Ranil in two key meetings on Monday night – tells confidants he may back Karu Jayasuriya as presidential candidate if party issues worsen Tells three-member pro-Sajith group to win over all others with him if he were to consider Premadasa Mahinda Rajapaksa calls President Sirisena over joint alliance; the two will meet again UNP leader [...]


Sirisena’s attempt to swear in Sajith as premier fails


  • Ranil in two key meetings on Monday night – tells confidants he may back Karu Jayasuriya as presidential candidate if party issues worsen
  • Tells three-member pro-Sajith group to win over all others with him if he were to consider Premadasa
  • Mahinda Rajapaksa calls President Sirisena over joint alliance; the two will meet again
  • UNP leader snubs Chairman Kabir Hashim


President Maithripala Sirisena’s new move this week to swear-in United National Party (UNP) deputy leader Sajith Premadasa as Prime Minister and urge him to form a new Cabinet of Ministers did not materialise.

Set for last Friday so Premadasa could attend the rally in his support in the southern town of Matara that day, this was the part of a dialogue that went on between Sirisena and Premadasa, as revealed in these columns last week. This is the second public event Premadasa is taking part in after the rally on August 12 in Badulla. This comes as divisions within the UNP exacerbated over his decision to contest the presidential election.

Unlike the so called ‘constitutional coup’ in October last year, President Sirisena’s latest attempt bore a more friendly face and at least kept to the contours of the Constitution. He told an interlocutor, a senior member of the UNP supporting Premadasa, he would require a document signed by most MPs that they wanted the UNP deputy leader as Premier. That would mean 113 from a 225 seat Parliament. The Premadasa backers did try, talking even to those in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) whether they would like to join a proposed “new government.” However, those who were contacted were not in favour. Hence the move had to be abandoned. Added to that was a refusal by Premadasa himself who told his confidants that he feared the acceptance of a Premier’s post would only invite accusations of “betrayer” on him and drive more UNP supporters against him. He also feared that the exercise would be dubbed a “conspiracy.”

For President Sirisena, gifting Premadasa with the office of Prime Minister and thus ousting incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, would have brought some political mileage. He would then be credited as the man who drove a Premier out of office for a second time, installed another and thus divided the UNP in the middle. That glory was not to be. At least Sirisena loyalists thought Premadasa would grab the offer since there was a plum — carrying out his campaign for this year’s presidential election as Prime Minister. That is with all the perks of office and greater mobility. Other than the reason he outlined, Premadasa also was conscious that President Sirisena tried to trade the Premier’s post to now SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the consequences that followed. That action, against Wickremesinghe, at least for months, unified the UNP. The UNP leader, however, failed to build on that opportunity despite repeated promises of party re-organisation.

Speculation about President Sirisena’s new gamble has been in the air for many weeks. However, it took more credence only after a dinner meeting President Sirisena had with Premadasa on Monday night. Though details of what they discussed are not known, some of the moves discussed emerged. Little by little, the UNP leadership became aware that another ouster move was afoot, this time with the support of a section of the UNP. It did ring alarm bells at ‘Temple Trees’, Premier Wickremesinghe’s official residence. So much so, he planned a counter strike to publicise the moves whilst debunking them.

Conducting a news conference from ‘Temple Trees’ were two of his staunch allies – parliamentarians Ashu Marasinghe and Palitha Range Bandara, one time anti-Wickremesinghe campaigner. This is what Marasinghe had to say: “We are getting reports that discussions are underway at nights with various groups to mount another “constitutional coup” like what happened last October and instal a new Government. We would like to warn those people to desist from those activities immediately. We will all stand together to defeat such an attempt. We would like to remind those working on such things that there are enough MPs who have backbones and who will staunchly resist such attempts. Our belief is that if all 106 UNF MPs (the current strength in Parliament) stand together, it will not be difficult to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” Those remarks only added to the rumour mill, this time with claims that a swearing-in of young ministers was due at 2 p.m. on Friday. There was no such thing. Yet, it shook the UNP leadership.

At the Matara rally. Pic by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk

Ranil’s strategy

Marasinghe’s assertions, together with those made by his leader Wickremesinghe this week, showed little change in the premier’s strong determination to be UNP’s presidential candidate. However, there were indications this week that that he was taking a deeper look at the recent developments to map out countermeasures. In this regard, two different meetings he held on Monday night at ‘Temple Trees’ have turned out to be both important and significant in the context of current political developments.

One,  learnt, was a meeting with his close confidants to discuss the current situation in the party. He gave them an overview of what has been going on and the issues that have arisen as a result of a group defiantly extending support to his deputy Sajith Premadasa. He said the group had made a string of blunders. If he is pushed further and further, he cautioned, he did not want to divide the party. In such a case, he would support Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as presidential candidate. It is, of course, known that party leader Wickremesinghe has asked Jayasuriya to be ready in the event he has to enter the fray. Jayasuriya has been preparing. That included a video documentary highlighting his political career and his ‘wide acceptance’ by the Buddhist clergy. That Wickremesinghe had similarly alerted a leading businessman and at least two other cabinet ministers is also well known. Some felt this was more for ‘nuisance value’ than other reasons.

One source said that Wickremesinghe confidants’ endorsement of a nominee was not conclusive. The remarks on Jayasuriya indicate that Wickremesinghe is not in favour of Premadasa and had his own choice if he does choose, to back out from the presidential race. An inevitable fallout, nevertheless, would be a breakup of the UNP since Premadasa had re-iterated that he would contest the presidency under whatever circumstances. At a largely attended rally in Matara on Friday, Premadasa re-iterated his position by asserting that his “candidature is confirmed.” The meeting’s convenor, Finance Minister Mangala Samraweera, went as far as to say Premier Wickremesinghe would propose Premadasa’s name and Speaker Jayasuriya would second it. The claim appears to be a sarcastic one in the light of other developments. The irony of Samaraweera supporting Premadasa over Wickremesinghe was not lost on some of the Matara rally attendees who were themselves victims of the ‘kurundupolu’ (cinnamon sticks) attacks in Matara town itself purportedly masterminded by Samaraweera himself on a march by Premadasa supporters wanting the ouster of Wickremesinghe not so long ago. The issue is a subject of a pending court case.

What Premadasa has not made clear is his own position should the UNP formally choose its candidate, one other than him. Is he hoping to emerge from a new party? Such ‘name board’ parties are available for sale at five million rupees.

What Premier Wickremesinghe probably did not tell his confidants however is about consulting leading lawyers. He has been doing so. That was to determine legal action against errant members who may have violated the UNP Constitution by their conduct. A case in point is none other than UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim. The UNP leadership feels that he exceeded his brief when he advocated, whilst being Chairman, the nomination of Premadasa, as the UNP presidential candidate. The conduct of Premadasa unilaterally declaring himself the party’s presidential candidate prior to a party decision has also been discussed.

One senior long-standing member cited a previous example when the late President J.R. Jayewardene had toyed with the idea of contesting the presidential elections for a third time. He had argued that his first term as president in 1978 was not “by election”, but by virtue of being the Prime Minister in 1977 and therefore he could contest a second time. The then UNP Chairman, the late Ranjan Wijeratne, had successfully persuaded him not to do so. “He (Wijeratne) did not publicly promote the name of an alternative candidate and kept to respectable norms the party had followed by remaining silent,” said the senior who did not wish to be identified. He added that “Kabir Hashim won the Chairmanship from leader Wickremesinghe. However, he did not have the courtesy to tell our leader that he was re-joining the Cabinet. He took his oaths as a minister together with Abdul Haleem again leaving behind his Muslim colleagues who resigned together.” The party senior said that placed Hashim “in very poor light within the party” since the conduct of a Chairman should be more exemplary.

It is now clear why at least three Wickremesinghe loyalists complained publicly this week that the UNP lacked discipline. One was Minister Arjuna Ranatunga. He made the remarks to journalists after ending a news conference at ‘Temple Trees’. The other was former Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. He declared at a news conference that there should be discipline even if the party were to break into different groups. A third remark came from Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka who said that there was no discipline in the UNP and added that his Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) was well disciplined.

Even before the trio made those remarks in the light of the Sajith Premadasa imbroglio, the absence of discipline in the UNP was all too well known. Most of their MPs often made public pronouncements on matters that neither came within their purview nor were they competent to be spokespersons on most issues. Wickremesinghe who has been accused of not allowing proper discussions to take place in the party’s Working Committee is now being accused of allowing party members a free say in public on any issue. Two glaring examples are the conduct of different rallies, one in Badulla and the other in Matara. Minister Harin Fernando, the organiser of the Badulla rally, had a post in the social media referring to the emaciated, ailing Dalada Maligawa elephant displaying her skeletal skin. He thanked ‘Tikiri’ for the work she has done in the past and declared it was now time to go. It was because, he said, she has to now give that task to a younger pachyderm. Without doubt, the maintenance of discipline was the responsibility of leader Wickremesinghe. However, he ignored the goings on and now it is a free for all with the fallout raining on him.

Crucial meeting for the UNP

The second event came late on Monday night. That in a sense was crucial for the future of the UNP. A three-member team comprising Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema and Ranjith Madduma Bandara met Wickremesinghe. It was the result of a signed request by more than 50 MPs urging a meeting of the parliamentary group and the Working Committee to decide on the party’s presidential candidate. It began just past 9 p.m. on Monday. Wickremesinghe had said at the last parliamentary group meeting that he would first discuss the matter with the small group.

“Ogollo meka karanney veradi vidiyata. Ay nisa kavuru divvoth oya vada pilivela nisa api paradei,” or You all have done this in a wrong way. Whoever runs, it will be a defeat, exclaimed Premier Wickremesinghe. UNP Chairman Hashim declared that the purpose of the meeting was to seek Wickremesinghe’s endorsement of Premadasa as the party’s presidential candidate. He had wide grassroots level support, he said. It was their view that he could win and keep the party intact. He noted that even would-be partners of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF) were in favour of the move. Such partners have already called upon the UNP to first resolve the issue of a presidential candidate before formally agreeing to establish the DNF with a new constitution.

It was Hashim who declared “Sir, we will make you the Prime Ministerial candidate.” That was to infuriate Wickremesinghe who considered it a patronising comment and snubbed him with a sharp retort. “Don’t worry about me. I can look after myself,” he exhorted. Here again, Hashim who as Chairman proposed Premadasa as the presidential candidate, funny enough, had taken it upon himself to dish out positions even for his leader, Wickremesinghe. The news of that from Wickremesinghe enraged some of his close loyalists as well. One of them asked Wickremesinghe later “who the heck is Kabir to unilaterally decide on positions”?

Premier Wickremesinghe listened to different points made by the three-member delegation. He then replied; “I have no problems if you still insist in making Sajith Premadasa the presidential candidate. However, you must make sure all others agree to this”. He mentioned the names of Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and a few others who were backing him. The trio agreed to speak with them as well as others who were currently in disfavour. It was agreed that they should meet tomorrow (Monday) or the next day (Tuesday).

This is where different viewpoints describing the developments over Monday night deliberations emerged. Premadasa supporters saw it as a thaw in Wickremesinghe’s approach and were hopeful. On the other hand, the UNP leader’s loyalists claimed that was not the case. He has given them an impossible task for those whom they hope to speak to will not agree to Premadasa. Thus, Wickremesinghe still holds the balance and will call the shots.

Though he blames it on the dissident Premadasa group for ‘setting about things the wrong way,’ Wickremesinghe should take a much bigger share of responsibility. It has been caused almost entirely by the good and bad of his weak leadership. Soon after both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015, he neglected most priorities pledged. His successive Ministers of Law and Order soft pedalled, if not even helped, those under probe for bribery, corruption and gross abuse; a coterie of ministers (some of whom have now deserted him and gone into the Premadasa camp) built a ring around him distancing others; MPs complained of difficulties in obtaining appointments due to a Minister in charge for the PM as Chief of Staff (CoS) allegedly ignoring their requests; gross inaction over the Central Bank bond scandal among other complaints of rising bribery and corruption.

Thus, if President Sirisena, unintentionally strengthened the UNP after the ‘constitutional coup’, Premier Wickremesinghe failed to make good of it though a growing unrest in the party was much talked of. Even earlier this year, he survived a Vote of No confidence with the party standing behind him. Now he finds himself in a position where some of his close political allies have deserted him and a handpicked Chairman of the UNP is openly working for his ouster. Did those around him betray his trust and go about their own way? So, it seems.

Ministers Kabir Hashim and Ranjith Madduma Bandara met Speaker Jayasuriya on Friday night to seek his support for Premadasa. “Why do you need my support? He has already declared that he is the candidate,” he pointed out. After a brief conversation, Speaker Jayasuriya had told them he would back the candidate who would be decided by the party.

It is these factors that have embroiled the UNP in its worst crisis with just months before the presidential elections. Whichever way Wickremesinghe chooses to resolve issues, there is one very hard ground reality that has emerged — the UNP is no longer united but divided. Thus, any damage control measures he carries out cannot and will not take the party to where it stood after the presidential election in January 2015. Wickremesinghe and a coterie of his backers, some of whom facing very serious allegations of bribery and corruption, could still hold sway of the UNP proper. But time is running short for them. In such a scenario, the rival group could well emerge as a new party if no compromise is made. As Premier Wickremesinghe admitted to the three-member delegation of Premadasa supporters on Monday night, whatever happens, the UNP would lose. It will be a case of them not sinking together, but sinking separately said a political wag.

SLPP campaign

The in-fighting in the UNP has been to the distinct advantage of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which is breezing along. Its election campaign has got under way even before the date for nominations for the presidential election is officially announced. So much so there are concerns among some of their ranks if they will burn out too early. Last Tuesday, around 6.30 p.m. Opposition and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa telephoned President Sirisena. He wanted to ascertain the next phase (of the SLPP-SLFP talks) after the two had ‘one-on-one’ talks on August 5. “What are we going to do next,” he asked. Rajapaksa nominated three persons — SLPP Chairman G.L. Peiris, party architect Basil Rajapaksa and Dullas Allahapperuma. In case another name was necessary, Rajapaksa said, it could be Gamini Lokuge, the former UNP heavyweight.

President Sirisena in turn named his team. It will be headed by UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Ameraweera, SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera and Lasantha Alagiyawanna.

The SLFP-SLPP delegations have already embarked on talks to set the stage for a Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting this coming week. It is scheduled to be held before the September 3 SLFP annual convention, so broader agreement could be reached on key issues. There was great camaraderie among SLFP and SLPP members when Mahinda Rajapaksa hosted a reception at Shangri La hotel on Wednesday night so they may meet their presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Earlier, President Sirisena had given the nod for his MPs to take part in the event. Only four were absent. That included Mahinda Samarasinghe, who was overseas, Duminda Dissanayake and Kumara Welgama.

President Sirisena’s conversation as well as his asking SLFP MPs to attend Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reception for candidate Gotabaya come as further clear proof that he will not be a candidate. It is also proof that after all the hemming and hawing, both the SLFP and the SLPP have decided to form a partnership. This is through two different Memoranda of Understanding, one between the SLFP and SLPP leaders and another between the SLFP and candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

These MoUs are intended to ensure the SLFP MPs currently in parliament are accommodated by the new alliance as candidates at parliamentary elections. A few cases of non-MPs are also being considered.

Their new name – Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna – will come under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa and will have a committee of management. Thus, the SLFP will be a partner and hence its leader Sirisena will technically be not under the leadership.

Mahinda Ameraweera and Dayasiri Jayasekera addressed a news conference on Wednesday to brief journalists on the progress of their talks and related matters. Jayasekeera said, “At the discussions with the SLPP, we expect to reach understanding based on policies instead of concentrating on personalities. One of the main problems in the country is that we do not have proper policies. They keep changing with the ministers. There should be a scientific manner the subjects are distributed to ministerial portfolios.  The policies of the next Presidential candidate that matters.

“At the September 3 SLFP annual convention, we will present our policies. We can see that the Speaker of Parliament is interfering in the subjects which come directly under the purview of the President. That is wrong and improper. The President has proposed giving promotions to 33,000 policemen, the Finance Ministry is blocking it. We still believe that the President will contest the upcoming elections. There is time to present the candidate.  The priority now is the preparation of policies.”

Added Mahinda Amaraweera, “Our discussions are continuing. We hope to discuss issues with the SLPP and Gotabaya Rajapaka. The person does not matter. What matters is a national programme. We will submit our proposals and discuss how they will be implemented in a manner the SLFP policies are protected. They have presented a candidate. We are also discussing about our candidate. If the discussion fails, the SLFP will field a candidate.  We do not have hopes to have two candidates, but if the talks fail, we will present a candidate. We have no plans to discuss with the UNP.”

TNA’s political interests

As the murky political waters settle, it is becoming evident that the role of the UNP at the upcoming presidential polls sticks out like a sore finger. The SLPP candidate is now known. During a rally that drew unprecedented crowds, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has chosen its leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its candidate. Of course, the party is known for its turnouts at public events including May Days during successive years. The two parties are now busy with their campaign and formulating manifestos enunciating their respective policies.

In this respect, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which has been functioning as a virtual proxy of the UNF government, appears to be in a frenzy. It extended its full support to the UNF to amend laws to ensure that Provincial Council elections could be put off. Ironic enough, it was they who wanted PCs as instruments of devolution where elected councillors could serve their people.

Now, Abraham Sumanthiran, who was one of the strong advocates of the postponement, has moved the Supreme Court as an intervenient petitioner urging the conduct of PC polls under the system that prevailed in 2017 i.e. before the amendment was introduced in Parliament. It was only last week, Opposition and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times that the TNA, which demanded PCs, had supported the ruling UNP to put off elections to the PCs and thus prevented elected representatives from functioning as members. That appears to have aroused the TNA conscience and it is making a last-minute bid to undo the damage it caused. Did the TNA mix up its own political interests with that of the voters who elected them?

The PC polls, now the subject of a determination by the Supreme Court, have also been engaging the attention of the SLPP in its policy formulation. In the event these polls are not held before the presidential election, the party will decide on it after considering legislative changes. Opposition and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a brief Q & A with the Sunday Times that his party proposes to introduce a new Constitution. See box story.

A review of this week’s political developments raises an important question – why President Sirisena was ready to offer UNP deputy leader Premadasa the post of Premier. The simple answer would be that he wanted to spite Wickremesinghe, now his archrival, by ousting him. Is that all? Or did he see the prospects of a role for him too, much against the wishes of those who back Premadasa? Many Wickremesinghe backers believe that there are intermediaries who are bringing the Sirisena-Premadasa combo to fruition to upstage Wickremesinghe for personal reasons. This arises only because Sirisena is yet to take a categorical public position though behind-the-scenes, the parties whom he is interacting with have their own views based on what he tells them. They have so far not been complementary to one another. The only outcome known is that like the UNP, a grand old party, the SLFP, too is in a major crisis. How much more can President Sirisena hold on the SLFP as he plays hide and seek? It is almost on the brink of extinction. The political curtains will come down for him as President within the coming weeks than months.

We are for a new constitution, says Mahinda Rajapaksa

Mahinda Rajapaksa

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will introduce a new Constitution for Sri Lanka when the party is voted to power, SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa said yesterday.

Rajapaksa, who is also the Leader of the Opposition, told the Sunday Times in a brief Q & A that the “contours of such a Constitution have to be worked out. We will address that when the time comes.” He said that “of course, we will look at more devolution of power including the working of Provincial Councils.”

It was only last week, he criticised moves to hold PC polls before presidential elections. He held the view that the role of these PCs has been devalued after legislation that put off elections to them. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) had backed the UNF government to change the laws although it had clamoured for these Councils earlier. That meant elected representatives of these PCs could not serve their own people, and no one worries about it now. We must carefully examine this, he said, but added that “all stakeholders will have to be consulted.”

Mr Rajapaksa made clear that the 19 Amendment to the Constitution should go. He said it was flawed and “we would like to ensure that Parliament is strengthened.”

“Our two main priorities when our presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wins will be national security and resuscitation of the fast deteriorating economy,” he said. “Today people are not sure of their own lives. There are daily media reports of persons linked to terror groups being arrested. All this is due to lack of control,” he pointed out.

Mr Rajapaksa praised former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a “very capable candidate who will ensure not only national security but also a good law and order situation. He is a proven personality.”

On the economic front, he said, since 2015 the economy had failed. “Ministries are bankrupt. They heaped a lot of blame on us when they took over in January 2015. What have they done? They have only helped themselves,” he pointed out. The former President said businesses, even smaller ones, were badly affected. He was aware that at least four businessmen in Pettah had committed suicide. They could not pay their bank loans.

Here are brief answers he gave to questions posed to him:

Bribery and Corruption: We are committed to deal with those involved in such activity. This will include a full probe into the Central Bank bond scandal and other illegal acts that enriched some in the government.

The April 21 Easter Sunday incidents: We will appoint an independent Commission of Inquiry into the incidents, how it came about and who were responsible. Even the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka has made representations to us calling for an impartial investigation. Whoever the culprits are, we will bring them to book.

The economy:  The economy is in such a state, that most people in the villages cannot have more than one full meal a day. They have no money to do business. Our candidate is a “doer” and knows the pulse of the people.

Candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s US citizenship: I can say categorically that he has given up his US citizenship. There are propagandists who are trying to claim it was not so. Let them waste their time if they want to. We know that he is only a Sri Lankan citizen now.

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