Editorial/Opinion

The elephant’s swansong amidst election calls

Black Box by Capt. Vasabha

  • Symbol issue likely to create UNP and SJB split; Ravi’s conditions turned down by Sajith’s group
  • SJB considering moving forward with “telephone”; SJB finalised at the Colombo Swimming Club
  • MR to head caretaker govt. following dissolution; state minister posts defunct afterwards

Once again the much-anticipated news following the conclusion of the United National Party (UNP) Working Committee (WC) meeting last Friday (28 February) was that there was no news; another episode turning into an anticlimax for the UNPers, their supporters, and the media.

Each week, the WC meeting commences on the premise of being the most decisive one that would result in reaching the final verdict, but the outcome is the announcement of yet another date for a meeting.

After Friday’s WC meeting, which commenced three hours later than the initially scheduled time, the latest date that has been fixed is today (1). All issues including that of the alliance symbol are expected to be resolved today.

Be that as it may, indications from both factions of the UNP are that all talks have now reached a make-or-break scenario with mere days to the upcoming general election.

It is evident now that the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe is treading a thin line between survival and destruction due to the long-dragging conflict with the party’s Deputy Leader, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

A senior member of the Premadasa faction told The Black Box that it is difficult to drag these so-called discussions any further.

“This symbol issue is being dragged on unnecessarily by the party leadership in order to have his final say,” the member said, adding that the current scenario was more than pursuing “one-upmanship”.

A senior lawyer of the UNP had said at a gathering of confidantes that the UNP Leader could have become the president of the country if he was not being misled by several individuals holding key posts in the party. Given the path being tread by the UNP at present, it definitely seems a party that is being manipulated according to the whims and agendas of a selected few.

After much dillydallying, the UNP leader and his supporters announced Premadasa as the party’s presidential candidate and the clear division within the party was visible throughout the campaign, resulting in Premadasa’s defeat.

Since the conclusion of the presidential election, the UNP was in a leadership struggle till January when it was finally decided to announce Premadasa as the Leader of the UNP-led alliance and the party’s prime ministerial candidate at the upcoming general election while Wickremesinghe remained the UNP Leader. Among the agreements reached between Premadasa and Wickremesinghe at this juncture was to ensure that Premadasa would be given full powers to carry out the operations of the alliance and the general election campaign.

The next issue was over the alliance. Finally, Premadasa and his supporters decided to proceed with the same alliance that Wickremesinghe had opted to form in the run-up to last year’s presidential election – Ape Jathika Peramuna (Our National Front), which is affiliated to UNP MP Mangala Samaraweera.

Ape Jathika Peramuna was initially registered by confidante of Samaraweera, Ruwan Ferdinands and later handed over to Senaka “Sha” de Silva, who was the Co-ordinating Secretary to MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka when the latter contested at the 2010 presidential election.

According to the documents submitted to the Election Commission (EC) last year, Wickremesinghe had reconstituted Ape Jathika Peramuna by naming himself as the Leader of the party while MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne had been named as its General Secretary. This was the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) that was first proposed last year as the broad political alliance to contest the presidential election.

The symbol of the Ape Jathika Peramuna is the “telephone”.

Symbol issues

However, once Ape Jathika Peramuna was last month reconstituted as the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by Premadasa, the issue of the alliance was somewhat sorted, while the issue of the symbol remained open.

In fact, it is this issue of the symbol that is now used as a timebuying exercise by the Wickremesinghe loyalists.

The Wickremesinghe faction was first opposed to contesting under an symbol other than the UNP’s “elephant” symbol. However, when Premadasa requested Wickremesinghe to assign the “elephant” symbol to the SJB, the UNP leadership took a step back after the EC explained the legal impediments the party would have to face if its symbol was allocated to the Premadasa-led alliance.

The next step was to look at a common symbol that could pacify both the Wickremesinghe and Premadasa factions. It is then that the “swan” symbol of the National Democratic Front (NDF) came up. The NDF, which is affiliated to MP Ravi Karunanayake, has fielded two presidential candidates thus far – former President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 and Premadasa in 2019.

It was Karunanayake who came forward with the proposal for the Premadasa-led alliance to contest under the “swan” symbol. Once again, the legal issues associated with the allocation of a symbol registered under one party to another resulted in the need for the SJB to contest the upcoming general election under the NDF.

This is when a whole round of new problems began to surface.

Issues over granting the NDF’s “swan” symbol started to surface last week and the NDF’s Executive Committee that met last Friday (28) decided to impose conditions on Premadasa before agreeing to hand over the party symbol to the proposed alliance.

The NDF is of the view that the SJB would have to contest under the NDF and its symbol at the upcoming general election. Hence, the post of General Secretary of the Premadasa alliance will be vested with the NDF General Secretary, who is a confidante of Karunanayake.

Karunanayake then walked into the UNP WC meeting that same evening with a set of proposals formulated at the NDF Executive Committee meeting.

Among the conditions presented to the SJB at the UNP WC was that the posts of Deputy Leader and General Secretary be vested with the NDF.

The post of General Secretary of the SJB has already been vested with MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara.

“We cannot agree to give the General Secretary post of the alliance to another person. It has already been registered,” MP Sujeewa Senasinghe had said at the WC meeting. Taking a swipe at Karunanayake, Senasinghe had said that instead of pushing for general secretary posts in the new alliance, Karunanayake should be more focused on ensuring that he receives nominations at the upcoming general election.

However, the WC while unanimously approving the alliance constitution, subject to some amendments, had decided to hold another round of talks before resolving the issue of the alliance symbol.

“The UNP WC unanimously approved the constitution of the new alliance led by Sajith Premadasa. However, the party seniors will meet on Sunday (1) evening to decide on the symbol,” UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella told the media.

However, Wickremesinghe had earlier informed Premadasa that all decisions regarding the alliance must be approved by the WC before any agreements can be signed.

Premadasa and his supporters, following the directives of the party leadership, had got back at the WC meeting on the issue of the constitution.

It is learnt that the SJB would release a statement on its future path at the launch event on Monday.

“We are not hung up on the swan symbol. If that is not going to work out, we are still prepared to face the election. We are aware that all these issues about the symbol are to buy more time,” a young member of Premadasa’s group said, adding that the SJB was prepared for the eventuality where discussions on the “swan” symbol came to a standstill over unfair demands by the NDF members.

“We knew this was another game plan with lokka’s blessings,” the member said laughingly.

When inquired about the symbol the SJB would opt for in such a scenario, the member said that the symbol was never an issue for the alliance.

“We have the symbol of the party we have reconstituted, which is the ‘telephone’. But if there are issues over that as well, the Election Commission can offer us another common symbol. After all, we are a registered political entity,” the young politician added.

He also pointed out that it is not the symbol, but the party’s programme and individuals that play a role at elections.

“The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after being defeated for years was victorious only after forming an alliance and contesting under the ‘chair’ symbol and not the SLFP’s traditional ‘hand’ symbol,” he noted.

The launch

The launch of the Premadasa-led SJB is to take place tomorrow (2) at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre at 9.30 a.m.

However, the UNP leadership has also convened a meeting of the party’s local government members and former provincial council members at the same time to clash with the launch of the Premadasa-led alliance.

Both Premadasa together with the alliance General Secretary Madduma Bandara, had handed over the official invitation to the event to Wickremesinghe last Wednesday (26) at the UNP Leader’s residence. It is learnt that Wickremesinghe had accepted the invitation and had on Friday said he would attend the event.

“The launch of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya is on 2 March at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre and we came to invite you for the event, sir,” Premadasa had said.

“Okay, I will come, but everything has to take place on an official capacity. Are the alliance, its symbol, and constitution all ready for the launch? That needs Working Committee approval,” Wickremesinghe had said.

Premadasa and Madduma Bandara had also agreed that all issues pertaining to the alliance should be resolved fast.

Meanwhile, members of the Organisation to Protect the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had met Premadasa and extended their support to the Opposition Leader.

The meeting had taken place last Monday at the Opposition Leader’s office.

A considerable number of SLFP organisers had arrived for the meeting and Premadasa had requested for their support at the upcoming general election.

Premadasa had outlined that the organisation could join the SJB, although it is not a registered political entity.

Another meeting was held at the Colombo Swimming Club between Premadasa and a group of parliamentarians supporting him. Among those gathered were Madduma Bandara, Tissa Attanayake, Harin Fernando, Ajith P. Perera, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, Eran Wickramaratne, and Dr. Harsha de Silva.

Among the key issues taken up for discussion was the launch of the SJB on Monday, the holding of separate press conferences with the political parties that are to extend support to the alliance, preparing nominations lists, the election plan, and the elections operations committee.

Formulating the initial election plan was assigned to Fernando while discussing the possibility of getting Fernando through the National List to Parliament following the upcoming general election – the reason being the need for Fernando to fully concentrate on the whole election operations without being confined to the Badulla District.

“We have acted with decorum right throughout. Do not engage in any form of mudslinging campaigns. Always speak with facts,” Premadasa had told the rest of the gathering.

From then onwards, Premadasa had commenced his election campaign work by holding meetings with various societies and organisations to discuss the common issues faced by the country.

Last week also saw Premadasa holding press conferences with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) led by MP Patali Champika Ranawaka and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) led by MP Mano Ganesan and P. Digambaram.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader MP Rauff Hakeem also extended the party’s support to the Premadasa-led alliance. All the party leaders who had so far extended support to the SJB had said that they would contest with the Premadasa-led alliance regardless of the symbol.

More parties for SLFPA

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Freedom People’s Alliance (SLFPA) formed by the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is moving forward with arrangements being made to include five more political parties in its new alliance.

The first executive committee meeting of the SLFPA was held at Temple Trees last Tuesday.

The meeting was convened under the patronage of Alliance Leader Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former President Maithripala Sirisena, SLFPA General Secretary Basil Rajapaksa, and other party leaders were present at the meeting.

The President, Prime Minister, Sirisena, and Basil were seated together.

Basil, after welcoming everyone to the meeting, had explained the mission of the alliance.

He had explained that while the alliance was launched with nine political parties, several other parties had expressed their desire to join the SLFPA.

Accordingly, the executive committee granted approval to include five more political parties to the alliance – Eelam People’s Democratic Front (EPDP), Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), National Congress, and the United People’s Party. The total number of coalition parties of the SLFPA would then increase to 14 registered political parties.

Moving forward with the alliance election plans, Basil convened a meeting at the SLPP head office with all SLPP MPs and district leaders to discuss the way forward.

Dissolving the House

Amidst all this chaos, attention is also being focused on the dissolution of the Eighth Parliament that is expected to take place tomorrow (2).

With the House completing four-and-a-half years, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa today receives the legal right to dissolve Parliament and call for a general election.

If and when the relevant gazette notification is issued, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will head the caretaker government that will steer the country till the general election that would be held in late April.

Along with the dissolution of Parliament that would result in the appointment of a caretaker government, functions of state ministers would come to a standstill as only the role of cabinet ministers would be legal under such a government.

The EC had decided to summon all district secretaries and assistant district election officers to Colombo for a meeting to discuss the holding of elections and the functions of state institutions during the election period.