Ranil has his way at Thursday’s stormy Working Committee meeting Prospects become dim for an SLFP-SLPP alliance  SLPP launches house-to-house campaign countrywide   His detractors, including those whom he later took within his own fold, ridiculed him as Mr Bean, the comedy character in movies, because of his close physical resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, the [...]


UNP to transform to Democratic National Front as Sirisena now wants to contest presidential poll


Ranil has his way at Thursday's stormy Working Committee meeting

Prospects become dim for an SLFP-SLPP alliance

SLPP launches house-to-house campaign countrywide


His detractors, including those whom he later took within his own fold, ridiculed him as Mr Bean, the comedy character in movies, because of his close physical resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, the renown British comedian. Others dubbed him a “Born Loser,” after a comic strip by that name. The string of polls defeats he suffered raised questions over his so-called weak leadership.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the United National Party (UNP), proved Thursday that those dubious sobriquets notwithstanding, he is not to be dismissed altogether as a comical political featherweight. He fought the tough political battles in the past and won. This week, the question before him is a very difficult one — whether he will win the war in the final countdown to this year’s presidential election. Or would there be another fitting finale to all his battles?

President Maithripala Sirisena taking part in a religious ceremony held at the Wellawatte Sri Bathrakali Amman Temple yesterday to mark an annual holy event.

For the umpteenth time, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at last Thursday’s Working Committee meeting of the party. It is more important, because he outsmarted many of his senior colleagues to get on top, at least temporarily, as the candidate for this year’s presidential election. That is by partially eclipsing the party’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, the front runner. Whether it will remain or change the equation in the days and weeks to come or lead to a bigger crisis within the UNP is too early to discern. Whatever happens, the collateral damage portends to be of tsunamic proportions for the grand old party. The main reason — Wickremesinghe, in an unprecedented move, wants to cede most powers now entrenched with the UNP to the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF).

On Thursday morning, an explosive meeting of the party’s Working Committee took place within the safe confines of Temple Trees, the Prime Minister’s official residence, not the party headquarters at Sri Kotha in Kotte. The security precautions Wickremesinghe took showed even he was apprehensive over what would happen. So much so, none of the participants, including Cabinet Ministers, could bring their mobile phones. They had to be left behind with the security at Temple Trees.  Strong words were exchanged. More seniors stood up to take cudgels with their leader. The dividing lines became sharper and more defined.

The agenda was not to select a presidential candidate for the ruling party. It was expressly for the adoption of a constitution for the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF), a common alliance led by the UNP under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. For this purpose, talks have been going on since late January. A 62-point constitution had been formulated. This constitution lists as members the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), the Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA), the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the United Left Front (ULF). It also makes provision for “Individual Founding Members” and lists the names of two — Rajitha Senaratne and Arjuna Ranatunga. This clearly means they are not members of the UNP though they have been basking in the glory of being ministers under the UNF government without a party to represent. Thus, a special place has been given to them, elevating their role equal to that of political parties.

Cabinet expansion

It is to this DNF that the sponsors want to bring in a group of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs, possibly four so far, as representatives of that party. If this happens, they face expulsion from the SLFP. This new DNF is the reason why a motion has been placed in the Order Book of Parliament to increase the number of Cabinet of Ministers to 48 and deputies to 45 under a new “National Government.” Though listed for July 31, it has not been taken up yet. The move has already met with opposition. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman G.L. Peiris who declared the move as “unconstitutional.” President Sirisena told a senior SLFP member there was no way he will fall in line.

“Swearing in such a National Government is his prerogative and the Parliament cannot tell him what to do,” he said.

Though bizarre, some UNPers claimed they had the blessing of President Sirisena. There is very little that is not possible in Sri Lankan politics. It was the late President J.R. Jayewardene who once remarked that under the Executive Presidency, the only thing that could not be done was to change a man into woman or vice versa, though the Supreme Court has now questioned the unfettered powers of a President.

Other than these issues, the fact that a National Government is being thought of even before a DNF has been formed, raises very serious issues for a country in a deep economic crisis. That it took a bad hit after the Easter Sunday massacres on April 21 — nearly four months before — is all too well known. Just weeks earlier, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera urged government departments and corporations to exercise austerity measures. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) ran paid advertisements in the print media to conserve the use of electricity. Yet, the government wants to fritter away the taxpayers’ money to sustain a large cabinet, to help them enjoy perks and thus make their candidate a victor at the presidential election. What follows would be more taxes if they come to power, to make up for it.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna supporters yesterday carried out a house-to-house campaign in preparation for the upcoming elections. They are seen visiting houses in Boralesgamuwa. Pix by Indika Handuwela

The DNF Constitution contains some very far-reaching changes. Main among them is the transfer of many powers now within the UNP to the DNF. Never in the UNP’s long history has such a move been initiated. One of the five main objectives of the DNF “is to contest Presidential, Parliamentary, Provincial Council elections and elections to local authorities and to collectively work politically for the victory and success of all candidates put forward by the Front, and the victory and success of positions taken by the Front in respect of any Referendum.” In other words, it is pertinent to note that it is the DNF that would decide on a presidential candidate and not the UNP.  That is a departure from the stated practice of the UNP Working Committee and the party’s Parliamentary Group taking a decision together. This is what was expected.

The decisions of the DNF, in terms of the constitution, will be taken by a Leadership Council, the highest body. It will “bind all constituent parties and individual members” and “strive to achieve consensus.”  There will be ten members in this Council “with equal status and authority.”  It says the Council will “decide on and nominate the candidates of the Front at the Parliamentary, Provincial Council and Local Authority elections.” This is also a departure from the previous practice of the UNP Nomination Boards deciding on such matters. There will also be a fifty-member Executive Committee. The UNP “shall be entitled to nominate one member more than 50 per cent (i.e. 50 % plus 1) of the total members to this Committee.

The address of the DNF has been listed in the Constitution as 146/20, Sri Sambudatva Jayanthi Mawatha (Havelock Road), Colombo 5. This is said to be a house belonging to Chathura Senaratne, MP.   His father Minister Rajitha Senaratne has already been listed as an equal partner with other political parties in the DNF. This clearly means Siri Kotha, the UNP’s headquarters, has not only been distanced but also the powers of its office bearers shorn. On the other hand, DNF constituent parties have been vested with correspondingly equal powers to choose candidates for different elections. For example, either the SLMC led by Rauff Hakeem or the ACMC led by Rishad Bathiuddin would have an equal participatory role like the UNP in deciding on candidates even from constituencies in the deep south or the north. Even if they do not directly involve themselves in such activity, promoters of the DNF constitution appear to have lost sight of the impact it would have on Sinhala majority electorates. Similarly, with Tamils in Northern electorates. Will this become the embryo for a dirty word in politics — polarisation of communities — once elections get under way?

Explosive session

Though not circulated for discussion, the DNF constitution, that found its way to the media, was akin to a bomb being set off among top rung UNPers. It was public when the meeting began. It was only during the Working Committee session that Media Minister Ruwan Wijewardene made a strong appeal that copies be formally distributed. He said it was only fair to do so since those wanting to comment could read it. It was then carried out.  Some saw the constitution as a devious move to isolate seniors who did not meet their leader Wickremesinghe’s favour. Others saw it as an exercise to weaken the UNP and induct into the DNF only Wickremesinghe loyalists so the UNP leader’s position would remain unshakeable. Yet others saw it simply as Wickremesinghe’s stubborn attempt, come hell or high water, to retain his UNP leadership and become UNP’s presidential candidate. He has so far resisted all calls to make way for Premadasa.


Therefore, Thursday’s Working Committee meeting assumed greater significance.

Leader Wickremesinghe had wanted to obtain approval for the DNF constitution so it may be signed at tomorrow’ together with an MoU at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. Earlier, MPs have been told that each of them should bring in 50 party supporters for the event. That request has been rescinded after the stormy Working Committee meeting. The convention will now be attended only by MPs, local councillors, district level party officials and selected representatives of the clergy. The signing of the MoU for the formation of the DNF, including the adoption of the constitution, is to be carried out that day.

At Thursday’s Working Committee meeting, UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim, a strong backer of Sajith Premadasa, said, “A vast majority of members unanimously welcomed” the formation of a Democratic National Front (DNF). However, he said, there were strong reservations regarding the contents of the DNF constitution which undermined the interests of the party. He said several amendments would be necessary and urged that the matter be first finalised and approved by the party. Thereafter, he said, it could be signed. He urged that the signing ceremony be not held on August 5 (tomorrow). Premier Wickremesinghe said that he already had a mandate to put forward a constitution for the Alliance. He said that he had already discussed its provisions with party seniors Sajith Premadasa, Kabir Hasheem and Malik Samarawickrama and that the party should decide if it wanted to go ahead with it, of if he is to cancel the exercise.

Wickremesinghe said the amendments could be discussed by him with the partner leaders. If they were acceptable to all of them, he said, he would make sure they were included. The deadline for such amendments was set as last Friday. Former Chairman Malik Samarawickrema, once a close confidant of Wickremesinghe, also said that the DNF was a good idea but not the constitution. He pointed out that it had several serious drawbacks.

There were also those who expressed strong reservations over the DNF. Three of those outspoken were State Minister Eran Wickremeratne, Non-Cabinet rank Ministers Ajith Perera and Sujeeva Senasinghe. The latter two were admonished by Wickremesinghe for their strong language. He told them that they should learn to behave like Ministers.

Most accounts of the proceedings had two versions, one from those backing Premadasa and the other from those supporting Wickremesinghe. In this backdrop, a very senior member who did not wish to be identified recounted some of the events to the Sunday Times on grounds of anonymity. The member had played a key role for the victory of the Yahapalana government, closely interacted with the leaders and taken part in major fund-raising efforts. He said, “Everyone is for the alliance. Most did not agree to the constitution. Strong objections were raised. Amendments were promised only on the basis that they would have to be accepted by other leaders of the Alliance.

“Though the meeting was not for that purpose, some wanted Sajith Premadasa to be made the party’s presidential candidate. There were several who endorsed his candidature. Many exhaustive speeches were made during a near two-hour meeting. Our leader put the constitution to vote. Some 20 persons voted in favour. Important enough, there were 22 who did not vote. Of the 77 members in the WC, 42 were present on Thursday. We made clear that we should first come to an understanding since the future of the UNP is at stake. We appealed that the MoU be not signed.”

Another slightly different version was that the party leader asked who were against the constitution and there were around 12-15 hands going up though no count was made. Then there was call for those in favour and about the same number of hands went up. There was one member who put his left hand up and then put his right hand from behind the neck of Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorala, a Premadasa supporter and naysayer to the proposed constitution of the Alliance. To some, it all seemed friendly banter among colleagues however serious business it was. Amidst the crackle a few sane voices were saying not to have a vote and split the party any further.

Non-Cabinet rank minister Ajith Perera proposed that Deputy Leader and Hambantota District MP Premadasa be made the presidential candidate. He was backed by Hambantota District MP Dilip Vedaratchchi. Premier Wickremesinghe said that the matter could not be discussed at the meeting because most MPs were in their electorates handing out teacher appointments. They would have to get back to Colombo, he said. Perera, who posted in his Facebook that Thursday was a “sad day for the UNP”, claimed that the Working Committee meeting ended without a decision — a position which was strongly contradicted by a UNP spokesperson. He claimed that the Constitution was passed with 35 voting in favour. So did the proposal for the Alliance. Other than varied figures, participants whom the Sunday Times spoke with did not dispute the decisions made. Wickremesinghe had made a pre-emptive strike and that had paid dividends, at least temporarily. One of the reasons for the confusion over figures was the way the vote was taken, a participant said. First, the participants were asked who was opposed to the DNF constitution. Whilst some raised hands, there were others who did not. Then the question was asked on who were in favour.

Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, a former Media Minister and one-time UNP MP from the Kalutara District, urged that the matter of a presidential candidate should be discussed between Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. “That is the best way to resolve the issues within the party,” he pointed out. Since this was a matter of national priority, he added, a decision should be taken without delay. The suggestion seemed to resonate among many silent observers.

Sajith Premadasa then spoke with a note of advice to Wickremesinghe saying “Kalabala Wenna Epaa”. (Don’t get excited).  Declaring that he had a “lot of respect for the Prime Minister,” he said that the post of DNF Secretary should come to the UNP and added he was willing to take that responsibility or even play a bigger role than that. He said that the DNF constitution should first be finalised. Thereafter, it was not necessary to have the signing ceremony at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. “Instead, we could have it at the Galle Face Green and make sure a very large crowd took part,” he pointed out.  Ethakota egollanta atti halenna denna puluwang, (then we can give them tight), he declared. The Sinhala meaning is to say that the entire bunch, or the opposition, would be destroyed.

When Badulla District MP Ravi Samaraweera rose to speak, he heard Minister Lakshman Kiriella, a strong Wickremesinghe ally, remarking that the leader should end the meeting soon. The Leader of the House said he had to get back to Parliament.  Samaraweera took it to mean that Kiriella was egging on the Premier to cut short the meeting. He accused the Minister of coming from the SLFP and trying to deny them the right to express views.

Minister Daya Gamage confirmed that the MoU would be signed tomorrow to form the DNF. The constitution to be adopted by the WC with proposed amendments would be finalised. He told the Sunday Times : “One of the amendments the majority were insisting is that the leader of the Alliance and the secretary should both be from the UNP. The Working Committee meeting was not the forum to decide on the presidential candidate and that should be done on a later date.”

In a new turn of events last night, leaders of some constituent parties of the DNF told Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe to first call upon his party to decide on the presidential candidate. They said it was only after that they wanted to place their signatures to the MoU setting up the DNF.

The move appears to be a safeguard let they get stranded midstream due to the controversy over the DNF constitution. This has cast some doubts on the event though no one has spoken of a cancellation. At most, one source claimed, it could only delay the signing.

The fact that many including ministers voiced protests before Wickremesinghe was cause for concern for those who backed the UNP leader. They included Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema, Sajith Premadasa, Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Samaraweera, Eran Wickremeratne, Ajith Perera, Sujeeva Senasinghe and Dilip Vedaratchchi.  That includes a former UNP Chairman and the present one, both hand-picked by Wickremesinghe for the post. They also include five senior cabinet ministers.

In this week’s developments, though somewhat scathed, Wickremesinghe has nevertheless, once again snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. There is nothing to stop him from signing an MoU tomorrow. He asked those opposed to the draft constitution of the Alliance to submit their amendments by Friday and a meeting was scheduled with Alliance leaders. On Friday night, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Minister Champika Ranawaka and Minister Rajitha Senarathne were present along with UNPers Navin Dissanayake, Ravi Karunanayake and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, but Hashim and Samarawickrama did not turn up. According to UNP sources, the amendments have yet to arrive though they have been posted on various Facebook accounts.

Wickremesinghe’s shrinking space

The same day, a poster appeared on the scene with Sajith Premadasa’s photograph saying “2020” with the elephant symbol. Ranawaka spoke to Hashim on the telephone and asked about the poster. He said that the UNP should decide if they wanted an Alliance or not, and if they had already decided on the candidate and symbol for the upcoming elections.

There will, of course, be some changes in the DNF constitution but the joint body to be born tomorrow will galactically veer away from the UNP. The fallout can be devastating for the party that cannot remain united anymore. The question is how far Wickremesinghe could move with the new DNF, particularly without the backing of some of his UNP seniors. It is not a secret that some of those are backing Wickremesinghe to get over personal and legal issues they face. Indictments against one are due in the coming week or two.

There is uncertainty for Premadasa and his set of formidable backers not only at the higher levels of the UNP but with also those at the grassroots, too. How do they outsmart their leader to become a presidential candidate within weeks is the daunting question for them? There are also more daunting questions for Wickremesinghe. Can he still achieve what he failed to do in the UNP by forming a Democratic National Front (DNF) – and become the presidential candidate? With the UNP now sharply divided, can he win? Though the time is short, the road appears still longer with many an obstacle to overcome. The room for manoeuvring is shrinking for Wickremesinghe.

The remarks by Minister Malik Samarawickrema, a former close ally of Wickremesinghe, reflects the mood in the UNP. At a party to mark the French National Day, on July 15, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa asked him somewhat jokingly, “why are you doing this to your friend Ranil?” Chuckling was Prof. G.L. Peiris, the SLPP Chairman, who was close by. “This is nothing personal. We are a political party. If we need to win the presidential election, we need a good candidate who can be victorious,” replied Samarawickrema. The onetime staunch backer of Wickremesinghe is now saying his leader cannot win. He has also declared publicly that Premadasa is the most suitable presidential candidate. Wickremesinghe and his allies including Sagala Ratnayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ravi Karunanayake and Lakshman Kiriella do not agree.

SLFP crisis

It is not only the UNP that has been hit by some serious setbacks this week. Equally worse was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which has been talking for months now to form the Sri Lanka Nidhahas Podujana Peramuna. This is its joint alliance with the SLPP, for which talks were nearing completion.

The situation was best described by a top SLPP member. “President Maithripala Sirisena is changing his mind even faster than his heartbeat,” he said alluding to new reports this week that he wants to contest the presidential election. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had learnt of the news from Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Senior Deputy Leader of the SLFP. Is Sirisena serious or is he using it as a ruse to raise his demands from the SLPP before the MoU for the joint alliance? Coming weeks will provide the answer.

However, one of two regular weekly channels briefed personally by Sirisena to publicise his thinking, spoke of his intention. SLFP General Secretary, Dayasiri Jayasekera who told his weekly news conference last Tuesday: “The SLFP is proposing a ‘national candidate’ but did not provide a name.” Jayasekera set a new criterion – the leader must be a nationalist President who would not sell government property, does not steal national resources, does not make the country an international garbage dump, or a person who turns international black money into white money. He also should not be a leader who works for international powers.”

On Thursday, President Sirisena’s only other weekly channel that publicised his new thinking was also activated. It was through UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Ameraweera, who told his news conference on Thursday they would announce their presidential candidate on September 2. That is at the annual sessions of the SLFP.  “Then everyone will know whom we would support and under whom we will work,” he declared. However, on June 20, at a news conference (recording available), Ameraweera said a different thing: “The President has not told that he will not be participating in the next election. He had only remarked it will not be a three-cornered contest. Therefore, it will only be battle between two parties….”  That Ameraweera keeps changing what he says one week after another is no secret. To be charitable to him, he may be helpless. He conveys what is told.

That there would be no three-cornered fight at the presidential poll was first announced by President Sirisena. Now that he wants to contest, there would be no such two-cornered battle for sure. Already, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is set to join the fray. Last Monday, the social media reproduced what turned out to be a fake Certificate of the Renunciation of his United States citizenship. If the intention of the forger was to force the correct certificate to surface, it did happen though some UNP MPs have begun raising credibility issues over it.

Interesting enough, the SLPP threesome – Prof. G.L. Peiris, Dullas Allahapperuma and Professor Jagath Wellawatte – have not been able to reach their SLFP counterparts on three different occasions, according to a source familiar with the dialogue. The urgency arose because Prof. Peiris was to be out of Sri Lanka for four days and had proposed to finalise matters over the common alliance. It was to be a precursor to a one-on-one meeting between President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Rajapaksa. The explanation offered for the delay, one source, said was because General Secretary Jayasekera had not been able to meet Sirisena to obtain directions. However, the claim is being dismissed by senior SLPP members as a “transparent ploy”.

One SLPP senior said President Sirisena was “playing for time” until the current issues within the UNP were sorted out. However, this view is being dismissed by those in the SLFP. They said that even in the event of Premadasa becoming the presidential candidate, there was no role for Sirisena either in the new DNF or the SLPP. As for the SLFP, he may have to go it with a handful of remaining members and become an “also ran,” the senior said

The Joint Opposition leaders had informally discussed Sirisena’s latest reported move to contest the presidential election. The task of ascertaining more details and what this means has fallen on the shoulders of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the Leader of the Democratic Left Front (DLF). Sirisena or the SLFP’s backing for the proposed joint alliance is being sought on the basis that some 1.4 million votes the party won during the local government elections in February last year could be garnered. “We cannot lower the bar every time President Sirisena changes his mind. There will come a time when he will have to take it or leave it. That is the bottom line,” an SLPPer said. He contended that the SLPP now expected a substantial part of the SLFP vote would turn its way no matter what Sirisena says or does.

SLPP manifesto

Already, a few SLFP parliamentarians are in backchannel talks with the SLPP architect Basil Rajapaksa. One who has already been accepted is Badulla District MP Dilan Perera. The move prompted Jayasekera to accuse Perera of being the person who broke SLFP unity. That also forced the resignation of Dilan’s father Marshal Perera as Governor of Uva Province. Another who is known to be in talks is S.B. Dissanayake, the politician who once brokered a deal between President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. At present 29 different committees are formulating different aspects of the SLPP’s election manifesto. Three main areas in focus are national security, immediate steps to revive a battered economy and the aspirations of the youth. It is due for release in October. The party’s house-to-house campaign — visits to all homes in the country by different member groups — began yesterday and will continue today.

PC polls

Last Friday signalled the likelihood of Provincial Council elections being held before a presidential poll. Though the SLFP Central Committee decided that President Sirisena should first call for PC elections, he has still not gone ahead with a move to seek a determination from the Supreme Court. A new development may still see prospects of such elections. The Court of Appeal (CA) took up an application by two SLPP members urging such polls. The petition had been filed earlier when the political climate was different. The CA is to now begin hearings on this application from Tuesday. It is not clear how the court will rule. In the event, it does say that PC polls should be held, the political caravan now moving towards a presidential election, would have to change course.

This is no doubt a dilemma for the SLPP. At the highest levels, there were apprehensions over a PC poll first. This is in the belief that a rise in violence may give Sirisena a chance to remain in office for an extended period. However, they went to courts under different circumstances and will have to pay heed.

The dilemma will be worse for the UNP leadership, which is forming a DNF. It is the DNF that will decide on PC candidates. The split in the party, which is inevitable, could well lead to a leadership crisis. If that happens, the DNF will be still born. If it does not, Ranil Wickremesinghe has many more battles to fight. There is never a dull moment for politics in Sri Lanka.

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