President battles with his own party amid suspense and turmoil

Ecstasy and agony over Sirisena’s mes sage to the nation: UNP overjoyed, SLFP and UPFA furious
For the first time party leader gets enjoining order to prevent special meeting of his party;rumours of plans to expel him
Heated arguments over nominations and national list: UPFA list was handed over minutes before deadline
It was an epochal, rare and historic moment in Sri Lanka’s three decade old executive presidency.A President heaped both agony and ecstasy to his fellow countrymen on the eve of a parliamentary election.

z_p01-President2Just one sentence in a 62 minute address to the nation said it all. President Maithripala Sirisena declared that he would urge “the people to select those who are suitable to march forward with the January 8 mandate.” The message was clear – support the United National Party (UNP) and its allies. It is the UNP and its allies who had carried forward the mandate with a 100 Day Programme of Work. The President cemented his appeal by saying “after the election results are declared, for the next five years I will take forward the transformation that began on January 8 and continue on the same path for the next five years.” The people, he said he was certain, would judge him by the end of that period.

That it came from Sirisena, who is the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the predominant partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), was agony for their leaders and supporters. The shock was too much for them to bear. If only days earlier they had decided not to criticise Sirisena at election rallies, the mood changed. During their own discussions they accused him of treachery and betrayal. They are now headed for a confrontational course. Yet, they chose to refrain from public utterances, though one speaker -who is not a member of the SLFP at the inaugural rally in Anuradhapura on Friday went to the extent of likening Sirisena to a fox which pretended to be a lion and the king of the jungle.

It was ecstasy for the UNP and its allies who form the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). The weekly ministerial meeting now re-scheduled for Wednesday mornings due to polls events in the afternoons took the air of an election rally. As Sirisena walked into what was once the well of the House (Parliament) at the Presidential Secretariat, ministers of the caretaker Cabinet began clapping. They were showing their gratitude to Sirisena for supporting their cause the night before. That forced a smile out of a serious looking President. Other than that, there was no discussion on the subject during a meeting that lasted one hour. It only focused on the cabinet memoranda before them.

On Tuesday afternoon, the President’s media unit had invited local television networks for the recording of Sirisena’s address. Looking somewhat sombre he spoke impromptu. A two page text of his speech was released by the unit. The English version did not do any good to the presidency or to Her Majesty the Queen’s language. The most significant highlight in Sirisena’s address was his advice to the voter to return to power those who could carry forward his January 8 mandate, or the UNP. He then dealt essentially with three key issues – his predecessor’s candidacy at the elections, why he chose to dissolve Parliament ahead of a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and a revelation to the nation that he had asked Premier Wickremesinghe to urge Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran to resign. He said he had done so because Premier Wickremesinhe had a clean image. In the case of the latter, the President was publicly conceding, to say the least, that there was something seriously wrong with the Central Bank bond issue.

ranil and mahindaThat Sirisena has been under pressure in the past many days is no secret. He admitted in his address that “political analysts and the media are vehemently attacking me as a villain and betrayer.” Noting that he took such criticism on the stride, he warned that no one should misuse media freedom but instead enjoy the blooming of democratic rights. Though some Government politicians, under criticism, have complained there should not be “freedom of the wild ass,” President Sirisena should be commended for not abusing his executive authority. Those who are judgemental about so called media freedom abuses are largely those who are at the centre of an issue. If indeed there are abuses, there is legal recourse for them. On the other hand, most media extend a right of reply to those aggrieved. During President Rajapaksa’s tenure, the state media were blatantly abused.

Others then in authority usurped a President’s executive powers. Among their acts were to harass, intimidate, abduct, assault and even kill journalists. This suppression prompted those wanting to air their grievances to turn to social media which came to be most sought after as the traditional media were forced into veiled intimidation and self-censorship. Hence, a suppression locally led to a growth of the web media operating from abroad. A ban on them by the previous Government only made them even more sought after. Thus, from the suppression of the mainstream media the focus shifted to the social media. The Government was shot by its own petard.

The ban on social media websites was lifted after Sirisena was voted to power.Now, Sirisena laments they were targeting him.
Besides his appeal to the voters, two other issues raised by Sirisena are debatable. One is his claim that “I decided to remain the party leader but allowed them to nominate him (Mahinda Rajapaksa) as the candidate.” He added “I am still opposed to this.” It is public knowledge that Sirisena had two different meetings at night with Rajapaksa. They were not social calls but ones that related to his predecessor’s candidacy. He tried to hide this meeting from the public by issuing a silly statement the next day denying he met Rajapaksa – at the Speaker’s residence; when he met him at his own residence but failed to say so in his denial. As revealed in these columns, that is where matters related to Rajapaksa’s candidacy were discussed and later finalised. Of course, Sirisena does admit that he decided “to remain the party leader but allowedthem to nominate” Rajapaksa. There is a corollary to this argument. If Sirisena did not allow it, Rajapaksa would not have been a candidate. Therefore, it was with Sirisena’s consent, though he was opposed, that the former President emerged as candidate.

Sirisena said that he had to dissolve Parliament to prevent Mahinda Rajapaksa from entering Parliament on the national list and becoming Prime Minister by defeating Ranil Wickremesinghe in a no-confidence motion. It is still too early to even suggest which party would come to power after the August 17 elections. However, for argument sake if Rajapaksa is elected with a sizeable majority and a claim is made, Sirisena’s statements would mean he will not swear him in as Prime Minister. Here is a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, as leader of the SLFP albeit UPFA, Sirisena has refused to make Rajapaksa the Prime Ministerial candidate. However, a possible refusal to swear in Rajapaksa if he wins with a majority raises a different issue. The act of swearing in a Prime Minister would have to be performed by the President of Sri Lanka and not the leader of a party. Of course, under 19A he is empowered to pick who would be the Prime Minister if he is from the same party. Therefore, speaking academically, he could well have done so in a situation that could have followed a no-confidence motion. He need not have picked Rajapaksa if he (Sirisena) did not like it. Here is an unprecedented situation where the President has boldly expressed his support to another party than the one he leads.

President Sirisena confirmed disclosures in these columns last week. He declared that “I always wanted to prevent annihilation ofa political party after an electoral debacle, as it happened in 1970, 1977 and again in 2010.” His official statement said his actions were “due to my belief that there should be a bicameral (sic) system for the survival of democracy.” In his Sinhala speech he was referring to the need for a strong two-party system – not a ‘bicameral’ system which is having two legislatures like the Parliament (Lower House) and a Senate (Upper House).

The Governments formed after the three parliamentary elections he referred to were the result of mandates the winning party received from voters leaving their rivals with a small number of seats. The question is whether a situation to arrest such a possibility should be engineered by the executive or done through acceptable mechanisms via constitutional amendments or changes in the polls law.On the other hand, a two thirds majority does not portend healthy forebodings to an executive presidency and constitutes a lingering threat. The prospects of a successful impeachment are higher.

That Sirisena’s declarations had jolted the UPFA leaders was evident when they gathered at Rajapaksa’s Mirihana residence on Wednesday morning. There was anger. When one of them said “Sirisena has finished us all,” others nodded their heads. Among those present were UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha, SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna – MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena, Nava Sama Samaja Party – NSSP leader Vasudeva Nanayakkaraand Former Minister Kumar Welgama.

The discussion led to a call to summon a meeting of the SLFP Central Committee (CC) on Wednesday evening. It was to discuss matters arising out of Sirisena’s address to the nation. Dinesh Gunawardena, though not a member, suggested that it be held at the SLFP headquarters at Darley Road.

Yapa spoke to President Sirisena on his mobile phone. He told him that a request has been made to summon the CC for 6 p.m. that evening. Yapa later told Rajapaksa that Sirisena had suggested that it be summoned for 8 p.m. the same day. Hours later President Sirisena had telephoned Yapa and requested him to cancel the meeting. He had even spoken to Minister S.B. Dissanayake and told him to persuade Yapa to do so. This is while an exchange of letters took place between Yapa and Sirisena.
Following President Sirisena’s important message to the nation, UPFA leaders held a crisis meeting at SLFP headquarters on Wednesday with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the chair. They discussed the possibility of calling a special meeting of the SLFP Central Committee but the decision was ditched when President Sirisena declared it was illegal to convene such a meeting without his approval. Pic by Amila Gamage

In a letterhead bearing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party name in blue background, Sirisena sent by hand delivery a letter dated July 15 in Sinhala to Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, General Secretary, T.B. Jayah Mawatha, Colombo 10. Headlined “Proposed Central Committee meeting,” the letter said “I was informed that there would be a Central Committee meeting tonight at the party headquarters. I would like to mention I have not given permission to hold such a meeting. I want to emphasise that Article 14 (IV) and Article 15 (Section 1A) say no CC meeting could be held without the approval of the leader of the party. Therefore, I would kindly request that if such a meeting is scheduled, please stop it immediately. If such a meeting is held without my prior approval, such an act would be challenged in Courts.” Sgd: Maithripala Sirisena. A copy of this letter was also sent to UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha.

Yapa replied on the same day, July 15. He had it hand delivered to Sirisena. He said “Your Excellency – I refer to the telephone conversation I had with you. During that conversation I informed you that party seniors wanted me to get your permission to summon a Central Committee meeting to discuss a couple of important matters relating to the upcoming elections. Your Excellency granted permission for me to convene such a meeting today at 8 p.m. Since you have approved the request I convened the meeting. However, since Your Excellency informed me in writing to call off the meeting, I have done so. This is to inform you that I have cancelled it.” Sgd: Anura Priyadarshana Yapa.

As mentioned in his letter to Yapa, there was court action to prevent the conduct of the CC meeting. As a precautionary measure, Sirisena asked his legal adviser Faizher Mustapha to draft papers to go to court to get an enjoining order against the holding of the SLFP CC meeting. Upon application to court, Colombo District Judge HarshaSethunga on Wednesday issued an enjoining order preventing the conduct of the SLFP Central Committee meeting without the knowledge of the Chairman of the SLFP President Maithripala Sirisena. The enjoining order is effective till July 29.

The petitioner was Prasanna Solangaarachchi, the Chairman of the Kotikawatta – Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha, and a UPFA candidate at the election. He said in his petition that a Central Committee meeting had been summoned for July 15.

Conflicting reports, it appears, led to President Sirisena seeking an immediate cancellation of the CC meeting. Reports reaching him had spoken of moves by pro Rajapaksa groups to move a resolution to remove Sirisena from his post as leader of the SLFP. That would have entailed a time consuming process since the party’s constitution has to be amended. At present the party constitution provides for the President of the country to be the leader of the party – a change that was brought about by Rajapaksa when he was President.

“We had no plans to change the party leadership. In the light of the address to the nation by President Sirisena, we did want to make Rajapaksa the Prime Ministerial candidate and campaign leader,” Wimal Weerawansa, NFF leader and a key player in the UPFA told the Sunday Times. He said Rajapaksa and the UPFA leaders would go to all 22 districts to address election rallies. Since President Sirisena is not taking part in the campaign, it is only logical that Rajapaksa should lead the campaign, Weerawansa added. Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva called on President Sirisena on Tuesday night to express what was described as his “serious concerns.” Three SLFP deputy ministers – Sudharshini Fernandopulle, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Erik Weerawardena – tendered their resignations and declared they could serve no longer after Sirisena’s statements.Former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, who had been named Advisor to President Sirisena in the midst of the power struggle within the SLFP, was on the stage at the first election rally of the UPFA in Anuradhapura on Friday.

Even before his address to the nation on Tuesday, Sirisena was taking a tough line. He met UPFA General Secretary Premajayantha last Sunday afternoon to take a close look at the list of the names placed on the National List and those contesting. He directed that the names of former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, former Chief Justice SarathNanda Silva and one-time Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleke be struck off. He gave the names of replacements. Even by then, the name of Jayampathy Wickremeratne who styles himself as Chairman of the United Left Front (ULF) was on the UPFA National List and was referred to in these columns last week.

When the Sunday Times hit the streets, Wickremeratne was to say in an e-mail that “a lot of damage has been caused to me by the news in the political column today that I am on the UPFA national list in the company of several ‘distinguished’ persons.”That Sunday morning he visited ‘Temple Trees’ where a memorandum of understanding setting up the United National Front for Good Governance was being signed. There, he found a place in the UNP National List. The next day, Monday he resigned as Advisor to the President. Either way, he was the winner; it was a win or place bet.

Wickremeratne who was responsible for a set of unapproved drafts when 19A was under discussion by the Cabinet of Ministers was once angrily dubbed by a senior Minister still in the Government as the “Lord Soulbury of Sri Lanka.” The sobriquet, though dubious, referred to the man responsible for post independent Sri Lanka’s first constitution. The Minister then claimed that some provisions in the reporteddraft were ‘contradictory’ or ‘archaic’ and did not suit present day needs. Wickremeratne who has pledged to uphold the principles of good governance gave vent to his feelings to a pro UNP website operating from abroad. Its reports which were first acrimonious were later updated. Its latest version:

“Advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena and Chairman of the United Left Front Dr.Jayampathy Wickramaratne has said that the claim made by Iqbal Athas of the Sunday Times that his name has been placed on the UPFA National List MPs is a blatant lie. “He told (the website) that he will be coming as a national list member of the “United National Front for Good Governance.” He said that Raja Uswetakeiyawa of the United Left Front would also represent the same national list. Dr.Wickramaratne also said he would resign from his post of advisor to the President, and would hand over his letter of resignation to the Presidential Secretary, July 13.

“He said that the Sunday Times political columnist has made this untrue statement without consulting him, even despite the news already published in Sinhala and English newspapers that he will be representing the national list of a party opposing the Rajapaksas. He also said that he was greatly embarrassed by many inquiries following the news made by friends of his from all over the world.”

A blatant lie? In fact Wickremeratne confirmed to the Sunday Times that his name was indeed in the UPFA National List. This was published in our web edition the same Sunday. He confirmed this fact to another web site operating from abroad the next day. It was President Sirisena, it can be revealed now,who asked SLFP General Secretary Yapa to ensure Wickremeratne’s name was included. At ‘Temple Trees’ that Sunday morning, when Wickremeratne was asked by a one-time Sri Lankan diplomat who served in Europe about the reference to him in the Sunday Times political commentary, he replied that he was “in the earlier UPFA list.” So much for the “blatant lie” he referred to. Wickremeratne’s name was struck off the UPFA National List only late last Sunday night. Moreover, last week’s reference to him also made the point unequivocally that the list was awaiting finality.

There was high drama surrounding the finalisation of the UPFA National List on Sunday. The venue was the Mahaweli Centre. Prospective candidates were then turning up to sign their nomination papers. UPFA General Secretary Premjayantha broke away for lunch but could not return. Large crowds had surrounded the premises and were demanding that former Colombo District parliamentarian Duminda Silva be given nominations. He drove to the office of the Leader of the Opposition adjoining the Sravasti MP’s hostel at Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. News soon reached the protestors that Premajayantha was working from there. They converged outside that office. From there Premajayantha went to Paget Road to meet Sirisena. They were busy with the UPFA’s lists. Around 10.30 p.m.Premjayantha and party moved to the official residence of Special Projects Minister Felix Perera at Keppetipola Mawatha in Colombo.

Towards night three different issues had cropped up. Former Gampaha District parliamentarian Sudharshini Fernandopulle did not want a candidate from the National Freedom Front (NFF) representing the Katana electorate. Instead, she sought to have one from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, who was contesting disliked the nomination of another to the District and wanted it changed. Opposing the move was Lasantha Alagiyawanna. If those two issues were from Gampaha, the third was from Colombo District. Two seats had been assigned to the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna(MEP). One was for Dinesh Gunawardena, its leader. The second was to be SamanLal, the Mayor of Moratuwa. However, former Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga was not in favour of his candidature. It had to be changed.

Prasanna Ranatunga was so angry he shouted at the others and was walking out. Felix Perera had engaged him in a heated argument and they nearly came to blows. A worried Dinesh Gunawardena hurriedly tried to reach Rajapaksa and was told that he was at a meeting in Piliyandala. Gunawardena reached former Minister GaminiLokuge and urged him to immediately hand over the mobile phone to Rajapaksa. The former President was addressing the rally. He spoke into the microphone asking crowds to forgive him since there was an urgent phone call. When he spoke, the former President was told of the tussle. He wound up his speech and left the meeting. He rushed to Felix Perera’s residence. He spoke with Premjayanthaand the issue was still smouldering when he left. Just then Premajayantha, who had separated the duo from clashing, complained of chest pains. Former Minister Dilan Perera and Former Media Ministry Secretary Charitha Herath helped the UPFA General Secretary into a car and drove him to the Nawaloka Hospital. There he was given emergency care and was warded in a room.

It is only then did it occur to the duo that the signed nomination papers were all lying at Felix Perera’s residence. If someone were to steal it, the UPFA would have lost both Colombo and Gampaha Districts. They rushed there in the night, collected them and returned to the hospital. From Room 6 on the second floor, lawyers and a few others sat around Premajayantha who was on a bed. That is how they finalised the nominations list at 3 a.m. barring one slot for Gampaha District. That last slot for Gampaha District went to Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman Prasanna Ranaweera. There was still a problem. Since he was in hospital, Premajayantha had entrusted the UPFA National List to be formally completed by Dilan Perera.

The latter worked from the office of the Leader of the Opposition. Though he had received names from Premjayantha, some of the National Identity Card numbers were not available. When they were obtained and finalised, it was 11.40 a.m. on Monday, the final day for the handing in of nominations.With twenty minutes left and traffic along the Kotte road heavy, Perera rode on the pillion of a motorcycle of an aide to reach the Elections Office in Kotte on time and hand over the National List to Premajayantha. Details of the nominations and those in the fray appear elsewhere in the Sunday Times today.

At ‘Temple Trees’ there was similar chaos. Battles raged over who should top the list and be team leader for the Kalutara District. Minister Rajitha Senaratne’s name was put in and then tippexed and re-tippexed. Similar battles ensued in some other Districts as well. Heated arguments ensued. There were people, like Wickremaratne clamouring for a slot on the National List.

Meanwhile, there was euphoria all-round in the UNP over President Sirisena’s statements. Former Gampaha District parliamentarian and one time speaker Joseph Michael Perera told the Sunday Times “After nomination was given to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, supporters of President Maithripala Sirisena were disillusioned and in turmoil. It also had the same impact on UNP supporters who backed President Sirisena. However, his address to the nation on Tuesday has made the UNP supporters very pleased and their hands have been strengthened. President Sirisena has made it clear that the nomination of the former President was a very acrimonious matter and he opposed it. He also assured that there would be no role for Rajapaksa in the future under his Presidency. He has also said that the former President would not be appointed Prime Minister in the future and we are happy about this .These are all positive views where the UNP is concerned and it has helped to galvanise our election campaign. We are sure of victory in the August 17 polls.”

Added Media Minister and former Galle District parliamentarian Gayantha Karunatilleke “The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa called an early election in January and was soundly defeated. This time he is seeking a parliamentary seat and will be defeated even in a worse manner. In his speech President Maithripala Sirisena said clearly that the “yahapalana” government that took office on January 8 would continue after the polls. Hence, Mahinda Rajapaksa would not get an opportunity to get a foot into the Government again. He is a defeated candidate and he will be defeated again as the President clearly pointed out. Even though he is dreaming of being the Prime Minister, he will not get such an opportunity. The Government we will form will be headed by the UNP.”

Harsha de Silva, Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development told the Sunday Times “If the Opposition is going to use the Treasury Bond issue as its main political propaganda tool, let them do it. We will be able to show the people who is behind the urgent report and what is their motive. By screaming about the Bond issue they are trying to hide all the corrupt practices they were engaged in when they were in power. We won’t let that happen. They are politicising the purported report.This is wrong. We will tell the masses the truth. It is without the approval of the Sub Committee that this so called report was released. It is not comprehensive. The procedure is that the Sub Committee should report to the COPE. They should submit any report to Parliament.”

The publication and circulation of the COPE Sub Committee draft report, yet to be approved, was ordered to be stopped by the Colombo District Judge Sumith Perera on Thursday. It came on an application made by parliamentarian and Deputy Justice Minister Sujeeva Senasinghewho won an enjoining order. It prevents COPE Chairman D.E.W.Gunasekara and members Rajitha Senaratne, Rosy Senanayake, Eran Wickremaratna, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Arjuna Ranatunga, Susil Premajayantha, Weerakumara Dissanayaka, Sunil Handunnetti, M.T.Hassan Ali, Prof RajivaWijesinha and E.Saravanapavan from publishing or circulating “proceedings of the purported draft report by the Special Sub Committee to look into the Bond issue of the Central Bank 2015 appointed by the COPE.” Senasinghe was also a member of the Sub Committee.

Opposition speakers charged during rallies that the Court action by Senasinghe was to cover up the bond scam and prevent public discussion. Even some VVIPs were unhappy at the moves. Needless to say it has become a campaign issue.

Both, the UNF and UPFA campaigns have got off to a start in great earnest; so too the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that is campaigning on the slogan that there’s no difference between the two main coalitions, they are all the same at the end of the day. They haven’t gone ahead of themselves and unlike the other parties that have been predicting so many seats for themselves, the JVP is asking for stronger representation in Parliament to counter the waywardness of the main political parties when in power. The coming weeks will show how much support each side is garnering before the final result is bared on August 18. There is suspense not only in Sri Lanka but the world over.