Ravi puts conditions for the use of Swan; demands right to nominate general secretary Amid dispute, UNP leader drops bombshell by suggesting that the alliance contest on UNP ticket and elephant symbol Political parties fielding candidates at the April 25 parliamentary elections have been told of new guidelines, in keeping with the latest election laws [...]

Political Commentary

Ranil-Premadasa battle continues over symbol for new alliance


  • Ravi puts conditions for the use of Swan; demands right to nominate general secretary
  • Amid dispute, UNP leader drops bombshell by suggesting that the alliance contest on UNP ticket and elephant symbol


Political parties fielding candidates at the April 25 parliamentary elections have been told of new guidelines, in keeping with the latest election laws by Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya last Wednesday.

Polls propaganda, other than rallies, he has declared, should be carried out through the print and electronic media. The idea is to avoid confrontations by different factions, create a calm atmosphere and a healthier environment. With the same objective in mind, he has also declared that in every district only a “chief candidate” designated by a political party will be entitled to have an office where their candidates’ numbers are displayed. At polling booths, each party will be allowed to have only one counting agent.

Almost all political parties present at the meeting appeared unhappy over the new measures. They were mulling over making representations to Chairman Deshapriya. “We may have to go back to the older anda bera (drummers) and kavi kola karayas (poetry written on issues and read out at village fairs and other gatherings in the older years),” said a registered political party’s General Secretary who spoke on grounds of anonymity. Like him, a counterpart of another party did not want to offend the elections chief with his remarks. He added, “Those curbs affect us badly, particularly at the village level.” Both alluded to higher advertising costs in the media during polls campaigns and this meant high campaign expenses. They were also seeking an increase in the number of counting agents in areas where preference votes are counted.

Speaking to a group of party members from his office in Battaramulla, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) architect Basil Rajapaksa, who is also the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Peramuna, warned that the new measures could be damaging. Noting that Sri Lanka was one of the countries that had a high polling rate during elections (75 to 80 percent), he said this figure could come down to those of the West, where polling was an average of 40 percent. This was because rural area voters would not know the candidate number in the light of the new restrictions.

Just hours before meeting representatives of political parties, Chairman Deshapriya told a news conference, “We are 100 percent certain that Parliament would be dissolved within a week,” but added that “both laws and the Constitution empowered the President to choose the date for dissolution and parliamentary election.” Thus, avoiding references to exact dates, he set out the legal parameters — general elections can be held within 52 to 66 days after dissolution. The election, therefore, could be held between April 22 and May 4. Deshapriya also said since “national new year and other holidays in April, we are expecting an early date.”

As revealed exclusively in these columns last week, polls will be held on April 25. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to sign a proclamation dissolving Parliament at midnight on March 2. Nominations will be called between March 12 and 19. The Sunday Times has learnt there will no changes in the dates. In fact, Chairman Deshapriya hinted that his Commission staff, the Police, military personnel, transport providers, train services are among those who will have to work throughout April irrespective of the holidays.

Notwithstanding the legal constraints on the Chairman of the Election Commission announcing the dates until the President has dissolved Parliament, the date of elections did transpire at Wednesday’s meeting. This is after a Muslim political party raised issue over the beginning of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. There were prospects the fast could begin on April 25 depending on the visibility of the moon the previous night. However, another smaller Muslim party representative pointed out that irrespective of such dates, there were some Muslim sect members who began the fast a day earlier than their traditional brethren who awaited the visibility of the moon. Chairman Deshapriya asked one of his officials to convey these sentiments to President Rajapaksa. He later reported to his boss that he has informed Lalith Weeratunga, Honorary Advisor to the President. However, the Election Commission is proceeding according to plans.

A noteworthy feature at the meeting was the presence of the United National Party (UNP) delegation. Separating the two sides by sitting in the middle was Nissanka Nanayakkara PC, who is the party’s legal secretary. On one side were General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Ashu Marasinghe, both loyalists of leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. On the other were Ranjit Madduma Bandara and Ajith Perera.

General Secretary Kariyawasam handed in a letter to Chairman Deshapriya under his signature. That urged the Election Commission to permit one of the UNP representatives to monitor the computer system which would be used for the results. It was rejected. Why the UNP General Secretary sought to monitor “election results coming through Election Commission computer system” is unclear. It reminds one of the results of the 2010 presidential election which soldier turned politician Sarath Fonseka lost. Then, onetime Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Somawansa Amerasinghe remarked there was “computer jillmart,” suggesting technical manipulation. However, for all purposes, the UNP is not contesting the parliamentary elections as things remain now. The Working Committee, the party’s policy making body, has decided that its deputy leader Sajith Premadasa would head the Samagi Jana Balavegaya or United National Force. What is at issue now is the symbol of the alliance. This has turned out to be an “on” or “off” affair.

This did not deter alliance leader Premadasa from having a strategy session with his close confidants this week. The meeting was at the Colombo Swimming Club. Among those taking part were Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Champika Ranawaka, the UNP’s onetime General Secretary Tissa Attanayake, Parliamentarian Eran Wickremeratne and Harin Fernando and Shiral Lakthilake, former Senior Advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena, The focus of the meeting was on the polls campaign. This event made clear that the trio who were tasked with a similar campaign during the presidential election will not be front runners. Even they were sidelined then. The trio are Kabir Hashim, Mangala Samaraweera and Malik Samarawickrema. On Thursday, a UNP senior backing Premadasa asked Samarawickrema why they were ‘now on the backfoot.’ He replied, “We have done enough to keep the party together. Now, you all must know how to take it forward.” The remarks underscored the exasperation at the highest levels of the Premadasa camp.

Ravi’s demand at luncheon meeting

The issue of the symbol came to the fore again after former Minister, Ravi Karunanayake hosted a lunch at his luxury residence in Kotte for Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, Democratic People’s Front (DPF) leader Mano Ganesan and All Ceylon Makkal Congress  (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen. He made clear that the Swan symbol, over which he has considerable influence, could be given to the alliance only if he or one of his nominees is appointed General Secretary. Indeed, the present General Secretary of the New Democratic Front (DNF) Sharmila Perera was also present at Wednesday’s meeting at the Election Commission.

When asked by the Sunday Times, Hakeem and Bathiuddin denied there were such remarks made by Karunanayake. Hakeem said, “I don’t know since I left early.” However, he was present till the lunch ended. Bathiuddin said, “There was no reference to Karunanayake or a nominee becoming the General Secretary.” The two Muslim leaders, had met with public criticism after the April 21 Easter Sunday massacres. Little wonder, some minority parties are viewed with great suspicion.  There is even a clamour to ban religious based parties when a new constitution is formulated. This is on the grounds that their name boards were being used to lure funding, particularly from rich West Asian donors, ostensibly to help the Muslim community. There is no scrutiny of such funds. Sections of the Muslim community are also in favour of such a move on the grounds that their leaders did not stand up for them during a crisis and were functioning as corporates. Of course, there are others who say there is nothing called a free meal except perhaps at kanduris (feasts) or daney.

Here is what DPF leader Mano Ganesan told the Sunday Times: “Karunanayake expected us to play an amicable role to resolve issues within the two factions of the UNP to move forward as a united force. He also said that under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the party cannot win any elections as he is not a leader who can be marketed among masses. He also agreed that there should be a change. On the possibility of using the Swan symbol, Karunanayake put forward a condition that he should be named as the General Secretary of the alliance or his nominee -Shyamila Perera – General Secretary of National Democratic Front.

“As the discussions went on over the symbol, one of the leaders suggested that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya be made leader of the alliance and Ranjith Madduma Bandara remains as the General Secretary. The latter was on the grounds that Bandara’s appointment has been ratified by the UNP Working Committee earlier. It was pointed out that Speaker Jayasuriya is not prepared to take up any posts in the alliance. We have decided to contest under the UNP-led alliance of Samagi Jana Balavegaya. However, the symbol issue is yet to be finalised.”

Mano Ganesan’s revelations show that the two Muslim political parties are focused on finding influential political positions for their leaders and suppoters. Other than trying to ‘tilt the balance of power’ between major political parties, influential sections of the Muslim community complain little has been done for their welfare. A case in point, they point out, is the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacres.

United National Force leader and United National Party Deputy leader Sajith Premadasa together with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem addressing a news conference at the Parliament Complex. This came amid UNP working committee meeting, with the alliance still divided on the symbol issue. Pic by Lahiru Harshana

It was with Karunanayake’s blessings that Sarath Fonseka won the Swan symbol to contest the 2010 presidential election.  For Premadasa, that was as good as saying Wickremesinghe or Akila Viraj Kariyawasam being appointed to that position. It was an impossible demand and the question was whether Karunanayake, a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist, was placing a stumbling block. On the other hand, there is no convincing reason why he should simply hand over a symbol to a rival without a quid pro quo. After all, they were also engaged in a ‘bargaining game.’

On Friday, ahead of a news conference Premadasa addressed, the trio met him to brief him on the outcome. They explained that they want to play the role of interlocutors, so the issues confronting the Premadasa faction could be resolved. That naturally turned the focus on the symbol for the alliance. If Swan is not conceded due to its legal holder raising objections, the question is whether Premadasa would be forced to go with the heart symbol chosen earlier and dropped later?  Of course, that would have to be with the approval of the UNP Working Committee.

At a news conference later on Friday afternoon, Premadasa claimed, “There is no issue with the symbol; groups that are working towards the betterment of the country are joining us. We will announce the symbol in the future and there is no issue.” Premadasa also formally announced that the SLMC-led by Rauff Hakeem will join the Samagi Jana Balavegaya. Hakeem had earlier explored tie-ups unsuccessfully with other smaller parties. He took part in the news conference and declared “as a dignified party that primarily represents the Muslims in Sri Lanka, we along with rest of the MPs will sign agreements to join the alliance.” Rishad Bathiuddin (ACMC), who made unsuccessful overtures to join the SLPP ahead of the presidential election last year, will also support the new alliance. Quite clearly, they have run out of any choice and did not know what was in store for them.

Premadasa dilemma

It is in this backdrop that the UNP Working Committee went into session at the headquarters in Siri Kotha in Pita Kotte. Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who summoned it presided.  Premadasa had claimed just hours early that “there is no problem with the symbol.” Wickremesinghe dropped a bombshell. He told the gathering that if there were difficulties, it was best for Premadasa and the others to contest under the UNP and its Elephant symbol. That was a stunning suggestion and was like dropping a bomb on an airport runway.

That gives Premadasa two options. Since he has won the UNP Working Committee’s endorsement to head the new alliance as their leader, he has no symbol. The offer to contest from the UNP, if he cannot get the Swan, using the Elephant symbol has now become imperative. The Wickremesinghe Working Committee will now endorse only that move. That will isolate all partner parties of the proposed alliance including the JHU, the SLMC and the ACMC. On the other hand, if Premadasa chooses a symbol not approved by the Working Committee, he faces disciplinary action. That would constitute a violation of a decree by his leader Wickremesinghe.

Either way, Wickremesinghe has made clear that the choice before Premadasa was to resolve the issue over the Swan Symbol or contest under the UNP with the elephant Symbol.

Ahead of the Working Committee meeting, some of the UNP’s senior members met also at Siri Kotha to discuss the draft constitution of the proposed alliance. Also present were a team of lawyers including Ronald Perera PC and Daya Pelpola. One of the highlights was to make provision to ensure that the main controlling body, the Central Committee of the alliance had sixty percent UNP members. Another is a provision that a leader of the alliance is picked once every three years. Of the 60 percent who will serve, 45 percent would have to be approved by UNP leader Wickremesinghe. With a few changes, the constitution was adopted and later endorsed by the Working Committee. Among the UNPers at this meeting were Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa, Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera, Navin Dissanayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Sagala Ratnayake, Lakshman Kiriella, Ravi Karunanayake, John Ameratunga and Talatha Athukorale.

The approval of the constitution for the alliance is like purchasing a vehicle without the rim and the tyres. The tyres, or in this instance, a symbol, are required for the proposed alliance to operate. The longer it is delayed, the longer its campaign suffers. Contesting under the UNP name would also bring about a casualty – Ranjith Madduma Bandara. He is the General Secretary of the proposed alliance and his name has been endorsed by the Working Committee. Thus, the ball is now in Premadasa’s court.

Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to have corralled Premadasa as well as his would-be alliance partners. He may have suffered a colossal damage to his own reputation and personal standing, but he has, for right or wrong, consistently stood his ground. Premadasa, has more often than not played into his hands. His walkout at one of the meetings of the Working Committee with little or no public explanation is just one example.

Just as the Working Committee meeting ended, Harsha de Silva MP declared, “We cannot go on like this. I am very disappointed at the outcome of today’s WC meeting. I might have to take a decision soon.”

The proposed alliance’s General Secretary, Ranjith Madduma Bandara said, “We have already got our new alliance constitution approved by the Working Committee. We will take a decision on the symbol on Sunday when the Working Committee meets. This, however, is not a major issue.” Yet, that is the real issue that have mired Premadasa and his loyalists in a state of confusion and shock.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam said though the nomination list would be prepared by Premadasa, it should be finally approved by leader Wickremesinghe. “We are discussing the Swan symbol and will finalise matters on Sunday.” Such remarks about finalising matters have been repeated ad nauseum by the two warring factions of the UNP. If Ravi Karunanayake decides he would not cede the Swan symbol if he or his nominee is not named General Secretary, the position is not expected to change. The question for Premadasa then would be “what next?”

In this “all-out war” between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, the former has held the grounds with a smaller number of troops or backers. The latter, despite having the backing of most, is now facing a serious dilemma with time running out. Will it be surrender or a fresh round of fighting?

Tame finale in Geneva, but more problems have just started

US may impose more travel bans on Lankan military officers without much publicity

If there was hype and even some hope in Geneva when the US-sponsored resolution on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka was taken up, it was a tame week. There were no street demonstrations, intense lobbying nor a vote.

Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the UN Human Rights Council on Tuesday Sri Lanka would withdraw from the co-sponsorship of the US-backed resolutions. This covered Resolution 40/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. This also incorporates and builds on preceding resolutions (30/1) of October 2015 and (34/1) of March 2017.

Former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera did not explain why Cabinet approval or approval of the President was not obtained for the co-sponsorship. However, in a three-page statement, he declared that “The final text of the resolution was largely negotiated over the telephone, with the President and I at the same hotel in New York, and the Prime Minister in Colombo accompanied by the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time and the Ambassador of the US and High Commissioner of the UK. Once consensus was reached, the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time who was in Colombo had coordinated with Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva and conveyed the decision of the Government of Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council.”

Responding to a query from the Sunday Times, UNHCR Media Officer Rolando Gomez said in an e-mail: “Per Human Rights Council guidelines, a country cannot withdraw from a resolution after the resolution is adopted.  Additional co-sponsors may be accepted by the Council Secretariat until two weeks after the conclusion of consideration of all draft proposals.  Requests received by the Secretariat after this deadline are not taken into consideration.”

Nevertheless, this position has not been articulated by any high official of the UNHRC. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelott only termed it as “very unfortunate,” like most other delegates. That included Canada’s Foreign Minister Francois Phillipe Champagne who declared “Canada is disappointed.” Moreover US, the mover of the resolution, has quit the UNHRC and is no longer a member.

Yet, the Geneva event was a ‘necessary success’ for the ruling SLPP-led alliance. Apart from the opportunity of briefing likeminded countries friendly with Sri Lanka, Minister Gunawardena, assisted by State Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who has wide experience on the workings of the Council, met many heads of delegations to brief them on Sri Lanka’s new position. More importantly, what was said and done in Geneva will echo in the coming weeks at the parliamentary polls campaign countrywide. The charge will be that the “sell out of national interests” was halted under the Presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who gave military leadership to the separatist war that militarily defeated Tiger guerrillas.

The government’s line is very clear — western nations had ganged up with the previous yahapalana administration to punish Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. They have by renouncing the “co-sponsorship” dissociated the government and thus saved the good reputation of troops. In the same way, they will defend Lt. Gen. Shavindra Silva, acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Commander of the Sri Lanka Army. Washington has imposed a travel ban on him and his family visits to the US. The government is seeing a parallel in the US-backed resolution.

Another event that raised fears in sections of the Colombo based diplomatic community is that the United States was stiffening its stance towards Sri Lanka. Travel bans on more top personalities and those in the military are in the offing, they say. Such moves, however, will be with no glare of publicity.

Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting where the Cabinet had decided not to go ahead with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project involving US$ 480 million is being identified as one reason. It was based on the recommendations of an official committee. Official government spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella declared that the government would not betray the country to make money. However, Cabinet spokesman and Minister Bandula Gunawardena couched it in softer language. He said the government would negotiate some of the draft provisions. If successful, they would obtain “the approval of Parliament and the people.”

The tame finale at the Human Rights Council sessions does not mean the issues arising from the US-sponsored resolution, now disowned by Sri Lanka, have ended. It had only begun. The moratorium on Sri Lanka to fulfil some remaining provisions ends next year. The sessions in March 2021 will thus become crucial as like-minded western nations put their heads together to discern the next course.

As for the parliamentary polls, the ‘gains’ of the government over issues before the UNHRC and other related issues will not be a major problem. They are sure to win and the SLPP effort is to increase its number of seats.

There may be irritants like the case involving former envoy to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga over the MiG-27 fighter jet deal and the scandal involving the SriLankan Airlines airbus deal. The fact that there is no vibrant opposition is one thing. When the yahapalana government was in governance for the past four and half years, its leaders appear to have been blinded to those bribery and corruption issues though it formed polls pledges. Because they could not beat them, some in the previous government joined to become millionaires if not billionaires. A few among them will be known soon. However, events are overtaking many cases.


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