The United People’s Freedom Alliance, with the launch of its election campaign, had a tumultuous week with the party leader, President Maithripala Sirisena, making a fiery statement over the party’s nomination. Apart from the President’s statement, the party had to deal with a myriad of issues with regard to nominations for the Parliamentary election.
The party was divided into various factions internally and every group tried to increase its ‘quota’ in every district. While loyalists of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wanted to ensure nominations for their members in several districts, the pro-Rajapaksa group too attempted to gain control of the nomination process.
Interestingly, the UPFA General Secretary, who was supposed to take a middle path, tilted the playing field in favour of the pro-Rajapaksa group at the last moment. This led the UPFA nominations to a serious crisis just before the closing the day of nominations.
Finalisation of UPFA nominations was delayed unexpectedly on Sunday due to the protest by ex-MP Duminda Silva’s supporters in front of the Mahaweli Centre, Colombo, where candidates were signing nomination papers. Silva’s supporters staged a demonstration demanding nominations for their ‘boss’, and those who were at Mahaweli Centre received information that hundreds of Duminda Silva supporters had left Kolonnawa to join the demonstrators in Colombo.
The SLFP seniors thought that would jeopardise the whole process and made an eleventh hour decision to take the nomination papers to a safe location. Some candidates, who had to sign the nomination papers at the last moment, were informed by the UPFA General Secretary to come to the new location.
A ‘quiet place’
The new place was former Minister Felix Perera’s house at Keppetipola Mawatha, Colombo. The UPFA General Secretary chose the ex-Minister’s house to finalise nominations for the Gampaha District of which Perera was named as the District Leader.
Several candidates, including Sudharshini Fernandopulle, were present at Perera’s house to sign the nomination papers. There were some issues with regard to the Gampaha district list as Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga’s name was included in the list at the last moment. By the time the documents were taken to Felix Perera’s house, Ranatunga had not signed his nomination papers.
When Sanjaya Siriwardena, a candidate from Gampaha, was preparing to sign his nomination papers, Prasanna Ranatunga barged into Perera’s house, shouting poddak inna poddak inna!. He was speaking to someone over the phone and it did take long for others to realize that the one at the other end of the telephone conversation was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He addressed Rajapaksa as Janadhipathithuma and it looked as if the Chief Minister was updating the former President on the Gampaha district list.
Ranatunga suddenly gave the phone to Susil Premajayantha saying the former President wanted to speak to the General Secretary. Premajayantha addressed Rajapaksa as ‘Sir’ and patiently listened to his instructions.
While speaking to Rajapaksa, Premajayantha ordered Siriwardena to stop signing his nomination paper. Siriwardena, a provincial level politician known as an associate of former President Kumaratunga, assumed Chief Minister Ranatunga had a hand in the decision to prevent him from signing nomination papers. As a result, there was a heated verbal battle between Ranatunga and Siriwardena. The other candidates of the district were puzzled over the development taking place at the former Minister’s residence. Nearly 10 minutes later, former President Rajapaksa, accompanied by former Minister Gamini Lokuge, arrived at Felix Perera’s house, in a hurry. Entering the house, he told Perera that he needed a ‘quiet place’ to have a meeting with Premajayantha and some members of the nominations committee. Perera arranged the first floor of his house for the meeting and it was held as a closed door discussion.
Apart from finalising nominations for the Gampaha district, they also had to make a final decision on giving nominations to former Parliamentarian Duminda Silva. By this time, Silva had already positioned himself as a stalwart of the pro-Rajapaksa camp and had even carried out a poster campaign in Colombo to support the former President. Perhaps Rajapaksa thought that it was his duty to exert pressure on the nominations committee to include Duminda Silva in the list – at least at the last moment.
What happened upstairs?
While Rajapaksa was holding a meeting with Premajayantha and several others, Fernandopulle and Upeksha Swaranamali were on the ground floor with several Provincial Council politicians. Swarnamali, popularly known as ‘Paba’, was not willing to contest the election without an electorate organiser position.
She pleaded with Perera to remove her name from the nomination list and she was, at one point, literally at the feet of the former Minister pleading she could not contest the election without an electorate organiser post. However, many SLFP seniors thought by including Swarnamali in the list, they could leave out Kumaratunga supporters such as Siriwardena. Perhaps Swarnamali would go down in history as the only candidate who signed nomination papers to contest the election with much reluctance.
Meanwhile, towards the end of the meeting with the former President, Premajayantha walked out of the room, holding his head in pain. Premajayantha said he was feeling faint and he was sent home in his vehicle. After some time, it was revealed that the UPFA General Secretary had been admitted to the Nawaloka Hospital for treatment. No one seems ready to disclose as to what actually happened between Rajapaksa and Premajayantha in that secluded upper room.
Last minute changes in hospital
Half an hour later, former SLFP MP Dilan Perera visited Felix Perera’s house to take the nomination papers to the private hospital where Premajayantha was receiving treatment. As the documents were still at the former Minister’s house, the candidates who were yet to sign the papers had remained at Perera’s residence.
When Dilan Perera came to take the nomination papers, other candidates, who were confused over the new developments, urged the ex-Parliamentarian to keep the papers at Felix Perera’s house as they had not got the opportunity to sign.
“I don’t know about your issues. My duty is to take the nominations papers to the hospital.,” the SLFP ex-Parliamentarian told his colleagues. A few minutes later, Siriwardena, the candidate who could not sign nomination papers due to Prasanna Ranatunga’s sudden arrival, was asked to come back to Felix Perera’s house at 7 am on Monday.
Meanwhile, it was later revealed that Premajayantha made last minute changes to the list while in hospital. It was a quiet and serene place to perform such a nerve-wracking task and there were no ‘unwanted visitors’ to hinder his work.
Siriwardena, however, arrived at Perera’s house on Monday morning at 7 o’clock, expecting to sign his nomination papers and he did not get any signal from the General Secretary for two and a half hours. Around 9.45 am, he received a call from Lasantha Alagiyawanna, another ex-MP of the party contesting Gampaha. He said the list was being taken to the Gampaha District Secretariat and asked the candidate to come to Gampaha. While on his way to the Gampaha District Secretariat Siriwarderna was informed that he had been removed from the list.
CBK’s next move
It was against this backdrop that United National Front for Good Governance candidate Arjuna Ranatunga accused Premajayantha of changing the nominations list at the last moment. Ranatunga made this revelation when he met Chief Prelate of the Malwatte Chapter Ven. Thibbatuwawe Sri Sumangala Thera, in Kandy, last week.
According to Ranatunga, the Gampaha District list was initially prepared with the assistance of former President Kumaratunga and Premajayantha had taken eleventh hour measures to remove Kumaratunga loyalists from the list.
When this happened, former President Kaumaratunga was in the UK. Kumaratunga, a vociferous critique of the Rajapaksas, is scheduled to return to the country early this week, her Private Secretary, P. Dissanayake said.
Upon her return, she is expected to align herself with the Good Governance Front’s campaign. UNP sources said Kumaratunga would primarily focus on the Front’s campaign in the Gampaha district, the stronghold of the Bandaranaike family.
MR’s Premiership hopes dashed
President Maithripala Sirisena’s much-awaited address to the nation last week came as a shock to the UPFA as he made some revelations about how his rival and former President Rajapaksa forced through his nomination for the election. In his speech, President Sirisena predicted that Rajapaksa would be defeated at the Parliamentary election just as he was defeated on January 8.
Coming from none other than the UPFA Chairman, the statement had a debilitating effect on the overall campaign of the UPFA. The President’s various combative statement’s against Rajapaksa and pronouncement’s about future political strategy after the election has raised serious doubts in the UPFA camp whether Rajapaksa had any chance of becoming Prime Minister.
President Sirisena had pointed out that even if the former President does win a parliamentary seat and his faction manages to build a sizeable group in the House, it was he, the President, who had the power to decide who should be Prime Minister. In his speech, the President argued that there were other suitable candidates in the SLFP who could be appointed as the Prime Minister. UPFA insiders feel that this remark has shattered Rajapaksa’s Prime Ministerial hopes to a great extent.
Moves to oust Sirisena
Soon after the President’s speech, ex-MP Janaka Bandara Tennakoon convened a press conference to express his disappointment over the President’s statements and also to urge the party General Secretary to convene the Central Committee to discuss the matter. Many were of the belief that the Central Committee would make a decision to remove President Sirisena from the party leadership.
However, most of the top-rung SLFP leaders, including the party General Secretary, were aware of the fact that removing President Sirisena from the leadership was no easy task.
President Sirisena’s appointment as the SLFP Leader was sanctioned by the party constitution which had crystal clear provision on the appointment of the party Chairman.
The SLFP constitution says if a party member becomes the head of state, he or she should be appointed as the party Chairman. The provision was introduced to the SLFP constitution by none other than former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to remove former President Kumaratunga from the SLFP chairmanship in 2006.
Therefore, the party cannot remove President Sirisena from the leadership without amending its constitution. Any constitutional amendment has to be endorsed by the party at a general convention and that is a long and time-consuming process. By convening a Central Committee meeting on Wednesday, Yapa wanted to counter President Sirisena’s statement by suspending the party membership of his loyalists namely, RajithaSenaratne, ArjunaRanatunga, M.K.D.S. Gunawardena and Hirunika Premachandra.
The Central Committee meeting was scheduled to take place at Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and the party Chairman was unaware of any such meeting. It was on Wednesday morning that President Sirisena realized that the party General Secretary had convened a Central Committee meeting to take some ‘important decisions’.
President’s note to Party Hqrs
The President had a hectic morning on Wednesday as the weekly cabinet meeting was also scheduled for 9 am at the Presidential Secretariat. The UNP Ministers, who were dejected over the UPFA’s decision to give nomination to the former President, seemed jubilant after the President cleared the air on the matter. President Sirisena received a warm round of applause from his ministers as he walked into the meeting room at the Presidential Secretariat to hold the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning.
It was quite evident that the statement had restored the Cabinet’s faith in the President and his decisions. As the Cabinet meeting ended, the ministers surrounded him again and expressed their pleasure for taking a strong stand against former President MahindaRajapaksa, his main rival at the Presidential election in January.
After an informal discussion with the ministers, the President left for Polonnaruwa with Minister Karu Jayasuriya to attend the funeral of Ven. Maldeniye Jinalankara Thera. Before leaving Colombo, the President sent a note to the SLFP headquarters, through the Administrative Secretary of the party, cancelling the Central Committee meeting scheduled for 8 pm at the Sri Lanka Foundation.
According to sources close to the President, in the note he had said the party constitution had vested enough powers in him to cancel the Central Committee meeting at his discretion.
The SLFP General Secretary received the note while he was at the UPFA Elections Steering Committee meeting attended by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. After he received the note, the SLFP seniors had discussed the possibility of convening the Central Committee, without the consent of the party Chairman.
Their attempt was aborted when the Colombo District Court issued an order preventing the SLFP from holding its Central Committee meeting, without the approval of the party Chairman.
The Interim Order – which is valid for 14 days – was issued against SLFP Secretary General Anura Priyadharshana Yapa. The case was filed before the Colombo District Court by Prasanna Solanga-arachchi, a Colombo district UPFA candidate who is also a member of the SLFP Central Committee.
Duminda Dissanayake boycotts Anuradhapura rally
After the UPFA elections steering committee meeting, former President Rajapaksa said he would respond to President Sirisena’s statement at the UPFA inaugural rally in Anuadhapura. The rally took place at the Salgado grounds in Anuradhapura where Rajapaksa started his unsuccessful campaign for presidency last year. A large number of ex-UPFA MPs attended the rally with their supporters and Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, SLFP General Secretary AnuraPriyadarshanaYapa, UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha, Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Prof. G.L. Peiris and former Chief Justice Sarath N Silva were among participants.
The notable absentee at the meeting was Anuradhapura district candidate Duminda Dissanayake, a strong critic of the Rajapaksas over the past few months. Although other ex-MPs of the SLFP who supported President Maithripala Sirisena in January decided to join hands with the UNP, Dissanayake decided to remain in the UPFA to contest for Anuradhapura where he has a strong voter-base. Dissanayake’s boycott and Solangaarachchi’s legal move blocking the Central Committee meeting are clear indications that the UPFA has serious internal divisions.
Interestingly, the Anuradhapura rally did not have a single picture of President Maithripala Sirisena, who is officially the Chairman of the UPFA. It was all about Mahinda Rajapaksa and it seemed exactly like one of his Presidential election rallies.
The whole purpose of the rally appears to have been for boosting Rajapaksa’s own political image. Insiders who were present felt that the party had completely lost the focus of its Anuradhapura polls campaign. Observers also noted the recurrence of the now familiar practice of swelling the crowd by busing in supporters from all parts of the country. It resembled the UPFA’s unsuccessful campaign in January, which had similar characteristics.
MR dodges Sirisena speech
Although Rajapaksa had claimed that he would respond to President Sirisena’s statement during the Anuradhapura rally, he hardly mentioned the President’s name in his fairly long speech. It was all defence of his own conduct during his tenure as the President and attacking the UNP for its conduct in the past.
The same slogans, which were used for the past 10 years, were used at the Anuradhapura rally too and it clearly demonstrated that the campaign is finding it difficult to ‘think anew’. Ironically, the UPFA’s campaign theme for this election is ‘Let’s give life to the country; let’s start from the beginning’ (Ratata panademu: aluthinma patanganimu).
Sirisena’s counter move
While Rajapaksa was in Anuradhapura, President MaithripalaSirisena made an interesting move by appointing a new electorate organizer for Mihintale.
Probably, the President wanted to make the move on Friday itself to show Rajapaksa that he was still in charge of the party’s affairs. The new electorate organizer for Mihintale is North Central Province Chief Minister S.M. Ranjitha Samarakoon, a supporter of the Rajapaksas.
Vitarana reveals plan to centralize power
Speaking at the inaugural rally in Anuradhapura, Prof. TissaVitarana, Leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and former minister, made an interesting statement. He said that once the Executive Presidency is abolished Rajapaksa will become the all-powerful Prime Minister in the future UPFA government. Although Vitarana did not say it explicitly, what he meant was that the former President should be made an “Executive Prime Minister” after abolishing Executive Presidency under a UPFA government.
The statement indicated that the UPFA is determined to turn President Maithripala Sirisena into a political non-entity after the election. But, the coalition wants to abolish the Executive Presidency not because it has any love for Parliamentary democracy, but it wants to concentrate all powers in Rajapaksa.
On the other hand, the statement comes from Tissa Vitarana, Leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party which was once led by Dr. N.M. Perera, a staunch critic of Executive Presidency and constitutional autocracy. Perera passed away in 1979, a year after J.R. Jayewardene’s Constitution of 1978, which strengthened the presidential system of government, introduced to Sri Lanka by way of the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution. Perera was one of the most vociferous critics of Jayewardene’s presidency and he made a great contribution to Sri Lanka’s democracy by pointing out the ill-effects of Jayewardene’s constitution in a series of articles. The articles were collected and published in June 1979 to mark his birthday under the title ‘Critical Analysis of The New Constitution of the Sri Lanka Government.’
According to constitutional expert and LSSP dissident Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, the booklet soon became a kind of ‘Bible’ for those who wish a return to a parliamentary form of government.
“NM was unhesitatingly for a parliamentary form of government, not surprising, given that he was one of Sri Lanka’s best-known parliamentarians. He was awarded a D.Sc. degree by the University of London for his comparative study of the parliamentary procedures of the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany. He pointed out that the parliamentary form of government had worked for 30 years in Sri Lanka with a degree of success that had surprised many western observers.
Writing a few weeks before the Second Amendment was to come into effect, he said: “We look in vain in the speeches of the Prime Minister for a clear and concise enumeration of the defects of the present Constitution, which make the wholesale rejection of the present structure desirable.“His lame contention that the present system of government makes for instability and lacks continuity scarcely bears examination.”
“Since 1978, the Sri Lankan Left unwaveringly raised the need to totally abolish the Executive Presidency and return to a parliamentary form. The issue was raised at every N.M. Perera commemoration event, every May Day meeting, every Republic Day event on 22 May and every other possible occasion. The Left’s post-1978 literature is replete with references to the issue,” Dr. Wickramaratne, a long-standing activist of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, wrote in a recent article. Interestingly, the current leader of the same Sama Samaaja Party, who considers NM as his political idol, now proposes to introduce an ‘Executive Prime Minister’ to Sri Lanka, with provision for constitutional autocracy.