Dissolution on March 2, Parliamentary elections on April 25; SLFP set to go into oblivion after nominations UNP faces uphill task as election approaches; Premadasa-led alliance members make contradictory statements over symbol     Two of the country’s oldest political parties — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) — [...]


SLPP ‘neutralises’ Sirisena; brings SLFP under its control


Dissolution on March 2, Parliamentary elections on April 25; SLFP set to go into oblivion after nominations

UNP faces uphill task as election approaches; Premadasa-led alliance members make contradictory statements over symbol



Two of the country’s oldest political parties — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) — face bad forebodings with Parliamentary elections now set for April 25.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is to dissolve Parliament at midnight on March 2. Nominations are to be held between March 12 and 19. A later date for the polls, it has been found, was not possible since the Muslims’ fasting month of Ramadan is expected to begin on April 26, or the next day, based on the sighting of the moon. Thereafter, comes Vesak in May.

At the Mahinda-Maithri talks in Temple Trees last Tuesday. Left of Premier Rajapaksa are former President Sirisena, G L Peiris and Gamini Lokuge. On his right are Nimal Siripala de Silva, Basil Rajapaksa and Mahinda Amaraweera.

The first casualty is the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It is now history that the party’s then General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena sat for a meal of hoppers and seeni sambol with his leader Mahinda Rajapaksa one night in November 2014.  The next day, he shocked him by declaring he would be the “common candidate” of a UNP-led coalition at the January 2015 presidential elections. More shocks came when Sirisena defeated his leader to become the President. Rajapaksa not only gave up his Presidency but also handed over the SLFP leadership to Sirisena.

The first strike back by Rajapaksas came when Basil, the main strategist, was instrumental in forming the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and teamed up with likeminded allies. At the February 2018 local polls, the SLPP polled 40.47 percent of the votes becoming the biggest winner in 340 local councils where 8,327 members were elected. The second was the United National Party (UNP) with 24.42 percent votes and the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won a mere 12.10 percent. Thus, the SLPP had made a strong footprint in the country’s political landscape from a vote base of 15.7 million then. The SLPP had substantially eaten into the SLFP votes apart from a little ‘floating votes’ to garner that win.

In the four and half years that followed under his reign, Sirisena made scathing attacks on the Rajapaksa-led alliance, then known as the Joint Opposition. On June 21, 2015 at a meeting in Nuwara Eliya he called them “traitors to the SLFP.” On September 30, 2019 he declared at a meeting in Kurunegala that his party “would be willing to support presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa but would not agree on contesting under the SLPP’s Pohottuwa (budding lotus flower) symbol.” This was at the presidential election. That support he and his party, in fact, decided to extend. The Central Committee of the SLFP approved it. Even after that, under pressure from the Sajith Premadasa faction of the UNP, Sirisena declared he would remain “neutral.” He did, though senior SLPP leaders charged that he leaned towards supporting Premadasa and helped him in many ways before and during the presidential election campaign. In 2018, he asked Premadasa if he would like to be the Prime Minister instead of Ranil Wickremesinghe, and when Premadasa opted not to take up the offer, Sirisena embarked on a suicidal political course by unconstitutionally offering the job to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Historic blow to SLFP

Now, like the empire striking back, the Rajapaksas have hit back at Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP.  That credit goes to the SLPP architect and strategist Basil. In what is a historic turn of events this week, Sirisena not only agreed to come under the Rajapaksa fold but also to accept the SLPP symbol to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections. After the nominations, at least for a period of five years, officially the name of the SLFP or their symbol will not be heard countrywide. This is after weeping buckets full of tears in the past four and half years to save the SLFP from the “traitors.”

This change was to come about when Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa held talks at Temple Trees last Tuesday. As our headline last week revealed, “SLPP and allies may contest sans SLFP” was borne by the strong belief that Sirisena and his SLFP leaders would not accept the tough conditions — there would be no position of a co-leader in the Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Sandanaya and the SLFP would have to contest under the Pohottuwa symbol.  There was also pressure from SLPP parliamentarians to go it alone with their other allies. Contrary to expectations, they “surrendered” without any conditions. To top it up, Sirisena even pledged to ensure a two thirds victory. For the SLPPers, important enough, it would be foolish to shut the door on any party which wants to join their alliance on their terms. This could even be the UNP.

Events took a different turn ahead of the Tuesday’s meeting between two former Presidents. It was a telephone call Basil Rajapaksa, now General Secretary of the Alliance, received from a senior official of the Election Commission. He was informed that the deadline, in terms of the Parliamentary Elections Act, for registration of parties was 4 p.m. on February 17 (Monday). Official advertisements too had been published. Hence, parties were required to submit their applications before this date. Thus, it was not possible to wait till the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting.

Basil Rajapaksa was involved in a bout of telephone diplomacy. The issue before him was to get the partners to agree on the party as well as the symbol. In doing so, there was a different approach for some time now by the SLPP. It had signed individual MoUs with partner political parties and had to thus seek the concurrence of their leaders. When he telephoned Communist Party leader D.E.W. Gunasekera, for example, he was in Galle. Almost all were contactable by telephone. Talks with other partner leaders went off smoothly.

The dialogue with SLFP leaders went back and forth for a while. That was because issues had to be clarified. An accord was reached. Whilst Sirisena agreed together with his other SLFP leaders that they were willing to contest under the Pohottuwa symbol, Basil Rajapaksa had borrowed a leaf from the UNP. He offered the ceremonial title of Chairman to Maithripala Sirisena and the Deputy Chairman to Mahajana Eksath Peramuna leader Dinesh Gunawardena.  Both are titular positions and helps only in protocol during meetings and other occasions. In fairness to Minister Gunawardena, however, he was not jockeying for titles. He had to be given a title since Sirisena was given one. This is much the same way then President J.R. Jayewardene picked N.G.P. Panditharatne as Chairman of the UNP. He had played a more substantive role as Chairman of the Mahaweli Authority. Later, Harsha Abeywardene was appointed. A.C.S. Hameed was a Chairman. Malik Samarawickrema has since served as Chairman and the position is now held by Kabir Hashim, a Premadasa loyalist.

According to the Election Commission, already 70 political parties have been registered. There were 175 new applications. The figure could be even higher because some applications have been sent by registered post and the Commission is yet to receive them. The new applicants will have to meet criteria such as proving that they have been politically active during the past and adduce proof of their membership.

The registration of the Sri Lanka Nidhahas Podujana Sandanaya has been made in terms of Section 8 of the Parliamentary Elections Act. Provisions under which it has been registered make clear it is a political party with a list containing the alliance partners. This is in addition to the SLPP being registered separately. The only party that has been left out for legal reasons is Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya. Technically they are not a partner of the SLPP-led alliance.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera told the Sunday Times, “We have registered the Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Sandanaya as a political party with the Elections Commission. The registration of the party did not require to register a symbol. The alliance has been formed separately. That is something within the parties in the alliance. Even the United National Front (UNF) in 2015 contested in the same manner.” Thus, the SLPP also remains registered separately as a party by the Elections Commission.

In terms of the Parliamentary Elections Act, the provision dealing with “Recognised political parties to comply with certain requirements” says:

“(1) It shall be the duty of the Secretary of every recognised political party to submit to the Commission a copy of the Constitution of such party together with a list of the office bearers of such party and a copy of the political programme of such party—

“(a) in the case of a recognised political party referred to in subsection (2) of section 7, within three months from the date of coming into operation of this Act; and

“(b) in the case of any other recognised political party, within three months from the date on which such party is entitled to be treated as a recognised political party under paragraph (a) of subsection (5) of section 7.

“(2) Every recognised political party shall hold a general meeting once a year or as specified in the Constitution of the party. The procedure to be followed at such meeting shall be specified in such Constitution.

“(3) Where a recognised political party amends its Constitution or changes its Office bearers, the Secretary of such party shall, before the expiry of a period of thirty days from the date of such amendment or change, inform the Commission in writing of such amendment or change.

“(4) A copy of the annual statement of accounts of every recognised political party audited by a registered auditor shall be submitted to the Commission.

“(5) Every recognised political party shall be entitled to State assistance as provided for in the relevant written laws applicable to the conduct of elections.”

Although the accord between Premier Rajapaksa and SLFP leader Sirisena came earlier, their Tuesday meeting did take place at Temple Trees and lasted just 15 minutes. Sirisena remained in a sombre mood and chipped in occasionally. Immediately thereafter, the leaders of the Sandanaya held their weekly Tuesday meeting also at Temple Trees.

They went over the decisions taken before the Sandanaya has been registered separately as a political party. This is in addition to the SLPP where Sagara Kariyawasam will function as General Secretary. It is Kariyawasam who will sign all nomination papers and not Basil Rajapsksa who will only function as Secretary of the Sandanaya. When it came to the confirmation of the SLNPS symbol, it was Sirisena who proposed that it should be the Pohottuwa. Explaining the backdrop to the Pohottuwa symbol, Basil Rajapaksa said that there were similarities of sorts even with the naming of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Although they went as TNA, in official documents they are referred to as the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi or ITAK.

Accompanying Sirisena for the meeting were Dayasiri Jayasekera, SLFP General Secretary and Anuradhapura District SLFP parliamentarian Duminda Dissanayake.  During a discussion on a proposal to allow partner parties like Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) to contest under their own symbol, the duo opposed the move. Others on Sirisena’s side were Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Mahinda Amaraweera.

With Premier Rajapaksa were Basil Rajapaksa, Dullas Allahapperuma, Gamini Lokuge, C B Ratnayake, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, Dew Gunasekera and Vasudeva Nanayakkara and the Ven. Athureliya Rathana.

A little-known fact is the concern about an unknown number of SLFP parliamentarians who want to quit the party and join the SLPP. They are keeping their moves secret until the nominations are concluded. Among the reasons — fear that their plans to quit would deny them candidature. Most feel that it would be difficult for them to win if they continue to be members of the SLFP. Therefore, after receiving the nominations to contest now under the Pohottuwa symbol, they want to make public announcements that they were no more SLFPers.

The recent moves by the SLFP-led by Sirisena, together with the impending crossovers, will have a debilitating effect on the party. It was just two months ago that the party’s Central Committee decided to conduct a fund-raising campaign for the parliamentary elections. This shows funding for polls propaganda would be less. With the party’s popularity at low ebb, more of its grassroots level members are seeking SLPP membership.

It is relevant to note that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not hold any official position in the Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Peramuna. That leaves Premier Rajapaksa and brother Basil to play key roles on behalf of the SLPP. Yet, the President hosted Sirisena and senior SLFP members to lunch last Friday at the banquet room of the Presidential Secretariat. Café Spectator on Page 4 gives details of how they exchanged some critical comments at each other amidst banter.

Swan symbol

The saga in the United National Party (UNP) continues with different parliamentarians making different statements on the status of the crisis within. This is whilst the man who holds the key to all these issues, leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, left Friday to Southern India on a two-day visit. He is due to return on Sunday.

Factually, the Sajith Premadasa faction has reached accord with their adversaries, a group backing leader Wickremesinghe. At an informal meeting on Thursday evening attended by Premadasa and Ravi Karunanayake, it was agreed that the former could use the Swan symbol to contest the parliamentary elections in an alliance named Jathika Samagi Jana Balavegaya or National United People’s Force. Premadasa will lead this alliance whose General Secretary will be Ranjith Madduma Bandara. The latter will sign the nomination papers of candidates. However, such nominations by each constituent partner of the alliance will be subject to approval by Wickremesinghe, as the partner leader and leader of the UNP.

Whilst this remains the position now, the likelihood of it changing between now and the dissolution of Parliament cannot still be ruled out. Firstly, the allotment of the Swan symbol by the Election Commission will come only after a gazette notification dissolving Parliament is published. In the light of consent by those holding the registration of the party, such a matter does not involve any controversy. However, Wickremesinghe loyalists contend that the legal aspects of a UNP member contesting the parliamentary elections under another party and symbol were now being studied, a source said.

This is to determine whether there were any impediments in the UNP constitution. However, Premadasa loyalists claim that such matters were “stumbling blocks” placed by leader Wickremesinghe. One of them opined that if the arrangement does violate the UNP Constitution, there was “no other way” but contest on the UNP ticket. That will no doubt place would-be partners of the alliance, like the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Sri Lanka Muslin Congress, among others, in a spot. After seeking the ouster of Wickremesinghe from the position of the Leader of the Opposition and failing to remove him from leadership of the UNP, they could become isolated. However, one party leader who did not wish to be named declared “We have no worries. We are confident our plans will work out.”

Premadasa loyalist and General Secretary designate of the new alliance, Ranjith Madduma Bandara told the Sunday Times, “We have already formed the alliance and everyone in the United National Party has agreed to contest under the alliance. There is no issue regarding the symbol because we have agreed to contest under the swan symbol. Even the UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has agreed to that. We will change the symbol to swan once the election is called. We are now waiting to contest the election under the swan symbol.”

The UNP’s Kalutara District MP and Premadasa loyalist Ajith Perera added, “We have been successful in forming the alliance. We are 100 percent sure that we are contesting under the swan symbol. The first issue was whether we could obtain this symbol or not. We got the authority from relevant party members to contest under the symbol.

“Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa heads the Nomination Board and is working on the nomination list. He will give nominations to our party members and activists. Premadasa was given the leadership of the Jathika Jana Samagi Balavegaya’ while the General Secretary position was given to Ranjith Madduma Bandara.”

Other than the UNP, the polls line up for major players is becoming clear. SLFP General Secretary Jayasekera told the Sunday Times, “President Rajapaksa, Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and brother Basil know very well the benefits that will accrue as a result of our alliance.  there are others who seem to be unaware. They are only thinking of the preference votes they will receive.” Jayasekera said that his party would hold talks with the SLPP to determine how many candidates they will allocate for the SLFP at the parliamentary elections. Thereafter, we will make a strong request to the SLPP to deal with those who will try to break up the preference votes.”

For Basil Rajapaksa, who has remained the key strategist for the SLPP, he has not only politically neutralised the SLFP but also brought its leader Maithripala Sirisena and others under the direct control of SLPP leader Premier Rajapaksa again. Thus, it has been a costly home coming for Sirisena though he will probably have little difficulty winning his Polonnaruwa seat. He abandoned the SLFP to join hands with the UNP to become President. Having ended his tenure, he has now abandoned the SLFP to serve the SLPP. There are other critical issues that are also staring Sirisena in the face. That is between now and the nominations not to mention the elections. To say it mildly, he would have to surmount them before people cast their votes.

The feuding UNP, which has to make as much success as possible from the jaws of defeat, is facing an uphill task. If the UNPers earlier blamed Ranil Wickremesinghe, for the crisis in the party, they are also now blaming Premadasa as well. This is for prevaricating and thus demoralising those backing him and the party. The coming weeks will show whether he has made any gain or pushed the UNP to an abyss with leader Wickremesinghe.

Lanka withdrawing only from co-sponsorship of US-backed resolution: DineshThere will be no move to withdraw from the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, told the Sunday Times yesterday adding that there has been a “lot of confusion” over the matter.

Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena

“Our immediate priority,” he said, “is to withdraw Sri Lanka from being a co-sponsor of the resolution.” That is on the grounds that such a ‘co-sponsorship’ has not been approved by either the Cabinet of Ministers or endorsed by the Parliament. “Even former President Maithripala Sirisena has told us that he was not consulted by then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, before he announced the co-sponsorship when the resolution was moved by the United States. This has caused irreparable harm to the country and shown our troops in bad light, he added. The fact that the government was considering pulling out of the co-sponsorship was reported in these columns.

Mangala Samaraweera tweeted yesterday that “Sri Lanka’s great leap backwards: Within the first 100 days of the GR regime the economy is in shambles, reconciliation in tatters and now with the withdrawal of the Geneva 30/1 we face international isolation and pariah status.”

Minister Gunawardena leaves for Geneva on Tuesday and will place the new government’s case before the Human Rights Council. Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasinha left for Geneva on Friday.

“There has been a lot of confusion over a so-called withdrawal from the resolution (30/),” the Foreign Relations Minister pointed out. In the light of a moratorium last year on matters relating to the resolution, he said, there will be no voting when the UN Human Rights Council discusses the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Such voting will come only next year when the moratorium ends and the resolution comes up again, he said.

“At that point of time,” he told the Sunday Times, “what we want to do is make a declaration that we want the closure of the resolution on the grounds that it violated Sri Lanka’s constitution.” He said the fact that over 50 percent of Sri Lankans voted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to office endorsed this. Minister Gunawardena revealed that he had met the Colombo envoys of member countries that adopted the resolution and told them about this proposed closure on the grounds that neither the Cabinet nor Parliament has given sanction to such a move.

“It must, however, not be mistaken as our refusal to work with the United Nations, the Human Rights Council and all other UN agencies. There will be no change in such practices. Our troops will serve in UN peacekeeping forces among other matters, he added.

A UN official, who spoke on grounds of anonymity from Geneva, clarified the issue further by saying “there is no provision or procedures in the UNHRC system to withdraw a resolution moved by one country being dismissed by another. The only way is to defeat the resolution by a vote which requires the majority support of member countries.” Elaborating on this aspect, a diplomatic source in Colombo said such an intended withdrawal, however, does not preclude member countries from moving another resolution. However, that too would require majority vote.

Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena said that “this is the first time the UNHCR has adopted a country specific resolution. That by itself is an insult to an independent and sovereign nation.”

In a copy of an Advance Unedited Version of the report ahead of the Council sessions, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHCR) says among its conclusions:

“The High Commissioner is concerned that the failure to ensure accountability for past violations and to undertake comprehensive security sector reform to dismantle the structures that facilitated them, means that the people of Sri Lanka, from all communities, have no guarantee that violations will not recur. Such failure alienates victims and their communities, instilling distrust in the State, and can potentially fuel further cycles of violence.

“The High Commissioner urges the Government to promptly investigate and prosecute all allegations of torture and other gross human rights violations, and to give the highest priority to ensuring accountability for long-standing emblematic cases.

“The High Commissioner encourages the Government to urgently proceed with the review and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to engage with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism and the United Nations, as well as with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, in finalizing a new legislation that is compliant with international human rights norms and standards. “

The Foreign Relations Ministry in Colombo said it wants “to declare the Government’s commitment to achieve sustainable peace through an inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process, including through the appropriate adaptation of existing mechanisms, in line with the Government’s policy framework.

“This would comprise the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) headed by a Justice of the Supreme Court, to review the reports of previous Sri Lankan COIs which investigated alleged violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL), to assess the status of implementation of their recommendations and to propose deliverable measures to implement them keeping in line with the new Government’s policy.”


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