Disputes over symbol and co-leadership to be discussed SLPPers want to go it alone whilst SLFP MPs insist on an alliance Sajith to contest under Swan symbol in a new alliance Ranil and Sajith reach accord, Working Committee to meet tomorrow   Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leaders will meet their Sri Lanka Freedom [...]


Mahinda-Maithri talks to resolve polls issues


Sajith Premadasa, accompanied by his new alliance's general secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, leaving Siri Kotha after a Working Committee meeting. Pic by Isuru Perera


Disputes over symbol and co-leadership to be discussed

SLPPers want to go it alone whilst SLFP MPs insist on an alliance

Sajith to contest under Swan symbol in a new alliance

Ranil and Sajith reach accord, Working Committee to meet tomorrow


Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leaders will meet their Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) counterparts on Tuesday (February 18) to discuss the future of their alliance to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections.

It will be a ‘make or break’ session in the aftermath of new thinking in the SLPP leadership that candidates should contest under their Pohottuwa (or lotus flower

bud) symbol. This apparent policy shift, revealed exclusively in these columns last week, has already generated a controversy, both in SLPP and SLFP circles. The meeting on Tuesday is to be followed immediately by partner leaders of the SLPP-led alliance. They could either endorse any positive decision made or reject it. Parliamentary elections are on the agenda for this meeting too. Dissolution is expected at midnight on March 2 and nominations are to be called ten days later.

This will be the first formal face to face meeting between two former Presidents since the presidential election on November 16. Mahinda Rajapaksa will lead the SLPP delegation whilst Maithripala Sirisena, who remained “neutral” at the presidential election, will lead the SLFP team. He has publicly declared that his aim now was to ensure a win with two thirds majority for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — something which even the SLPPers do not anticipate. SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera will also be present together with Basil Rajapaksa, the chief architect of the SLPP, its National Organiser and key strategist.

Last week’s references in these columns that the SLPP would want to have its members and allies to contest under its Pohottuwa (budding lotus flower) symbol jolted the SLFP and sections within the SLPP-led alliance. It even made an organised but ill-informed group, backed by the local staffer of a western diplomatic mission, to take to the social media to decry the story as nothing but “gossip” and give their own count of how many words such accounts should contain. The time when such missions maintained high standards of discipline, decorum and dignified diplomatic norms, like at the Court of St James, are long gone. They appear to encourage their locals to say publicly what they cannot say themselves, whilst gleefully keeping a straight face. Truth, it seems, does not matter to them.

It was on February 12 that SLFP General Secretary Jayasekera wrote to Prime Minister Rajapaksa. This is what his letter said: “Please be good enough to provide us an opportunity for a discussion on upcoming parliamentary elections with a delegation from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). For this purpose, we request you to give us an early date and time and request the presence of Mr Basil Rajapaksa at the meeting. Sgd. Dayasiri Jayasekera, General Secretary, Sri Lanka Freedom Party.”   (See facsimile of letter on this page) Premier Rajapaksa responded promptly by giving a date and time for the meeting at ‘Temple Trees’.

It seemed interesting that Premier Rajapaksa is being asked in writing to ensure the presence of Basil Rajapaksa in particular. In fact, Sirisena, had also spoken to SLPP leaders to ensure his presence.  The move is an acknowledgement that firm decisions could be made only in his presence since SLPP activities revolve around him. Added to that now is the fact that he will take over as General Secretary of the SLPP-led alliance. Thus, the nomination papers of all candidates contesting the parliamentary elections on the SLPP-led alliance would carry his signature.

Forming the main subject of discussion on Tuesday will be the wish of the SLPP leadership that they contest the upcoming parliamentary elections on the Pohottuwa symbol. True, that the two parties had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) ahead of the presidential polls under which the SLPP could choose the chair symbol. As pointed out in these columns, SLPP leaders, who are determined that the party should have a majority of more than 113 in a Parliament of 225 seats, are now thinking differently. Another area where there was accord was for Sirisena to be a co-leader of the SLPP-led alliance alongside SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, on the basis that “ground realities have changed,” SLPP leaders now hold the view that there can be only one leader. They have insisted that it would be Mahinda Rajapaksa. Contributing to the issue was the fact that Sirisena remained “neutral” during the presidential election campaign.

Take it or leave it

The talks are critical in many respects. It makes clear the only way the SLFP could remain in the alliance with the SLPP is if it adheres to the two main new demands — contest under the SLPP symbol and forget the co-leader issue. In the alternative, the SLFP would have no choice but to go on its own at the parliamentary polls if it continues to insist on the symbol and the co-leadership.

A few other options are available, but it would be premature to talk about them said a senior SLPP leader. He, however, conceded that like the crisis over a symbol within the United National Party (UNP) (now resolved), the SLPP too would face a similar situation. Conceding the party’s Pohottuwa symbol to the alliance they lead would deprive it to be used for their own party. Would that mean the SLPP would have to choose another symbol? In the event of disagreement, the SLFP will be left with no choice but go ahead alone. That is not a situation which it will want to bring about and thus politically isolate itself. Hence, moving towards a compromise and joining the SLPP bandwagon is very much to its liking.

Of course, some SLFP members are also closely watching developments within the UNP. In the event it becomes inevitable for the Sajith Premadasa faction to go its own way with an alliance, this group is looking at the prospect of forming an alliance. However, this is in the absence of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the arrangement. Those hopes have evaporated now with Wickremesinghe on Friday clinching a deal with Premadasa.

SLFP told to contest on its own

Last week’s disclosure in these columns about the prospect of SLPP going its own way without the SLFP at the parliamentary polls did cause a flutter. Some were in favour and others not. Weerakumara Dissanayake, onetime member of Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF) and now SLFP spokesperson, at a news conference spoke of his party’s contribution to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory.

He said; “We have a party which has the support of 1.5 million voters. Some of our party members will see why we are keeping silent when the SLPP is criticising us. If this continues that will be a challenge in the upcoming elections. People should not think that they can verbally abuse us and win the elections. What’s going on is not a healthy conflict. Nobody gives the full credit for the President (Sirisena) for the victory at the Presidential election. At the upcoming parliamentary elections, they may be able to get a few preferential votes and win. That will not last for long. In one year’s, time the people will kick them away.” Dissanayake appears to have forgotten one reality in making those remarks. President Sirisena did not support the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa but remained “neutral.” The other is the fact that the SLFP secured only 13 percent of the votes at the local elections in 2018. Those numbers could not have increased at the presidential election.

State Minister Shehan Semasinghe (SLPP) told a meeting in Anuradhapura this week; “The expectations of the vast majority of the people are that we contest under the ‘Pohottuwa’ (Flower bud) symbol.  That is something that the people want. We need not be under pressure to accept conditions of any parties.  We are of the view that we should contest under the Pohottuwa symbol. If their stand is that they can win the elections on their own, it is better they contest separately.”

State Minister Kanaka Herath (SLPP) said at a meeting in Kegalle; “Our Political leader is Mahinda Rajapaksa. We do not hope to have a joint leader.  Maithripala Sirisena was neutral at the presidential elections while his party supported us. But this time let them (the SLFP) contest separately and join us to strengthen the government later.”

Added Tharaka Balasuriya (SLPP) at the same meeting in Kegalle; “The SLFPers should act straight forward. If their leader is Maithripala Sirisena, they should use his photograph and contest separately. They should not be using the photograph of Mahinda Rajapaksa.  They understand they cannot win on their own. That is the reason they are using Mahinda Rajpaksa’s photograph.”

The new thinking in the SLPP leadership is borne out by many reasons. Firstly, as pointed out last week, it wants their party to gain at least 120 seats, which is a majority in the House. Thus, the SLPP leaders feel the commanding majority would hold them in good stead in a new government and obviate any political pressure to act against party policies. The second, which supplements the need for majority seats, is the fear lurking among some in the leadership that it would prevent a group from crossing over to join another party or alliance. “We don’t say this is a distinct possibility. As a party that has gone through many a rough and tumble, we have to take all measures to protect ourselves,” a senior SLPP leader, who did not wish to be identified said.

The call for SLPP allies also to contest under the Pohottuwa symbol is expected to hurt one of its key partners, too. That is the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Wimal Weerawansa. Premier Rajapaksa is expected to discuss matters with him, too. The NFF secured five seats at the parliamentary elections in August 2015 contesting under the UPFA ticket. With the cross over of Weerakumara Dissanayake, it now has four.

In the event the SLPP–SLFP talks are concluded favourably, which means one side or the other would have to blink, the prospects of their first convention is not ruled out. Provision is entrenched in their constitution for such an event. Some of the highlights in their Constitution in this regard are:

“The Executive Committee must convene a party convention whenever the leader of the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Sandanaya decides to do so. The total number of members participating in the convention should be 200 and its composition shall be in accordance with the representatives in the Executive Committee. The amendments to the constitution brought in by the executive committee should be done according to the decision of the majority.

“The parties, other than those who have agreed on the constitution should enter into a written MOU prepared by the Executive Committee. When a Presidential, Parliamentary, provincial council or Local Govt election is called for, the candidates should be selected in consultation with the member parties in the alliance. In the event of a Referendum they should face the Referendum as an alliance or a front. When the Podujana Sandanaya has decided to contest as an alliance the member parties should not contest separately, unless a different decision is taken.”

The crisis within the UNP

The crisis within the main opposition United National Party (UNP) at long last appears to have ended on Friday. However, the parameters of a deal worked out by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe with his deputy Sajith Premadasa could still become a slip between the cup and the lip until the party’s Working Committee endorses the formula agreed upon. Before a committee tasked to bring about a settlement sat down for a discussion at Siri Kotha, the party headquarters, there was backroom diplomacy. Visitors to the Royal Colombo Golf Club were witness to an unusual spectacle. Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera were sipping a forenoon drink. Moments later, Ravi Karunanayake joined them. It later turned out that they were discussing which symbol the proposed alliance should have. It revolved around whether it should be the elephant or the swan, not the heart that was the latest proposed by some Premadasa supporters. Having reached an understanding, Karunanayake accompanied the alliance’s secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara to the Elections Commission.

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told them that an assigned symbol to a registered political party could only be changed when the elections are officially declared. Thus the Swan, he said, could be adopted on that occasion. The Premadasa-led alliance in also planning its first public rally before Parliament is dissolved.

Paradoxical enough, the crisis for the UNP, week after week, was made worse by the silence of Premadasa. Making up for that were many of his supporters who often gave contradictory views. It could be likened to folklore about six blind men and an elephant. It is like a pillar said the first who touched the trunk. The second said it is like a rope after touching the tail. It is the thick branch of a tree, said the third. The fourth pointed out that it is like a “big hand fan” after touching the ear. The fifth noted it is “like a huge wall” after he touched the belly. The sixth declared “it is like a solid pipe.”

The analogy, even in the case of the elephant, the symbol of the UNP, is apt.  Premadasa loyalists engaging in battle with Wickremesinghe over issues concerning the elections is no different. They described the issues within the party through their own prisms whilst the ‘mahout,’ or Premadasa, has maintained stoic silence. It is the others who said that they had formed a new alliance and their symbol was the heart. They claimed Premadasa would head that alliance and contest the parliamentary elections as its leader. The situation created confusion not only among the grassroots level UNPers but also in political circles. Sometimes one wondered if Premadasa was dancing to their tune rather than giving leadership himself.

The reason – he has throughout declared that like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, he would not leave the UNP (though the late R. Premadasa took a brief break and formed the Citizens Front). This is whilst his loyalists have laid the ground for him to do so. The accord reached by Premadasa with Wickremesinghe thus confirms a fact which most Premadasa loyalists were not mindful – that he would not leave the UNP.

On Friday after, the committee tasked to bring about a settlement between the warring factions reached accord after behind the scenes arrangements were worked out.  If there is no further change, it is for Premadasa to contest on the Samagi Jana Balavegaya under the swan symbol. The registered political party was obtained from Senaka de Silva, a close ally of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. It was then called Apey Jathika Peramuna with a telephone as its symbol. This was changed with the approval due from the Election Commission and the symbol was to be heart.

The committee members taking part in Friday’s official discussions between Wickremsinghe and Premadasa were Kabir Hashim, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sajith Premadasa, Lakshman Kiriella, Navin Dissanayake, Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Samaraweera. The discussion also centred on legal issues. They decided to obtain legal opinion on issues that related to the proposed “broader alliance.”

Earlier on Friday, Both Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera facilitated the Friday afternoon meeting. In the course of this exercise, during a meeting with UNP leader Wickremesinghe, the latter said that John Ameratunga should be made leader of the alliance. However, in the committee meeting that followed, he did not press on his request. A meeting of the UNP Working Committee is to be convened next week to endorse the decisions taken on Friday.

Support from partner groups came swiftly. Jatika Hela Urumaya Patali leader Champika Ranawaka said yesterday; “We will extend our support to Sajtih Premadasa since we believe in his policies.” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem told the Sunday Times ; “We will give our fullest backing to Premadasa’s leadership. We will fight the parliamentary polls to win the maximum number of seats. We are pleased that all matters have now been resolved.”

Recounting the developments earlier in the week, the Alliance Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara told the Sunday Times: “At the last Working Committee meeting I requested our leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to allow the alliance to use the elephant symbol. However, he did not respond at that time. Thereafter, the Working Committee accepted Sajith Premadasa as the leader of the “broad alliance” and gave him powers to appoint me as the General Secretary of the Alliance. We decided a name for the alliance, registered it and even selected the heart symbol.

“Suddenly party leader Wickremesinghe said that we should contest under the elephant symbol. Therefore, I requested that the elephant symbol to be temporally given to the alliance. It should be given in a proper legal manner. If the elephant symbol is not properly given to us, we would be contesting under the heart symbol as the alliance.

“The Working Committee meeting, which was scheduled for Friday, February 14, was postponed to Monday, February 17 due to the issue over the alliance symbol. Premadasa met the UNP leader on Wednesday to discuss about the symbol issue. Matters have now been resolved.”

For the SLPP, the issue with the SLFP, now to be discussed next Tuesday, is just one. If the two parties reach accord, then comes another issue – the selection of candidates. The process will see a clash of views and resultantly some friction. For the UNP, the next Working Committee meeting, which will endorse the decisions between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, will be important. Such a decision would have to enumerate the specific areas leader Wickremesinghe has conceded to Premadasa and his loyalists before they embark on their campaign plans.

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