The United National Party (UNP) dominated Government appears to be coming under increasing pressure from its major partner, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) over its ‘poor’ performance in the past 59 days.   The latest is Thursday’s near unanimous decision by the SLFP Central Committee empowering President Maithripala Sirisena to form a ‘National Government’ [...]


SLFP accuses Govt of going soft on Rajapaksas

Strange twist of circumstances with former ruling party seeking the banishment or punishment of the earlier ruling family - Opposition tells President it wants important ministries, including finance, in any national government - UNP rejects charges and insists on early polls, constitutional and electoral reforms coming soon

The United National Party (UNP) dominated Government appears to be coming under increasing pressure from its major partner, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) over its ‘poor’ performance in the past 59 days.


The latest is Thursday’s near unanimous decision by the SLFP Central Committee empowering President Maithripala Sirisena to form a ‘National Government’ before the end of the 100-Day Programme on April 23. The decision has raised doubts about an early parliamentary election. Only one member, Kumara Welgama, former Transport Minister in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, objected. He is a staunch supporter of Rajapaksa.


Similarly, UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema told the Sunday Times; “We have no people’s mandate to remain in Government after April 23. We have told our party members including local level organisers that elections would follow after dissolution of Parliament on this date.” He said that the UNP had originally mooted the formation of a ‘National Government’. “However, that was only after a new Government is voted to power at the next parliamentary elections that were to follow in June”, he said. He hinted that the UNP might not object to a delay of a week or two to introduce reforms in Parliament but not beyond.


Yet, the SLFP appears to be incensed over a number of issues. On Thursday its Central Committee appointed a three-member team that will discuss “the responsibilities and modalities” of a National Government with President Sirisena. They will also recommend portfolios SLFP members should be given. The team is headed by Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, and includes General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, and National Organiser Susil Premajayantha. They will meet Sirisena when he returns from his visit to Britain to report on the SLFP requirements. A senior SLFP source said a re-shuffle of the Cabinet of Ministers would follow. The President left for London for the 2015 Commonwealth Day ceremonies. He is now the Chair in Office of the Commonwealth.


Millions of rupees changing hands
The woes on the SLFP side are many. Ironically, main among them is the allegation that the UNP leadership is ‘going soft’ on bribery, corruption and investigations into other malpractices to save former President Rajapaksa and his family members. Rajapaksa was the executive president and party leader till January 8 this year. Others complain of ministers bowing to heavy pressure from those under probe and influencing different investigating agencies. They talk of millions of rupees changing hands or persons with questionable integrity being appointed to different responsible positions. The charges were flatly denied by UNP Chairman Samarawickrema. “That is absolute rubbish. We have helped to oust the corrupt regime of Rajapaksa at the January 8 presidential election,” he pointed out. He added, “As I said before, the due process of law has to be followed in conducting investigations. This takes time.” Other allegations include harassment of SLFP trade union members in different ministries allegedly by the UNP’s Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (JSS), an issue that was raised in Parliament by Opposition Leader de Silva on Friday. He alleged that in the transport sector SLFP trade union members had been transferred to outstations from Colombo or even demoted. House Leader and Minister Lakshman Kiriella said he would reply to the issue when Parliament meets next.


President Maithripala Sirisena visiting the Rs. 2.5 billion luxury complex in Jaffna. The Presidential Secretariat said it was a Presidential Palace with two swimming pools, a gymnasium and other luxury facitilies. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a statement claiming it was meant to be an International Relations Centre, but independent observers have raised questions about the claim.

Senior SLFP members, including those in the committee, are demanding what they call “strong ministries.” Their lengthy request includes subjects like Finance, Justice, Public Safety, Public Administration, Road Development, Samurdhi and Transport. The three members will meet Sirisena with their own list to be finalised after they consult senior party members. Of course, a final decision on which portfolio one should receive rests in the hands of President Sirisena. Yet, that would be a prelude to the formation of a ‘National Government’ but a critical question still remains: Would the UNP now agree to SLFPers becoming equal or bigger partners in the rainbow coalition? The answer seems to be a firm “No.” The UNP is sticking to its stated position, that, as agreed before, Parliament should be dissolved next month and elections held, as revealed in these columns last week. Of course, the UNP earlier took up the position that only constitutional amendments should be first introduced in Parliament but later agreed to electoral reforms too. This is on the basis that there would be no prolonged delays.


Whilst criticism over delays, at least in the case of some investigations, has some validity, the entire blame cannot be apportioned on the UNP’s inaction alone. It appears that the ruling party has failed to appreciate ground realities and plunged headlong without knowing how to set about with it. It has come to light that those in the investigating arms, particularly in the Police Department, were persons placed in strategic positions by the previous administration. President Sirisena learnt that some investigating officers had in fact provided advance questionnaires to those to be questioned. In other instances, moot questions have been left out from those interrogated. Some agencies were understaffed and the need for additional strength had not been considered. The task of ensuring these matters lay in the increasingly inefficient Police hierarchy. Yet, the inability of the Government to identify such weaknesses or shortcomings and rectify them has earned for it the greater blame. The result has been piecemeal action by President Sirisena himself. Recently he ordered the transfer of a senior official in a key ministry amidst ongoing investigations.


The only good side in this regard is the setting up of the separate Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) after Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe obtained approval of the Cabinet of Ministers. The FCID is making steady progress. This unit functions under an Anti-Corruption Secretariat which is scrutinising public complaints and channelling them to the respective investigative agencies. Personnel for this Secretariat were handpicked by Janatha Vimkthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. In other words, the Government had to create a new Police division while other investigation arms in the Police Department are either lagging behind or overloaded.


The FCID has already reported facts with regard to three different investigations to the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court. One is a case of alleged misappropriation of Rs. 140 million by a firm which had obtained facilities from the People’s Leasing Company. The firm is associated with Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, former Monitoring MP of the Ministry of External Affairs and a trusted confidant of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sleuths at the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption have already recorded statements from him over his assets. Another case over which facts have been reported to the same court is the oil hedging deals at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) where there were allegations of misappropriation. A third is facts relating to five different cases at Divineguma, a subject that came under former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The objective of the Divineguma programme is to

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe exposed the existence of this luxury complex at Arugam Bay where different chalets had facilities which he described as better than those at Buckingham Palace.

make Sri Lanka poverty-free, to ensure food security and micro finance, physical and social infrastructure facilities to strengthen livelihoods and development at community level.


UNP-SLFP tug o’ war over reforms

The events that culminated in Thursday’s meeting of the SLFP Central Committee began last Monday. As the Government crossed the halfway mark of its 100 Day Work Programme, last week, the SLFP and the UNP were locked in a tug of war over constitutional changes and electoral reforms. The SLFP wanted the two issues to be taken up together in Parliament whilst the UNP insisted that only the constitutional changes should come first. The UNP argued that electoral reforms should be a task to be left to a new Government that would emerge after polls.


At talks last Monday, Sirisena took part in his capacity as leader of the SLFP. The UNP team was headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and included Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, General Secretary Kabir Hashim, and Working Committee member Karu Jayasuriya.


Sirisena told the UNP delegation that he had met Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya and the Surveyor General P.M.P. Udayakantha to determine how long it would take for delimitation work related to carving out electorates. Both had said it could be done within weeks. Hence, the President told them to prepare their own reports and meet him on March 18. Thereafter, constitutional and resultant legislative changes for electoral reforms could be formulated, Sirisena said. He said it would thus be possible to bring both the Constitutional changes and electoral reforms together. UNP Chairman Samarawickrema described the meeting as a “very cordial discussion.” Another senior UNPer said the party was even willing to allow a week or two more if such time was needed to present the reforms and have them approved. However, he said the UNP hoped President Sirisena would dissolve Parliament thereafter and go for elections. The meeting also saw a short discussion on an unexpected issue — matters at the higher level management of the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE).


The UNP delegation was in favour of the constitutional and electoral changes coming together since the party believed the changes would still be within the deadline of April 23 or immediately thereafter when Parliament has to be dissolved. However, there are increasing doubts whether that would become a reality. In such an event, what the UNP’s next move would be has not been made clear officially. A senior member said that the only option left would be to quit the Government and remain in the Opposition until the polls are held. That would obviously mean that an SLFP Government would be in place during that period

President Sirisena briefed his party’s parliamentary group on Thursday about his meeting with the UNP delegation. He said Premier Wickremesinghe had agreed to his proposal to introduce both constitutional and electoral changes together. It was decided to appoint a committee to study and report on the SLFP’s draft constitutional changes. As revealed last week, it was presented at an SLFP-UNP meeting by Opposition Leader de Silva. The party wants to retain the presidential system but with less powers. Whilst reducing the term of the presidency from six to five years, the draft also seeks to “restrict immunity in respect of official acts, but challenges should be confined to alleged violation of fundamental rights.”


The committee will be headed by President Sirisena and will include Opposition Leader de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, G.L. Peiris and John Seneviratne. President Sirisena told his party MPs that the electoral reforms would be based on the recommendations of a 32-member Parliamentary Select Committee which was chaired by then Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The committee’s interim report recommended a hybrid of “first past the post” and “proportional representation” system of elections. This is whilst retaining the existing 225 seat Parliament. Some of the committee’s recommendations in respect of local authority elections have already been introduced. Here are some of the highlights of the report:


  •  Creation of 140 polling divisions (constituencies) based on the “first past the post” system. Those elected to be referred as ‘Constituency MPs.’ A District “proportional representation” to be in place for the selection of 70 MPs. Number of National List MPs to be fixed at 15. The report recommends that Sri Lanka be divided into 140 single member constituencies to return 140 MPs to Parliament on the “first past the post” system. This system requires a fresh delimitation to re-demarcate 140 polling divisions.
  • Seventy District MPs are to be selected on the basis of a ‘district proportional representation’ system based only on the votes polled by the “other candidates” who contested but did not qualify under the “first past the post” system. The basis for district “proportional representation” system would be as follows:
  • Out of the total votes polled for each district, the votes polled by the winning candidates of the respective political party (under the “first past the post system”) for each constituency within the district will be eliminated for apportioning District seats.
  • The votes polled by the “other candidates” of all the electorates within the district to be totalled and divided by the total number of “District Proportional Representation (DPR)” seats allocated for the respective district to ascertain the “qualifying number.”
  • The party entitlement of seats under the DPR will be determined according to the number of votes received by each party for the district through “other candidates” having divided the aggregate by the “qualifying number.”
  • Out of the candidates who contest elections from one party within a district the candidate to be elected under the DPR would be the one who receives the highest percentage of votes from each of the electorate.


The number of DPR seats to be allocated for each respective district may be determined on a 2:1 ratio (Example: 10 “first past the post” seats equal 5 DPR seats). However, the report cautions that “this ratio may vary according to circumstances prevailing in each district. The area, population and ethnic diversities of voters in each district may be taken into consideration when determining the number of district MPs to be elected for each respective district.


For the national list of 15 seats, each party will be required to submit a list of candidates at the time of nominations. The list could contain names of those contesting (for constituencies) as well as non-contesting candidates. The report recommends that five seats from the national list be allocated to the party securing the highest number of valid votes at the elections (bonus seats). Out of the balance ten seats, it says, three seats should be reserved for unrepresented minor parties who have polled a national vote exceeding the natural cut-off point but have not qualified for the seat under the “first past the post” and /or “district proportional representation system.” In the event none of the parties succeed in qualifying for these seats, they will remain as national list seats. The balance number of seats will be apportioned based on the strength of the votes each party receives at the national level. Candidates to be appointed based on the proportionate allocation will be decided by the Secretary of the party. The report also recommended that every third candidate nominated by a party secretary from the national list shall be a woman candidate.


President Sirisena told SLFP parliamentarians that after the reports from the Commissioner of Elections and the Surveyor General, a document setting out the electoral reforms would be circulated to the partners in the Government. He said that he expected the final document to emerge from consultations with them. Similarly, the SLFP’s proposals for constitutional changes will be studied by the committee and later adopted by the party. It is thereafter that partners would be given copies. The UNP has begun work on its own draft for constitutional changes. Premier Wickremesinghe discussed the subject with his party seniors on Friday at the Parliament complex.


Presidential mansions: Waste of public money
Sirisena wanted to discuss the UNP’s proposal for the formation of a ‘National Government.’ Parliamentarians expressed different views, some complaining about the need to be treated by the Government “with dignity and respect” and “not unequally.” This is where MPs voiced a majority view that a decision on the issue of a ‘National Government’ should be discussed at a broader body of the SLFP, the Central Committee. The meeting was held on Thursday evening. At this meeting, several speakers were strongly critical of the Government. They said that the Government’s misdeeds and shortcomings would badly reflect on President Sirisena and the SLFP candidates when it comes to parliamentary elections. Hence, they said that the situation could only be corrected by the SLFP taking part in a ‘National Government’ and becoming responsible for some of the important subjects.


Sirisena also discussed the reorganisation and strengthening of the SLFP. He declared that he would extend his “fullest support” to this effort. Towards this end, the SLFP will also organise a “grand” May Day rally in Colombo with a high turnout. In marked contrast former President Rajapaksa told crowds who had gathered to see him at Madurawela (Kalutara District) Pradeshiya Sabha grounds that “genuine” SLFPers are with him. Yet, days after the elections he ceded the SLFP leadership to his successor, President Sirisena. However, Rajapaksa later issued a statement saying he would not attend a rally in Kandy to demand that he be made the Prime Ministerial candidate. Those on the stage were Wimal Weerawansa (National Freedom Front), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front), Dinesh Gunawardena (Mahajana Eksath Peramuna), former Central Province Governor Tikiri Kobbekaduwa (SLFP) and Udaya Gamanpilla (Pivithuru Hela Urumaya). Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga had vowed that no one could stop him from taking part in the Kandy meeting. However, he was in Australia this week and corrected himself to say he would have gone if he were in Sri Lanka. Circumstances under which he suddenly left the country were swirling and not all of it was political. Now, moves are under way to remove him from office and replace him with Ranjith Somawansa, a councillor.


Rajapaksa’s credibility took a further beating this week. Responding to a statement issued by the Presidential Secretariat about the construction of a Presidential Palace costing Rs, 2.5 billion in Kankesanthurai, he claimed that it was an “International Relations Centre.” Similarly, another “International Relations Centre” has been built at Arugam Bay. It was Premier Wickremesinghe who exposed the existence of this complex at Arugam Bay where different chalets had facilities which he described as better than those at Buckingham Palace, the residence of the Queen of England. Why so many “international centres” are required at such colossal expenditure remains a critical question. There was an International Conference Hall built in Hambantota and for over a year now it has not been put to use for any international conference.


Rajapaksa’s statement said: “………….The property in Kankesanthurai is an International Relations Centre belonging to the Presidential Secretariat which was being constructed by the Navy. The public may be aware that some of the best known convention centres in the country like the BMICH, the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and Nelum Pokuna came under the Presidential Secretariat. The International Relations Centres in Kankesanthurai and Arugam Bay were being built not as presidential residences but as international convention centres to be used when Sri Lanka hosts international events.


“These centres would also have been used when foreign dignitaries and other such individuals and delegations visited the north or the east. With the establishment of peace, a heavy influx of foreign visitors to these areas was expected. Unlike the older convention centres coming under the Presidential Secretariat, these new establishments had been designed with residential facilities. Cabinet approval was granted for the construction of these International Relations Centres. Portraying these establishments as ostentatious ‘presidential residences’ is a part of the campaign of vilification against me that has been going on for the past few months.”


If indeed such “International Relations Centres” were being built in principal towns, as Rajapaksa claims, for international conferences and foreign visitors, the question that begs answer is why the former Government did not encourage the construction of hotels in those areas. Surely, such hotels could have accommodated visitors to Sri Lanka. The private sector could have been given attractive concessions for such projects. In the case of the luxury complex at Arugam Bay, did the Government believe that facilities (including swimming pools) in star class hotels in Pasikudah were not suitable for international foreign visitors? Is this not an arrogant abuse of power by whoever made the recommendation to the Cabinet of Ministers? The taxpayers’ money need not have been dumped on such highly ostentatious projects to afford luxuries to foreign visitors when the former Government was raising loans to provide basic necessities to the public. Rajapaksa’s explanation only makes a bad situation much worse. It confirms that public funds were wasted.


Earlier, a Presidential Secretariat media statement said: “The construction of a presidential palace in Kankesanthurai had commenced in July 2012 by the Sri Lanka Navy. The cost of the construction is estimated at Rs. 2,000 million. However, after its completion with the furniture it would cost of Rs. 2,500 million.
“The construction is taking place in a land of 100 acres. It comprises 20 rooms, a gymnasium, two swimming pools, a hall for the Cabinet of Ministers to meet. There were also four desalination plants to purify sea water with each of them costing two million rupees. This is at a time when residents in the Jaffna peninsula were complaining that their well water was being polluted.


“About 300 navy personnel were involved in the construction work and about 90 per cent of it has been completed. President Maithripala Sirisena who visited the location said he will make sure the public will use these buildings.”


Here again, what necessitated the Cabinet of Ministers to reportedly decide that every foreign visitor should be provided with swimming pools and other luxuries? This costly project is similar to the one placed before Ministers by then Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, to build a multi-million dollar sports complex in Nuwara Eliya. The reason? It was to train local and foreign athletes “to Olympic standards” to take part in competitions. It was an “unsolicited proposal” from a Chinese firm. The Rs. 2.5 billion for the Kankesanthurai project could easily have been used in the north to benefit the people, whom President Sirisena said on a visit to Jaffna last week, suffered the most during the separatist war. That some of them are still living without a roof above their head in makeshift structures is all too well known. Part of the expenditure could have even gone for the construction of a pilgrim’s centre to accommodate those going to Nagadeepa, the island Buddhist temple off the Jaffna peninsula. At present most of the pilgrims representing poorer sections of society rough it out in the buses they travel or in public buildings. They even carry pots, pans and firewood to cook their meals.


There is no gainsaying that this week’s expression of discontent within the SLFP over the UNP dominated Government’s lackadaisical performance cannot be underestimated. It is a clear warning to the UNP leadership that they cannot ignore these concerns, particularly with regard to ongoing investigations where allegations of ‘soft pedalling’ have been levelled. To do so would be at the risk of having defeat staring at its face at the next parliamentary elections. A party would have to pay a heavy price for the actions of a handful. Nevertheless, trouble is brewing in the grand rainbow coalition. That it is over the Government’s inability to deal firmly with wrong doers in their own midst is certainly not good news for the UNP rank and file and those at the grassroots levels. More so when such instances are on the increase like the latest controversy at the Central Bank.

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