Editorial/Opinion

Picking sides and drawing battle lines

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies,” said American comedian, writer, stage, film, radio, and television star Julius Henry “Groucho” Marx.

The next presidential polls will be a unique and exciting one, as it would be the first-ever presidential election where the public will be kept in the dark till the 11th hour or till either of the two main parties, or in the current context, alliances, address their internal issues and announce their respective presidential candidates publicly.

While political parties in the country are posturing themselves to face the forthcoming elections – presidential and general – focus has been paid to the formation of political alliances.

It is in this backdrop that the United National Party (UNP) together with alliance partners in the United National Front (UNF) Government will herald in a new grand coalition – Democratic National Front (DNF) – with much pomp and pageantry on 5 August at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. The event is set to commence at 10 a.m.

It is learnt that the DNF when choosing a colour for the alliance had opted for multi colours – green, blue, red, and yellow.

The formation of the DNF will provide a platform for politicians who are unable to contest under the ticket of either the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and also unable to openly to contest under the UNP’s elephant symbol.

It is learnt that discussions are already underway with sections of the SLFP regarding the possibility of joining with the DNF instead of playing second fiddle to the SLPP members who have already ostracised SLFP MPs looking to join a SLFP-SLPP alliance.

Since the presidential candidate of the SLPP is confirmed to a great extent, “Joint Opposition” (JO) strongman and disgruntled Rajapaksa confidante MP Kumar Welgama along with the Front to Protect the SLFP will join hands with the new coalition.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam is to have confided in some that the “common” presidential candidate too would be unveiled at the inauguration and that the much-awaited individual would be from the rank and file of the party and not a prominent apolitical figure as previously expected.
Except for a few in the inner circles of UNP Leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a majority of UNP MPs have not been supportive of an external common candidate.

From the outset, the UNP grassroots have been clamouring for the son of late President Ranasinghe Premadasa – UNP Deputy Leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa – who many analysts within and outside the party see as fit to spearhead party reforms, to be the ideal UNP candidate.

Wickremesinghe after being advised by many including his long-time confidante Minister Malik Samarawickrama is said to have given up the idea of nominating himself at the forthcoming polls. He tested the waters over whether the party rank and file would prefer fielding its own candidate or present an individual such as the business tycoon Dhammika Perera.

However, current the Party Leader who had headed the grand ole party since 1994 and in fact a two-time presidential polls loser (i.e. 1999 and 2005) is slated to have given up on the idea of fielding a common presidential candidate from outside, as done in the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections.

Perera too is said to have backed down supposedly shy of the limelight which had been intensely focused on him recently due to the importation of sanitary waste saga that rocked media circles.

Alternative candidate

In the midst of all this drama, the minority or alternative view has been to field a different or a figurehead candidate such as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who many say has won the hearts of the general public by fighting a lone battle to safeguard the supremacy of Parliament and the legislative power of the people, during the 51-day illegal coup, in the face of a vicious onslaught by the combined Executive President and usurper Prime Minister’s camp.

Many feel that Jayasuriya would be ideal as the first “executive” president elected after the passage of the 19th Amendment; a majority of significant powers would be shared with the prime minister and he would be more or less a ceremonial officer a little above the office of the nominal president that existed prior to the passage of the 1978 Constitution.

Several websites were rife with speculation that civil society organisations had already rallied together and would back the proposal to field Jayasuriya as the common candidate.

In fact, in a recent media interview, Jayasuriya too expressed the view that he will no doubt take up the onus in the event his party rank and file decided so.

Such a proposal states that Jayasuriya should first resign from his high post and altogether resign from the membership of the UNP in order to be more appealing to the non-UNP voter base.

However, the ugly rift and infighting between UNP presidential hopeful Minister Premadasa and Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunanayake has intensified during the past few weeks with Karunanayake now targeting Premadasa’s confidantes, with Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera being the latest to take the flak.

However, the UNP leadership has kept silent about the rift and has not taken any action to quell the situation, mainly due to his displeasure at Samaraweera for openly backing Premadasa as the party’s candidate at the next presidential election.

It was last week speculated on social media that the recent “revelations” made by one of the key Buddhist monks of the UNP, Ven. Thiniyawela Palitha Thera, against Samaraweera were in fact supported by the likes of Karunanayake and several Wickremesinghe loyalists at Temple Trees.

Wickremesinghe has however, in his usual manner, remained silent and allowed for the internal battles to continue unabated.

Prez looks positive

Be that as it may, President Maithripala Sirisena is looking positively at the NDF, expanding further the possibility of the SLFP also joining the broad political alliance.

It is no secret that the President’s issue with the incumbent Government is mainly based on his objections to the conduct of the Prime Minister.

Sirisena has on many occasions stated that he had no issue with the UNP and respected the UNP membership very much for electing him as President in January 2015, but he could not agree with the manner in which the UNP leadership carried out affairs of the state and his scant regard towards the President.

The Black Box reliably learnt that a senior UNF minister had held a discussion with the President on the possibility of the SLFP joining the NDF.

The President despite his reservations of the role that would be played by the UNP leadership in the new political alliance had looked positively at the common name and symbol that would enable any political party to join it.

Also, the NDF will be led by a leadership council consisting of the leaders of all political parties that will be represented in the alliance.

All these facts have been agreeable to the President. However, Sirisena has not committed himself into joining the NDF, but has expressed his reservations to working with Wickremesinghe.

Coalition partners of the UNF however, are hopeful that the President and the SLFP would be able to join with the NDF once the alliance is officially launched.

SLFP CC

Meanwhile, the makings of the SLFP-SLPP alliance is at a standstill with chances of finalising the alliance before the SLPP convention next month looking very slim.

Despite claims by both the SLFP and SLPP that the alliance would be finalised soon, it does not seem so in practical terms.

Discussions between the two parties on forming an alliance came to a halt after both sides exchanged their respective proposals on the structure of the proposed alliance.

The SLFP appointed a committee headed by party senior, MP Nimal Siripala de Silva, to discuss and make recommendations on the proposal submitted by the SLPP on the alliance structure.

The committee has handed over a report with its observations to the SLFP Leader President Sirisena on Wednesday (17). The President, it is learnt, is currently observing the recommendations noted down by the committee.

However, a final decision on the SLFP’s stance on the proposed alliance is to be made once the President submits the report to the party’s Central Committee (CC) along with his observations.

The SLFP CC is scheduled to meet on Wednesday (24).

Although the SLFP has always enjoyed the lion’s share in political alliances in the past, the SLPP has categorically denied such a preference being given to the party stating that it was the SLPP that had the larger vote base as shown at last year’s local government elections.

The President it is learnt also has reservations on his party being underestimated by some members of the SLPP.

Sirisena has however remained silent on the issue of presidential candidacy and his party’s stance at the next presidential election.

However, it is reliably learnt that President Sirisena would not end his political career after concluding his presidency. Sirisena has already set his mind on returning to parliamentary politics by contesting at the general elections scheduled for 2020 from the Polonnaruwa District.

The President has told a senior minister of the UNF Government that he was a political animal and would not be able to give up politics. “After all, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set the precedent by entering parliamentary politics after concluding his presidency,” Sirisena has told the UNF Minister.

SLPP convention

Be that as it may, the SLPP leadership Mahinda Rajapaksa has meanwhile told his confidantes that nearly eight MPs from the SLFP would join the SLPP initially at the forthcoming maiden party confab with many more expected to come in droves once the presidential elections are declared.

At the convention scheduled for 11 August at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, several United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MPs who were in Sirisena’s camp hitherto including S.B. Dissanayake, Dilan Perera, and Lakshman Wasantha Perera are slated to join the SLPP ranks.

However, the SLFP defectors will not be awarded a warm welcome into the fold by the SLPP MPs who claim that the SLFP MPs were now aligning themselves with the SLPP in order to secure their victory at the next parliamentary election.

“These SLFP MPs could have stayed with the ‘JO’ after the 2015 general election, but they did not as they wanted to enjoy the perks of being in government.

Now they want to board the SLPP when elections are around the corner in order to ensure they are re-elected,” a senior SLPP MP said.

During the SLPP convention, the reins of the party would be formally handed over to Opposition Leader Rajapaksa in order to spearhead the party to victory at future polls and to ensure an SLPP-led government in the future.

In addition, the main highlight would be to formally announce the presidential candidate under a broad anti-UNP platform, which is most likely to be former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

However, the new coalition faces two main obstacles. First is the US citizenship of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Although he has initiated the renunciation, the process hasn’t been completed yet. Second is that once the “JO” MPs officially accept the SLPP membership, they stand to lose the seats in Parliament as they gained those seats on the ticket of the UPFA, which is now controlled by Sirisena.

In fact, on 20 December last year, several UNP MPs and other parliamentarians submitted a motion to the Speaker requesting a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) be appointed to ascertain the status of UPFA MPs of the Rajapaksa camp who reportedly accepted membership of the SLPP. The motion also requested the Speaker to refrain from recognising MP Rajapaksa as Leader of the Opposition until the determination by the PSC.

UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera saved the day by submitting a communiqué handed over to the Speaker on the same day, claiming that MPs who were elected to Parliament from the UPFA at the previous general election will continue to function as UPFA MPs. In fact, the UPFA stalwarts bragged that it was they who saved Rajapaksa and other “JO” MPs from losing their seats.

Happiness index

Be that as it may, it is learnt that the chief architect of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa, who heads the policymaking structure of the party, would indeed become the next chief polls campaign manager.

Addressing young professionals recently, Basil Rajapaksa has said that one of the priorities in his party’s policymaking process would be to uplift Sri Lanka in the World Happiness Index and all other policies would be formulated accordingly.

One of the main targets of a future SLPP government would be to take immediate action to save the country from an imminent fiscal crisis and debt trap.
According to economic experts in the party, Sri Lanka’s total outstanding debt has skyrocketed from Rs. 7 trillion at the end of 2014 to almost Rs. 13 trillion now, placing every citizen under a per capita debt of over Rs. 590,000.

TNA displeased

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is now a displeased lot with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe reneging on the deal with TNA MPs.

The Prime Minister had agreed to the setting up of a separate Tamil division in the Kalmunai Divisional Secretariat (DS).

According to the deal, a separate accountant was to be appointed to the Kalmunai DS. However, even at the end of last week, no such accountant was appointed to the DS.

The TNA last week announced the deal struck with the UNF Government in order to defeat the No-confidence Motion (NCM) that was mooted by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) against the Government.

TNA Parliamentarian Easwarapatham Saravanapavan said the TNA demanded a separate Tamil division in Kalmunai.

“We were undecided on how to vote on the NCM until we were certain that our demands would be met,” he said.

Saravanapavan said the UNF Government had finally agreed to set up a separate Tamil division in Kalmunai.

“Until 6.10 p.m. on Thursday (11), we were not sure on how to vote. Then, we were informed that an accountant had been appointed as a first step to establish the separate Tamil division,” he said, adding that at this point, the TNA decided to abstain from voting.

Asked if there were any other agreements between the TNA and UNF Government, MP Saravapavan said that the TNA had indicated their main demands years earlier.

“We have already given our demands and it is up to the Government to deliver. What we want mainly is the new constitution. They must have the guts to bring it to Parliament,” he said.

Nevertheless, the issue has now resulted in a rift brewing within the TNA with a majority of the MPs finding fault with TNA Leader R. Sampanthan for making the alliance supporting the Government when it had failed to address key issues faced by the Tamil community.