Conflicts and confusion over 20A and dissolution of Parliament; smaller parties to launch countrywide protests President offers ‘distinguished position’ to Rajapaksa, but former leader rejects it Senaratne’s slip is showing, but SLFP split now inevitable President Maithripala Sirisena was in Ampara last Sunday when news reached him about the contents of the Sunday Times (Political [...]


Heavy wait battle: Sirisena wants to wait, but UNP cannot


  • Conflicts and confusion over 20A and dissolution of Parliament; smaller parties to launch countrywide protests
  • President offers ‘distinguished position’ to Rajapaksa, but former leader rejects it
  • Senaratne’s slip is showing, but SLFP split now inevitable

President Maithripala Sirisena was in Ampara last Sunday when news reached him about the contents of the Sunday Times (Political Commentary).  He wa briefed about the remarks made by Dinesh Gunawardena, a close ally of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Gunawardena had said in a Q & A that a “new political front” was in the making under the leadership of Rajapaksa. A programme of work (or a manifesto of sorts) for this “front” for the next parliamentary elections was being formulated, he added.

From the eastern seaboard town, Sirisena telephoned Gunawardena in the morning. Earlier, Sirisena had taken part in a Minneriya electorate SLFP Youth Front meeting at Elehera held at the Assistant Government Agent’s office. Sirisena asked the MEP leader whether he had seen the Sunday Times. “I am yet to read it,” he replied. Then Sirisena asked whether he made the remarks that a new political front was being formed. Gunawardena responded, “Yes, I said that. Efforts to bring about unity have remained unsuccessful. We have no alternative other than to embark on such a move.” Gunawardena declined to give us details of the conversation except to say; “I explained our position clearly to President Sirisena.”

The President also seemed concerned about the crowd at the Matara rally, part of a series, to urge that Rajapaksa be made the Prime Ministerial candidate. Another day he telephoned Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena (who represents the district) to ascertain details. It was only on May 29 Abeywardena was appointed Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. Sirisena told him that he had appointed two MPs from that District as Deputy Ministers. They were Sanath Jayasuriya and Wijaya Dahanayake. The latter was named though Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was not in favour. Why was public support going elsewhere, he asked. Rajapaksa supporters are to soon decide the venue for their next meeting, whether it should be in Gampaha or Ampara. President Sirisena is also going ahead with district seminars to forge unity within the SLFP. Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva said yesterday that the Badulla District seminar would be held today with Sirisena in the chair.

That the inevitable — a split in the UPFA — was now becoming a reality jolted Sirisena. In the past weeks, four senior Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members had met him, at least twice, to discuss political developments and to advise him on the need for unity ahead of parliamentary elections. Otherwise, they said they feared it would be victory for the United National Party (UNP). Those who met the President were Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, , SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha and Senior Parliamentarian John Seneviratne. All four have been insisting on bringing Mahinda Rajapaksa on board saying that there is a growing demand from grassroots level organisations. If they could not be believed, the foursome suggested that Sirisena meet SLFP representatives from different party strata and ascertain facts for himself. This is why he called a meeting of SLFP parliamentarians, provincial councillors and members of local authorities last Tuesday at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI). And on Sunday morning, he was learning through the Sunday Times that Rajapaksa allies were now busy putting together a new political front. His concerns grew. Thus began a week that was studded with significant political developments.

President Maithripala Sirisena

It took off last Monday night with a high powered UNP delegation meeting Sirisena. It comprised Malik Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim, Karu Jayasuriya, Lakshman Kiriella and Ravi Karunanayake. The purpose of the meeting was to convey the outcome of the Working Committee session on June 12. An official statement from the party after the event accused the Opposition of launching a campaign “to destabilise the country and turn back the January 8 revolution”. The UNP demanded that it “should be stopped.” It urged the President “to dissolve Parliament and let the people elect a Government of their choice.” Contrary to reports that the UNP was to write to President Sirisena, the six member delegation met him to explain issues.

During an hour- long meeting, there was a frank exchange of views. The delegation was to point out that the UNP was substantially responsible for Sirisena’s victory at the January 8 presidential election. This was an undeniable fact. The President was to concede the remarks, but point out that equally he had played his part as well. He had made Ranil Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister and sworn in a minority Government. The UNP delegation made clear that the way things were working out; there was a clamour from their grassroots level organisations for dissolution of Parliament and early elections. They said that the 100 Day Programme of Work had been ‘successfully fulfilled.’ They also dealt with the electoral reforms where the President wants to increase the number of seats in Parliament to 237, the UNP to retain it at the present level of 225, the SLFP MPs want 255 and the minority as well as smaller parties are seeking a double ballot, one for the party and the other for the candidate. The UNP felt its own proposal should be accepted. It also explained that a double ballot system was similar to a preferential vote and would lead to unhealthy rivalry among candidates. A way out of the current imbroglio, the UNP delegation said, was to introduce a White Paper on Electoral Reforms. That could pave the way for public discussion after which a new Government could discern what was best.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

The UNP delegation also told Sirisena that the motions of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake were “completely unethical” and should be immediately withdrawn. Last Tuesday, party leaders failed to decide on a date for the no-faith vote on the Premier. The motion is now on the Parliament Order Book. The ruling party stonewalled efforts by the sponsors for an early date for debate. The party leaders were only able to endorse their earlier decision to have the vote of no-confidence against the Finance Minister Karunanayake taken up on July 6. The delegation said it was the UNP view that these motions should never have been allowed even to enter the Order Book. They were to remind Sirisena that he had earlier declared publicly that once the 19A was passed in Parliament, he would dissolve. Their efforts to determine when the dissolution would take place did not materialise. Sirisena asserted that he would surely dissolve Parliament, but declared he could not say when. This drew a response from the UNP delegation. They said they did not want to know the date but wished that a new Parliament is in place by August. They claimed that a delay in dissolving Parliament was helping former President Rajapaksa to gain ground. During a breakfast meeting with media representatives last month Sirisena said he hoped to see a new Government in place by September.

One of the pledges made by Sirisena during the presidential election campaign was to ensure there was media freedom. Upon being elected, Sirisena continued to re-iterate this pledge. However, during the meeting with the UNP delegation he struck a discordant note. He complained that details of his different discussions were leaking to the media and he wanted to put a stop to it. Needless to say the remarks saw some members of the delegation aghast. “We said one thing to win the presidential polls. We are now trying to do just the opposite,” said a delegation member who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons. He added that matters discussed were of “utmost public interest” and “not secrets that concern national security.” Not surprisingly, a state intelligence arm is busy trying to discern sources. The exercise seems no different from the previous regime, but the current process lacked sophistication and gave the show away. The very act of hunting for sources of journalists leads to a fear psychosis, something which, the presidency and the Government declared, was a thing of the past.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa

On Tuesday morning, SLFP parliamentarians, provincial councillors and local government members gathered at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) to hear Sirisena. Though the three different segments constituted the National Executive Council (NEC), the invitations did not speak of a meeting of the Council per se. Sirisena spoke on the need to pass the 20A in Parliament for which the support of the SLFP parliamentarians was necessary. At least three speakers – Bandula Gunawardena, Dilan Perera and Dhanasiri Ameratunga – brought up the Rajapaksa factor. Their contention was that the UPFA would not be able to move forward to a parliamentary election campaign without him. A lengthy discussion ensued. The end result was to appoint a six-member committee to forge unity in the SLFP. The committee comprised Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, John Seneviratne, Dilan Perera, Kumara Welgama and T.B. Ekanayake.

It was apparent that Sirisena, who chaired what was easily the National Executive Council meeting of the SLFP, was making a second major effort, at least seemingly, to win over the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP. Significant enough, this is after the May 6 meeting he had with Rajapaksa at the parliament complex. There, Rajapaksa placed a set of demands including one that he be made the prime ministerial candidate. Sirisena was not in favour and the talks ended where they began. After that meeting Sirisena walked to Premier Wickremesinghe’s office on the same floor in Parliament. He was waiting there to be briefed. Thereafter, he drove to Independence Avenue (former Torrington Square) to brief former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. This time, however, there was no such briefing either to Wickremesinghe or Kumaratunga, though they were part of the troika that has been managing matters of state.

The six-member committee did not lose time. On the same Tuesday evening they gathered at the Colombo residence of John Seneviratne. They decided unanimously that Rajapaksa should be brought in and among other matters be allowed to lead the parliamentary election campaign. The committee sought a meeting with President Sirisena and was awaiting a date and time. Then something bizarre was to happen.

The world over, those who serve as official spokespersons are known for the spin, scolding, twisting facts and or the fairy tales they sometimes relate. Official spokesperson for the Government of Sri Lanka, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, went a step further. He spoke of a non-event. What he said at that point of time, it turned out, was nothing but the untruth or to put it more strongly, a palpable lie. One is reminded of Mark Twain’s remarks “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Senaratne was asked at Thursday’s news briefing on the outcome of a committee named to bring about peace within the SLFP. His reply: “We have no problem at all in getting together and working. The President is in favour of this. One proposal was that a committee be set up to discuss the issue. The other was to resume the previous discussion. Eventually a committee was appointed and they met with the President on Wednesday night. The President explained to continue the discussion from where it ended. You should take into consideration at what point the discussions stopped. The committee requested that former President (Rajapaksa) be nominated as the Prime ministerial candidate. The president turned down the request. Thereafter, they requested that he be included in the national list to be nominated to parliament. The President turned down that too. Thereafter, they wanted nominations. That also was rejected.”

All what he said was false. The reason – there was no such meeting between members of the committee and the President on Wednesday night. Since, the committee was appointed no such meeting had in fact taken place when Senaratne made those remarks. Senaratne is officially not mandated to be spokesperson of the SLFP. In making those remarks he had cast doubts not only on waht remains of his own credibility but that of the President, too. Here are remarks from three members of the committee who spoke to the Sunday Times on Friday morning.

Dilan Perera, Vice President of the SLFP: “Minister Senaratne is dreaming. Our committee is yet to meet the President. Hence, the remarks he has attributed to His Excellency are utter lies. I challenge him to prove us, the members of the committee, wrong. Otherwise, he should resign. If we are proved wrong, we will resign from Parliament.”

Kumara Welgama: “It is completely false to say our committee members met President Sirisena on Wednesday night. Therefore, the other claims made are also false. The President has given us an appointment to meet him on Friday afternoon.”
T.B. Ekanayake: “We never met the President on Wednesday as claimed by Dr Rajitha Senaratne. That was a diabolic lie that he told the Cabinet press conference. He has become a joker. He has been in different parties and now Dr. Senaratne is trying to destroy the SLFP. The statement he made is an embarrassment to the party.”

The six-member committee did meet President Sirisena, however, at the Presidential Secretariat late Friday afternoon for nearly an hour. The President made clear that he had pulled up his official spokesperson Senaratne for the erroneous remarks and added that he should never have said it. He then made clear he was not prepared to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime ministerial candidate nor give him nominations to become a candidate at the parliamentary elections. He will also not be named on the National List. However, Sirisena said he could be given a ‘sambhavaneeya thanathurak’ or a distinguished position. He likened it to those like Bill Clinton in the United States, Mahathir Mohamed in Malaysia or the late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. He could travel on missions to different parts of the world, representing Sri Lanka in that capacity.

Then Sirisena sounded a note of caution. He said three different countries were now probing Rajapaksa but did not name them. This was besides the strong likelihood of critical references against Rajapaksa in the probe report on alleged war crimes. This is to be tabled before the UN Human Rights Council in September. If Rajapaksa agrees to accept his offer, Sirisena said there was a possibility of Rajapaksa being defended or saved. Sirisena also fired a broadside suggesting that Rajapaksa was in close touch with the UNP leadership and acting in concert with them. He said that a section of the UNP were not in favour of that liaison with Rajapaksa. Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha insisted on a role for Rajapaksa in the polls. They said that 90 per cent of those in the SLFP were in favour of him. Sirisena said the committee members should convey his offer of a distinguished position to Rajapaksa and return to him with the response. The members said they believe that Rajapaksa would not agree. That has not deterred Sirisena from taking other measures to consolidate his position in the SLFP. He has begun appointing SLFP organisers in electorates and districts to replace Rajapaksa allies and has declared that no one tainted with corruption allegations would be accommodated.

The six committee members talked among themselves informally after the meeting with Sirisena. One of them said Sirisena’s offer of a ‘distinguished position’ was accompanied by ‘shades of blackmail.’ He argued that if Rajapaksa were to be saved from the Human Rights Council indictments on allegations of war crimes or the reported probes by three different countries, he would have to accept Sirisena’s offer. That was a serious pre-condition. Sources close to Rajapaksa said he would not only reject the offer, but would make a public statement giving reasons.

The passage of the 20A, which Sirisena is trying hard to ensure by harnessing the support of the pro-Rajapaksa parliamentarians, has become a political hot potato. After the Cabinet of Ministers at their special meeting on June 12 approved a memorandum from Sirisena to increase the number of seats in Parliament to 237, the Legal Draftsman formulated a draft Bill. This has been gazetted but public access to the document has been denied leaving only a few copies to be circulated. The official website of the Government Printer has listed the gazette notification (1918/29) in question between June 12 and 13 with the wording “Reserved for the Presidential Secretariat.” The reason is the manner in which the draft has been prepared leaving contradictions in some provisions and confusion over others. Ahead of last Wednesday’s weekly meeting of ministers; Premier Wickremesinghe met President Sirisena at his office in the Presidential Secretariat. There he pointed out the flaws. In fact towards the end of the ministerial meeting, Wickremesinghe urged that it be recorded and mentioned in the minutes that ministers had decided that the next parliamentary elections would be held on the existing proportional representation system. This was agreed. Wickremesinghe has delegated Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse to meet President Sirisena and explain his party’s position with regard to 20A. Other than that, there was no discussion on the 20A by ministers, but officials were busy sorting out the confusion over the draft Bill. This is whilst opposition to the draft 20A was building in different  quarters.

At the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) headquarters “Darus Salaam” in Kompannaweediya (Colombo’s Slave Island area) on Thursday, its leader Rauff Hakeem was chairing a meeting of smaller political parties. Some 25 parties including, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), took part. They decided to launch a campaign on the 20A under the banner “Vissa Mulaavak” or 20A is a falsehood. “We supported Maithripala Sirisena to send Mahinda Rajapaksa home. He is now trying to send us home,” Hakeem declared. He said that not only the smaller parties but also the UNP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Ceylon Worker’s Congress were opposed to it. He said they were in favour of the electoral reforms being introduced as a White Paper so there would be a fuller public debate on it. A group representing the smaller political parties, Hakeem said, would meet Premier Wickremesinghe and thereafter President Sirisena to explain their position. That was a prelude to a joint campaign.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake warned that his party would launch a campaign to educate the masses of the ‘deceit’ of the people. “During the presidential election campaign promises were made to the people that tough action would be taken against wrong doing. There were promises about fighting bribery, corruption and misrule. All those have slowed down. There is pressure on the investigators from those who earlier wanted those probes. This is a big danger to the country,” he told the Sunday Times. He added that Parliament had been reduced to a Shoka Kalapaya or a Condolence Zone and nothing else was being discussed except votes of condolence. He said that the 20A was a conspiracy to keep the JVP out.

Erstwhile JVPer and National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa, a strong ally of Rajapaksa, declared that “they are showing us a rainbow and not addressing the real issues. The electoral reforms are not practical. The Government was going out of the way to appease the Tamil diaspora and the situation in the North is deteriorating. Public concerns are not being addressed.” Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) General Secretary and Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, one of the staunchest backers of Sirisena’s electoral reforms, defended the draft 20A. He said there may be some drafting flaws that require rectification but the concept and what had been envisaged were good.

Premier Wickremesinghe, who is convinced that there would be an early dissolution of Parliament, told members of his Working Committee on Friday to prepare for parliamentary elections. He said a team of UNP office bearers led by him would form the Nomination Board. Two others to be co-opted are Karu Jayasuriya and Daya Pelpola. Once dissolution is announced, the party will hold its annual convention. Several possible venues including the Town Hall, Hyde Park and the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium were discussed. Senior P member and House Leader Lakshman Kiriella told the Sunday Times that among the four resolutions adopted was one urging President Sirisena to immediately withdraw the no-confidence motions against Premier Wickremesinghe and Finance Minister Karunanayake. Another resolution, he said, called for the dissolution of Parliament and elections. He said that all allies contesting the parliamentary elections would have to come under the UNP banner. This was because the party has decided that it would contest the upcoming parliamentary elections only as the UNP.

Sirisena is keeping close to his chest when he would dissolve Parliament. Yet, he has set in motion several measures to win over those close to Rajapaksa. Some have received ministerial, deputy and state ministerial slots. Others are being refused nominations and new members are being appointed organisers for different electorates and districts. With Rajapaksa set to reject Sirisena’s offer for a distinguished position in return for almost giving up his political career has clearly defined the dividing line in the UPFA. With the SLFP and UPFA General Secretaries backing Rajapaksa, the fate of the SLFP albeit the UPFA hangs in the balance. If they do not succeed in wresting control, as MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena declared last week, there will be a new “political front.”

It is not only a programme of work that a pro-Rajapaksa group is working on. Also on the drawing boards are its campaign strategies. The groups wants to target the UNP on three key issues — the Central Bank Bond issue scandal and the purported “deals” by the Government with the Tamil diaspora. The latter was triggered by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera meeting the London based representatives of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and former Norwegian peace envoy Erik Solheim. The third is alleged corruption by ministers and officials who had accused the previous Rajapaksa administration of indulging in the same acts.

This week, Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran appeared before the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) now probing the bond issue. Its Chairman D.E.W. Gunasekera told the Sunday Times there were two more witnesses to testify and hearings would be over in the coming week. “I hope to present the full report to Parliament before July 6,” he said. The inquiry was after the Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa referred what was a no-faith vote on the Central Bank Governor for probe by the COPE. This was on the grounds that such no-faith votes cannot be moved against state officials.

The crisis within the UPFA, no doubt, has placed the UNP Government in an unassailable position. However, its popularity which stood at a peak level after its May Day rally in Colombo has somewhat lowered. Among the main reasons is its inability to keep to the presidential election pledges in aggressively pursuing probes on bribery, corruption and other misdeeds. Added to that were allegations that some senior Government leaders scuttled, slowed down or prevented investigations, arrests and even helped those under probe. Heightening these accusations were remarks by President Sirisena to the six-member SLFP Committee of interaction between Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UNP leadership. Added to that, some ministers and officials of the UNP Government have also come under severe criticism over bribery and corruption. Yet, the UNP is ahead in the race.

Its biggest enemy, however, is time. The more the UNP waits, the more it loses – a contrast to Sirisena’s unenviable position. He has to wait. At least until such time he feels his position is further strengthened within his party, the SLFP. Of course, if that just does not happen, whether he will be compelled to go for an early dissolution and declare elections is not an impossibility. That way, he may think he is taking the wind off the sails of Rajapaksa’s campaign. Sirisena remains boxed in with his options receding every week as tensions with his Prime Minister and Government grow.

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