National Government in place, but President Sirisena faces stiff dissent within the SLFP

  • Half the number of SLFP MPs defy whip and stay away from voting for key resolution
  • Conflict over appointment of Opposition leader continues; different moves and contradictory statements
  • UPFA in a shambles; defeat after defeat and divisions within divisions

Like the pithy Sinhala proverb, for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), it was a case of being gored by a bull after a fall from a tree. It failed to win the August 17 parliamentary elections. It trailed by 11 seats against its main rival, the United National Party (UNP) which secured 106 seats. Thus the formation of a Government was not within the UPFA’s reach.

So while for some, joining a National Government and continuing to be cabinet ministers was an attractive proposition, for others, the next choice was to remain in the main Opposition. Those hopes were dashed on Thursday. The new Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, declared the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition. This was on the basis that he had only received his nomination and there were no others vying for the position. In fact, he announced that the UPFA had written to him saying it was not interested in the post. This caused a fury within the section of the UPFA MPs who wanted to sit in Opposition. Named as Chief Opposition Whip by Sampanthan thereafter is Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

Now, 56 UPFA MPs want to function as ‘Independents’ in Parliament. It is they who placed their signature in a letter to President Sirisena, as their leader, urging him to accept Kumara Welgama (Kalutara District) as the Leader of the Opposition. “We will write to President Sirisena again. This time we will tell him that we will sit as ‘Independents’ in the Opposition. Thereafter, we will demand that one of our nominees is recognised as Speaker since we have the numbers,” National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa told the Sunday Times. Asked why Speaker Jayasuriya was not notified about Welgama being named as Leader of the Opposition, he replied, “It was late when we did that.”

“We had also hoped that President Sirisena would act on our representations but regrettably he has not,” Weerawansa said.
Dinesh Gunawardena, leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), a UPFA partner, claimed that the 56 signatories had obtained prior clearance from President Sirisena to sit in the Opposition. “Of course Sirisena, leader of the UPFA, also told us we cannot return to the Government fold thereafter.”

The MEP leader told the Sunday Times that it was only after the debate on Thursday that they obtained details of what had happened. That was during a meeting with Speaker Jayasuriya. The Speaker had disclosed the contents of a letter that had been sent to him by the UPFA’s newly appointed acting General Secretary Vishwa Warnapala. In that, he had pointed out that of the 95 UPFA MPs, 82 were from the SLFP. He had declared that the SLFP would not be making any claim for the position of the Leader of the Opposition. That clearly meant there are only 13 MPs from the other parties in the UPFA coalition while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has 16.

“There is a serious violation of the UPFA constitution. In terms of it, the leader is entitled to replace a General Secretary by appointing another. However, before such a person assumes office, the appointment would have to be ratified by the UPFA leadership,” Gunawardena said. He added “until then, a nominated Acting General Secretary cannot place his signature on any UPFA documents.” He said, “Those concerned should not forget that MPs won the elections on the UPFA ticket and it was the SLFP that has formed a National Government with the UNP. There is a big difference here.” Gunawardena also argued that the post of Chief Opposition Whip should not have gone to the JVP since it held only six seats.

JVP leader hits back
The move drew a strong response from JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake now the Chief Opposition Whip. He told the Sunday Times, “There are only six political parties represented in Parliament. Three of them – the UNP, the UPFA and the SLMC – are now in Government. The UPFA’s General Secretary has told the Speaker their members will sit on the Government side. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has told Parliament he has a copy of the MoU amongst the three parties to the Government. Thus, it is only the TNA, the JVP and the EPDP which are in the Opposition.”

In accordance with parliamentary tradition, the office of the Leader of the Opposition should therefore go to the TNA because it had the highest number of seats. “Otherwise, the TNA can argue that it is facing discrimination even in Parliament where it has a right to claim equality,” Dissanayake added. The JVP leader, however, asserted that the UPFA had no right to form a National Government. It has made no such promise to the voters. Only the UNP did so during the election campaign, he pointed out.

Democratic Left Front (DLF) leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara accused President Sirisena of not taking action on the request by 56 MPs. He told the Sunday Times, “We handed over the letter to the President demanding that the Opposition Leader be named from the actual Opposition. The President avoided taking action on this letter. We have now written to the Speaker to say that we should be given the opportunity to appoint the Opposition Leader as we have the majority of the members. The Speaker has told us that a decision will be taken on the matter. We understand that there is a conspiracy by the UNP not to give us the right place in Parliament on the grounds that the UPFA members have formed a National Government. We will prevent this conspiracy being implemented. Our 56 members will take decisions in Parliament depending on each issue. If we agree on an issue we will support it and vote against if we disagree.”

ranil mahinda maithiriSome of the recent political issues have been embroiled both in legal and moral arguments. One such instance is the formation of the National Government itself. Senior UPFA leaders have claimed that their MPs contested on their ticket with the Betel leaf as the symbol. Thus they argued the alliance is not a party to such a Government. However, the current SLFP leadership counter this assertion on the grounds that their members constitute the larger component and were therefore entitled to join. More so since the SLFP Central Committee had endorsed a recommendation by the party leader.

A similar issue over the naming of a Leader of the Opposition also led to diverse positions. The TNA, in a statement last Saturday staked a strong claim for the post. It said, “The UNP and the UPFA bear collective cabinet responsibility. As political parties in Parliament, they must publicly support all Government decisions made in Cabinet. This support includes voting with the Government when sitting in Parliament. There is thus no question whatsoever of the UPFA sitting in Opposition in Parliament.”

Dissanayake clueless
Dinesh_Udaya_wimal_WasuThe Sunday Times then asked SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake, for his comments on the TNA statement. He said, “The Opposition Leader’s post should be given to the party which has the highest number of members and is not supporting the National Government.” If his remarks were to be taken seriously, that meant that some UPFA parliamentarians were to be allowed to sit in the Opposition. Alas, Dissanayake, quite clearly, does not seem to know what is going on within his own party. Even when he was speaking to the Sunday Times, the thinking at the highest levels was to concede to the TNA request. He was unaware of the moves by his party leader. That was why he rejected outright the TNA plea. Those who argue that one of the 56 UPFA MPs must be given the Opposition Leader’s job now quote SLFP secretary Dissanayake and say he is right in what he said, even if that was not what the party leader felt.

UPFA partner leaders spearheaded the signature campaign last Tuesday when Parliament met for the first time. One of them said they were surprised when they obtained 56 signatures. The written request was to be handed over to President Sirisena on Tuesday after he made a policy statement to the House. They had hoped that like on other occasions he would turn up for tea after the delivery of his address. However, there were ceremonial arrival and departure ceremonies leaving no time for a tea party. The question was whether Sirisena ducked the tea party to avoid the dissident UPFA MPs. The letter was thus delivered to Sirisena’s official residence at Paget Road later that day.

Before Parliament was convened, an official of the Presidential Secretariat had telephoned UPFA leaders – Gunawardena (MEP), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Democratic Left Front), Wimal Weerawansa (National Freedom Front) and D.M. Podiappuhamy, leader of the Desha Vimukthi Janatha Party, to invite them for a meeting with Sirisena on Monday morning.

Sirisena said he had asked them to come over so he could obtain their views on current political developments. Gunawardena began the conversation by pointing out that there was “still room” for the UPFA to form a Government. Sirisena replied that he did not favour a broad-based National Government since that would be bad for the country. That was why he had mooted a National Government between the UNP and the SLFP. He said discussions were still under way. In fact, when the UPFA leaders wound up their discussion and prepared to leave, walking into the room were Nimal Siripala de Silva, Duminda Dissanayake, John Seneviratne and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Talks over the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers were still under way.

During the discussion with Sirisena, Nanayakkara was to add to remarks by Gunawardena that Sirisena should look at the prospects of the UPFA forming a Government. “We are not in favour of the UNP,” he said. Weerawansa was to say that UPFA supporters were a disappointed lot and forecast there would come a time when Sirisena would have to think of a Government of his own party. The President was to note that his party would gear itself for victory at the upcoming local Government elections. He made clear that the Opposition should resolve the issue of the Leader of the Opposition. Already gazetted by the Presidential Secretariat on August 21 is an “order to refer the demarcated areas” of the nine provinces of Sri Lanka. This is to facilitate the conduct of polls in different wards under the ‘first past the post’ system.

Parliament inauguration: No telecast
It is in this backdrop that Parliament met for the first time on Tuesday (September 1). Most Sri Lankans were disappointed that they were denied the opportunity of seeing the candidates they selected being sworn in. The two national networks – Sri Lanka Rupavahini and the Independent Television Network – had chosen not to provide live coverage of the morning events. That also prevented other private television networks from joining in for a ‘simulcast.’ That these two state networks often provided live coverage to much less important events was one thing. Here was political history being created with both the UNP and the SLFP MPs taking their oaths ahead of forming a National Government. The only exception was Sri Lanka Telecom’s Peo Television which hooked live the Parliament proceedings from its CCTV cameras. Later on Tuesday afternoon, the state run channels went live for the policy statement by President Sirisena.

There was a mild diversion before Parliament proceedings began on Tuesday. Parliamentarians were walking through the lower floor corridor. Malik Samarawickrema, UNP Chairman and National List MP, suddenly found himself locked in an embrace with former President and now Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa had approached Samarawickrema from behind and hugged him saying here is the most important man. The two have not spoken to each other after a spat in January this year. Samarawickrama, a close confidant of Premier Wickremesinghe, complained of what he thought was a ‘serious misunderstanding’ with the then President Rajapaksa. As reported earlier, he then said, “I had a call on the mobile phone from Lohan Ratwatte, the UPFA MP for the Kandy District. He passed the phone to the President. Mr Rajapaksa who accused me of doing all the damage to him in collaboration with Mangala Samaraweera. He said after the presidential election, when he wins, he would be a different President Rajapaksa. You will then see what happens.”

Policy statement without a Cabinet
In Parliament on Tuesday, Sirisena likened what he called “this keynote address” to that of the Throne Speech according to British tradition and as the State of the Union Speech according to American democracy. He noted that “it is the presentation of the official policy statement of the new Government to Parliament.” The only difference, perhaps, is the fact that a Cabinet which will govern the country, was not in place. It has been a convention that such a policy statement is made with a Government in office. This was the first exception. The Cabinet of Ministers was sworn in three days later. The English text of the President’s statement referred to the Government as a “consensual alliance.” Some significant highlights:

“……..While we went to school taking a slate for writing, our children and grandchildren have gone even beyond laptops and take i-Pads to school. The era in which they do it may come before the end of the tenure of this parliament. I like to tell you that the people have selected you as lawmakers in an era of transformation like this……

“…….My manifesto for the last Presidential Election, accepted by the majority of people in Sri Lanka will be the foundation for drafting the agenda for the consensual government to be born through this Parliament. Similarly, the “Panchavida Kriyavaliya” (Five-fold Plan) by United National Front for good governance, “Anagathayata Sahathikayak’ (Certificate of Guarantee for the Future) by United People’s Freedom Alliance and the “Harda Sakshiye Sammuthiya” (Agreement of Consciousness) by Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna as well as the election manifesto of Tamil National Front have been studied in comparison with the policy frame based on the principles of Good Governance presented in my manifesto; ‘A Compassionate Maithri Governance – A Stable Country’. Accordingly, I will take action to establish policies in the new consensual government by mixing the policies of other parties incorporated into the future vision identified in my manifesto…….

“…..The mandate given by the majority of the people to me is an endorsement of the manifesto that promises a Maithri governance led by the principles of good governance, rejection of corruption and protection of state property. Therefore the commitment to eradicate corruption and fraud is a key principle of my government. I will not hesitate to take action against those who are charged with misusing of state property, take them before the Judiciary, without being partial to anyone. I am committed to eradicate corruption and further strengthen the institutional structures of the country……”

On Thursday, in Parliament, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe moved a resolution titled “Determination under the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” It said; “Whereas the United National Party which obtained the highest number of seats in Parliament has formed a National Government, Parliament determines in terms of Article 46(4) of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka that the number of Ministers in the Cabinet of Ministers shall not exceed 48 and the number of Ministers who are not Cabinet Ministers and the number of Deputy Ministers shall not exceed 45.” This was in effect seeking approval to increase the number of Ministers and Deputies in accordance with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

What the vote exposed
Premier Wickremesinghe said that the UNP had signed an agreement with the SLFP to form a National Government. Their programme is based on consensus and those who like to join it can obtain ministerial positions and others could participate in Oversight Committees to strengthen governance. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who sought a debate on the motion earlier declared that the mandate President Sirisena received on January 8 was not to increase the number of ministers. He argued that the subjects allotted to ministries should have been stated in the motion together with the different portfolios. Not many were aware that by noon, when the debate was under way, SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake had sent out a directive to party MPs that the whip would apply. In other words, he was telling them that voting on the resolution was compulsory. After a lengthy debate where several MPs from different parties took part, it was put to vote.

Those voting in favour of the resolution were 143 while 16 opposed it. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs staged a walkout at voting time. That included Selvan Adaikalanathan who had been named the Deputy Chairman of Committees. Two parliamentarians – Malik Samarawickrema and Ali Zahir Mowlana, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) MP who contested from the Batticaloa District on the party ticket- were absent. With the exception of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, that would bring the number of UNPers who voted to 104. That means 39 votes came from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This is less than half the SLFP’s strength in Parliament. The others had chosen not to be present at voting time. That was in clear defiance of the whip that was issued.

This is notwithstanding the fact that the SLFP General Secretary has sent out a directive. Did they choose to ignore the directive and will they face disciplinary action? “We have signed an MoU with the SLFP. It is up to them to deliver on their part,” said an angry senior UNPer who did not wish to be identified. He said they have failed to do so though the resolution was adopted, he added. Similarly, amidst contradictory positions by different leaders of the SLFP, what will become the fate of 56 UPFA MPs if they chose to remain in the Opposition, as Weerawansa claims, functioning as “Independents?” For Sirisena who leads both the UPFA and the SLFP, the tasks would no doubt become high priority.

Sirisena chaired the 64th annual convention of the SLFP at Kaduruwela in Polonnaruwa on Wednesday. In what seemed a strange turn of events, Mahinda Rajapaksa also turned up though Sirisena did not want him to contest the August 17 polls but later relented. The organisers, particularly SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake and Seshala Jayaratne, member of the North Central Provincial Council, were aware that Rajapaksa would attend. They had packed the foreground of the stage with Sirisena supporters. Dissanayake was delivering the welcome speech when Rajapaksa arrived. Sections of the crowds began to cheer him prompting the SLFP General Secretary to say that the former President was also welcome. Dissanayake had been a notable absentee when Rajapaksa held the UPFA’s inaugural election rally in Anuradhapura in July. If some on the stage rose, Sirisena remained seated. Rajapaksa greeted them all and took a seat next to the President. Then Dissanayake was to declare that there were no two leaders and assert that only Maithripala Sirisena headed the party. Sirisena declared that all those present at the previous 63rd annual sessions were there in Polonnaruwa as well and that boded well. As the sessions ended, factions supporting Sirisena gathered at his Polonnaruwa residence. Rajapaksa and his supporters met up at the Deer Park Hotel and other groups in different hotels in Polonnaruwa. At Sirisena’s request, all liquor bars in the Polonnaruwa District were closed on Wednesday. This was to see heavy business for a liquor store at the Habarana Junction where parliamentarians had stopped with their supporters to obtain stocks. There were others at the nearby rest house.

The proceedings in Parliament and reports on the swearing in of the Cabinet of Ministers appear elsewhere in the Sunday Times today. During the swearing in ceremony on Friday afternoon, President Sirisena took the opportunity to tell the new ministers that they would have to forward for screening the names, qualifications and other details of persons they would wish to appoint to director boards in corporations and other statutory bodies. He said this could not be done during the 100 Day Programme of the previous Government. He said:

“….This time the Prime Minister and I have decided to have a committee to scrutinise these appointments. Persons will be selected to the posts in keeping with their qualifications and according to requirements. The Ministers are hereby informed that they should make these appointments according to the recommendations of the Committee. The ministers can submit their requests. The requests will be taken into consideration and the appointments will be made in consultation with the ministers. The move, quite clearly, has been prompted by some Ministers appointing their relatives, sometimes unqualified, to official positions.

Besides his responsibilities as the Executive President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena has opened up several new fronts. He is busy consolidating his position as leader of both the SLFP and the UPFA. A section has already defied the whip of the SLFP’s General Secretary and avoided the vote on the resolution moved by Premier Wickremesinghe. Now, he has forged a National Government and sworn in a team and is set to oversee day-to-day governance. Even if some powers of the Executive Presidency were shorn through 19A, that the holder of such an office still wields tremendous clout is confirmed by the political events in the recent weeks. Thus, a great challenge lies before Sirisena. He has to make good the pledges he made to the people, his party, the UPFA, to a new Parliament and a Cabinet of Ministers. This is while ensuring that the pledges he made during the presidential election campaign to deal with gigantic corruption and misrule are not abandoned midway.