajith pow-wow

On other side of the divide, the UNP continues to be plagued with internal strife mainly over the party’s presidential candidate. The disputes in fact resulted in the postponement of the formation of the proposed political alliance – the Democratic National Front (DNF).

The tussle for the candidacy between UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and UNP Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa has further polarised the party with a majority of the membership rooting for Premadasa’s candidacy.

In a bid to resolve the existing stalemate, a crucial meeting took place between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa on Tuesday (6) at Temple Trees on an invitation extended by the former.

The meeting was a one-on-one, closed door discussion that took place after the Prime Minister testified before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday.

The meeting focused on the formation of the proposed political alliance and the next presidential candidate backed by the party as well as the alliance.

Wickremesinghe’s intention to call for the meeting was to muster Premadasa’s support to his (Wickremesinghe’s) plans of contesting at the presidential election.

However, an unexpected turn of events took place with Premadasa informing Wickremesinghe that a majority of the party backed his candidature and he was ready to take the mantle of UNP’s presidential candidate.

Premadasa told Wickremesinghe that the rank and file of the UNP supported him and that he had the backing of the other political parties that are billed to join the proposed DNF.

However, the Premier has dismissed Premadasa’s claim that a majority of the party’s parliamentary group as well as the Working Committee and the minority political parties supported him.
Instead, Wickremesinghe said that he had the backing of the minority political parties and a majority of the parliamentary group.
He then pushed the agenda of getting Premadasa to back the formation of the DNF, saying it was of paramount importance and that the candidate could be announced afterwards.

Premadasa however, insisted that announcing of the candidate was a precondition to forging of the alliance and the discussion ended inconclusive with the intention of resuming it on a later date.
However, The Black Box learnt that Wickremesinghe had also spoken to Premadasa of the possibility of him (Wickremesinghe) running for the prime ministerial post in the event Premadasa contested for the presidency.

Interestingly, Wickremesinghe loyalists the following day tipped the media that the discussion between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa was fruitful and that the latter had agreed to extend his support to the proposed political alliance.

Seeing that Wickremesinghe was trying to yet again mislead the party membership, Premadasa decided to issue a statement to the media explaining his stance on the formation of the alliance.
In the statement, Premadasa reiterated that the alliance should be formed only after announcing the presidential candidate.
He expressed his support to forming the alliance.

However, he said it should be done according to the stance of the majority of the UNP parliamentarians as well as the major parties that had expressed willingness to join the alliance “after naming the presidential candidate”.

According to Premadasa, his personal opinion is also the same. He stated that doing so would not only help form the proposed alliance but would also no doubt lead to numerous other parties and individuals joining together to turn it into a victorious endeavour.

Taking a swipe at Wickremesinghe, Premadasa said that what needed to be done was to name the presidential candidate and then form the agreement for the new alliance instead of spreading false news in the media.

Alliance moving forward

Meanwhile, the Black Box learnt that the formation of the proposed DNF is moving forward with UNP Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe officially handing in a set of amendments to the draft constitution of the proposed DNF.

The amendments have been officially sent to the Party Leader with copies being sent to the Party Chairman, General Secretary, as well as other party leaders of the United National Front (UNF) Government.

Also, a group of UNP parliamentarians are in the process of gathering signatures for a letter urging Wickremesinghe to convene the party’s parliamentary group and Working Committee together to make a final decision on the UNP’s presidential candidate and move forward with the formation of the alliance.

It is in this backdrop that Wickremesinghe had convened a meeting with UNF party leaders on Thursday (8) evening to discuss the proposed DNF.

Wickremesinghe had explained the amendments that were received by him to be included in the draft DNF constitution.
After listening to the proposed amendments, the chief architect of the alliance, Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne had expressed concerns over two issues.

The first point raised by him was the location of the alliance head office. He had explained that naming the UNP headquarters as the head office of the DNF would not be a wise move since some political parties, movements, or even individuals would find it quite discomforting.

Also, he had pointed out that whenever a UNP-led alliance had fielded a candidate at the presidential election, the head office was located outside the UNP headquarters. In 2010, when Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was fielded as the presidential candidate, the alliance office was located at Rajakeeya Mawatha in Colombo 7.

This in fact resulted in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also joining the alliance and visiting the alliance office.
In 2015, when President Sirisena contested at the presidential polls, the head office was on Havelock Road.

“Having a head office outside the UNP headquarters would help make other political parties more comfortable to work within the alliance,” Dr. Senaratne had explained.

He had then drawn attention to the request made to appoint a general secretary to the alliance from the DNF.

“If the leader of the alliance and the post of secretary and all other key positions are going to be held by the UNP, it would not be an alliance. We need to create a platform for everyone to join and feel as one, not to make them feel as if they were joining the UNP,” the Minister had added.

The senior UNP members who had attended the meeting had said they understood what Dr. Senaratne said and noted they would discuss this with the party members.

Meanwhile, Dr. Senaratne is to meet with Minister Premadasa on Tuesday (13) to discuss the formation of the DNF.
The Black Box learnt that Wickremesinghe had also asked Dr. Senaratne to meet with several key UNP members to iron out differences in order to move forward with the DNF.

Backbench support

The backbench legislators of the United National Party (UNP) had decided during a meeting in Parliament on Thursday (9) that Premadasa should be announced as the UNP’s presidential candidate.

The UNP MPs had unanimously agreed that the party needed to commence its election campaign work targeting the presidential election after naming Premadasa as the presidential candidate and UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP’s prime ministerial candidate.

It was also decided that Premadasa should be given all required powers and resources to spearhead the UNP’s political campaign.
MPs Lakshman Wijemanna, S.M. Marikkar, Hector Appuhamy, Hesha Vithanage, Chaminda Wijesiri, Imran Maharoof, K.K. Piyadasa, Wijepala Hettiarachchi, A. Wijetunge, Sydney Jayaratne, Rohini Kavirathna, Thushara Indunil, and Ashu Marasinghe had attended the meeting and agreed to these decisions.
Also, MPs Harshana Rajakaruna, Sandith Samarasinghe, Thusitha Jayamanne, Bandu Lal Bandarigoda, Sujith Sanjaya, Shantha Abeysekera, and Hirunika Premachandra, who were not present at the meeting, had also expressed their support to the decisions reached at the meeting.

Sajith fires first salvo

In the midst of all the statements and counter statements taking place within the UNP over both the proposed DNF and Premadasa’s candidacy at the presidential elections, UNP’s Badulla District Organiser Minister Harin Fernando organised a massive public rally at the Wills Park in Badulla on Monday (12) evening, which is seen as the stepping stone for Premadasa’s bid for presidency.
Fernando had officially informed UNP General Secretary Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam of the rally organised by him in Badulla and had extended invitations to all party seniors as well. Fernando had stated that the rally was organised since it was Premadasa’s first visit to Badulla and since he was due to inaugurate several programmes in the District.

The hype built around the public rally had made Wickremesinghe and his loyalists quite nervous, resulting in verbal threats of instituting disciplinary action against any member who violated the party constitution. However, no specific mention had been made to the clauses in the party constitution that are likely to be violated at the rally.

It is pertinent to note that the first salvo against the former Rajapaksa regime was fired from the Badulla District when Fernando won the Uva Provincial Council elections in 2014. The impact of the defeat of the Rajapaksas at the Uva Provincial Council election finally resulted in the change of regime in 2015.

MS makes a move

The Black Box reported earlier that President Sirisena was to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on holding of provincial council (PC) elections at a time when both the Government and Opposition are preparing to face presidential election.
A source at the Presidential Secretariat said that the letter requesting to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the legality of holding provincial council elections was expected to be sent to the Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera.

However, earlier, when Sirisena met the AG and Chairman of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya, de Livera was to have advised the President that it was not required for the President to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court but was within presidential powers to hold PC polls by gazetting the Delimitation Report.
The opinion of the Supreme Court was to be sought to determine the legality of the report of the Delimitation Commission which was not adopted by Parliament last year, as well as to explore whether the President had powers to call for the provincial council elections by virtue of Article 154T of the Constitution.

According to Article 154T, “the president may by order published in the gazette, take such action, or give such directions, not inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, as appears to him to be necessary or expedient, for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of this chapter (i.e. provincial councils), or for the administrative changes necessary therefore, or for the purpose of removing any difficulties”.

Be that as it may, the Central Committee (CC) of the SLFP has also agreed unanimously that PC elections should be held prior to the presidential election and requested that the President seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter.
In the event the President was able to call for PC polls, Sirisena would definitely change the election map by pushing for PC polls before the presidential election.