Parties gear for battle midst internal drama

The announcement of the presidential election come November has pushed the two main political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), into further chaos with the parties unable to make a final decision on the upcoming poll.

So far, there are two main contenders for the presidential race – Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) presidential hopeful, Party Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential hopeful, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

However, the UNP is engaged in an internal battle to decide on its presidential candidate while the SLFP is yet to make a decision on whether the party would participate in the presidential election or not.

Be that as it may, both the UNP and SLFP have till 6 October to make a final decision as the Election Commission (EC) would halt accepting cash deposits for the polls that day and nominations will be accepted on 7 October.

The parliamentary group of the SLFP met with Party Leader President Maithripala Sirisena last Monday (16) evening. The discussion focused on the upcoming presidential election, the party’s ongoing discussions with the SLPP on forming a political alliance, and the stalemate in the alliance discussion over the symbol of the proposed alliance.

Talks between the SLFP and SLPP hit a roadblock with the SLFP objecting to contesting under the SLPP’s “pohottuwa” (flower bud) symbol and the SLPP objecting to contesting under any other symbol.

While 18 SLFP MPs attended the meeting with the President on Monday, 16 of them had said they had no objections to forming an alliance with the SLPP, but they had to opt for a common symbol and not the symbol of the SLPP.

However, MP Nimal Siripala de Silva had said that the SLFP should not consider the symbol as a major issue and focus on forming the political alliance as soon as possible. He had noted that it was essential for the SLFP to win at the next election through the alliance.

MP Ranjith Siyambalapitiya had also agreed with de Silva. However, SLFP General Secretary MP Dayasiri Jayasekara had said the SLFP should not lose its identity when forming an alliance with the SLPP.

SLFP National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake had also agreed with Jayasekara and said the SLFP might as well dissolve the party if it was going to contest an election under the SLPP symbol. He pointed out that it would not be a political alliance if all parties had to contest under the SLPP symbol.

MP Weerakumara Dissanayake also agreed with Duminda Dissanayake. After all, the SLFP had always taken on a common symbol whenever a political alliance was formed since 1994 – the “chair” symbol under the People’s Alliance and the “betel leaf” under the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). After listening to all the comments by the parliamentarians, Sirisena had ended the meeting saying a final decision would be taken in a few days as the presidential election was not declared at the time.

Maithri-Mahinda meet

Amidst the existing stalemate between the SLFP and SLPP, a meeting between Sirisena and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa took place last Wednesday (18) evening at the President’s official residence in Mahagamasekera Mawatha in Colombo.

EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya had already made arrangements to officially announce the dates of the next presidential election when the two leaders met to discuss how the SLFP and SLPP would proceed along their political paths during the forthcoming presidential election.

However, details and agreements reached between the two leaders were immediately not known.

Nevertheless, it could be assumed that the President would have briefed Rajapaksa on the message sent to him by Minister Ravi Karunanayake the previous day, Tuesday (17).

Sirisena was informed by the UNP emissary that the United National Front (UNF) Government was looking at moving the proposal to abolish the executive presidency and that the incumbent President would therefore be able to occupy the office till around mid next year.

However, the UNF had put forward one condition to Sirisena – that the President would not prematurely dissolve Parliament when it completes four-and-a-half years early next year.

It is in this backdrop that a discussion between SLFP representatives and SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa took place on Thursday (19) evening to discuss how the two parties could work together at the upcoming presidential election.

The SLFP was represented by party General Secretary Jayasekara, UPFA General Secretary MP Mahinda Amaraweera, and SLFP Treasurer MP Lasantha Alagiyawanna.

Only Basil attended from the SLPP.

The meeting commenced at around 5 p.m. at Amaraweera’s residence. The meeting was held on an unofficial capacity as official discussions between the SLFP and SLPP have been postponed since MP Dullas Alahapperuma is overseas.

The focus of the discussion was the meeting held the previous day between Sirisena and Rajapaksa. After discussing at length about the Sirisena-Rajapaksa meeting, both parties have agreed not to divulge details of the meeting.

Basil made his way to the Opposition Leader’s residence on Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo 7 after concluding the meeting at Amaraweera’s residence.

A meeting headed by Rajapaksa, including the leaders of the “Joint Opposition”, was already in progress when Basil arrived at the Wijerama Mawatha residence. Basil, after taking a seat, explained in detail the matters discussed at the meeting with the SLFP representatives.

Be that as it may, Basil swiftly moved to checkmate the SLFP in the issue of the symbol by getting the SLPP to make the deposit for its presidential candidate. Accordingly, last Friday (20), SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam paid the deposit on behalf of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the EC.

It is now confirmed that the SLPP will be contesting the upcoming presidential election under the “flower bud” symbol, leaving the SLFP in the lurch on its call for a common symbol for the proposed political alliance.

Now it is up to the SLFP to make the final choice as to whether they would align themselves with the SLPP, the UNP-led alliance, or whether to field its own candidate.

Chaos in UNP

However, the dynamics between the SLFP and SLPP have been overshadowed by a spike in chaos within the ruling UNP as Party Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has continued his efforts to regain control of the party he has led for 25 years.

Over the last several weeks, a majority of UNP MPs have escalated their open efforts to have Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa anointed as the presidential candidate.

Meanwhile, civil society activists and clergy leaders intensified their appeals to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to consider contesting the election.

The Speaker, who had maintained a dialogue with Premadasa over the last several months and urged the latter to try and keep the party united, had been consistent that he would only consider contesting if all progressive forces, including all factions in the UNP including Premadasa’s, came together to back his candidacy.

Jayasuriya’s position remained consistent even as civil society leaders sought to convince him that Premadasa’s unfamiliarity with core issues such as power sharing and devolution had caused alarm among more moderate voters and academics.

The Speaker’s views became clearer on Tuesday morning with the release of an interview with an English daily newspaper in which he praised Premadasa and insisted that more important than who the candidate was, was that the party remained united.

“I have known Sajith Premadasa for most of his life,” the Speaker said of the frontrunner. “He has shown his ability as a Deputy Minister and as a Cabinet Minister in implementing programmes, and he has earned a huge amount of popular support among the people for delivering results in whatever task is assigned to him.

“He is only 52 years old and has matured a lot during his career. Sajith Premadasa belongs to the UNP and he has always supported that party and its policies in good times and the worst times. He represents the next generation of the party. During last year’s constitutional crisis, he played an essential part in defending democracy and ensuring that Ranil Wickremesinghe was re-appointed as Prime Minister. Under the circumstances, he could have easily sought power for himself like people in the SLPP did, but instead, he stood on principle. We should not forget that, and that is not the mark of someone who is aligned to SLPP policies.”

On the presidential candidacy, Jayasuriya said that “it would be a tremendous honour” for him to be “the presidential candidate who wins and goes on to lead the abolition of the presidency”. However, he said his “first and number one priority was to bring everyone together so that all efforts can be brought behind whichever single candidate can be trusted by most of the electorate”. He stressed that he would back any candidate who could deliver on the promise of abolishing the executive presidency, saying that he has to see that this happens during his lifetime.

The Speaker was, in his own way, sending a clear signal that the UNP could get behind Premadasa on an abolition platform.

Unwitting comment

However, the UNP Deputy Leader inadvertently threw a spanner in the works hours after the interview hit newsstands, at a hastily convened press conference at the Stanmore Crescent residence of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

The purpose of the press conference was to address reports that Party Leader Wickremesinghe was planning one of his old tricks to deny the candidacy to Premadasa.

Technically, the UNP Constitution would allow for the Party’s Working Committee (WC), whose membership in practice is handpicked by Wickremesinghe, to decide on a candidate.

The Premadasa faction had reliable information that the Prime Minister intended to convene the WC, appoint loyalists to vacancies, and hold a token vote by which either he or Speaker Jayasuriya would be selected as the presidential candidate, in a bid to preserve his party leadership at all costs.

Having sent the message to the media and the country that should the Speaker come forward as a candidate, he would not have the support of the Premadasa faction, the candidate-in-waiting inadvertently dropped a landmine on the path to winning the support of Jayasuriya.

In response to questions from a journalist, Premadasa spoke out against the abolition of the executive presidency on the basis that there is no scientific evidence that it was a popular policy.

Premadasa said he was a democrat, and therefore would only implement policies that were popular with the people, and not those that he came up with at his whim and fancy. The remarks backfired, however, leading to blistering criticism from academics and moderate UNP members who criticised the Premadasa faction for seeming to undo one of the cornerstones of the UNP policy platform.

Muddying the waters further was a statement released a few hours later by the Speaker, indicating that he had not received the message from the Premadasa faction that a candidacy by him would not receive their support.

Jayasuriya’s statement said that several groups of professionals, academics, trade unions, and clergy members had met with him and asked him to contest the election on a moderate unity platform, and that he was only willing to do so with the support of all parties, in a manner consistent with the Constitution of the UNP.

The announcement further frustrated members of the Premadasa faction who interpreted the Speaker’s statement as an open challenge to their campaign. What followed was a blistering campaign of character assassination against Jayasuriya from a group of electronic media outlets strongly aligned to Premadasa.

Focus on executive presidency

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jayasuriya and the Premadasa faction, another drama was set in motion at Temple Trees.

UNP Assistant Leader Minister Ravi Karunanayake made his way to meet President Sirisena, carrying a message from the Prime Minister.

Karunanayake told the President that the UNF would now support the abolition of the executive presidency by rushing through Parliament the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution that was presented by the JVP last May.

Such a constitutional amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a referendum, would allow for a transitional provision that lets Sirisena remain in office as Executive President for an additional year, in exchange for an assurance that the President would not dissolve Parliament early in 2020.

The President did not consent, but he also did not refuse, which Karunanayake took as a green light, after which the President was asked to convene a special Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue. Meanwhile, other Wickremesinghe loyalists approached the JVP for support, and were told that if the bill received consensus support from the Government, their party, who introduced it, would also back the move.

The fingerprints of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) were also evident as MP and constitutional lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran had told media around the same time that the TNA would support any move to abolish the executive presidency at any given time.

The matter came into public view when on Wednesday the EC formally gazetted the presidential election to take place on Saturday, 16 November, with nominations to be called on Monday, 7 October.

Special Cabinet meeting

The following morning, on Thursday, the President summoned a special Cabinet meeting to be held that afternoon.

Even before the meeting took place, at the pre-Cabinet meeting held at Temple Trees, Wickremesinghe saw in full force the extent to which his gambit had backfired.

Barring Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Navin Dissanayake, no one spoke in support of his 20th Amendment gambit; even Wickremesinghe loyalists Ministers Sagala Ratnayaka and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam remained silent.

After speaking in support of the move to abolish the executive presidency, even Dr. Senaratne quipped that while the idea was a sound one in principle, the timing of such a manoeuvre, less than 24 hours after a presidential election had been gazetted, was bordering on undemocratic.

Minister Samaraweera was one of the most vociferous opponents of the proposal, almost screaming that it would be a grave and flagrant subversion of democracy to try and pass a constitutional amendment in the dead of night just after an election had been declared.

Wickremesinghe’s strategy was transparent to all those assembled. If he were able to pass the 20th Amendment and abolish the presidency, his own power within the party would be fortified.

Without the rallying cause of a presidential election, he could then win over the weaker minded supporters of the Premadasa faction and purge them from the ranks of the party. This would not be a unique move for the UNP Leader. In the 25 years that he has led the party, an unprecedented 70 something MPs have been forced out of the party’s ranks over clashes with Wickremesinghe.

Stunned at the backlash, Wickremesinghe stammered back to Samaraweera that he had stood by the Finance Minister when he had allegedly contemplated joining the Rajapaksa faction prior to the 2015 presidential election and then changed his mind at the last moment.

Samaraweera dismissed the allegation and asked the Prime Minister to get his facts right, gesturing towards Minister Malik Samarawickrama, who was familiar with the episode wherein Samaraweera had rebuffed efforts from Mahinda Rajapaksa to win him over.

Women and Child Affairs Minister Chandrani Bandara went as far as rising to her feet, walking up to Wickremesinghe’s table, banging her fists and chanting “shame, shame”.

All the while, Wickremesinghe’s loyalists, Kariyawasam and Ratnayaka, had remained absolutely mum. Not a single minister spoke out in support of Wickremesinghe’s proposal. To the contrary, most of the ministers were vocal in their condemnation of the effort.

At that stage, the Prime Minister had tried to pin the blame on President Sirisena, saying that it was he who had convened the Cabinet meeting and that the objections should be discussed with him. The ministers did this when they assembled at the Presidential Secretariat for the formal Cabinet meeting.

Again, Samaraweera was the first to speak out, stating that it was inappropriate to try and abolish the executive presidential system as soon as a presidential election had been announced.

He asked the President as to who was moving the proposal to abolish the executive presidency to the Cabinet and why a special Cabinet meeting was summoned. The President immediately said that he was requested to summon a special Cabinet meeting to discuss the abolition of the executive presidency.

Samaraweera then appealed to the President that the move would have a negative impact on himself and the SLFP.

Sirisena was irritated and snapped that the proposal was not his idea. “Please leave me and the SLFP out of the tussles inside your UNF Government,” he said dismissively.

He said he was only asked to convene a special Cabinet meeting, and that the discussion at the meeting was up to the Cabinet ministers themselves.

At this point, several minority party leaders in the UNF alliance lost their cool. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader and City Planning, Water Supply, and Higher Education Minister Rauff Hakeem thundered that he would campaign ferociously to finish Wickremesinghe for such a flagrant insult to democracy and for degrading the noble purpose of abolishing the presidency by using it as a political tool to avoid an election.

In the face of such ferocious opposition from ministers in the Premadasa faction and minority parties, the cabinet proposal to rush through the 20th Amendment was dead in the water with potentially far-reaching consequences for Wickremesinghe’s grip on the UNP.

After the Cabinet meeting, a cabinet minister from the Premadasa faction quipped that if the Prime Minister was unable to muster majority support in his own Cabinet, he would be unlikely to do so within the UNF parliamentary group. Premadasa himself openly told the media that the move was “disgraceful”, the sharpest words that he has ever directed at the Prime Minister.

Furthermore, at a UNF party leaders meeting at Temple Trees on Thursday night, UNF leaders including Hakeem, Palani Digambaran, and Mano Ganesan made explicitly clear that all the minority parties were in support of a presidential candidacy by UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, and that putting Wickremesinghe forward from the alliance was not an option they would consider.

Karu backtracks

The following day, Speaker Jayasuriya released an explicit statement that he would not partake in any split in the party. He sent word to the party leadership through several emissaries that should a vote be required to select the UNP candidate, he would decline to participate. The Speaker’s refusal to partake in the party power struggle has further weakened the hand of Wickremesinghe.

As a last resort, Wickremesinghe has now begun to fill up the party’s WC with loyalists, with over 20 new appointments to be made in time for a vote on the candidacy next Tuesday (24). The strategy is reminiscent of how the Prime Minister saved his party leadership when Jayasuriya challenged him in December 2011.

The majority of party MPs spoke in support of Jayasuriya taking over the leadership and Wickremesinghe said the correct forum for such a decision was the party’s WC.

He then used his power as Party Leader to stuff the WC with loyalists and used scare tactics to defeat Jayasuriya in a vote in December 2011.

The then Opposition Leader even called in the big guns, and the Rajapaksa Government swooped in to arrest several Jayasuriya loyalists on the day of the vote in an attempt to strengthen Wickremesinghe, whose leadership of the UNP the Government depended on to stave off any credible political challenge.

But without Jayasuriya as a decoy to pit against Premadasa, Wickremesinghe now faces an open challenge not just to his claim to the presidential candidacy but also his premiership, as those UNP MPs who form the Premadasa faction and who are under the influence of the Speaker to prevent an anti-democratic or dictatorial decision are preparing to pull out all the stops unless the Prime Minister bows to the will of the party.

The Premadasa faction has not fallen for the Premier’s delay tactics and is instead moving forward with their eye firmly on the 16 November election.

Premadasa has planned to open an election campaign office on Vauxhall Street, with campaign operations to be spearheaded by former UNP stalwarts Tissa Attanayake and Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, both of whom had previously left the party due to differences with Wickremesinghe.

Be that as it may, the UNP would somehow have to make a final call on the presidential election and move towards the formation of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF) within the next few days. Hence, the UNP’s presidential candidate would be announced by Wednesday (25) after the WC meeting.

JVP stands firm

For its part, the JVP had taken a firm stand that it will not back any other candidate. The party’s Propaganda Secretary Vijitha Herath has welcomed any other party to join their National People’s Power (NPP) movement but ruled out any change to their decision to field a candidate.

The JVP counts among its credentials the fact that despite the Government relying on them heavily during last year’s Sirisena-Rajapaksa coup to defend democracy, it never sought to join the Government or seek perks, instead remaining committed to fighting for the values of clean governance.

Instead of forming an alliance with its minority party allies, the SLPP went ahead on Friday and filed a deposit with the EC for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature. The move has left in question the fate of any possible alliance led by the SLPP that was widely expected to include Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), and Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). These parties would now have to fall in line with the SLPP or risk their own oblivion.

Meanwhile, yesterday, several Buddhist clergy groups led by the Thrainikaika Sangha Peramuna commenced a march from the Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo, seeking the nomination of Premadasa as the next presidential candidate of the UNP.

They sought to meet Wickremesinghe and formally hand over an epistle stating that Premadasa was the most suitable presidential candidate. As the march got underway, Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera told the media that leaders should be elected by the public and not by elite working committees.

Whether the calls for democracy within the UNP will have any effect in the halls of Temple Trees or ring hollow, only time will tell. But as of now, the majority of UNP MPs, the Party Chairman, Deputy Leader, minority alliance parties, and even the Speaker in his own way, have made clear that there is no way out for Wickremesinghe other than making a fair and democratic decision.

The stance of several parties remains paralysed by the Wickremesinghe-Premadasa tussle. Never has the pressure on the UNP leadership been higher. President Sirisena, his SLFP, the TNA, minority UNF party leaders, and several disgruntled SLPP MPs are waiting nervously for an outcome to the UNP tussle before deciding how to align themselves at the presidential election.

With the exception of the TNA, these other parties and the President are all of the view that they would not back a Wickremesinghe-led UNP coalition.

The TNA, meanwhile, needs to resolve its concerns about Premadasa’s non-commitment and unfamiliarity with devolution issues, even as many in their party believe that any candidate from the UNP would be preferable to even the chance of a Gotabaya Rajapaksa victory.

TNA raises red flag

By Easwaran Rutnam

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) raised the red flag on the executive presidency (EP) issue, insisting that there needs to be a clear policy taken by the candidates they negotiate with before the November election.

TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran told The Sunday Morning that some United National Front (UNF) members seem to have made a U-turn on the stand they took on abolishing the EP and this was a concern.

Last week, a special Cabinet meeting was called for, where a proposal was submitted to abolish the EP.

However, United National Party (UNP) Deputy Leader Minister Sajith Premadasa and cabinet ministers supporting his bid to be president vehemently opposed the move. Premadasa later told reporters that he opposed the move as a presidential election had already been declared.

He said he is prepared to discuss the matter after the election, but will not agree to such a move at this moment.

The TNA was the first to raise concerns over Premadasa’s camp blocking moves to abolish the EP.

Sumanthiran said that the TNA had flagged the Tamil national question and the EP as two key issues the presidential candidates must address.

“We will continue to have talks with the candidates, but our crucial issues are a solution to the Tamil national question and abolishing the EP. We will discuss that,” he said.

Sumanthiran said that the TNA had already discussed the matter with Premadasa twice earlier but they had not received a clear answer on the EP issue.

“We will discuss the issue again,” Sumanthiran said.

He also noted that the outcome of the special Cabinet meeting last week will be looked at seriously; especially since some cabinet ministers who are supporting Premadasa had said that they want to retain the EP.

“That’s a serious departure from their policy, the UNP policy, and from the mandates given continuously,” he noted.

Take the first step

Assurance on abolishing the EP was given during successive presidential campaigns, but no one has gone through with it.

In the year 2000, the election manifesto of the UNP noted that the EP would be abolished and a prime minister elected by the voters should be given executive powers.

Sumanthiran said that if the UNP is really committed to abolish the EP, then they must take the first step of submitting a proposal in Parliament.

He said that holding a referendum on abolishing the EP is a matter which can be discussed later.

“If they are saying they will do it after the election, then surely they can pass it in Parliament now. The first step can be taken,” he said.

Sumanthiran said that the situation the country is facing now is a good test to see if the politicians who say they will abolish the EP will actually do so.