One year after election, Sirisena still struggling to take control of his party; open challenge from Rajapaksa now, new alliance likely UNP constitution also likely to be amended, two key posts may be scrapped; two ruling parties to sign new agreement By Our Political Editor The dawn of 2016 portends a bagful of challenges for [...]


As 2016 dawns, UNP and SLFP face internal crises


  • One year after election, Sirisena still struggling to take control of his party; open challenge from Rajapaksa now, new alliance likely
  • UNP constitution also likely to be amended, two key posts may be scrapped; two ruling parties to sign new agreement

By Our Political Editor
The dawn of 2016 portends a bagful of challenges for Sri Lanka’s political firmament.
Perhaps understandably, the share of the ruling alliance or its partners is much more compared to that of their opponents. On the one hand, internecine issues have engulfed them. On the other, they are speaking publicly over their disappointments.

This is at a time when the partners of the United National Front (UNF) are finalising two different documents to further ‘glue’ their alliance. One is a formal common agreement. A Memorandum of Understanding had earlier been in place in the run-up to the presidential and later parliamentary elections. Now all sides want a binding document to be the guideline for the rest of their period of governance. The second is a constitution for the UNF. A team of lawyers are now going through the two documents to be signed in January (this month), United National Party General Secretary Kabir Hashim (UNP) told the Sunday Times (See Q & A on this page).

Dealing with bribery and corruption
One of the contentious issues was assurances made both at presidential and parliamentary polls last year to deal with bribery, corruption and other malpractices. “We are very unhappy at the pace at which things have moved. No action has still been taken against Avant Garde, RADA and other similar cases that involved allegations of irregularities running into billions of rupees,” Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) told the Sunday Times.

Hashim countered by saying that the legal process took time. Moreover, he said, there were also officials who were loyal to the previous administration and they were stalling or interfering in investigations.

Rajapaksa declaring open an SLFP office in Urubokke, where he said if persons were driven away from their parties, they have no alternative but to form a new party. Pic by Rahul Samantha Hettiarachchi

Ranawaka said “most of middle class society, who strongly criticised the budget proposals, were those who backed this Government.” (See Q & A on this page). Minister Ranawaka dismissed speculation that he planned to join the UNP and would hold titular office. “We will remain where we are and protect the mandate given by the people at the presidential and parliamentary elections last year,” he said. He also rubbished claims that he was not in good terms with Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a close ally.

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who returned to Sri Lanka on Friday morning after a foreign holiday, was defiant. He told officials at the Ministry of Finance that he was determined to follow through with the budget proposals that were approved notwithstanding perceived criticism and accusations hurled at him.

Karunanayke told the Sunday Times, “Since last Friday we have begun implementing some 482 measures through 51 ministries. There will be utmost financial discipline and revenue will be collected.” He said that the budget has not been a “cut-and-paste” job from what officials had forwarded. “We discussed it at various levels. I know 97 percent of the people are in favour,” he said adding that “the rest are those who are never satisfied.” He charged that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had left behind a debt of Rs. 350 billion in unpaid bills. “Last year, we had to pay Rs. 175 billion of this amount. I will unmask the critics who are doing it for different reasons,” he added.

There are different woes for the UNF partners. At the next meeting of the UNP Working Committee, the policy making body, changes to some of the positions are now certain to be discussed. This is through amendments to the party constitution. Though General Secretary Hashim did not spell out these changes, other party seniors said it would include the abolition of at least two positions — that of Deputy Leader currently held by Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa and Assistant Leader by Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. That the duo have soured relations with the leadership has been the talking point at the highest levels of the party. These two positions were introduced to the party constitution in the backdrop of a leadership crisis the party faced when in the Opposition. Premier Wickremesinghe who returns to Colombo today after a holiday in Ireland is to meet Minister Hashim to discuss the proposed changes. With the conduct of the Uva Provincial Council elections in September 2014 where they played an active role, the Leadership Council of the UNP virtually ceased to exist.

Warnasinghe issue
For the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the events that led to the resignation of Western Province Health Minister Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe, after the defeat of his Ministry’s votes during the budget debate of the Western Provincial Council (WPC), was a setback. The party’s opponents were to interpret the move as a political snub allegedly engineered by none other than President Maithripala Sirisena. This was on the basis that it was Sirisena, who in September last year, named Isuru Devapriya as the Chief Minister. However, Ranawaka is learnt to have met Sirisena to express the JHU displeasure that the Chief Minister had rocked the UNF political boat much to the embarrassment of the JHU. The President had thereafter conveyed that displeasure to Devapriya. Other informed sources said that one of the main causes centred on Warnasinghe’s own conduct. After being elected to the WPC, Warnasinghe unsuccessfully contested the Kalutara District from the UNP ticket at the August parliamentary elections. He thereafter returned to serve as councillor. Some of his adversaries allege that he gave job placements mostly to JHU supporters in hospitals under his provincial Health Ministry and thus earned the displeasure of other UNP and UPFA members. The latter had brought issues to the attention of the Chief Minister. This is said to be the main cause for the defeat of the Health Ministry allocations. These votes were eventually passed this week and Warnasinghe is complaining that the vote was procedurally improper.

Issues are equally bad in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), where President Maithripala Sirisena is engaged in a concerted effort to win over parliamentarians who remain loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has failed to do so since he was elected President one year ago. Ironically for a man who won the Presidency with votes countrywide, it has been an uphill battle so far within his own party. It was only last week that he declared that no MP from his own party would be penalised for voting against the budget. He also played down comments over his relations with his predecessor saying he was “not concerned whether a person was black or white” and asserted he would work for the party. It came as SLFP General Secretary and Minister Duminda Dissanayake made inquiries from different SLFP groups whether Rajapaksa in fact planned to form his own political party. The answers he received were unclear and the veteran politician that Rajapaksa is, had resorted to a new strategy that added to the confusion.

Rajapaksa’s surprise move
In what seemed a surprise move, Rajapaksa declared open an SLFP office of the Provincial Councillor Sarath de Alwis in Horagasmanhandiya, Urubokke in the Matara district on Sunday, December 27. There, he cautioned that if persons were driven away from their parties, they would have no alternative but to form a new party. There was little doubt the message was to Sirisena, who is yet to gain full control of his MPs and to keep him (Rajapaksa) within the SLFP fold with an appropriate position or face a split. For good measure, Rajapaksa also held an impromptu news conference after the opening ceremony.

ere is a brief account:  ”Q: Minister S.B. Dissanayake has said that 15 MPs are planning to join the government and accept ministerial portfolios. Are these members from the joint opposition?
A: I do not know that. I have not asked them. We do not know if they are TNA members or from the joint opposition. You should ask the TNA members if they are supporting.

My party is the SLFP. I am the only person who did not quit the SLFP. I am the only person who did not betray the SLFP to the UNP. Many persons in politics now have betrayed their parties. We did not do that. We will never do that. I do not know about a new party.

However, under these conditions I cannot say that new parties will not come up. If persons are chased away from the party they have to go somewhere. They may form a new party. Therefore new parties can come up.

Now the Government is working in combination with the Opposition. If the right direction is to be shown, you need to have a strong Opposition. If there is no strong Opposition a Government can go astray. That was shown during the budget. Therefore all have the responsibility of having a strong Opposition.”

For Rajapaksa, having weakened the then Opposition by taking a whole bunch of MPs to strengthen his Government is one thing. Opening a branch of the SLFP is another. This is the first time he had done so since Sirisena took over the leadership. Using that occasion to deliver a message to Sirisena is even more significant. It seems a new strategy by Rajapaksa whose blessings and support is there in full for a new joint Opposition alliance that is being formed. Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena who heads the pro-Rajapaksa group in Parliament, told the Sunday Times, “Talks are under way to form the new alliance. We met on Tuesday and will meet again next Tuesday.” He said besides those in Parliament, the new alliance will also have other political parties and groups joining them.

Thus, it is clear, that at least for the moment Rajapaksa wants to remain in the SLFP and continue as a deterrent to Sirisena gaining full control. The sum effect would be two centres of power within the party. That there is a time frame for this is not something salutary to Sirisena. He would have to be in total control of the SLFP within the next six months – the time frame set by Sirisena for the local Government elections, for which he has already got an extension of time. Until now, several inducements to SLFP parliamentarians including official positions, vehicles, security and other perks have not proved successful.

New Constitution
Dinesh Gunawardena said one of the main tasks of the Opposition would be to oppose efforts by the Government to move a resolution to convert Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly. “We strongly believe this is highly irregular. There were similar mistakes, perhaps due to lack of expertise, made even during the formulation of the 19th and later 20th Amendments,” he said. He complained that the Government had so far made available only the draft resolution it will move at a special session of Parliament on Saturday January 9. We have not been given copies of the draft report of the 24-member Committee of experts. This is the one that was to form the basis of discussion, he pointed out.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and Minister, Rauff Hakeem said yesterday that his party was also awaiting this draft report. He said that his party is already in talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to seek common ground on issues relevant to them. “I understand that this basic draft is not yet ready,” he said. Another source said that this basic draft will take away provisions relating to an executive presidency and place alternative proposals for discussion.

Yet, one of the Opposition demands appears to have been met. The Government will only move a resolution to set up a Select Committee of the entire House to draft a new Constitution. There will be no references, as earlier proposed, for the creation of a Constitutional Assembly. An Opposition source said, “This shows the amateurish approach by some experts assigned for working on matters related to a new Constitution.” One of the main reasons for converting the House into a Select Committee is to ensure that proceedings are recorded in the Hansard, the official record of Parliament. In the event of a Constitutional Assembly being set up, a Government source said, there would be no possibility of proceedings being reported in the Hansard.

The crisis within the SLFP, no doubt, will continue and draw more of Sirisena’s time and effort. Similarly, internecine issues within the United National Party are likely to exacerbate after changes are made in the party constitution. Removal of posts and those affected no doubt will raise issue. All in all, for the two main parties — the SLFP and the UNP — that govern the country, all other public issues could be relegated to second position as they worry about their internal woes. This is in a crucial year when international pressure is mounting on the Government to take varied action on the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. A response detailing measures adopted is due in June. Just weeks earlier, a legal mission from the UNHRC was in Sri Lanka impressing on the need for follow-up action and studying measures already adopted. The challenges therefore are unprecedented.

JHU General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka

JHU will sign new agreement if it is acceptable: Champika
He are excerpts of a Q & A with Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU):
ON THE RECENT EVENTS AT THE WESTERN PROVINCIAL COUNCIL: They conducted themselves clearly against the mandate given by the people to President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. If there is cohabitation of partners in the UNF Government, then it is only logical that it should extend to Provincial Councils as well. There should be harmony and power sharing. Before the Chief Minister took over, we held key ministries. Under the present Chief Minister, only one portfolio, unfortunately was given to us. The Mahinda Rajapaksa clan tried to unsettle the new administration. There were two attempts to move our ministers. We resisted them. That included a no confidence motion on one of the ministers.

When we recruit to the provincial Ministry of Health, we follow procedures laid down by the centre. The Rajapaksa camp wanted to show their strength. It is relevant to mention that the UNF won the entire Western Province. That clearly shows that the WPC had no proper mandate. He was appointed by the President and he is there because we supported. The Chief Minister does not care about them. He interfered with other ministers as well. It is up to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to study this situation. If there is a grand alliance at the top, then there should be one at the PCs too. They don’t understand cohabitation.

MEETING WITH THE PRESIDENT: During a meeting with the President, we conveyed our concerns. Some sections were more anti-Ranil. This is a clear opposition to good governance. We are not bothered. We will help when good things are done. We will act as an independent entity.

ON A NEW CONSTITUTION FOR SRI LANKA: What is now being envisaged is the creation of a Select Committee of 225 members to draft a new Constitution. This is what is being referred to as the Constitutional Council. Premier Wickremesinghe’s formula is a democratic thing.

FUTURE ROLE OF THE JHU: We will sign the two documents which are under preparation if they are acceptable to us. We will continue to play our role. Earlier, we had only signed an MoU. We pledge to protect the mandate given by the people.
THE BUDGET PROPOSALS: The people are frustrated. Most of the leading figures and organisations that supported President Sirisena/Premier Wickremesinghe are strongly critical of the budget. This is a very unfortunate situation.

UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim

Changes in UNP constitution to meet new challenges: Kabir Hashim
Here are excerpts of a Q and A with United National Party (UNP) General Secretary Kabir Hashim:
ON IMPENDING CHANGES IN THE PARTY: For more than twenty long years we have remained in the Opposition. We have on many occasions amended the party’s constitution. These were necessitated somewhat for the party’s survival. It is now time for us to take stock of the situation. We have to see what changes are needed for the future. There are new challenges. At the moment there is confusion over some positions. They need to be changed. We had a Leadership Council. It became defunct. Other bodies and positions that emerged have to be looked at. Some need to be changed to keep up with the times.

There will be no serious changes in the grassroots level structure of the party. The Polling Booth Organisers, a new structure that emerged, has remained active both during the presidential and parliamentary elections. We are of course looking at a membership drive. We are also discussing an increased role for the youth.

ON FORMALISING A FRAMEWORK FOR THE UNITED NATIONAL FRONT (UNF) WITH CONSTITUENT PARTNERS: We are working on two different documents. One is a new agreement that will bind all members of the UNF. We are hoping to sign it this month. Though I cannot provide details, it will outline broader policies and our joint vision in the years to come. We are also working on a new Constitution. It is now being perused by a team of lawyers. All partners of the UNF will become signatories of this new Constitution. We are also hoping to sign it this month.

THERE HAS BEEN STRONG CRITICISM EVEN AMONG PARTNERS OF THE UNF THAT THIS GOVERNMENT HAS RENEGED ON PROMISES MADE DURING PAST ELECTIONS TO BRING TO BOOK THOSE REPONSIBLE FOR CORRUPTION, MALPRACTICES AND MISRULE: I don’t subscribe to that view. There has been systemic changes. Earlier, people were arrested and dumped in jail. It is only thereafter that the authorities went looking for evidence. A classic example is what happened to Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. One time Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike could not stay in her official residence. Another former Government politician had his vehicle stopped by a Police Officer in the southern expressway. Some of those concerned had connived to do wrong. We are under yahapalanaya (good governance).

Officials of the previous regime are protecting their old masters. A limited number of people are collecting evidence. The investigations are definitely going on. There is enough evidence against some of them. No one can be blamed for the delays. I salute both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. Both have not misled the public through denials or providing wrong information.

ON FINANCE MINISTER RAVI KARUNANAYAKE’S CABINET MEMORANDUM TO PAY RS 300 MILLION TO A “PROFESSIONAL CONSULTANT”. THIS WAS DISCUSSED AT LAST WEEK’S MINISTERIAL MEETING: I can tell you I would not have spoken. I am governed by collective responsibility. However, the media has highlighted this matter. I objected to a technicality. My argument firstly was that the organisation referred to (Hotel Developers Limited, the holding company of Colombo Hilton) was under my Ministry. Either this subject should have been brought under the Ministry of Finance or it is I who should have been responsible for any recommendation. Secondly, I strongly believe it is not the proper process for such payments. The contents (of the memorandum) itself are at issue.

ON ACTION AGAINST HIRUNIKA PREMACHANDRA ON THE ALLEGED ABDUCTION OF A YOUTH BY HER STAFF: As far as this case is concerned, she has behaved decently. She had acted with responsibility and supported the legal process. A Grama Niladhari (a village level official) was tied to a tree by a politician of the former Government. No action was taken then. When a Deputy Minister was stopped by a traffic police officer, the law did not take its course. The officer’s private vehicle was burnt. Where were the civil society groups then? They were frightened for their lives. We will not interfere in the investigations. She is a member of the United National Front and not the United National Party.

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