President conducts opinion poll among SLFP organisers Despite plea after plea, SLPP insists on pohottuwa; Appeal Court verdict gives boost to Gota UNP resolution confirms Ranil’s leadership till 2024; but Sajith may have plans to revamp party In a week of mounting political tensions ahead of the November 16 presidential election, President Maithripala Sirisena continues [...]


Sajith, Gota set for poll, while Sirisena will support Gota


  • President conducts opinion poll among SLFP organisers
  • Despite plea after plea, SLPP insists on pohottuwa; Appeal Court verdict gives boost to Gota
  • UNP resolution confirms Ranil’s leadership till 2024; but Sajith may have plans to revamp party
In a week of mounting political tensions ahead of the November 16 presidential election, President Maithripala Sirisena continues to take the centre stage.

His mercurial actions are resonating in other political parties fielding candidates. This almost daily feature is causing anger, anguish and even anxiety. It is forcing them into damage control mode and rethink campaign strategies. He is tilting the balance of power among candidates by the day, if not by the hour.

President Sirisena’s latest overture to join the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) failed miserably once more. These initiatives were both overt and covert. Publicly, two General Secretaries — Dayasiri Jayasekera of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Mahinda Ameraweera of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – told many a public event that to “preserve the dignity” of the SLFP, the alliance should change its Pohottuwa (Lotus bud) symbol of candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. President Sirisena, who concurred, declared “it is the SLFP which would decide the winner at the upcoming elections.” Hence, he argued, a tieup was the best way for SLPP to win.

The United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party’s presidential candidate and deputy leader Sajith Premadasa in a hearty conversation during the party’s National Convention at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium on Thursday. Pic by Indika Handuwela

Covertly, President Sirisena and the SLPP’s National Organiser cum architect, Basil Rajapaksa, have been engaged in consultations through an emissary. As a result, Sirisena invited Rajapaksa for two hours of talks on Monday. This was after Sirisena met the Rajapaksa trio — Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil — on Saturday (September 28) and made a plea personally to change their symbol.  The trio declined his request. The latest appeal also centred on the issue of a symbol change and extended to practically all other issues surrounding both the SLFP and the SLPP.  The outcome again – the SLPP will not change its Pohottuwa symbol for political and legal reasons.  Sirisena’s desperate efforts failed. That returned President Sirisena, who was seeking to lean on a stronger candidate, to square one — no tieup with the SLPP. He knew all along that it was a long shot, but did not want to give up trying.

President Sirisena had banked on it using different ways. Buoyed by hope, he won the Central Committee approval last Monday (September 30) to send three draft copies of MoUs to the SLPP leadership. They had been prepared by the SLFP’s Senior Deputy Chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva. One was to be signed between the SLFP and candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the second MoU between the two parties and the third between leaders agreeing to the SLPA Constitution. It was held back at the previous CC meeting.  This time, it was in the belief that he would somehow clinch a deal and thus ensure a political future for his party and himself.

Chairing the CC meeting, Sirisena sounded out members on the party’s next move. He told those gathered that the SLPP had so far shown disfavour to their request for a change of symbol. He suggested that they meet again on October 11 (Friday) evening to take a decision on the SLFP role at the presidential election. He had in mind the results of the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha elections on October 11 and to take that too into consideration. By then, he had also hoped that the Court of Appeal (CA) verdict in the case where the issue of a National Identity Card and a Dual Citizenship of Sri Lanka to Gotabaya Rajapaksa was challenged would not go in his favour. An ‘advisor’ had told him that the CA would disqualify Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He believed it, and wanted to exploit the advantages coming his way. He even based some of his strategies on it. This was clear from the events that followed.

However, the Court unanimously dismissed the case, which had generated considerable public attention during the week. It turned out to be a clear political victory for opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose counsel claimed that the two civil society activists had filed the petition for political revenge. It was pointed out by participants of the SLFP CC that the date Sirisena suggested would fall only after the nominations tomorrow. Hence, it was agreed that the CC meet on Saturday (October 5) or yesterday. That was a crucial day for Sirisena who has been shunting between the SLPP and the UNP (Sajith faction) to obtain a good political deal.

Sajith team’s meeting with Sirisena

As reported last week, by then, another avenue had opened for President Sirisena. As a result of behind-the-scene moves by a front-line group of Sajith Premadasa loyalists, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam received a call. It was Premadasa asking him to arrange a meeting with SLFP leaders to discuss current political developments. Kariyawasam wrote to his counterpart Dayasiri Jayasekera on September 28 asking for a date and time. This was with the approval of his leader Premier Wickremesinghe.

Contrary to my report last week, the meeting Premadasa loyalists sought was pointedly with President Maithripala Sirisena and his close allies. Contacts thereafter via telephone made this clear. This was on the grounds that it is Sirisena who could take up a position on behalf of the SLFP and not other party officials.  Playing a key role in this exercise was Krishantha Prasad Cooray, now a close confidant of President Sirisena and staunch supporter of Premadasa. He is the Chairman of Lake House newspapers and Hotel Developers Ltd., the owning company of Colombo Hilton. Later, he sat at the discussion together with Kabir Hashim, Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. On the SLFP side were Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahinda Ameraweera and Lasantha Alagiyawanna.

At the meeting, Premadasa’s remarks appeared to be an apology of sorts. He was referring to the many mistakes made by the UNP in four and half years of governance. He was alluding to the bad air between President Sirisena and the UNP leadership. “I will assure that such mistakes are not repeated,” he declared. Premadasa noted that the support of the SLFP was “very essential” and would be a welcome addition to his victory. If there was a suggestion during the dialogue for Sirisena to join the Premadasa campaign in some way, it did not work out. “Mata Ranil ekka yanna behe mey gamana,” or “I cannot go on this journey with Ranil,” he declared. Therefore, he said, his party would have to oppose the UNP. That effectively ruled out a formal tieup. Sirisena was making clear that he could not be on the same campaign platform as Ranil Wickremesinghe.

President Sirisena declared that he had not done politics with the UNP. “I have only been a partner in governance,” he pointed out and added that his party had a “very difficult decision to make.” He briefly referred to his talks with the SLPP but gave no indication of what he had in mind. Nevertheless, consultations behind-the-scenes appear to have locked the two sides in harmony over some key issues. Thus, Sirisena remained non-committal except to raise questions every now and then. On the other hand, the Premadasa delegation also made no such overtures.

What President Sirisena was planning next surfaced only thereafter. He summoned SLFP organisers countrywide for a meeting in Colombo on Friday afternoon. The reason – having failed in his multiple efforts to join the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA), or come to a deal with the UNP (Sajith faction) – he wanted to contest the presidential election as the SLFP candidate. For this purpose, he wanted to sound them out. Thereafter, he expected the party’s Central Committee to approve it when it met yesterday (Saturday) night. .

Not surprisingly President Sirisena had changed his mind. He sought a meeting with the Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, Gotabaya and Basil – at the Presidential Secretariat last night, as our front page story reveals.

There he told them that the SLFP would support the SLPP unconditionally for the presidential elections. They would sign two Memoranda of Understand (MoU), one between the SLFP and candidate Rajapaksa and the other between the two parties. SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera had included new demands to the drafts prepared by senior deputy chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva.  The latter will be SLFP’s entry into the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) and their acceptance of their Constitution. Further talks in this regard will take place today.

Sirisena’s move until last morning to contest the presidential elections was dropped because of reservations he began to entertain after the Court of Appeal verdict. He had been made to believe that the court verdict would go against candidate Rajapaksa.

Senior SLFPers conceded that if Sirisena contested, it would cut in to the votes of candidate Rajapaksa. Moreover, they pointed out that the chances of a victory were in doubt and so were the votes to be polled. There were also questions on desertions from the party ranks.

It is only after a meeting with the three Rajapaksas that Sirisena went to the Central Committee meeting. This came suddenly. The President was earlier expected to attend a passing out parade of the Police Special Task Force (STF) en route to Colombo after attending an election rally in Elpitiya yesterday. Just before the event, the Ministry of Defence directed that the saluting dais be removed since President Sirisena would not be coming due to an urgent engagement.

After President Sirisena briefed the Central Committee members, it was unanimously decided that they would back candidate Rajapaksa. However, the SLFP will conduct their own political campaign and will formally avoid references to the Pohottuwa symbol. The campaign, however, will be co-ordinated with the SLPP.

How many MPs of the SLFP will remain in the party, from the existing strength of 18, to support Sirisena?

The SLFP’s Senior Deputy Chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva has declared publicly that he will remain in the party but would support Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature. On Friday evening, he turned up at the Wijerama official residence of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was present walked up to him and gave a warm hug. Brother Mahinda was to remark, “Nimal, I know you have been present at the Court of Appeal at least three times.” That prompted Gotabaya to thank him.

As visitors poured into Rajapaksa’s official residence, the talking point was how the petition before the Court of Appeal came to be filed. One lawyer claimed that backing a political group responsible was a lawyer and northern politician, who had “formulated the strategy.” Tamil diaspora groups, particularly those based in London, it turned out, had also been linked to the move after it was found that there was both SMS and e-mail traffic. “This shows that civil society groups are also playing vindictive politics in Sri Lanka,” the lawyer told Mahinda Rajapaksa. The former President declared “we are aware of all those behind the move.” We will let the public know soon, he replied.

It is well known that from the SLFP, some want to join the SLPP and the others the UNP. The main reason is the uncertainty of their political future. It has plagued them for months. This is with President Sirisena unable to work a tieup with the two formidable sides and delaying the process until days before nominations.

SLFP organisers from all over Sri Lanka turned up for a meeting with President Sirisena on Friday afternoon. It was at the Janadipathi Mandiriya (President’s House) located in Fort. He surprised those present by saying that he would set aside the agenda for the meeting and embark on an opinion poll. He had already planned it with a printed questionnaire and set up two different booths with boxes where they could be dropped when completed. Those seated on the left, he said, could move to the booth on that side and the others to the opposite end, Sirisena declared. The four questions he asked were:

  •  Whether he should contest the presidential elections as the SLFP candidate.
  •  Whether the SLFP should back SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate.
  •  Whether the SLFP should support Sajith Premadasa, the candidate chosen by the United National Party (UNP).
  •  Whether the SLFP should stay neutral and not support any candidate.

The organisers rushed to the boxes after completing the questionnaire. Once the boxes were full and those present had expressed their views, President Sirisena collected them in a bundle. He said he would study their recommendations and place the majority preference for approval from the Central Committee meeting due last night. Sources close to the Presidency said that the majority of SLFP organisers have voted that he should be the SLFP presidential candidate. The SLFP organisers were entertained to a buffet lunch before they departed but some wondered whether Sirisena would still change his mind and not heed their call.

President Sirisena also said that he was expecting the Court of Appeal verdict on Friday evening over issues related to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s case. The Court of Appeal unanimously rejected the application by two civil society activists – Chandragupta Thenuwara and Gamini Viyangoda.

A week before the Court of Appeal ruling on Friday, Minister Rajitha Senaratne told a meeting to welcome candidate Sajith Premasdasa in Kolonnawa that “Our lawyers will go before courts on Monday. Two Civil society activists, Prof. Thenuwara and Mr. Viyangoda have filed a case. It will be taken up on Monday. They will question how a person who does not have citizenship and who has obtained citizenship in a fraudulent manner can be a Presidential candidate.” Also present was the MP of the area. S.M.Marikkar. A video clip of this event viral in the social media.

Their application to stall Gotabaya Rajapaksa from contesting did cause some concern for the SLPP-led Sri Lanka People’s Alliance. Partner leaders gathered at the Wijerama residence of the Opposition Leader for a meeting chaired by Mahinda Rajapaksa to review the situation. Counsel Ali Sabry gave them a briefing. He opined that there was “no legal base” for the case and declared that its motive was “entirely political.” As a precautionary measure, if something unexpected were to happen, they decided that former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, the elder brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, should also pay his deposit as an independent candidate. This was done on Friday.

President Sirisena called upon those who took part to express their views after the survey was completed. It was interesting to note that the majority voiced the view that he should contest on the SLFP ticket.

“If the verdict prevents Gotabaya from contesting, I will meet SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa again. I will ask him whether he is still insistent on having a Rajapaksa as President. If not, I will tell him that either an SLFPer or an SLPPer could be President and the other the Prime Minister,” President Sirisena declared amidst loud applause. Those remarks revealed that during his dialogue, both with the SLPP and with Sajith Premadasa, he has been eyeing eagerly for a top slot to tie his own party and himself down. Having missed the bus, he was now toying with the idea of becoming the SLFP presidential candidate. However, there is a critical question now. The Court of Appeal unanimously rejected the petition by the civil society activists thus triggering a turbo boost of support for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It also became evident that those opposed to him were doing everything possible to stall his candidature. Will President Sirisena, now reputed for changing his mind many times a day, back out from being SLFP presidential candidate? The prospect cannot be ruled out. In such an event, will he again plead with the SLPP to support it without a change of symbol? Such a prospect also cannot be ruled out.

Ironically, other political issues come second if indeed there were any. Sirisena’s move to contest came when he found that the plum positions were out of reach. Now, as things remain, he is aiming to become a second term President by contesting. If the intention was to contest, President Sirisena had the constitutional power to call for presidential election after completing four years in office. That is a little over six months ago. In not doing so, he has been thrust into a gamble purely by circumstantial and political survival factors. That does not bode well for him or for the party he leads. At the end, both have little to show the national electorate as their achievements. Only a few that could be counted on the fingers of one hand like the Moragahakanda irrigation project remain. That project has already run into controversy. His ambitious programme to hand down death sentences to drug pedlars went on hold. His election pledges to deal with bribery, corruption and other malpractices of the previous regime never reached fruition. Many a public pledge remains unfulfilled. And the pledge of good governance was literally non-existent.

His current term as President, contrary to my report last week (which said January 2020), will end when the result of the November 16 election is announced. Article 31 – 4 – (b) of the Constitution states that “where the President in office is not a candidate or is not re-elected, at a poll for the election of a President, his term of office shall be deemed to have expired on the date on which the result of such election is declared. The person elected as President at such election shall assume office forthwith, but not later than two weeks from such date.”  That makes clear that from tomorrow, the day of nominations, President Sirisena’s remaining term will be just 41 days, from October 7 to November 16, unless he is re-elected at the upcoming poll. There are indications that he is getting ready for a house move. Those taking part at a recent Central Committee meeting found packed boxes containing documents lying on most chairs.

The last round of SLFP-SLPP talks was held on September 30 (Wednesday) between President Sirisena and National Organiser cum architect Basil Rajapaksa. A Sri Lanka Air Force VIP helicopter to take Sirisena to Kandy was kept waiting when the talks got under way for two hours. He was the chief guest at a book launch by the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanaratne Thera. It is titled Asgiriya Maha Viharaya – first final fight 1818.

Both President Sirisena and Basil Rajapaksa conveyed to their senior party leaders the details of their discussion. President Sirisena had been in touch with the SLPP leadership through an emissary and the process became complicated when issue after issue cropped up. Hence, Basil Rajapaksa sought a meeting. Thereafter, the emissary came back with the response that it would be at noon on Wednesday, September 30.

President Sirisena began the dialogue by saying that the SLFP was agreeable to both SLPP policies and its candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defence Secretary. “Minissun tharahai Pohottu lakuneta or people are angry over the lotus bud symbol,” declared President Sirisena adding that the SLFP believes that a change is necessary. Earlier, those remarks had drawn a humorous remark from alliance front-liner Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who described it as “changing boats midstream.”

Basil Rajapaksa had told President Sirisena that “Pohottua ithaama janappriya lakuna” or the lotus bud was the most popular symbol. He had pointed out that since the formation of the SLPP, it has become synonymous with the party. Most identify their party as Pohottuwa . Moreover, he has said, since the deposit of Gotabaya has been paid to the Elections Commission, his symbol had been officially recognised as Pohottuwa. Any changes now, the lawyers had opined could create unwarranted legal issues, he has pointed out. In fact, the question was posed at Friday’s news conference chaired by National Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya. He said there had been no previous instances where a symbol had been changed after a candidate had paid his or her deposit. Though there were no legal prohibitions, he said, he could not comment on such a scenario. One would have thought that put paid to the SLFP-SLPP dialogue. That was not to be.

The Sunday Times learnt that President Sirisena rushed to Basil Rajapaksa a two-page letter on Thursday. This is after their meeting. The SLPP National Organiser was about to leave for Elpitiya to address public rallies there for the October 11 Pradeshiya Sabha elections when the letter arrived. Rajapaksa later briefed SLPP leadership of its contents. It had incorporated all the matters President Sirisena had raised including the change of SLPP symbol and urged them to reconsider the matter. He sought a reply before October 5, the date set for the Central Committee meeting. The idea was to convey to the CC the response of the SLPP and thereafter place other matters for their consideration. By this time, the SLPP had obtained further legal advice. Its lawyers have opined again that a change in symbol would be inadvisable.

Sajith’s campaign

Another significant development this week is the formal confirmation of Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate at the UNP’s national convention. The name was proposed by Prime Minister and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The event took place at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium and was not without some diversion. One came when Ravi Karunananayake, who had opposed Premadasa, rose to speak. There were boos and catcalls from a section of the gathering. This ceased and he made his speech assuring support for Premadasa. A report on the convention appears elsewhere in this newspaper.

After tomorrow’s nominations, Premadasa will visit the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. He will also call on the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters. His first main rally will be held at the Galle Face Green on October 10 (Thursday).

One among six resolutions adopted unanimously at the UNP convention declared “According to Clause 8 (1) (a) of the Party Constitution,  the Party Working Committee on January 24, 2019 decided to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Party Leader and hereby the decision is being re-endorsed at this convention.” That would mean two key matters. First, is the fact that he will remain leader of the UNP until January 24, 2024. Second is the fact, in the light of this, that he would remain Prime Minister if Premadasa wins the presidency on November 16. Provision in the UNP constitution that an elected President automatically becomes party leader has ceased to exist.

Though this is in fact a re-iteration of the Working Committee decision in January this year, it is an assurance to Wickremesinghe that the party convention has again re-iterated the decision unanimously. Rightfully he could stake his claim. However, a source close to Premadasa said if elected President, one of his top priorities for the UNP would be to “fully re-organise it.” He said, with the support of the senior members and after consultation with relevant stakeholders, he would introduce a new party constitution. “The Working Committee will also undergo some radical changes,” he said adding that “the new changes and other decisions consequent to them will come with the endorsement of a new policy making body.  Thereafter, it will come before the next convention.” Premadasa expects to do this within a year, the source added but declined comment on contents of the resolution.

Premier Wickremesinghe did surprise many loyalists of Sajith Premadasa this week by visiting their own operations centre at Vauxhall Lane in Kompannaveediya. It is noteworthy that Premadasa loyalists are not using the UNP headquarters Sri Kotha in Battaramulla. Wickremesinghe is also set to address public rallies for Premadasa.

The polls campaign proper will get under way only after tomorrow’s nominations. Yet, the results of the Pradeshiya Sabha elections in Elpitiya will be a pointer to the direction in which voter preferences are headed. The media have been dominated in the past weeks by the petition of two civil society activists before the Court of Appeal. That it was unanimously rejected came as a major boost to the campaign of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and dampened the spirits of those in the Premadasa camp. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will address his first major rally in Anuradhapura on Tuesday.  Wide publicity, particularly in the social media, had made them as well as a larger section to believe the former Defence Secretary will not be able to contest. The civil society activists through their action have given him a big boost.

So far, 33 candidates have paid their deposits to contest the presidential election, the first time such a large number have done son making the ballot paper more than a foot long.

The main contenders – Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa – are entrenched in their positions now. In the fast-changing political scenario, what President Maithripala Sirisena would do remains a question. Whatever, he has only 41 days more from his term of office. Last night, he changed his mind and decided to extend unconditional support to the SLPP for the presidential elections. Making one move after another in rapid succession, Sirisena has at last seemingly thrown in the towel.

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