What prompted President to back out of talks? Some SLPPers also blame Basil for breakdown Sirisena meets Ranil; PM warns UNP group of action against anyone attacking the President; SLFP also will check polls leaflets to avoid mudslinging at UNP Elections to all 341 councils likely to be held on Feb. 10; SLPP and its [...]


SLFP-‘JO’ talks falter, Sirisena must go it alone, face the inevitable


  • What prompted President to back out of talks? Some SLPPers also blame Basil for breakdown
  • Sirisena meets Ranil; PM warns UNP group of action against anyone attacking the President; SLFP also will check polls leaflets to avoid mudslinging at UNP
  • Elections to all 341 councils likely to be held on Feb. 10; SLPP and its ‘JO’ allies to contest as United Common People’s Front

Talks between rival factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have collapsed despite efforts for the first time by President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa to reunite for the local polls.

The duo appointed their respective committees to take forward the talks. This even saw a meeting between President Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. There was mutual endorsement of the two teams then. The former Defence Secretary, who had identified the pros and cons of uniting to his leadership, was in favour of giving it a chance.

Whilst the teams were at work, Minister Susil Premjayantha, who had Sirisena’s blessings at an earlier stage to broker a parntership, was the harbinger of bad news. His latest message said that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the political party formed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, was only a faction of the SLFP. Thus, he declared, the SLFP leadership could not engage in talks for unity. Thereafter, Premjayantha left Sri Lanka on a foreign trip. Like the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back, the talks collapsed.

The SLFP rivals are still unable to fathom what prompted President Sirisena to suddenly back out and call an immediate halt to the patching up talks. Was it local or foreign pressure or both?

On the other hand, many in the SLPP blamed it on Basil Rajapaksa, widely regarded as the strategist for the new political party, the SLPP. In fact, the reconciliation efforts began with an influential non-active SLFP member approaching him. It was Basil who told him that utmost secrecy should be maintained. He had said that he would obtain the concurrence of Mahinda Rajapaksa whilst he urged the unnamed intermediary to do so with President Sirisena. This was around the time Minister Premajayantha had made his first soundings. When his verbal briefing to the ‘Joint Opposition’ parliamentary group was rejected, a written request from the SLFP, as reported earlier, was handed over to Mahinda Rajapaksa by Premjayantha. It has then been given to Basil Rajapaksa for ‘safe keeping.’

With the talks collapsing, President Sirisena appeared to have embarked once again on a new course of action. He had a meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He explained to him that like his (the Premier’s) task was to strengthen the UNP, it was his (the President’s) task to strengthen the SLFP. Other than this, he insisted that he had nothing in his mind about appointing a new Prime Minister or paving the way for a new Leader of the Opposition. Earlier, Wickremesinghe had sought clarification over speculation in political circles about former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa being made the Premier under an SLFP dispensation. In fact, when talks were under way, Chamal told leaders of the rival group he was not in favour of such a dialogue. He argued that most party supporters disliked it. Broad indications had been given by Sirisena about the non-fruition of unity talks but Wickremesinghe seemed already aware that reunification talks within the SLFP had not materialised.

During his discussion with the PM, the President had made clear, somewhat assertively, that Wickremesinghe should rein in his parliamentarians from publicly criticising him (Sirisena). He made particular reference to the outburst by State Minister for Strategic Development and International Trade Sujeeva Senasinghe. The State Minister had severely criticised Sirisena using strong words after it came to light at the Central Bank Bond Commission that Senasinghe was in cahoots with the main suspect in the bond scam, Arjun Aloysius of Perpetual Treasuries Ltd. (PTL), by exchanging dozens of calls between them. That company is the subject of a probe by a Commission of Inquiry for allegedly profiteering to the tune of billions of rupees through irregular bond transactions at the Central Bank. Senasinghe had served in the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and defended the role of PTL. He had even authored a book. In defending himself after the evidence transpired, he had said that all the calls were to get information for the book he was writing on the bond allegations, but in defending himself he took a swipe at Sirisena asking if the country was run by him or a businessman close to him. In fact, Senasinghe himself was an erstwhile associate of the businessman.

Just a day after his meeting, Wickremesinghe told the UNP parliamentary group last Monday that MPs should refrain from criticising the President or face disciplinary action. That the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe meeting has one more time renewed the prospect of the present Yahapalanaya (or good governance) coalition remaining in office until the end of term is one thing. Another is the move to revive the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the remaining tenure of the Government. SLFPers in particular want the inclusion of several new clauses including urging their counterparts to give them equal consideration when evolving policy issues. A ministerial re-shuffle and a prorogation of Parliament to pave the way for a policy statement for the remaining years is also under active consideration. Yet, how the two sides will resolve some of the outstanding matters, like action on high profile cases of bribery and corruption, remains to be seen. Any new MoU will only be a precursor to the next presidential and parliamentary elections.

While more than 100,000 people in several districts were still suffering from Wednesday’s extreme weather, President Maithripala Sirisena yesterday visited the Moragahakanda hydropower reservoir where the water levels are rising.

On the other side of the divide, Basil Rajapaksa admitted that he opposed the talks at reunification at the beginning. “It was on the basis that it was against the people of this country. There were both pro-Government and those opposed to it. There would be no force left for those who oppose if the ‘Joint Opposition’ were to change,” he told the Sunday Times this week. However, he said the Rajapaksas were at the butt-end of severe Government harassment. Therefore, Mahinda, Gotabaya, Namal and he met to discuss the situation in detail. It was noted that if the SLFP changed its present policies, the SLPP would have to take that into account. This is whether the SLFP is in the Government or not. This is notwithstanding the personal issues they face. Hence, there was general consensus to examine offers for re-unity and thus obviate blame for any outright rejection. They had noted that they should seek to stop the sale of national assets; halt Government moves to cut down subsidies; check the rising cost of living; mounting unemployment and — help to fight bribery and corruption. Particular mention was made of the Central Bank bond scam.

“When we were moving forward with talks between the committees on either side, I knew I would be blamed if anything went wrong. I remained neutral. I thought if they decide successfully, I would do my best to get the rest of the party to fall in line,” said Basil Rajapaksa. Saying that “all Rajapaksas looked at it positively,” he added, “there were people who were trying to deliberately scuttle the process.”

Basil Rajapaksa added, “Both President Sirisena and our leader Mahinda Rajapaksa gave their genuine blessings to the respective committees.” Sirisena had named SLFP senior deputy leader and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Dilan Perera. Also included were Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premjayantha. The team from the rival faction comprised C.B. Ratnayake, Pavithra Wanniaratchchi and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene.

One of the pre-conditions of the rival (Mahinda) group was what it called a “safety net.” Should talks not succeed there should not be any reprisals on their members. There had been many examples in the past, it was pointed out.
During the talks, the rival faction had placed three demands: They were:

  • A proposed ‘No Contest Pact’ to contest the 337 local bodies (later increased to 341 with the creation of new ones). Of this number, 37 local bodies would be contested by smaller parties now associated with the ‘Joint Opposition.’ Of the remaining 300 number, 150 to be contested by the SLFP. The remaining 150 to be contested by candidates of the rival group under the Pohottuwa (or budding flower) symbol of the SLPP.

If there were serving MPs on either side seeking a particular ward, they are to be conceded. The balance number of wards to be shared equally.

  • To re-activate the People’s Alliance (with the Chair symbol) and field candidates under it. At present Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Chairman and former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne is the General Secretary.

Amend the Constitution of the PA to make provision for the creation of a 100 member Vidayaka Sabha or Executive Committee. Membership be given to the eight partners of the ‘JO’ on the basis of two each. That would total 16. Thereafter, the remaining 84 members be allotted on the basis of 40 for the SLFP and 44 for the SLPP.

The Chairmanship of such a Committee will go to the SLFP whilst the post of Secretary will go to the ‘JO.’ All decisions concerning the two sides to be taken by the Executive Committee.

  • If accord could be reached for the upcoming local council polls, to pick some 50 local bodies where a victory is not possible. For the rival group to field candidates for them. This was, however, shot down.

“We were given to understand that the matters could be considered by the SLFP leadership subject to further talks. However, in the meantime, Minister Premajayantha’s new message had arrived,” said Basil Rajapaksa. Asked whether the rival group sought the exit of the UNP from the Government, he replied, “yes, that is what we put forward earlier. This was a response to assertions by the SLFP Committee that the SLFP also wants to work with the UNP. That is also after it was made clear that the reconciliation was only for the purpose of the local polls — a statement which raised queries over what the ‘JO’ would get in return for entering into an electoral arrangement with the SLFP merely to save the skin of the SLFP under Sirisena.

That development prompted the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) to request its candidates to pay their deposits under the pohottuwa symbol. The first move was reflected in the District Secretariats in Gampaha, Kalutara and Galle. That was a precaution said Basil Rajapaksa adding that “we could have withdrawn if there was any agreement with the SLFP.” That came as an indication that the dialogue was not reaching fruition and was a pressure-message to the SLFP. Nevertheless, small groups from both sides are still talking in a desperate exercise amidst concerns that neither side wants to be accused of breaking off the dialogue.

Now, the SLPP and its partners under the pohottuwa symbol will be known as the Ekabadda Podu Jana Peramuna or United Common People’s Front. Udaya Gammanpila has been named as the convenor of a campaign committee which will include Dinesh Gunawardena, Vimal Weerawansa, Dulles Allahapperuma, Prasanna Ranatunga, Pavithra Wanniaratchchi, G.L. Peiris, Basil Rajapaksa, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Sanka Navaratne.

Now that the SLFP has accepted that an arrangement with its rival is not materialising, moves are afoot to field its own candidates and launch a strong campaign. This was the subject of discussion when President Sirisena, who returned from a three-day visit to South Korea, chaired a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat on Friday. Several measures were discussed for the local council elections which are now likely to be held on February 10 next year. Sirisena urged members of his personal staff, who had been assigned to prepare reports on matters relating to local polls in different areas, to submit their findings without delay.

Beginning December 6 (next Wednesday), the SLFP district leaders will undertake the task of finalising the list of their respective candidates. It will thereafter be submitted to the party headquarters for ratification. The SLFP is yet to decide on which symbol its candidates would contest. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) representatives sought the Betel Leaf. Others representing the hill country areas alleged that it was associated with racial overtones. Most were in favour of using SLFP’s hand symbol. The matter will be finalised in the next few days, said a senior SLFPer.

President Sirisena said he would travel to each district for meetings and urged that “we speak in one voice.” Earlier, there were suggestions that he would not campaign at all in the local elections. In a bid to ensure the polls campaign does not cause any friction with the coalition partner UNP, all leaflets to be distributed by the candidates would require approval from the party headquarters. At another meeting to be held next week, a firm decision on the party symbol as well as the issues that should form the campaign are to be made. There was a debate when it came to choosing candidates for the Colombo Municipal Council. However, Sirisena resolved it.

Sirisena also met his party ministers on his return from Seoul to discuss issues related to the budget proposals. One was the proposal to liberalise the shipping industry. Another was proposed change to the Shop and Office Employees Act. He asked a ministerial team, named earlier, to meet Premier Wickremesinghe again and raise issue since these were in contradiction with the SLFP policy. The team is headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has made clear there would be no change in the proposal though he would consider procedural changes.

With the voting on the budget concluding on December 9, the UNP will launch its own local polls campaign. Together with its smaller partner political parties, the UNP will contest under the Elephant symbol but as the United National Front (UNF). Among other parties in the fray is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which is campaigning to win local bodies in areas considered its strongholds.

The Elections Commission had earlier chosen to hold local polls in only 93 local bodies in the light of two different reasons. One is a string of mistakes in the Gazette notification issued by Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha. That prevented the Commission from conducting polls for 40 local bodies. The conduct of polls to a further 248 were stalled by an order by the Court of Appeal.

The Court last week suspended until December 4, the operation of the Delimitation Commission report Gazetted in February this year. This, six petitioners pleaded, was on the grounds that the Minister, in terms of the law, was not empowered to alter the number of members from a particular ward in a local authority. He was only empowered to make alterations to the boundaries of the local authority. A three-judge bench observed that the Local Government Minister had acted ultra vires the powers vested in him under the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance.

This was to lead to a flurry of political activity. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was to chair a meeting of party leaders where various options to overcome the situation were examined last Monday. Local Government Minister Musthapha is learnt to have telephoned the Speaker from Malta where he was attending a conference. He drove straight from the airport for the meeting on Monday morning. One of the options examined was to ascertain whether the six petitioners could be persuaded to withdraw their application to the Court of Appeal. Interesting enough, even if they did, at least technically there was no barrier to any other party going to courts on the same matter. Such a prospect hangs in the air even after the polls are concluded.

One party which was strongly in favour of all polls being conducted on the same day was the UNP. That it was earlier planned only for 93 local bodies caused concern at the highest levels of the party since that included many areas which were not favourable to the UNP. A loss would thus place it at a disadvantage when polls for the rest of the local bodies came. Minister Musthapha undertook to talk to the petitioners and later announced in Parliament that that they would withdraw their application.

Even before he made the announcement, Musthapha told confidants he would be able to get the application withdrawn and thus pave the way for the conduct polls to all councils. Even the mistakes in the Gazette notification related to the 40 councils were being rectified, he said.

Thus, last Thursday (November 30), the six petitioners’ lawyer, N.M. Shaheed, filed a motion before the Court of Appeal, noting that the application was filed on November 10, supported on November 15 and 16, notice was issued and limited interim relief was granted by the Court. Such relief was until the next date in order to enable the Court to “re-assess the necessity of extending the interim order. It was to be taken up tomorrow (December 4).

The motion noted that “the Petitioners and the Respondents (Minister Musthapha and his Secretary Kamal Pathmasiri) have held discussions on this matter and the first respondent (the Minister) agreed to endeavour to consider the concerns of the Petitioners.”

“In the said circumstances,” the motion declared that “the Petitioners are no longer desirous of continuing with this application and have no objection to the limited interim order issued by Your Lordship’s Court being dissolved. The Petitioners respectfully move that Your Lordship’s Court be pleased to mention this matter on 30 November 2017 to enable the Petitioners to support this motion, to respectfully move that the interim order delivered by Your Lordship’s Court be dissolved and to withdraw this application without costs.”

As a result, the Elections Commission is now able to conduct polls to all the local councils. The original dates of nominations for the 93 local bodies will be, as scheduled, from December 11 to 14. For the rest of the local councils, nominations will be received from December 17 to 19.

The recent developments over re-unity within the SLFP and the upcoming local polls would no doubt have far reaching repercussions. The plain fact is that the votes of the SLFP would largely be divided between the Sirisena faction and those backing Rajapaksa’s SLPP. SLFPers who attended Friday’s meeting at the Presidential Secretariat say they are confident they can hold their own and make substantial gains. However, if there is a tilt in voter preference to the SLPP, that will turn out to be a daunting challenge for Sirisena. When relations with the UNP are strained and he has just seemingly repaired the latest damage with the UNP, the re-unity efforts with the SLPP for which he gave his full blessing have misfired.

Thus, fielding candidates from the SLFP that is backing him, is an exercise borne out of no other options. Not when his backers delayed the local polls and reached a point of no return. Making matters worse are credible reports that at least four parliamentarians from within Sirisena’s ranks are now set to cross over to Rajapaksa’s SLPP. All this, there is little doubt, would affect Sirisena in his governance as President.

For the UNP, the senior partner in the Government, there is a sigh of relief that the reunification efforts in the SLFP did not succeed. The party is confident that with what it believes is a strong voter base in most areas, it will be in a position to garner most number of local councils. However, this is the first time the UNP’s own popularity is being put to the test after the Central Bank bond scandal. UNPers argue that at the grassroots level there is little or no knowledge about the bond issue. Also, the bond issue is not the only issue that is nagging the UNP voter base in the provinces. The answers, of course, will be known within weeks rather than months.

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