Editorial/Opinion

Govt. sets agenda: 20A gets priority

  • Allocation of portfolios irks several govt. members
  • MS agrees to wait for a senior post in Govt.
  • RW to continue as UNP Leader till PC polls
  • Sajith busy getting his SJB house in order

The Government, headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has now commenced their work with the first in the list of duties already being earmarked – constitutional amendments.

Now that the Cabinet and state ministerial portfolios have been assigned and the inaugural Cabinet meeting and parliamentary sessions scheduled for this week, it is crunch time for the Government, which is engaged in an aggressive programme to develop the national economy.

The structure of the state ministries that were assigned last week is a clear indication of the Government’s priorities.

It is therefore safe to assume that constitutional amendments and the development of the national economy would receive prominence in the Rajapaksa Government’s governance structure.

Given the landslide victory at the recently concluded general election, the governing party enjoys a comfortable majority to carry out its work, which a nation with high expectations is looking at.

The governing party has already secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament from several parties that contested separately at the election.

Three political parties which contested the freshly concluded parliamentary election separately will be joining the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to form a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament.

Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan’s (alias Pillaiyan) Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), and A.L.M. Athaullah’s National Congress Sri Lanka (NCSL) have already come to an understanding with the SLPP and will be joining them in Parliament to form the twothirds majority. In addition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had obtained one additional seat from Jaffna which will also join the SLPP.

The SLPP obtained 145 seats in Parliament, while the SLFP, TMVP, and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) obtained one seat each and the EPDP secured two seats.

When Parliament meets on Thursday (20), the House will have to make appointments to several key parliamentary positions – Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Leader of the House, Chief Government Whip, Opposition Leader, and Chief Opposition Whip.

The Black Box learnt that the governing party is likely to propose the name of Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena for the post of Speaker, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya for Deputy Speaker, Dinesh Gunawardena for Leader of the House, and Johnston Fernando for Chief Government Whip. Also, Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Kanchana Wijesekera are to be proposed as two Deputy Government Whips.

The main contender for the post of Opposition Leader is Sajith Premadasa while the names of Patali Champika Ranawaka and Dr. Harsha de Silva are being considered for the post of Chief Opposition Whip.

Constitutional reforms

As for constitutional reforms, Justice Minister M. Ali Sabry said last week that the Government hopes to table a new 20th Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament by mid-September.

He had said that steps are being taken to abolish the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and replace it with the 20th Amendment.

“Clauses in the 19th Amendment that are detrimental to the country will be abolished and amended. We hope to introduce the 20th Amendment, which will be inclusive of all communities,” he had added.

However, when repealing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, several clauses related to the executive presidency will also be done away with.

Key among them are the clauses on the presidential term and the frequency at which an individual could contest for the high office. According to the draft proposal for the 20th Amendment, the President’s term in office will remain at five years, while a candidate will be allowed to contest the presidential election only twice.

Meanwhile, theoretician/Founder of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa said last week that a new constitution must be introduced for the betterment of the country.

He has made this observation during an interview with a local television channel.

Basil Rajapaksa had noted the importance of introducing a new constitution and added that the President, Prime Minister, and the SLPP believe that a new constitution, that cannot be changed at will, must be introduced to Sri Lanka. Basil had also noted that President Rajapaksa had expressed displeasure in amending the presidential term and had instructed that the constitution be drafted in a manner that does not extend his presidential term or the parliamentary term.

According to Basil, the independent commissions established under the 19th Amendment would continue but will be subjected to changes.

He had observed that the independent commissions should actually operate independently and not as they are functioning at present.

The proposed constitutional amendments are expected to be taken up for discussion at this week’s Cabinet meeting (19).

Missing the group

Interestingly, several state ministers were visible absentees soon after the swearing-in ceremony and they did not participate in the scheduled clicking of the group photograph.

After the swearing-in ceremony, two group photographs were scheduled to be taken outside the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

However, when everyone gathered for the photograph, three newly appointed state ministers were not present at the occasion. They were Lohan Ratwatte, Priyankara Jayaratne, and Wimalaweera Dissanayake.

Earlier that day, Ratwatte was appointed as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery-related Industries, Jayaratne as the State Minister of Labour, and Dissanayake as State Minister of Wildlife Conservation Protection Programmes including Electric Fence and Ditch Construction and Reforestation and Wildlife Resources Development.

However, when inquiries were made into their absence, it was learnt that Jayaratne had missed the photograph due to a miscommunication and that Dissanayake had to leave soon after the ceremony to attend to some urgent work. As for Ratwatte, it was not immediately known as to why he was a no-show.

After several inquiries by The Black Box, it was learnt that Ratwatte was displeased with the portfolio presented to him, as he had higher expectations.

Wijeyadasa’s walk out

As for expectations, the most disappointed of the governing party members is MP-elect Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe.

In the run-up to the swearing in of the new Government, it was speculated that Rajapakshe would be assigned a cabinet portfolio. However, the day prior to the swearing in, it was learnt that Rajapakshe would be assigned a state ministerial portfolio instead.

Displeased at first, Rajapakshe had said that he did not want to accept any portfolio if he did not receive his due recognition. After some persuasion by several senior government members, Rajapaskhe had agreed to accept the state ministerial portfolio.

He had even travelled to Kandy on Tuesday night (11) to attend the swearing-in ceremony early the following morning.

However, after hearing that he was to be offered the state ministerial portfolio of Education Reforms and that there were no institutions assigned to it, Rajapakshe had left Kandy early Tuesday morning.

This unexpected turn of events had shocked the government members including its senior members, since they were counting on Rajapakshe’s expertise when drafting the proposed constitutional amendments to be tabled in Parliament next month.

Rajapakshe, meanwhile, said that he would continue to support the Government and stand by the people in Parliament.

Viyathmaga ministers

Among the new entrants to Parliament who were awarded ministerial portfolios were four members of Viyathmaga that played key roles in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political entry.

Viyathmaga is a network of academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs who contested the general election with expectations to render their utmost service for the betterment of the country.

Eight Viyathmaga members who contested at the recently concluded general election were elected to Parliament, and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa, Sarath Weerasekera, Dr. Seetha Arambepola, and Dr. Channa Jayasumana were appointed as state ministers.

However, no Viyathmaga member was appointed to a cabinet portfolio.

SLFP blues

The main coalition partner of the governing alliance, the SLFP, was assigned two cabinet portfolios and three state ministerial portfolios.

Fourteen candidates representing the SLFP were elected to Parliament following the general election and with the National List nomination of Suren Raghavan, the SLFP’s representation in Parliament stands at 15.

The 14 elected SLFP MPs met at the party headquarters last Sunday (9) morning after attending the swearing in of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in Kelaniya.

The meeting was chaired by Party Leader, former President, MP-elect Maithripala Sirisena. After discussing the outcome of the election and the party’s performance, the group discussed the SLFP’s future course of action.

The party decided to officially announce that the SLFP will stand by the Government in Parliament.

“We will support any activity of the Government which takes place within Parliament,” SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara said, addressing the media following the meeting.

However, discussions on the number of portfolios and subjects assigned to the SLFP were discussed at an unofficial level.

Speculating that he might not be assigned the cabinet portfolio that was requested by him prior to reaching an agreement between the SLFP and SLPP, Sirisena kept silent and resorted to the “wait and see” game.

Initial news that trickled down the grapevine on the cabinet portfolios indicated that the SLFP would receive three cabinet and four state ministerial portfolios.

Three cabinet portfolios were tipped to be assigned to Sirisena, Nimal Siripala de Silva, and Mahinda Amaraweera, while the state ministerial portfolios to Dayasiri Jayasekara, Duminda Dissanayake, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, and Ranjith Siyambalapitiya.

However, when the swearing in took place, both Sirisena and Siyambalapitiya had not made it to the final list.

Sirisena however was officially informed on Tuesday (11) that he would not be receiving any cabinet portfolios at Wednesday’s (12) ceremony.

It was Prime Minister Rajapaksa who broke the news to Sirisena at Temple Trees last Tuesday when he officially assumed duties as the Premier.

Rajapaksa had told Sirisena that the Government is unable to assign him the portfolio requested by him prior to the polls.

The Prime Minister had also explained that the remaining portfolios were not fit to be assigned to a Party Leader and former President.

Therefore, Rajapaksa had said that a senior office would be created for Sirisena under the proposed constitutional amendment.

Sirisena had agreed and expressed his desire to support the Government without any portfolios at present. He had afterwards informed his parliamentary group of what Rajapaksa had informed him of earlier that day.

This resulted in social media reports being published claiming that Sirisena would be appointed as Vice Prime Minister after the Constitution is amended.

However, a senior government source told The Black Box that Sirisena’s appointment to any post would depend on the outcome of the probe on the Easter Sunday attacks. “If he is found to have neglected his duties and guilty for the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians, everything will change,” the source said.

The summary of the appointment of a new Cabinet and state ministers is that some in the governing benches are unhappy while the rest are left to formulate programmes for the duties assigned to them.

UNP leadership

The United National Party (UNP), that faced an unprecedented defeat at the general election, is once again faced with a leadership crisis. This time, the crisis seems to have the party plummeting further down the abyss.

The UNP Working Committee (WC) that met on Friday (14) was expected to arrive at a decision on the potential individual to provide leadership to the party once Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe steps down.

However, after concluding the meeting on Friday, the next leader of the UNP was not yet visible.

Instead, what was revealed was that as the first step, the UNP will draft a programme allocating new responsibilities for the leader, introduce a system to provide equal opportunity for interested members to win the leadership post, and elect a new and young leader from within its party members.

The decision of the WC to look at a “new and young leader” puts a stop on former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya being appointed as the next UNP leader.

UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake proposed Jayasuriya’s name for the party leadership, claiming he could serve as a unifying factor in the party. By proposing Jayasuriya’s name, Karunanayake sent a clear message to the party leadership that despite vying for the party leadership, he was more focused on an amicable solution to the issue.

Karunanayake was also backed by UNP National Organiser Navin Dissanayake.

However, Jayasuriya’s candidacy was shot down by the younger members of the party, claiming that the UNP needed a young leader who could carry out the party reforms and restructuring process.

However, it is reliably learnt that the final outcome of the WC meeting was that Wickremesinghe would continue as the Party Leader until a final decision is made on the next UNP leader.

It is also learnt that Wickremesinghe would continue as the Leader until the provincial council elections.

UNP Leader Wickremesinghe on Monday (10) announced his intention of stepping down from the party leadership and requested the group of party seniors who met him to propose names of individuals who could take over from him.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Karunanayake, Daya Gamage, and Vajira Abeywardena have raised their hands and expressed their ability to the lead the party. However, Gamage had said that he did not want to contest for the party leadership and would only accept it if offered with the majority consensus of the party.

Karunanayake had proposed that Deputy Secretary General Ruwan Wijewardene and Arjuna Ranatunga also be included in the list of possible contenders for the leadership.

Finally, Wickremesinghe had requested all party members interested in putting forward their names for the party leadership to personally meet with him with their proposals for restructuring the party.

“The proposals will then be put forward to the party’s WC for a final decision,” the UNP source said. Meanwhile, UNP General Secretary Kariyawasam told the media that Wickremesinghe had informed the party seniors that he would be stepping down from the party leadership.

According to Kariyawasam, names of several individuals have been shortlisted for the post of UNP Leader and the names shortlisted are Karunanayake, Gamage, Abeywardena, and himself.

However, Kariyawasam’s public comment caused much confusion on whether Wickremesinghe had stepped down from the party leadership or not.

On Tuesday (11), the party issued a statement clarifying the doubts that have been raised following Kariyawasam’s comment on the party leadership.

The Central Bureau of the UNP confirmed that Party Leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had indicated the need for leadership change at a meeting held with “party seniors” on 10 August.

However, Wickremesinghe, who has held the party leadership since 1994, had requested them to set in motion the process that would enable a new leader to be appointed.

According to the press release, Wickremesinghe had requested parties interested in “seeking the leadership role” to submit proposals to “restructure the party” at the next WC meeting.

Wickremesinghe had requested that those gathered to discuss the proposed plans for restructuring the party with the relevant interested parties, submit their proposals at the next WC meeting.

Meanwhile, on Thursday (13), the UNP called on its senior members to work towards reaching a unanimous decision regarding their next leader to take the party forward.

UNP Deputy Secretary General Wijewardene, releasing the statement, said there was a need to reach a unanimous decision by rejecting dissent as it was essential for the UNP to re-emerge stronger after its worst election defeat last week.

“It is clear that the UNP has reached a crucial junction. In the face of the setback we suffered in the last general election, we, as a party, as well as myself personally, are of the view that we need to re-emerge stronger than before and that a comprehensive reorganisation programme is essential,” Wijewardene noted.

He further observed: “To this end, all members of the party have already reached a consensus to carry out the relevant reorganisation and restructuring process under a new leader. Different names have been suggested for different responsibilities and it seems that there is a subtle competition between the senior members of the party and their supporters.

“The UNP is not a model of a family-dominated political party that has emerged from time to time in the history of this country. There is no shortage of leaders in the party today who will come forward to lead us.

“We, as a political party, have achieved victories in the past, setbacks in the face of various political challenges, and have risen again with great strength. All the while, our members have united to protect the party, its leadership, and its supporters.

“I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone of the need to reach a unanimous decision by rejecting dissent, while working resolutely to protect the country, the nation, and the party.”

Clashes in SJB

The UNP’s splinter group, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa, which secured the second place in the total number of votes polled at the general election, spent the better part of last week bickering over National List slots.

The SJB secured seven National List positions and the party’s initial decision on the National List nominees had to be suspended following demands by minority parties to assign them representation in the SJB National List.

The minority parties were of the view that the SJB needed to honour the agreements signed between the SJB and their parties when forming the political alliance to contest the polls.

The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by Mano Ganesan, which contested the general election under the SJB, said earlier last week that 15 MPs from his party, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Rishad Bathiudeen would sit as a separate group in Parliament if they are not given slots from the National List, as promised by the SJB leadership.

Ganesan in a Facebook post had said: “Do not play with the National List. I warned during a late-night meeting that if SJB did not give us the slots as promised, 15 MPs returned from TPA (6), SLMC (5), and ACMC (4) will have to sit in Parliament as a separate group. Ultimatum till Monday.”

Meanwhile, Palani Digambaram, another member of the TPA, told the media last Monday that the discussions held with the SJB leaders ended without any decision.

After continuous discussions, the minority parties on Wednesday said they would not pursue further with their demands and agreed to hand over the final decision on the National List to Premadasa.

Walking out of the SJB head office in Pita Kotte, minority party leaders, Ganesan, Bathiudeen, and Rauff Hakeem told the media that there will not be any divisions in the SJB and that all parties were united.

The SJB finally released its National List nominees to the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday (13).

The clash over the National List slots indicate that Premadasa still has a lot of work ahead of him in terms of putting his house in order.

With the victory recorded by the SJB over the UNP, the next question posed to the SJB was whether it would unite with the UNP.

However, SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said the party would contest future elections under the “telephone” symbol.

Monks clash

Amongst the clashes witnessed in Opposition political parties during the past week, the unkindest one was the clash for the National List slot witnessed in the Ape Jana Balaya Party.

The party consists mainly of Buddhist monks and it secured 67,758 votes, resulting in it receiving a National List slot at the general election.

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) General Secretary Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera was to be appointed to Parliament through the slot. The Central Working Committee of the party last Sunday had unanimously decided to nominate him.

However, the party faced an unexpected dilemma when its General Secretary Ven. Vedenigama Wimalatissa Thera had sent a letter to the EC, nominating himself for the party’s National List slot.

Ven. Wimalatissa Thera was uncontactable and nowhere to be found. A group including the Chairman of the party had notified the Commission that the said letter was not valid while the Central Committee of the party had decided to nominate party member Ven. Gnanasara Thera to the National List slot.

Speaking to reporters last Monday, Ven. Pahiyangala Ananda Sagara Thera said that, as per the election laws, it is the General Secretary of the party who has to name an individual for the National List seat and submit it to the EC.

“But, the problem we have is that the Secretary has currently disappeared,” he said.

He said that they have justifiable suspicions that the thera is being hidden under international involvement, religious extremist involvement, government involvement, or opposition involvement.

“Since our former Secretary Ven. Vedenigama Wimalatissa Thera failed to convene a meeting to discuss the matter of nominating a representative to the National List seat, we appointed the former Secretary Nishantha Rathnayake as the Secretary of the party once again,” Ape Jana Balaya Party Chairman Saman Perera told a media conference.

“When a National List seat is secured by a party, there is a law that states that a person nominated for this seat should have either contested the election and lost or should have his name included in the initial National List. Thereby, there was an issue with how Gnanasara Thera can be nominated for this position. But I assure the public that we have sought legal advice on the matter,” Perera added.

Meanwhile, Election Secretariat Director General Saman Sri Ratnayake said that since Ven. Gnanasara Thera’s nomination was earlier rejected, he is not legally entitled to enter Parliament.

However, a final decision will be taken by the Commission, he added.

Finally, the EC last week decided not to gazette a name from the Ape Jana Balaya Party until a thorough study is done to evaluate the legality of the current situation.

In a letter written to the Party Secretary, EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya stressed that the decision had been made by considering the two nominations received for one National List seat obtained by the party.

Two names have been proposed for the National List portfolio, one by Ven. Wimalatissa Thera, of himself, as the Secretary of the party, and later, Saman Perera had been nominated by Nishantha Ratnayake, the new Secretary of the party appointed on 7 August by removing Wimalatissa Thera, the letter stated.

The EC noted that the matter will be referred to the Attorney General (AG) for advice.

TNA shaken

The llankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) last Sunday (9) nominated a party member for the National List secured by ITAK at the general election. ITAK Secretary K. Thurairajasingam made the announcement last Sunday.

ITAK ranked third in total number of votes polled at the recently concluded general election and obtained nine seats and one National List slot taking the total number of seats received by the party to 10.

Last Sunday it was announced that Thavarasa Kalaiarasan, who contested the parliamentary polls, has been nominated for the ITAK National List slot.

Kalaiarasan contested the general election from the Digamadulla Polling Division in the Ampara District.

However, the announcement resulted in a rift within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with another decision being made to offer the slot to ITAK Leader Mavai Senathirajah.

Senathirajah contest at the general election but could not retain his seat.

TNA alliance members, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), have accused ITAK of failing to consult them on the Nation List seat.

PLOTE Leader Dharmalingam Siddharthan had told the media that he had not been consulted before a decision was taken to nominate Senathirajah to the National List seat and threatened to raise strong objections over the move.

TELO Leader Selvam Adaikalanathan had accused ITAK of failing to seek the opinion of the TNA members when nominating members to the National List. However, after much debate, all parties decided to resolve the issue and Kalaiarasan’s name was sent to the EC.

Nevertheless, the TNA numbers have reduced considerably since the last Parliament.