SLFP-SLPP common alliance in the balance President Sirisena reveals that World Bank, IMF and Millennium Challenges Corporation suspended aid during political turmoil last year UNP Working Committee ignores Minister Navin Dissanayake’s call for change in presidential election laws Sirisena and Rajapaksa in one-on-one talks   Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the candidate for [...]


Gota wins presidential nomination from SLPP and its allies


  • SLFP-SLPP common alliance in the balance
  • President Sirisena reveals that World Bank, IMF and Millennium Challenges Corporation suspended aid during political turmoil last year
  • UNP Working Committee ignores Minister Navin Dissanayake’s call for change in presidential election laws
  • Sirisena and Rajapaksa in one-on-one talks


Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its opposition allies at this year’s presidential election, the Sunday Times is able to confirm today.

It has also been confirmed that he submitted an application through the United States Embassy in Colombo on March 6 to renounce his US citizenship. He is due to travel to Los Angeles next week to attend a wedding. He will seize that opportunity to meet authorities there to expedite his request. He has already been told that the process would take little over a month or more.

Gotabaya’s Rajapaksa’s nomination has received the endorsement of both SLPP and ‘Joint Opposition’ leaders. During a discussion among SLPP and ‘JO’ leaders, a question was raised on who would convey the decision to President Maithripala Sirisena. “I will go and explain it to him,” declared Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the leader of Democratic Left Front (DLF) and MP from the Ratnapura District. However, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa said Nanayakkara should not do so.

Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now confirmed as the SLPP’s candidate for this year’s presidential election seen at a Bingiriya temple ceremony on Wednesday to mark Binara Poya Day. Pic by Padma Kumari Kankanamge

He said it would only be proper if he (Mahinda Rajapaksa) conveyed it to the President. After all, he pointed out, there has been a dialogue between him and President Sirisena leading to his being named Prime Minister in October, last year. However, that would have to be done after some time. An Opposition source privy to the developments said it may be only in May or June. It allows time for the Opposition to be “absolutely sure” Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s renunciation of his US citizenship is formally confirmed, the source said.

Yet, the news had already reached President Sirisena. Barely hours after his morning arrival by Emirates flight EK 652 in Colombo last Sunday, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera and UPFA Gampaha District Parliamentarian Lasantha Alagiyawanna sought a hurried meeting. There, the duo told him that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be the nominee of the SLPP and its allies. Even Rajapaksa family members, they said, had given their blessings to the candidature. The news came as a shock to Sirisena.

His immediate reaction was a query on why should the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) seek a common alliance with the SLPP if that was the case. He later told a meeting of SLFP parliamentarians that they should organise a May Day rally with a large turnout to demonstrate their political strength. The venue selected for this event is the Miriswatte grounds in Gampaha. Sirisena won this district by just over 5,000 votes at the presidential election. At this discussion with SLFP MPs, party General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera declared, “This is our last chance. We must show our strength.” Sirisena cut him short and declared, “This is the beginning of a new, strong SLFP.” The duo’s meeting came just ahead of President Sirisena making a trip by road to Kurunegala.

Yet, the concerns were so heavy that President Sirisena sought a one-on-one meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa. Interesting enough that was last Monday when Sirisena had to meet Rajapaksa on three different occasions — first at the launch of an ‘Action Plan’ against bribery and corruption by the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC). They are more in the news for celebrating action plans than for stepping up offensives against high-level bribery and corruption. Second was at a wedding in the forenoon and then the third, early in the night at the President’s official residence at Mahagamsekera Mawatha.

Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa had a near 40-minute meeting that night. Most of the details of what they discussed are not known. However, the Sunday Times has been able to piece together a brief account from what the two leaders have been talking to their own confidants. President Sirisena took great pains to explain to Mahinda Rajapaksa his recent actions and tried to make clear he was not leaning towards the United National Party (UNP) leadership — a fact which was reported even in these columns just last week. Besides the talks, there was commitment too for his winning UNF support for the votes of the Presidency at the second reading of the budget, as revealed last week in this column. He had even nominated to the Constitutional Council a different person (contrary to the promise he gave the SLPP) for the post of President of the Court of Appeal. However, when the CC met on Monday, they found he had written to it not to make that appointment and he would send in another recommendation. The CC put off the meeting. The CC met yesterday and unanimously accepted Yasantha Kodagoda, Additional Solicitor General, as the President of the Court of Appeal. He had thus withdrawn the earlier nominee Deepali Wijesundera, who was also backed by the SLPP and its allies.

SLFP stance on budget

President Sirisena had said that the day before his departure to Kenya, he had asked SLFP MPs to vote in favour of the second reading of the budget.  He had explained that he had to ask them to do so. Otherwise he would lose allocation of funds to the Presidency and ministries coming under it. Former Minister Tilak Siyambalapitiya, backed up Sirisena’s claim at a news conference on Tuesday. He said, “Our decision to vote at the second reading of the budget was taken to ensure the vote on the President’s office was not defeated on the following day. There are many allocations for the President’s office. Even though we have different views, the party makes a decision and we work accordingly.” There are questions that beg answers. Why was the SLPP, albeit the ‘JO’, told the SLFP would vote against? Does this mean they would vote for the final budget too?

Yet, there were contradictions, serious ones at that. A source close to the Presidency claimed, “President Sirisena did not ask MPs to vote for the second reading of the budget.”

Strange indeed. The source went on to say, “The SLFP discussed and took a neutral stand due to ongoing negotiations with the SLPP. We discussed the budget in our meetings. There were some good proposals. We are studying the budget closely. The ultimate test for the budget is passing it at the third reading. We will take a decision after deliberation.”  These remarks only make matters much worse for the SLFP.

Rajapaksa had asked Sirisena why he publicly criticised Singapore over the return of Arjuna Mahendran, the Central Bank’s former Governor, who is most wanted in Sri Lanka over the bond scandal. He had explained that he had personally made a request from Singapore Prime Minister Li Hsieng Loong and they were delaying it without reason.

There are no known instances of Singapore extraditing one of its nationals to face charges in a foreign court unless the person concerned is indicted in a court of law. The President had only handed over a dossier with details of investigations.  He had, thereafter, heavily criticised Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over his actions on a number of matters. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa, one source said, had avoided any discussion of the upcoming presidential election or the question of candidates. Thus, there was no mention of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature.

Yet, a source close to Sirisena said Rajapaksa did give an indication. This, however, cannot be confirmed.

Issues over UNHRC resolution

This development has once again rekindled speculation that President Sirisena may allow SLFP parliamentarians to take portfolios in the UNF government — a move that would signal the birth of a National Democratic Alliance.

Another subject of discussion was the adoption of a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, it was moved by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Macedonia and Montenegro last Wednesday in Geneva. It was only the previous Saturday, (March 16), that the envoys in Colombo for Britain, Canada and Germany met Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana to ask whether Sri Lanka would back out of this second co-sponsorship. He explained that Colombo would not renege on the assurance that had been already given by the UNF government.  This new resolution gives Sri Lanka two years to implement outstanding matters from the previous 2015 resolution (30/1). That includes a call to “implement fully” the measures in the previous resolution including the probe into alleged war crimes by troops and Tiger guerrillas through hybrid courts. That has been acknowledged in the first sponsorship and re-iterated in the second one.

Last Sunday night, President Sirisena chaired a meeting with the Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC. He was provided a Sinhala translation of the English text of the speech that was to be delivered on Wednesday. He made changes and it was accepted by the UNF leadership. Foreign Minister Marapana delivered it. The same evening Marapana and his delegation had a meeting in Geneva with Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelot Jeria.

President Sirisena had also explained to Rajapaksa that the decision to co-sponsor the latest resolution, like the previous one, had been made by Premier Wickremesinghe. He had in fact requested Mano Tittawela, a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (as well as an Advisor to the Ministry of Finance) to write directly to the Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva to convey the decision on behalf of the Premier. Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Presidential Secretariat was aware. It turned out that the letter had been sent during the 51-day period when Sirisena had foisted Mahinda Rajapaksa as Premier and later dissolved parliament. The Supreme Court later that the dissolution was unconstitutional. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, former UNF Justice Minister and now a legal consultant to Sirisena, read out parts of Tittawala’s letter in Parliament. He was challenging the wisdom of why that letter had been sent.

President Sirisena urged Rajapaksa to stay behind for dinner — an invitation that was politely declined on grounds that he had another engagement. It was now time for a ‘Joint Opposition’ delegation led by its Parliamentary Group leader Dinesh Gunawardena to meet Sirisena. Others were G.L. Peiris (nominal leader of SLPP), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (DLF), former minister Susil Premajayantha, a Communist Party representative and one from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party LSSP). It was here that the President made some hitherto unknown revelations — the repercussions arising out of his decision last October to sack Premier Wickremesinghe. The World Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) froze funding for Sri Lanka. Funding from the United States Millennium Challenges Corporation, too, was suspended. It seemed a stroke of unexpected luck that came Sirisena’s way. The Court of Appeal issued a stay order on the functioning of the Cabinet of Ministers, Ministers of state and deputy ministers. That averted more action and resultant damage.

Lamenting that he wielded only fifty percent of the power (with the rest remaining in the hands of the UNF), President Sirisena said he had to move cautiously. This was why he chose not to withdraw the sponsorship of the resolution for the second time and invite international ire. His remarks, a ‘JO’ source who did not wish to be identified, said reflected a two-fold approach – one was bitter criticism of the UNF to dispel the feeling he was now cosying up to it. The other was to impress on the ‘JO’ that he still supported it. In reality, he was in fact wooing both, sometimes tilting to one, or the other.

“The contradictions were truly apparent and we found it difficult to comprehend the rationale behind some of President Sirisena actions,” said the source. An example, the source pointed out, was the parliamentary group meetings which both SLFP and ‘JO’ members attended. On voting day (for the second reading of the budget), President Sirisena was absent at the meeting in the morning. However, it was decided that both sides would vote against the budget. “Later that day, President Sirisena summoned only his SLFP MPs and told them to vote in favour. This led to MPs Dilan Perera and Lakshman Wasantha Perera being engaged in heated arguments with him. There were six others who voted against the second reading in Parliament defying him,” the source said.  This naturally caused concerns for the SLPP.

When the meeting ended, President Sirisena invited those present to dinner. When they gathered in the dining area, there were whispers and muted laughter. “Apita  ada rey Janadipathi thuma Aaappa denava “or the President is giving us hoppers tonight. The menu was indeed hoppers, egg hoppers and an assortment of curries including seeni sambol, lunu miris, chicken and fish curry. Hoppers, a Sri Lankan delicacy, assumed a political connotation after Sirisena attended a dinner hosted by the then President Rajapaksa. He ate hoppers there and the next day announced his candidature for the January 2015 presidential election. This earned a variety of sobriquets for Sirisena, all beginning with the word “Aappa.”

Jayasekera’s outburst

Thus, it is with a cloud of doubt that the SLFP and the SLPP delegations met for their second round of talks for the formation of a common alliance (together with all Opposition parties). It was at the Opposition Leader’s Office at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. Contrary to reports in sections of the media and websites, there was only a discussion on a 20-point note given by Dullas Allahapperuma to SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera. The note, widely discussed, was on policy with regard to different issues like health and education.

Allahapperuma threw a challenge to Jayasekera — if he and the SLFP were serious about forming a common alliance, he should refrain from making insulting accusations against the SLPP. He said he had once alluded to the SLPP and declared its MPs were fortunate. That was because of a letter that UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera had written to Speaker of Parliament that they were still members of the UPFA. Otherwise, they would have been thrown out of Parliament, he had asserted.

And just a day before the SLFP-SLPP meeting, Jayasekera had addressed a meeting in Kegalle. He had said at the meeting related to the re-organisation of the party that “the biggest setback to the SLFP was the actions by the SLPP during the past one and a half years. As the SLPP came up, they also destroyed the SLFP. Do we work with destructive forces or do we try to build up the party? That is something we should understand. We can form any alliance in the future. But we should not be a tail to the SLPP or to the UNP. We have nothing against the SLPP, but we should understand that the background was created due to the presence of Mahinda Rajapaksa. With the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s era in politics, the SLPP will end, and its members will return to the SLFP. You can write it down that it will not be far away. The SLPP makes various critical statements, but I don’t take note of that. I don’t need to go behind worshiping them. If they have to defeat me in the Kurunegala district, they will do that in the future. “

An angry Allahapperuma asked Jayasekera why he was making such offensive remarks against the SLPP if his party was so keen on forming a common alliance with the SLPP and its partners. He said that the SLFP leadership had reneged on their own pledge to vote against the budget. Now, it was the SLPP’s turn to see what the SLFP would do at the final voting on April 5. That was the main reason why the third round of talks has now been put off for April 10. “If the SLFP votes for the budget, it would be saying that the budget is good,” noted an SLPP leader.

“On the other hand, like us, if they vote against the budget, they will be in line with our thinking,” he said. “It is then that we will decide whether we should go ahead with a common alliance,” said the senior SLPP leader who sought anonymity. “They (the SLFP) cannot continue to please both sides (meaning the UNF and the SLPP) and claim that they are consistent in their policy,” he said. The SLPP will remain transparent in its talks to obviate any criticism or blame being placed on us. We will make everything known to the people, he added.  “They (the SLFP) said they would have to consult President Sirisena before the next round (on April 10). We said we will also consult our own leadership on whether to proceed or not,” the source added. More importantly, SLPP shot down efforts by Jayasekera to persuade his SLPP counterparts to have a joint news conference to project a positive picture that the talks were proceeding well. “We really do not have much to talk about,” said the same source.

A notable absentee at the meeting was Basil Rajapaksa, the architect of the SLPP.

Behind the scenes, he is busy preparing the party’s election campaign. The latest is a programme titled “A conversation with the village” – a programme where there will be Sub Committees at the village level merged with a National Committee made up of experts to ensure “community-based policy making.”

This week’s political developments clearly highlight two significant outcomes for President Sirisena. One is the confirmation that the SLPP will not back his candidature at this year’s presidential election. That has become a certainty. Nevertheless, he has not given up the prospects of contesting on the SLFP ticket though the party is threatened with a split down the middle with some MPs going the UNF way and the others to the SLPP. Ironic enough, in addition to the six members who voted against the budget, two others (Dilan Perera and Lakshman Wasantha Perera) voiced strong opposition. Of the 17 SLFP MPs, does that mean that a total of eight are not sharing Sirisena’s views over entering into an alliance with the SLPP and opposing the UNF? That leaves behind only nine with President Sirisena. S.B, Dissanayake spoke against the budget with his colleagues but absented himself from voting in Parliament. This has brought out further fissures within the SLFP.

Angry SLPPers reject alliance

The other is the President’s ambitious project for a common alliance with the SLPP. It is no exaggeration that some of President Sirisena’s own actions, supplemented by General Secretary Jayasekera’s remarks, have incensed the SLPP leadership. So much so, some of them who earlier backed the SLFP entry into the common alliance, are now opposing it. That would naturally isolate President Sirisena politically. There are no prospects at all of his either becoming a common candidate with the support of the UNF or forming a common alliance. This is notwithstanding the issues the United National Party (UNP)-led UNF may face over a presidential candidate.

Yet, President Sirisena remains emboldened and hopeful. Asked whether there were prospects of an early presidential election, the source close to the Presidency said; “People elected him for a period of six years. He reduced it to five years through the 19A. There is no development that compels him to advance the date. There is, however, a need to hold Provincial Council elections without delay.”

On the other hand, Gotabaya Rajapaksa receiving the blessing of members of his extended family is an interesting episode by itself. The man behind the move is Chamal Rajapaksa, a former Speaker of Parliament. Contrary to an earlier report in these columns, Chamal arranged for a dinner on Friday (March 15) at the residence of his younger son Shamindra at Pelawatte in Battaramulla. It was not at the Opposition official Leader’s residence at Wijerama Road.

Those present were six males and two females. Two more females were absent:  Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mr and Mrs Shashindra Rajapaksa (son and daughter in law of Chamal), Mr and Mrs Shamindra Rajapaksa (the hosts) and Namal Rajapaksa. Two sisters of the Rajapaksas were absent. One was away in Texas attending to the almsgiving of a brother whilst another was on a visit to the United States. This meeting appears to have been prompted by two main reasons: one was speculation that there were divisions within the Rajapaksa family over the nomination of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate. Views were to be sought to ascertain whether anyone entertained apprehensions. The other was speculation that it was not Gotabaya but Basil Rajapaksa who would eventually be the candidate.

It was noted that Mahinda Rajapaksa could not contest since the Constitution debarred a third term for the candidate. His son Namal also presently remains disqualified since he was under 35 years and is not eligible to become a candidate, that too under the Constitution. That left only Gotabaya and Basil, who were both eligible, but had to renounce their United States citizenship. Basil had declared he had no plans to contest and that left only Gotabaya. It was noted that both the SLPP and their allies in the ‘Joint Opposition’ had empowered the SLPP de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to nominate a candidate of his choice and he had declared that he would “pick a person who could win.” It is in that backdrop that the family, after a somewhat lengthy discussion, gave their blessings to the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The family members, who met over a vegetarian dinner of thosai, sambar and coconut chutneys of many kinds, also weighed factors in favour of Gotabaya and those against him when they discussed the approach to an election campaign. It also emerged during their discussion that if he wins, Gotabaya would be President. At the parliamentary elections if Mahinda Rajapaksa wins, he will become the Prime Minister. In answer to claims in some quarters that two brothers could not, or should not be President and Prime Minister, it was pointed out that there was no constitutional or legal barrier. Moreover, that would happen only after the voters gave their mandate, it was pointed out. As for himself, Gotabaya told the meeting that if there were any issue over his application to renounce US citizenship, he will be able to sort them out.

The UNP-led UNF has not yet discussed the question of a presidential candidate formally, though the front runner is still Premier Wickremesinghe. At least one UNP Minister appears to be worried about the presidential candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa after making public references to him.

At the UNP’s Working Committee meeting on Thursday, Minister Navin Dissanayake who once left the UNP, lamented that there were no election laws to prohibit a foreign national, even if he has renounced his citizenship, from being debarred. He was suggesting that laws be introduced to empower the National Elections Commission (NEC) to reject the candidature of those who do not show proof of their renunciation. There were no takers. A senior Cabinet Minister who has held different party positions said “we all know this situation. There is no reason for us to get scared over it.”

With a decision on Gotabaya Rajapaksa now in hand, the focus shifts to the UNF. The billion-dollar question is who it will choose as its presidential candidate. Or is it a foregone conclusion?


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