Repetition is the soul of politics, at least in Sri Lanka. At various points in the country’s recent political history, political parties have used the same strategies and tactics over and over again, to outsmart their opponents and grab power.
The UPFA dissidents and the SLFP group supporting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, believe they can regain control of the party by repeating the same old fear-tactics which they adopted to get nomination for Rajapaksa to contest the Parliamentary election on the UPFA ticket. They assume the local government election – which will take place six months behind the scheduled date – will provide the ideal platform for their ‘take-over’ mission.
At this point, they are trying to create a fear psychosis among the rank and file of the party saying the Rajapaksa group, popularly known as the Abayaramaya cabal, will form a separate political front to contest the Local Government election. Some minor partners of the UPFA, including the National Freedom Front and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, have already stated that they are in the process of formulating a new political alliance with members of the “joint opposition”.
Any attempt by UPFA dissidents to form a new political alliance will certainly create a split in the SLFP. Although the top rung members of the party have aligned themselves with President Sirisena, a sizable proportion of back-bench MPs and grassroots level representatives still back former President Rajapaksa. Therefore, the ongoing dialogue over the formation of a new political party has sent ripples across the decision-making bodies of the party.
Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara
Going another step further, the pro-Rajapaksa group has already selected a name for the new political alliance. According to informed sources, it will be named as the “New Sri Lanka Freedom Front” carrying the symbol ‘lotus.’ Just like they did in the run up to the last Parliamentary election, they are now in the process of organizing meetings at Bala Mandala levels, with the participation of provincial politicians, stressing the need for a new political alliance unless Rajapaksa is given the opportunity to lead the party’s campaign at the Local Government election. It is all too evident that the group is attempting to push the SLFP and its decision-making bodies to a wall with their ‘threat’ to form a new political party. “To prevent a split in the party, President Sirisena, the Chairman of the party, should take a backseat and Rajapaksa should be given the chance to lead the campaign, as the de facto head of the party,” a Local Government representative of the party told the Daily News, underscoring their collective message.
Various internal discussions too took place among party seniors over this new development. Some SLFP seniors representing President Sirisena’s group took part in discussions with party stalwarts supporting Rajapaksa. A few SLFP ministers namely Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa took part in discussions representing the President while Dinesh Gunawardena, Kumara Welgama and Dullas Alahapperuma represented the Rajapaksa faction. The main objective of these discussions is to work out an acceptable solution to all parties and prevent a split in the SLFP camp. However, the two factions still have to go a long way to arrive at a solution.
Meanwhile, some minor partners of the UPFA, including the National Freedom Front and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya’, are pre-empting the “new political party” for their own political gains. Contesting under a new political party at the Local Government election, needless to say, will be advantageous to minor parties of the UPFA who project themselves as the ‘true sons’ of the Rajapaksas. They will cash in on this perception in terms of votes when it comes to the Local Government polls.
Basil – Gota at the forefront
Apart from former President Rajapaksa, his two brothers, Basil Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, are also involved in the new political initiative. Especially Basil Rajapaksa, who lied low during the Parliamentary election campaign, is now playing a key role in the new political alliance. He even took part in a discussion between the former President and some Local Government representatives of the Kurunegala district at the residence of Provincial Councillor D. B. Herath. After the meeting, the former President told a group of provincial reporters that the government should take measures to hold the Local Government election without any delay.
There is another group of Rajapaksa supporters who believe that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa should be the second in command of the new political front. Although the former Defence Secretary has not made any direct remark unraveling his future plans, he had, on a few occasions, expressed his willingness to engage in active politics. However, the core issue is that both Rajapaksa brothers are facing a surfeit of legal issues on the anti-corruption front and it can make a negative impact on the new political alliance at a crucial point. On the other hand, some party leaders supporting the pro-Rajapaksa group, such as Democratic Left Front Leader and UPFA MP Vasudewa Nanayakkara, have serious concerns over the former Defence Secretary’s foray into politics.
This comes against the backdrop where some elements in the group are attempting to position Dinesh Gunawardena as the second in command of the new political alliance. It is still too early to attempt to promote Gotabhaya as the deputy leader or the second in command of the front which will irk the group backing Gunawardena. In the face of any such development, Gunawardena, a senior politician who has weathered many a political storm, may take a backseat making way for the former Defence Secretary to come to the forefront.
SLFP’s crucial Central Committee meeting
It is against this backdrop that the SLFP has decided to convene an urgent Central Committee meeting this week to discuss about the present state of affairs in the party. However, one should not forget that the majority of SLFP Central Committee members are supporters of President Sirisena.
According to informed party sources, a group of SLFP members will present a proposal at the SLFP Central Committee meeting to accommodate Rajapaksa in the election campaign to prevent a split in the party. However, ‘accommodation’ does not mean transferring leadership responsibilities to the former President. This has to get the nod from President Sirisena and the group supporting him who are in control of the party Central Committee. President Sirisena, on multiple occasions, has said in no uncertain terms that he strongly opposes the ultra-nationalist path along which the Rajapaksas are trying to take the SLFP. In this context, one has every reason to believe that President Sirisena will shoot down any attempt to project Rajapaksa as the de-facto leader of the SLFP’s election campaign.
“It is not very difficult to understand the President’s line of thinking,” said Prasanna Solangarachchi, Chairman of the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha and a close ally of the President.
“Look at the bottom line! He said he would not allow Rajapaksa to be the President for the third time he made it happen. He said Rajapaksa would not be made the Prime Minister and he made it happen. Now Rajapaksa wants to be the Chairman of the Tangalle Urban Council. That won’t happen too,” Solangarachchi said, when asked about the President’s possible response to demands from the pro-Rajapaksa group.
“They don’t understand that dynamics have shifted rapidly over the past few months. Before the Parliamentary election, the Central Committee had a lot of Rajapaksa supporters. Today, the President has the majority in the Central Committee. The most senior and top rung members of the party, who backed Rajapaksa at the Parliamentary election, are now with President Sirisena. Before the Parliamentary election, our General Secretary was in favour of giving nomination to the former President. Today, we have a General Secretary who challenged Rajapaksa even before the Presidential election last year,” the Provincial Council Chairman, who is also a Central Committee member of the party, explained.
“The most interesting aspect is that they lost the last Parliamentary election after using the same tactics. So can they even think of repeating the same old tactics at the Local Government election? The party needs a new approach and the President will epitomize it. If Rajapaksa wants to support the party’s campaign, he is free to do that in the capacity of a Patron. But he cannot be the party leader,” Solangarachchi added.
The Provincial Council Chairman said what was happening in the SLFP could only be explained through the Buddhist teaching of Dhitta dhamma vedaniya karma.
“When Rajapaksa was the SLFP leader, he created splits in the UNP and the JVP. Today, as a result of his conduct, the SLFP is facing a split,” he added.
Meanwhile, multiple government sources confirmed that the Local Government election would be held under the new electoral system. The ruling coalition promised to change the electoral system before the Presidential election last year and that was the main reason behind the postponement of the Local Government election.
If the election is held under the new electoral system as a three-cornered fight, it will certainly play into the hands of the UNP whose election machinery is in full swing after the last Parliamentary election. One has to also understand that ‘floating voters’ will not be a key issue at a Local Government election as they are not too ‘excited’ about local polls. A careful examination of statistics of the previous LG elections shows that the poor voter turnout is a direct result of the lukewarm approach on the part of ‘floating voters’.
Tug o’ war over PSC
While the SLFP is dealing with a serious internal power struggle, the national unity government has made some important steps in the direction of comprehensive constitutional reforms.
The SLFP however is in two minds about the manner in which they should approach constitutional reforms while the UNP is campaigning for a new constitution with a total abolition of Executive Presidency.
The SLFP is pushing for the formation of a Parliamentary Select Committee to formulate constitutional reforms vis-à-vis the UNP’s idea to convert Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly.
However, it is now clear that the UNP is not in favour of the idea of setting up a Parliamentary Select Committee to work in this regard.
“The SLFP needs a select committee because they want to say something within the committee and contradict their own positions when they speak in public. But, we have created an open dance floor and now the public can see what every party is doing in this regard. On the other hand, it will give every party the opportunity to be stakeholders in the entire process,” Leader of the House Minister Lakshman Kiriella said, while sharing his views on the matter.
“We do not want any party to feel that they have been left out of the process. That is why we are trying our best to arrive at a common ground and reach a consensus when it comes to contentious matters. It cannot be construed as a weakness of the government. We want to rectify mistakes various governments made in the past when formulating new constitutions. We do not want any political party – major or minor – to opt out of this process,” the Leader of House added. The Minister’s remarks gave a strong indication that his party was ready to consider the SLFP’s request with an open mind, despite the UNP’s misgivings.
While this debate is going on, the Committee to seek public opinion on the proposed constitutional reforms began its work on Monday.
The committee, appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will obtain public opinion from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. from today till Friday at the secretariat at Visumpaya, Staples Street, Colombo 2. Senior lawyer Lal Wijenaike heads the committee.
The public can present their views to the committee both orally and as written statements.
Conflicting views from Abhayaramaya cabal
Breaking his silence on constitutional reforms, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a strong statement on Sunday, addressing a gathering at the Abhayaramaya temple, Narahenpita.
“Controversies have emerged about the procedure to be adopted in making changes to the Constitution. The Opposition has suggested that the process of constitutional change should be within the provisions of the present Constitution and the Standing Orders of Parliament. I believe the government will be flexible on this matter. This is not the first time that changes have been made to the present Constitution. By keeping matters within the available parliamentary mechanisms everybody will be able get on with the task at hand.
“My manifesto for the 2015 presidential election, Mahinda Chintana lowadinanamaga also pledged to take steps to formulate a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. Earlier in 2011, my government had appointed a Parliamentary Select Committee under the chairmanship of Nimal Siripala de Silva to look into the changes that need to be made to the constitution including changes relating to the executive presidential system. That responsibility now lies with the present government. The single most important pledge on which the present government was elected into power was the abolition of the executive presidential system. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed last year purported to reduce the powers of the presidency, but the executive powers of the president still remain intact.
“The preamble of the resolution introduced in Parliament last Saturday by the Prime Minister repeatedly stressed that the main objective of the new Constitution would be to abolish the executive presidential system and to institute electoral reform. These objectives should receive our fullest support. The executive presidential system was mired in controversy from the beginning. The SLFP opposed it even when it was first instituted. Now, when the very UNP that created this position is putting forward proposals to abolish it, we in the SLFP cannot oppose it. Furthermore, it’s a nephew of J. R. Jayewardene, the founder of this system, who is putting forward proposals to abolish the executive presidential system.”
Although the former President did not take any significant steps to abolish Executive Presidency when he was in power, he has now agreed – at least in principle – with the government’s intention to scrap it. At the first glimpse, one might even jump to the conclusion that the former President was ready to support the government on constitutional reforms given his concerns are addressed. However, the pro-Rajapaksa camp’s ‘actual position’ on constitutional reforms was expressed when some members of the Abayaramaya cabal, who function as thought-leaders of the former President’s ultra-nationalist political campaign, held a press briefing in Colombo yesterday.
“The enactment of a new constitution is not an urgent need of the country, but the present government is trying to fulfill the needs of the western community,” Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekara, a staunch backer of the former President said, speaking to reporters at the Abhayaramaya yesterday.
He also said that the anti Sri Lankan western communities did not want to change the country’s electoral system or to abolish executive presidency. “Their only intention is to form a separate state in the North and East,” Amarasekera added.
Meanwhile, another associate of the former President Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera said that the prevailing constitution was a very powerful constitution fulfilling the needs of the country. According to Nalaka Thera, the only minus aspect of the current constitution is the 13th Amendment, introduced under the presidency of J.R. Jayewardene. By making this remark, the Thera strongly contradicted the statement made by the former President, supporting the abolition of Executive Presidency.
“But the present government is trying to make the 13thAmendment more powerful while removing the 6th amendment to the constitution which is very important to the country. By enacting a new constitution, the government trying to fulfill the requirements of USA, UK, UN and UNHRC,” he said.
It is important to understand that the conflicting views expressed by two groups of the same party cannot be interpreted as an “accident”. It is a strong sign that the same group, while overtly supporting the ‘rationale’ behind the constitution amendment, will try its best to sabotage the whole process by resorting to “patriotic rhetoric”. On one front, the former President’s group representing Parliament will attempt to block constitutional reforms citing ‘technical issues’ and on the other front, his Abhayarmaya supporters will vehemently oppose the move citing possible threats to national security and “western conspiracies”.