The 156-day old presidency is still not running smoothly in some respects. Last Tuesday morning, President Maithripala Sirisena’s security detail escorted him to the Parliament complex in Sri Jayawardenapura -Kotte. He had been told that the meeting with his MPs was to take place at a Committee Room in the Parliament Complex that sits in [...]


Political uncertainty continues; UNP for dissolution, Sirisena seeks SLFP backing

Heated arguments over electoral reforms; UNP opposes 237 seats, minority parties want double-ballot system -- Serious lapses in presidential security, President taken to the wrong venue last Monday

The 156-day old presidency is still not running smoothly in some respects. Last Tuesday morning, President Maithripala Sirisena’s security detail escorted him to the Parliament complex in Sri Jayawardenapura -Kotte. He had been told that the meeting with his MPs was to take place at a Committee Room in the Parliament Complex that sits in the middle of the Diyawanna Oya. There, he found UPFA parliamentarians had not turned up for the scheduled meeting with him. Mobile phones and radio communication sets went busy.

He was hurriedly escorted from there to the Presidential Secretariat overlooking the Indian Ocean near Galle Face Green. President Sirisena had been originally taken to the wrong venue for the meeting with the UPFA MPs. He apologised to the MPs who had gathered for the parliamentary group meeting in the auditorium, once the Well of the old House of Parliament.

President, Sirisena cannot be expected to remember the date, time and venue of every event he has to take part. This is why he has a retinue of officials and more importantly, a Presidential Security Division (PSD), protecting him and guiding him through. That is from place to place and engagement to engagement. An official or officials responsible for his daily chores could have erred in not briefing him correctly. Even more seriously, the role of those in the PSD comes into question. It is no secret that the route covering the movement of a presidential entourage is closely monitored by PSD. Added to that, advance parties take up position well ahead at the destination to ensure it is clear, security-wise, for the President to arrive. PSD Personnel, who served former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, are mostly serving Sirisena. If there was not one such blunder during Rajapaksa’s nine year tenure, how it could occur under Sirisena’s leadership cannot be dismissed as a small mistake. Not when they have been occurring all too frequently.

Surely, the entourage that is in radio contact with those at the point of arrival would have known or would have been able to discern that there was no engagement for the President in the Parliament complex that morning. Last month, an Army commando carrying a fully loaded pistol walked into the Angunukolapelassa Urban Council hall where the President was presiding at a party meeting. The commando was accompanying Namal Rajapaksa MP. An Assistant Superintendent of Police and a Sergeant attached to the PSD have been suspended since.

On Friday, the CID recorded Namal Rajapaksa’s statement on this and another matter for six hours. Claims were made that there was no pistol and the intruder carried only a bottle of water. This “cover up” story has now been disproved. Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detectives have uncovered evidence to prove that the commando did have a 9 mm pistol. Eight days after this incident, President Sirisena opened a Vesak Pandal at Pepiliyana in the suburbs of Nugegoda. He later boarded Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Mercedes Benz, instead of his own. Members of his close protection group were unable to guide him. That lapses are occurring with such rapidity is not good news for the efficient functioning of the presidency. It seemed no one is in overall charge or if indeed there were, they were unwilling to identify lapses, take remedial action and punish those responsible. It is so serious because it concerns the President of Sri Lanka.

Unmindful of the lapse, Sirisena responded to a string of issues raised by MPs at the UPFA parliamentary group meeting. Main among them was the outcome of a special ministerial meeting held last Monday to discuss electoral reforms to be introduced as the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. First to raise issue was Dilan Perera, Badulla District MP, who served a short stint as State Minister for Housing in the UNP-dominated Government. Referring to reports in the media on Tuesday, he asked whether the Cabinet of Ministers had decided to restrict the number of seats in Parliament to 225 when electoral reforms are effected. These reports said that the Cabinet of Ministers had approved Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proposal.

They added that 125 MPs were to be elected on “the first past the post system”, 75 MPs under the PR system and 25 on the National List. Sirisena told the UPFA parliamentarians that no finality was reached at the ministerial meeting on Monday. Briefing the media (on Thursday) after the ministerial meeting on Wednesday, official spokesperson and Minister Rajitha Senaratne was asked why the electoral reform proposals were changed. He replied somewhat sarcastically, “the UNP may have taken a policy decision not to increase the number of seats beyond 225. This is not the final figure.” He said a final decision on electoral reforms would be made at a special ministerial meeting on Friday. Interesting enough, Minister Champika Ranawaka, one of the prime movers of the UPFA’s electoral reforms, did not attend Monday’s meeting. He was away in India and returned on time for Friday’s special meeting.

Earlier, at Monday’s special ministerial meeting where electoral reforms were discussed, the Sunday Times learnt, that President Sirisena noted that numbers were not the issue. The Commissioner of Elections had said it would be difficult to provide assurances on the time required to work out the changes. He had earlier forwarded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) proposal which sought an increase of the seats to 255. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had suggested that the UNP’s proposal to retain the existing number of 225 seats be considered. Wickremesinghe also told the President to get the sponsors of a no-confidence motion against him, to withdraw it. He also warned that the UNP would abstain from voting if there was an increase in the number of seats. Premier Wickremesinghe’s proposal was being used as a benchmark. That was how another special ministerial meeting was fixed for Friday, June 12, to reach finality on the reforms. By then, Sirisena had asked political parties to send in their proposals and was to study them too.

Why then did the UNP, which urged an early dissolution and was not in favour of the 20A, change course? Some of its senior members said that if their proposal was accepted and carried out, that would have paved the way for dissolution of Parliament and early elections. However, for the UNP Government, which is in office almost two months or precisely 56 days beyond its self-imposed deadline of April 23, it is proving to be highly frustrating situation. An early dissolution has become a distant dream and new developments show that the issue is drifting further away. This is whilst the UNP is getting embroiled in other controversial issues which threaten its popularity.

Premier Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times, “The 100 days are long over. Under the guise of a 20A, interested parties are trying to delay the elections. We are calling for a dissolution and the conduct of elections.”

Monday’s ministerial meeting also saw Minister Rauff Hakeem, the SLMC leader, locked in stormy debate with his colleagues Rajitha Senaratne, S.B. Dissanayake and Sarath Amunugama. Hakeem argued for the introduction of two ballots, one for the party and another for the candidate. He declared that his party was among those which brought Sirisena to power and would not support any bill that was detrimental to the minorities. Acting Foreign Minister Ajith Perera who endorsed the SLMC leader’s plea declared it was only “democratic” that the request be allowed. Sirisena was quick to point out that he would not, like the previous regime, do anything that would harm minority communities. “They should have trust in me,” he said. Backing Hakeem’s arguments were Ministers Rishad Bathiudeen and Palani Digambaram. An angry Minister Ranawaka accused both the UNP and the SLMC of trying to sabotage the 20A. “Both Wickremesinghe and Hakeem are taking contradictory positions at different times,” he told the Sunday Times.

Friday’s special ministerial meeting also saw some heated exchanges. On the one side was Minister Hakeem. On the other were his ministerial colleagues Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka and Sarath Amunugama. The discussion revolved around the memorandum by President Sirisena titled “20th draft amendment to the Constitution in relation to the Reforms to Parliamentary Electoral System.” The position had changed by then. In that memo, Sirisena recommended a 237-seat Parliament. It was approved. However, the UNP has declared that it has reservations and would not support it in Parliament. Legal Draftsman G.F.A. de Silva, who was on hand, was called upon to draft the 20A Bill on the outlines of Sirisena’s recommendations. See box story for the full text of President Sirisena’s memorandum.

When the ministerial meeting was over, Premier Wickremesinghe escorted Minister Hakeem for a brief meeting with President Sirisena at the latter’s office in the Presidential Secretariat. There, the SLMC leader urged that a memorandum he had submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers be circulated as a White Paper together with the draft 20A Bill when it is tabled in Parliament. He said that the minority parties, the JVP and the smaller political parties would oppose the 20A incorporating an increase to 237 seats. A similar dissent by a large segment of the UPFA is also in the offing, raising questions whether it could ever be passed with a two-thirds majority. Here are highlights of Minister Hakeem’s memorandum circulated to ministers on Friday:

“…… This system has a serious flaw in that the candidates are linked to a polling division and there is a tendency amongst voters in a polling division to vote for a possible winner rather than any other party of their choice. Thus, the two strongest parties will benefit under this system dis-proportionate to their voter strength in the constituency.

“When this vote is applied to decide the number of Members of Parliament, under both district and national proportional representation, the other parties other than the main political parties would suffer a second time. This is the reason why in any part of the world where similar systems of election are in force, a double ballot is given to ensure at least in the choice of candidates of the parties other than the main parties, can secure their legitimate representation. In the absence of a double ballot system, it will wholly distort the electoral process and the resultant position is that the Parliament will also not reflect the preference of the voter.

“Due to this fundamental flaw in the proposed system, 15 political parties which held a meeting convened by myself yesterday, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), Democratic Party (DP), Democratic People’s Front (DPF), Ealam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), Workers National Front (WNF), National Front for Good Governance (NFGG), Tamil-Muslim National Alliance (TMNA), Democratic People’s Congress Alliance (DPCA), Sri TELO, United Socialist Party (USP), Upcountry Peoples’ Front (UPF) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), have collectively decided to oppose the same and call for the acceptance for the double ballot proposal before considering the other features of the proposal, including the suggested number of seats which is also a matter of grave concern.”

The special ministerial meeting also saw another important issue — the vote of no-confidence on the Prime Minister — being raised. Premier Wickremesinghe turned to President Sirisena and declared that it was a poor reflection on the President. It was also aimed at humiliating the Premier. It was both morally and ethically wrong. Such a motion was against his Government and his Prime Minister, he pointed out. Making a strong plea to halt the motion was Minister Kabir Hashim. He said the UNP was one of the parties that worked hard to bring Sirisena to power. The SLFPers who had opposed him had begun to dictate terms to the President now. The motion has already been listed as an addendum to the Order Book of Parliament. Minister Senaratne as well as others wanted to intervene to make remarks. However, Sirisena stopped all of them pointing out that he had something important to say.

The President, who had earlier asserted he would not allow the motion to be moved, now declared that he was fully conscious of the role played by the UNP during the presidential election. He said he would not let the UNPers down. Then came some highly thought-provoking words. Noting that he had powers, Sirisena said he was looking at different ways, including a resort to provisions in the Constitution. The remarks immediately sparked speculation in high UNP circles whether Sirisena was contemplating a prorogation of Parliament in case he finds it difficult to stall the passage of the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister. If indeed he chooses to prorogue Parliament, it lends further credence to the widely held belief that Sirisena is buying time until he further consolidates his position within the UPFA. The no-confidence motion on the Prime Minister has listed eight reasons:

  • Performing the functions of the Office of Prime Minister without enquiring the consent of the majority in Parliament in contravention of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,
  • Depriving a large number of persons employed in many large and small scale development projects of their means of livelihood and self-employment by suspending such projects;
  • Politicising the Sri Lanka Police in a serious manner for inflicting political victimisation and intimidation, in contravention of the Police Ordinance;
  • Creating a crisis in terms of cost of living by not granting government certified prices for tea, rubber and paddy and the escalation of prices of food items essential for the life of the community;
  • Appointing a person who is not a citizen of Sri Lanka and has renounced his allegiance and devotion to Sri Lanka by way of the pledge he has given to a foreign country to the office of Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the post which bears foremost responsibility for the handling of the whole financial system of Sri Lanka;
  • Being responsible for the largest financial fraud to have occurred in the history of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka by the controversial Treasury Bonds issue and for the consequent financial loss to Sri Lanka that continues in a manner unbearable to the country;
  • = Damaging severely the international relations with the countries and governments that extended maximum friendship and support to the country in times of difficulty, through the arbitrary and short-sighted action followed in respect of such countries and governments;
  • = Implementing fiscal policies in a manner that discourages the private sector, which makes a high contribution to Sri Lanka’s economic development process.

Contrary to earlier claims of 112 signatories, the motion has been signed by only 105 MPs. From them, six have now joined the President’s fold leaving behind only 99. Four were sworn in as Deputy Ministers on Thursday. They are Wijaya Dahanayake (Public Order and Christian Affairs), Sanath Jayasuriya (Local Government and Rural Development), Thilanga Sumathipala (Skills Development and Vocational Training) and Eric Weerawardena (Ports and Shipping). Former Prime Ministers Ratnasiri Wickremenayake and D.M. Jayaratne were on Thursday appointed Senior Advisors to the President. Behind the scene manoeuvres continued this week to win more MPs to the President’s fold. Significant among the signatories are SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha. One of those who refused to sign the motion was former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He is now in the Merchant’s Ward of the National Hospital where he has been transferred from the remand prison.

The vote of no-confidence on the Prime Minister was the subject of heated arguments when the party leaders met on Thursday morning to agree on a date for the debate. House Leader and Minister Lakshman Kiriella said that a date in July could be suggested. He had earlier agreed on July 5 for the no-faith vote on Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. The meeting ended inconclusively. It will resume on June 16 (Tuesday). One of the prime movers of the motion, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena, now a close ally of former President Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times , “if they do not give us a date, we will move to a stage of non-cooperation. Why are they dodging to face us?” A brief Q & A with Gunawardena appears in a box story on this page.
Media Minister Gayantha Karunatillake, who is also spokesperson for the UNP, told the Sunday Times , “There is no basis for the no-confidence motion. The persons who brought this motion have narrow political agendas. Even the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera of the Asgriya Chapter did not endorse it. The people gave a clear mandate at the January 8 election to President Sirisena. The President had already declared that he would be appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. The people approved this. Therefore, there is no basis to say that Mr. Wickremesinghe’s appointment was illegal. The motive of bringing the no-confidence motion has been to delay bringing the electoral reforms.”

In the wake of these developments, Premier Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of the UNP’s main policy-making body, the Working Committee (WC), on Friday evening. He explained the current situation. The committee decided to appeal to President Sirisena to keep to his promise and dissolve Parliament to pave the way for parliamentary elections. The same committee had adopted a resolution earlier (in April) calling for a dissolution on April 23 and to empower party leader Wickremesinghe to initiate any action he deemed necessary after the deadline. The WC cautiously avoided a decision on pulling out of the Government. One of its members argued that it would only become a handle for President Sirisena to swear in an UPFA administration. “We have to stay within and fight for a dissolution,” he declared. That underscores the dilemma of the UNP which finds itself in a new environment. Unlike in April, it has also come under a heavy cloud over several issues.

The political developments in the coming weeks, no doubt, will be a strong pointer where things are headed. Quite clearly, the UNP’s relations with the Presidency have strained and it is now poised to oppose electoral reforms. Its dilemma now is what next if there is no dissolution in the near future. For President Sirisena, who has clearly lost the backing of most UPFA MPs, the priority is to win back their confidence and support. He will thus not be in a hurry for a dissolution until he feels secure of that support. Therein lies Sri Lanka’s latest political uncertainty.

President’s package for electoral reforms
The Cabinet of Ministers, at a special meeting on Friday, agreed to the broader outlines of electoral reforms that will increase the number of seats in Parliament to 237.However, the UNP and minority and smaller political parties have said they will not support it. The ministerial decision came after intense debate and followed a memorandum titled “20th draft amendment to the Constitution in relation to the Reforms to Parliamentary Electoral System” tabled by President Maithripala Sirisena. Here is the full text:”I presented a Cabinet Memorandum on June 8, 2015 with regard to the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in relation to reforms to the Parliamentary Electoral System.

“At the special Cabinet meeting held on this subject, it was agreed that the Parliament should basically consist of 225 seats and that the number of MPs to be elected under District Proportional System be 75 and under the First Past the Post System should be 125. Furthermore, it was also agreed to elect 25 members under the National Proportional System Representation System. I, however, agreed to provide the two major political parties an opportunity to further express their views in this regard.

“Accordingly, I indicated that there should be an increase in the number of 125 members in Parliament, which was the stand adopted by the United National Party and the Honourable Prime Minister. Honourable Susil Premajayantha, MP and Secretary, United People’s Freedom Alliance has submitted written proposals of the United People’s Freedom Alliance while Mr Tissa Jayawardene, General Secretary of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna had separately submitted their views in writing. It is a matter of satisfaction that all political parties have reached agreement on several matters as indicated below:

1. Abolition of the Preferential Voting System.
2. Providing an opportunity for one member for each polling division to be elected under the First Past the Post System.
3. Acceptance of the principle of multi-member constituencies.
4. Adoption of a mixed system whereby members are to be elected under the First Past the Post System as well as on proportional representation system.
5. Recognition of the position that there should be no injustice caused to minor political parties and those parties representing diverse community interests.

“However, it has not been possible to arrive at a consensus only in relation to the total number of members to be elected to Parliament and the number of members to be elected under the First Past the Post System and the District Proportional System, as well as the numbers to be appointed from the National List.

“In the above circumstances, having taken into account all the foregoing factors and the number of MPs to be elected under the First Past the Post and District Proportional Systems and the number of members to be elected from the National List, and having studied the election results of 2001 and 2010, I now submit herewith a proposal that would address the requirements of all political parties. The members to be elected to Parliament will thus be 237.

“Distribution of 237 members
Of the 237 members, 200 (196 + 4) will be elected under the current District Proportional Representation System. I wish to clarify the reasonableness of adding the said four members. The contention of the small parties is that the decision reached at the Cabinet meeting of 08.06.2015 limits the numbers to be elected to Parliament at 225 and would result in the reduction of their representation in Parliament. In order to alleviate the problem of under-representation, the Delimitation Commission will be instructed to provide for the addition of 04 members to different electoral districts in addition to the aforesaid 196 members.
“Included in this number of 200 (196 + 4) are 145 members who are essentially elected under the First Past the Post System

and from multi member constituencies. When 200 (196 + 4) members are elected, some districts may still have more members elected than are stipulated for the said districts. This could happen when the number of Members of Parliament of a political party elected from the various polling divisions in a district is higher than the number of seats that party is entitled to under the district proportional representation system. Thus, the total number of Members of Parliament elected from the various electoral districts could be more than 200 (196 + 4). This excess is referred to as the “overhang.”

‘The total number of national list MPs would be 37 (237-200). The overhang in respect of the various parties will be deducted from the number of seats the respective parties are entitled to from the National List. In the event the National List allocation of a particular party is less than the overhang, the difference would be deducted from the total number of MPs that would be declared elected from the National List.

“The results of the General Elections of 2001 and 2010 were analysed using the above criteria. An important observation in this regard is that the difference between the actual results and the projected results is marginal.
“To ensure my promise given at the Cabinet of Ministers on 08.06.2015 below mentioned guidelines will be issued to the Delimitation Commission.

1. Where it appears to the Delimitation Commission that there is in any area of an Electoral District substantial concentration of persons united by a community of interest, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise, but differing in one or more of these respects from the majority of the inhabitants of that area, the Delimitation Commission may demarcate such Electoral District into polling divisions as may be necessary to render possible the representation of that interest. In making such division the Commission shall have due regard to the desirability of reducing to the minimum the disproportion in the number of persons resident in the several polling divisions of the Electoral District. Adequate representation in Parliament will ensure reflection of ethnic, social, political and economic realities and pluralities.

2. Notwithstanding anything in this section, the Delimitation Commission shall have the power to create in any Electoral District one or more polling divisions returning two or more members.”Having regard to the above, it is requested that approval be granted to review the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers arrived at on 08.06.2015 and to fix the total number of seats in Parliament at 237 so that the representations made by the various parties could be reasonably accommodated.”

Dinesh Gunawardena

New political front under Rajapaksa: Dinesh
The leader of a UPFA partner and strong ally of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa says a “new political front” is now in the making. To be headed by Rajapaksa, a programme of work for this “front” (or a manifesto of sorts) for the next parliamentary elections is now being formulated by a committee. Such a programme will also list the mistakes made by the previous regime and offer an apology, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena said. He added that a name for the new “front” was yet to be determined. Before that, those in the SLFP and the UPFA would discuss issues, Gunawardena, the Colombo District MP adds.

Here is a brief Q & A with him:
ON 20A: The final draft is still not there. We are aware of an earlier proposal to increase the number of seats in Parliament by 30. We are opposed to any moves to increase the number of seats. We are ready to consider retaining the existing 225 seats and making changes within it. No pledges were made in the 100 Day programme for an increase in the number of seats.

The Constitutional Council: It is wrong to name Cabinet ministers to serve in the CC. There is a conflict of interest. The accepted principles have not been followed in making the appointments. That is why we are opposed.

THE ROLE OF THE NEW “POLITICAL FRONT”: We want to function as a critical opposition. They came to power with a 100-day programme. They should have followed up on those in the name of ‘good governance.’ There is victimisation of our supporters and members. There should be an alternative political movement against the UNP. There is a serious division in the SLFP. Patriotic parties have formed into a new political movement. No name has so far been decided.

THE ECONOMY: The rupee is depreciating to the US dollar. As a result, most imported consumer items are going up in price. National and rural development projects have come to a halt. The proposals in the interim budget remain un-implemented. Guaranteed prices have not been paid for paddy. Rice prices have increased. The tea industry is in the doldrums. These three sectors constitute 80 per cent of the country’s income earners. There is growing instability in the country. The bond issue by the Central Bank has turned into a very serious misdeed. The international community is watching. It is a dangerous situation.

THE NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION AGAINST PM: If they do not give us a date, we will launch a ‘non-cooperation campaign.’ If the Government is ready to take up the motion against the PM first, we are ready. The motion against the Minister of Finance should follow within two weeks.

ON POSSIBLE RAPPROCHMENT WITH THE PRESIDENT: The people have moved away. He can have an understanding with us. But he cannot have the same understanding with the UNP.

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