Three major parties intensify campaigns for presidential election; SLFP puts up posters highlighting President’s achievements; UNF and SLPP also preparing at village level President and PM battle openly here and abroad; latest dispute over Geneva meeting of UNHRC and Govt. policy   In Sri Lanka’s 71 years of independence from British rule, at no time [...]


With no hope of SLPP backing, Sirisena may go it alone


  • Three major parties intensify campaigns for presidential election; SLFP puts up posters highlighting President’s achievements; UNF and SLPP also preparing at village level
  • President and PM battle openly here and abroad; latest dispute over Geneva meeting of UNHRC and Govt. policy


In Sri Lanka’s 71 years of independence from British rule, at no time before have bizarre political records tumbled in rapid succession than since last year.

The fiascos, set in motion from October last year, with President Maithripala Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and foisting Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place, continue. The Supreme Court rescinded that particular action and declared it was unconstitutional.

It took another five months for President Sirisena, who is constitutionally responsible for the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, to formally acknowledge that he violated the Constitution. A news release issued by the Foreign Ministry, on matters relating to the ongoing UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva, explained, “Sri Lanka was unable to finalize some of the required legislation due to the infamous Constitutional Coup of 26th October 2018.”  There was, however, no mention about who triggered that “Constitutional Coup” though the two-page press release, funny enough, acknowledged the consequences. The answer was still obvious – it was President Maithripala Sirisena.

Some of the election leaflets

Instead, there was blame by the Foreign Ministry on “those who try to seek cheap political advantages shamelessly of a situation in which the country needs to be salvaged are the real traitors of our Motherland.” One need not be a soothsayer to say that the veiled but poisonous attack is on the UNF leadership. Dishing out the dubious “national title” of “traitor” has remained the prerogative of even the previous government. This time, it was only a small tip of the huge iceberg above water. For weeks now, Sirisena, the President of Sri Lanka, has been fighting a shadow war with his United National Front (UNF) government, on the country’s approach at the current UNHRC sessions. That Sirisena did not altogether have his way is clear.

Also clear for many months now are the newer heights to which the bitter internecine war has reached.

President Sirisena publicly admitted during an on-the-record chat with the Sunday Times that Sri Lanka may withdraw from the co-sponsorship of the US resolution (30/1). The move to sponsor this resolution in 2015 had neither been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers nor by President Sirisena himself. The then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, known for his pro-US leanings, had taken the decision then. One source said he had the concurrence of his leader, Premier Wickremesinghe. One of the complaints against such sponsorship in 2015 is the argument that it acknowledged the need to probe extra-legal acts by the troops during the final stages of the separatist war. President Sirisena told the Sunday Times “troops had not committed any war crimes. It was the Tigers who did so.”

In the weeks past, there has been hectic diplomatic activity at least by one Colombo-based powerful mission. Intelligence sources said select UNF ministers were regularly entertained by the envoy concerned during night meetings where strategy in respect of the current UNHRC sessions has been the main topic, besides the prevailing political situation. The envoy in question also had a meeting with President Sirisena and some positions, contrary to the ones held by the President, had been articulated. It is during this meeting that a request had been made to President Sirisena to hand back the Police Department to the UNF government. In terms of the Sri Lanka Constitution, assigning subjects is the rightful prerogative of the President and not a foreign envoy. Obviously, some seem to be oblivious to this or blatantly ignored this reality in a sovereign country. The President made a disclosure of this at Tuesday’s news conference suggesting that foreign envoys were interfering in such matters. President Sirisena was indeed correct. Such blatant, Donald Trump like diplomacy, has been very rare in independent Sri Lanka in the past.

Yet, the most pertinent question is why such envoys or their minions are not put in place when such requests are made to the highest in the land. The late President J.R. Jayewardene who earned the sobriquet of Yankee Dickey did not hesitate to declare persona non grata Kenneth Munro Scott, the Political Officer of the US embassy in Colombo in 1982. He had made critical remarks on “Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.” Similarly, in 1991, the then British High Commisisoner David Gladstone was declared persona non grata by President Ranasinghe Premadasa for “interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.”

Under President Sirisena, this is not the only instance. There was another when a European diplomat who was among those who met him cast aside the niceties of diplomacy and was seen to be admonishing Sirisena. This was during a meeting after the constitutional crisis. In this instance President Sirisena was wrong in what he did. So was the diplomat whose tenor of conversation was equally wrong.

The UNHRC during its 34th sessions which began in February 2017 adopted the US backed resolution (30/1). The core group backing this resolution were Britain, Macedonia and Montenegro. Sri Lanka co-sponsored it. Though the US withdrew from the UNHRC last year, it is otherwise active behind the scenes.  Britain took the lead with Canada and Germany in the core group after the US pullout. Instead of pulling out of the co-sponsorship of the US backed resolution, which President Sirisena said was under consideration, the Foreign Ministry said, Sri Lanka “will join hands” with the new core group in “co-sponsoring” a “roll over resolution.” The “roll over” is a reference to the recurrence of the issue at every UNHRC session. This strategy, the Ministry said, “will prevent international war crimes allegations being continuously levelled against Sri Lankans through strengthened ownership of the implementation process.” The Foreign Ministry also acknowledged that co-sponsoring the US resolution in 2015 “helped to avert a looming international catastrophe.”

A face-saving exit indeed from the embarrassment caused by the failed withdrawal of the co-sponsorship. However, that did not end the ding-dong controversy between President Sirisena and his UNF government led by Premier Wickremesinghe. He picked on a three-member delegation to represent Sri Lanka – former Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sarath Amunugama and Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan. Samarasinghe, no stranger to the UNHRC, will join the delegation in Geneva since he is on a private visit to Switzerland. They will be on hand to articulate President Sirisena’s position and give directives to A.L.A. Azeez, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana will not be on hand.

Sri Lanka, once had two Prime Ministers and two Leaders of the Opposition. Now, there are two teams in Geneva representing different shades of opinion. The message – Sirisena was not only fighting Wickremesinghe’s government locally but internationally, too. The Foreign Ministry made clear, through a rather “unprofessional and undiplomatic” news release that it wanted the world to know it if not laugh at it. Nowhere before has the word “traitor” been used in Foreign Ministry news releases before on any Sri Lankan. The conduct of diplomacy has sunk to low levels. That was “good governance” at play, as one chapter after another, in a series of political comedies, is enacted.

In a 15-page report to the ongoing sessions in Geneva, Veronica Bachelet Jeria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Thursday that “The political crisis at the end of 2018 further obstructed progress owing not only to the temporary paralysis of institutions but also because it generated fears that another Government might not embrace the reconciliation agenda. There were also concerns among key stakeholders that a return to power of the pre-2015 administration could have negative implications for their security and the human rights situation in general. In particular, during the crisis, the work of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms – the body mandated to lead and coordinate transitional justice efforts – was hampered, given that its Secretary-General had resigned on 30 October and a number of its staff contracts were terminated on 30 November. Some staff members were reportedly subjected to surveillance and threats within hours of the removal of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

“The Secretary-General and staff resumed their work in late December. The High Commissioner acknowledges the efforts made to establish bodies like the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, and applauds the commitment and professionalism of their staff. The Government has, however, lagged in the actual implementation of its commitments, beyond the establishment of coordinating bodies. The situation has been compounded by the lack of a comprehensive strategy or action plan setting out a timeline for the establishment of the various transitional justice mechanisms and the linkages between them.”

The report added: “The High Commissioner joins the Secretary-General in welcoming the resolution of the political crisis in Sri Lanka through peaceful, constitutional means, and applauds the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions. Nonetheless, for seven weeks, the legitimacy and the legality of a number of authorities were in question, which led to further delays in the implementation of the recommendations made in Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, for instance owing to staff changes in key institutions and uncertainty with regard to reporting lines.”

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa criticized both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for this situation. “At least on international issues over matters of national importance, both should have discussed matters and taken a unified stand. This is very bad for the country and the people,” he said.

However, a more laughable event, somewhat akin to a wedding ceremony without a groom or a bride, came this week. President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has already launched his campaign for the presidential election, formally due in the next seven months. On whose behalf will he contest besides the SLFP?

The answer came from an official who is involved in making campaign preparations and promotional work. Shiral Lakhthilaka, Advisor (and former Co-ordinating Secretary) to the President. “President Sirisena will be the ‘default candidate’ at the presidential elections,” he told the Sunday Times. He explained that President Sirisena was sure to come on the SLFP ticket. In addition, he said, he is hopeful that Sirisena will be accepted as a candidate by parties of the “Joint Opposition,” particularly by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). “This will happen by default,” he claimed. Lakthilaka is a member of the campaign team and some of the slogans appear in a montage on this page.

Lakthilaka, likened the situation to how a onetime US President Harry S. Truman, a farmer, created an upset in US election history and won the presidential election in 1948 by more than two million votes. He beat his Republican contestant Governor Thomas E. Dewey in the polls that came after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Truman was widely touted as a loser. Lakthilaka said he sees a similar parallel in Sri Lanka for “default candidate” Sirisena.

Election campaign posters for Sirisena sprung up in the City of Colombo and suburbs. They were in different colours. There were bold letters exhorting “Maithri hari,”’ (Maithri is correct). Other slogans included one like “the person who worked to his conscience,” “The person who exposed people,” ‘The person who did the best at difficult places” and ‘The person who pointed out the bitter truth in politics’.  All of them were signed off as “Podi Minissunge Panthiya” (The class of the small people.)

The most favoured candidate of the SLPP albeit the “Joint Opposition” is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary. He is yet to be formally told of his candidature but is making preparations. He is sure to be the beneficiary of a grassroots level campaign now launched by SLPP architect and ideologue, Basil Rajapaksa. Whilst preparing for its national convention, the SLPP has also set out its campaign known as ‘Gama Samaga Pilisandarak’ (A dialogue with the village). The party has brought out booklets for its organisers to collect data on voters, their proposals, the socio-economic background of the village and details of public sector employees, including teachers, religious persons and medical professionals supportive of the party. The organisers also have been told to collect information on those who may serve as polling agents in future elections.

A booklet titled ‘Preparations for 2019 elections’ (does not refer to which one) contains more detailed information on setting up of sub committees on canvassing, printing of posters, organising meetings, polling agents, security and refreshments, visiting house to house, inspecting electoral lists, collecting information on those who do not have identity cards, distribution of leaflets, educating postal voters, looking for locations to set up offices, obtaining permits and setting up of district offices are among the other instructions formulated by Basil Rajapaksa.

UNF campaign

Not to be outdone, the UNP-led United National Front is also launching a campaign designed to increase its membership. The UNP General Secretary, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, told the Sunday Times, “We want to expand our islandwide membership and strengthen village level organisations. Parliamentarians and local councilors are helping us in this exercise. We are doing this with elections in mind. The theme is Siri Kotha Gamata or the party’s headquarters being taken to the village level. It will begin in the Kalutara District.”

Kariyawasam, who is also Minister of Education said, “The Kalutara district co-ordination of this programme in eight of the electorates has been entrusted to eight ministers – Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim, Navin Dissanayake, Lakshman Kiriella, John Amaratunga, Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Thalatha Athukorale. “

However, the UNF is yet to formally announce its candidate for the presidential election.

President Sirisena created a political diversion at a news conference on Tuesday by declaring that parliamentary elections may be held ahead of the presidential election.  Earlier, on February 9 Sirisena declared that Provincial Council elections will “definitely be held” before the Presidential election. Speaking at a public rally coinciding with the re-organisation programme of the SLFP in Polonnaruwa, the President said the impediments to holding PC elections would be removed soon. However, later he blamed the delays on Premier Wickremesinghe but admitted to the Sunday Times there was nothing he could do about it. Why then is he now talking about a parliamentary election first? To place matters in context, what he said at the news conference is relevant.

Sirisena said, “As you know this year is going to be an election year. At the end of the year we will have the Presidential election. We are not sure but there may be Parliamentary elections before that. This is particularly with the unstable situation in Parliament. There should be a strong parliament to carry out its work. If there is a weak Parliament, it is difficult to take straightforward and hard decisions. If a government does not have a majority it is also difficult to retain persons as you need to give in various demands of them.”

The President was questioned on what basis he forecast that Parliamentary elections might be held. He replied “I did not say that an election (Parliamentary) will be definitely held. I said it may be held. Since there is no majority in parliament there are difficulties in continuing with Parliament. That’s why I said that a Parliamentary election may be held.

Q: Have you decided to contest the next presidential election?

A: Discussions are currently underway. It is same with the UNP, SLPP, and even the SLFP. It is the parties which will decide on the candidates. I am also in these discussions.

Q: If the SLFP requests that you contest, would you contest?

A: As the Presidential election is towards the end of the year, I do not want speak about it now and create instability. It is not good. At the right time, the parties will decide. Our party too will decide at the correct time.

Budget and abolition of executive presidency

The conjecture about possible parliamentary elections early appears to be based on two premises, both highly questionable. The latest one is an unsubstantiated claim that the UNF will not be able to pass the 2019 budget in Parliament. In such a situation, sections backing Sirisena believe, it could lead to a situation where there could be a resolution from within the UNF calling for a parliamentary election. The speculation is that it would be led by a jaunty political leader within the UNF. Yet, he has lost his political glamour after the constitutional crisis late last year and UNF leaders dismiss this as “simply idle talk.”

President Sirisena’s references to “an unstable situation in Parliament” and the call for a “strong Parliament” are nevertheless strong indications that he focused on this aspect. Another is the earlier premise based on moves to abolish the executive presidency and introduce an executive prime ministerial system in its place.  With a pre-agreed national referendum and a new electoral system, parties represented in Parliament were to go for a parliamentary election. The proposal gained traction with the UNF leadership strongly in favour. So much so, as reported last week, UNF’s Minister Malik Samarawickrema broached the subject with President Sirisena. He said he was in favour as long as the others were willing. That was manna from heaven for Premier Wickremesinghe since there would be no controversy over who will be the presidential candidate — an issue on which there is divided opinion within the UNP. Such divisions would largely be obviated if Wickremesinghe continues as Premier.

Samarawickrema told the Sunday Times, “Our leader Premier Wickremesinghe has said that we should also talk with other partners in the UNF. We are also awaiting the response the JVP would receive to its 20th Amendment proposal.”

It is highly unlikely that the move for a 20A will become a reality. That is even after the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which is a passive backer of the UNF, took over the mission and held a meeting with the “Joint Opposition” leaders last Wednesday at the Opposition Leader’s Office in Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. The three-member JVP team comprised party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sunil Handunetti and Vijitha Herath. The “JO” team was led by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, and included Dinesh Gunawardena and Dullas Allahapperuma. The JVP’s thrust is to pass in Parliament a draft 20th Amendment — a document widely regarded as one prepared by two lawyers backing the UNF. A main highlight is to abolish the executive presidency.

Vijitha Herath told the Sunday Times, “We requested the Opposition Leader’s side not to block the 20A from being approved and to help with a two thirds majority in Parliament. The people can make their views known through a referendum. The opposition side said in the event the presidency is abolished, they would also wish that the electoral system is changed. We endorsed the view but pointed out that electoral changes would necessitate delimitation of polling districts – a process that would delay the abolishing of the executive presidency. We suggested that for the parliamentary elections after abolishing the executive presidency, the current proportional system be utilized.  This is until a stable electoral system is created.”

However, opposition sources said Mahinda Rajapaksa explained that his side was agreed in principle that the executive presidency should be changed. He pointed out that on a previous occasion, “JO” partner parties had chosen to oppose the move for many reasons. There was the case of the 13A which facilitated the setting up of Provincial Councils. There was also a need for a fuller study of the electoral system and make changes. Any decision now, Rajapaksa had pointed out, would come as an ad hoc measure and would be sans a fuller study of all aspects. Interesting enough, here is a case of Mahinda Rajapaksa virtually saying “no” to becoming Prime Minister. “Nevertheless, Rajapaksa told the JVP delegation he would discuss issues raised by them with partner leaders of the “JO” and later respond,” the source added.

In the “JO,” particularly within the SLPP, fears have exacerbated in the past weeks over reverting to the executive prime ministerial form of government before the scheduled presidential election. One of those who strongly disfavours the idea is Basil Rajapaksa, who plays a very influential role in the party and is widely credited for the countrywide base the party has developed. He has not made a secret the bitter encounters the SLPP has held in the hands of President Sirisena beginning with the events that occurred from October 26. In the event of going for parliamentary election first, he told a confidant, the SLPP would have to take a chance since it would be Sirisena who will call upon the winning party to form a government. Moreover, he had argued, that since the SLPP had transformed itself into a major political body after the local polls in February last year, it should stand on its own strength and face issues. What is said in so many words only means that that the “JO” will not support any initiative to abolish the executive presidency ahead of this year’s presidential election.

SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times, “We are ready for any elections — be it provincial, parliamentary or presidential. I doubt PC or parliamentary elections being held early. For the presidential election, we will decide on a candidate who can win. That decision is yet to be made.”

During Thursday’s news conference, President Sirisena conceded that he was awaiting the decisions of the SLFP as well as the SLPP on his candidature at the presidential election – a marked departure from his previous assertions. There is no impediment to his becoming an SLFP presidential candidate though the party is badly weakened and in a disorganised state. It won only 12.10 percent of the votes at the local polls last February. Out of 17. 5 million eligible to vote, 75 percent exercised their franchise then. Whether his candidature as an SLFPer alone would help him get elected remains a critical question. On the other hand, the fact that he has not lost hopes of obtaining SLFP support for his candidature is clear from his remarks at the news conference. He said that the SLFP is also considering his candidature re-asserting that he still has hopes.

This brings us to the question of a common alliance by the SLFP with parties in the “JO led by the SLPP.” Revealed last week were names of the Joint Committee. They were SLFP’s Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahinda Ameraweera, Thilanga Sumathipala and Rohana Laxman Piyadasa, and the SLPP’s G.L. Peiris, Basil Rajapaksa and Dullas Alahapperuma. The first meeting of this joint committee will take place on March 14 (Thursday). The task is to prepare the spade work for a common alliance. The slow movement in this regard is an indication that it would take considerable time if indeed an accord is to be reached. Intervening Avurudhu holidays would delay it further. Many an obstacle lies in their path. That includes the SLPP insistence that the SLFP should adhere to its constitution, like all other partners. Such a requirement may not meet the approval of a formidable section of the SLFP.

It is amidst this that there were some minor frictions. On the SLFP side, there were complaints that they were not invited to join a public rally in Kandy on Friday. Posters appeared in the hill country town urging SLFP supporters not to take part in the rally. On the other hand, the SLPP organisers said that like the upcoming May Day rally, this was the beginning of a series of rallies countrywide by the SLPP under the title “Ivasuva Athi” (We tolerated enough).

Addressing a public rally outside the Central Market in Kandy, Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “We would end this government’s term in six months.” He said, “The government has introduced a budget which will be a burden on the public. The prices of goods are sky high making things difficult for the people. The government has destroyed the environment; the drug issue has increased and the government is not capable of carrying out any construction activities similar to what our government completed. We have been blamed for taking loans, but we at least could show the constructions carried out from these funds.”

This week’s political developments have come as pointers to some of the things to come. President Sirisena’s own hopes of becoming a joint SLFP–SLPP candidate are no more unless there is a dramatic turn of events. If he choses to go it alone as the SLFP presidential candidate, how many within the party would back him and how many would leave remains a critical question. For the UNF, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, has only won a mixed bag of reactions. The budget has failed to trigger a wave of voter support leave alone overwhelming public approval.

With just seven months to go for presidential polls, President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe are fighting it out openly, both in the international and domestic front. Some diplomatic missions in Colombo are working overtime to change the political destinies of Sri Lanka. A floundering economy and corruption at many levels have only made it difficult for a vast number of Sri Lankans. They wait in anxiety.


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