By Gagani Weerakoon
The Joint Opposition, which now has 71 members in Parliament, with the 16 SLFP members who in May 2018 left President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe led unity government joining them, has renewed their call to be identified as a separate independent group in Parliament.
The JO, which comprises majority MPs of the United People’s Freedom Front (UPFA) who have pledged their allegiance to former President, Kurunegala District UPFA MP Mahinda Rajapaksa, was fighting for recognition as an independent group in Parliament since early 2016 and agitates that the post of the Opposition Leader be given to them.
Repeated calls to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to do so have fallen on deaf ears so far, as the Speaker awaits them to first resign from the UPFA, the party all 71 were elected from.
The current composition of Parliament consists of 106 United National Party members, 95 United People’s Freedom Alliance members, 16 Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi members, 6 Jantha Vimukthi Peramuna members, 1 Eelam People’s Democratic Party member and 1 Sri Lanka Muslim Congress member.
Out of the 95 UPFA members 50 were in the Opposition and mainly represented the Rajapaksa faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), National Freedom Front led by MP Wimal Weerawansa, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya led by MP Udaya Gammanpila, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by MP Dinesh Gunawardena, Democratic Left Front led by MP Vasudewa Nanayakkara and Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
A group of 45 UPFA members, who openly were identified as Maithri faction of the SLFP, joined the unity government after pledging support to President Sirisena in forming Yahapalana Cabinet, along with the SLFP’s archrival UNP. However, this group has now been reduced to 23 with 16 SFLP members including former SLFP General Secretaries S.B. Dissanayake, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and former UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha leaving the so-called original SLFP or the Maithri faction to join hands with former leader Rajapaksa.
Out of the 23 members who still support President Sirisena and remain in the UNP-led unity government, eight are appointed to Parliament as members through the National List. This includes MPs Sarath Amunugama, A.H.M. Fowzie, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, Malith Jayathilake, Faiszer Musthapha, Angajan Ramanathan, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Gamini Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, of which the majority was appointed to Parliament by President Sirisena in a bid to get their support in his favour.
The UPFA secured 12 National List slots in Parliament at the General Election in August 2015, and appointed Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Sarath Amunugama, S.B. Dissanayake, A.H.M. Fowzie, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, Malith Jayathilake, Faiszer Musthapha, Dilan Perera, Angajan Ramanathan, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Gamini Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa and Thilanga Sumathipala. Out of these 12 at least 7 were defeated by the people at the 2015 general election.
The call for recognition as a separate political group in Parliament at times took dramatic turns with Speaker Jayasuriya, who was under fire from the pro-Rajapaksa JO group at the time for refusing to permit its MPs to sit independently in Parliament, told the House on 10 February 2016 that he had received death threats over telephone in connection with the controversial question.
The JO MPs led by MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena created a major commotion in Parliament on the previous day, demanding to be allowed to sit independent of the UPFA core group in the House.
“Several calls were received criticizing my actions and threatening to kill me. But I am not scared of these threats. I am quite used to death threats. But please stop threatening the officials of Parliament who are only Government servants doing their job,” the Speaker said.
He told the JO that he could only rule on the group’s independence once he decided whether or not it was planning to break away from the SLFP or the UPFA. “I am unable to recognize you separately as an opposition group until you make this decision first,” the Speaker explained.
Speaker Jayasuriya said he had studied the pro-Rajapaksa faction’s request from different angles. “I have considered similar situations in foreign Parliaments, the legal background to your issue and the traditions followed in Sri Lanka. Even though six political parties entered Parliament by elections there are 17 political parties functioning inside the House,” he said.
The Speaker clarified that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was a part of the UPFA.
“Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva has explained the position of the agreement signed between the SLFP and the UNP. According to him, if there are any other political parties heading in a different direction they should exit from the UPFA,” the Speaker added.
Flashback on UPFA
The UPFA was formed following a memorandum of understanding signed by the SLFP and the JVP in 2004. The agreement was the result of a year’s negotiations between the two parties and broadly outlined common goals in the areas of the economy, ethnic harmony, democracy, culture and foreign policy, areas in which the two parties shared common disagreements with the ruling UNP-led United National Front in power at the time.
A collection of ‘leftist’ political parties then entered the alliance at various dates after January 2004 with memorandums of understanding of their own. These parties included the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, Desha Vimukthi Janatha Pakshaya, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, the National Congress Party, the Muslim National Unity Alliance, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
The UPFA won 45.6% of the preferential vote and 105 out of 225 seats, limiting the UNP to just 82 seats. Despite the Eelam People’s Democratic Party’s Douglas Devananda joining the UPFA soon after the election, the alliance formed a minority government, lacking 7 seats for an outright majority. Three MPs from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress defected to the UPFA on 9 August 2004, while the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) joined the alliance on 3 September with eight sitting MPs, stabilizing the UPFA’s position. One more CWC MP, Vadivel Suresh, crossed over on 14 December 2005.
The JVP broke away from the alliance on 16 June 2005 with its 39 MPs choosing to sit in opposition, citing differences with the SLFP leadership, particularly those stemming from President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s proposed Tsunami Relief Council, which included Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) with the LTTE and her appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, an appointment that the JVP had insisted should have gone to Lakshman Kadirgamar.
The breakaway was followed by the landmark Supreme Court ruling that declared Kumaratunga’s term in office being complete on 21 December 2005, and ordered the Elections Commissioner to hold presidential elections before November 2005.
The end of the civil war in May 2009 is considered to have solidified the UPFA’s hold on power.
The UPFA which managed to poll 4,223,970 votes at the 2004 general election (45.60%) managed to secure 105 seats and form a government. In 2010 General Election it polled 4,846,388 votes (60.33%) securing 144 seats – an increase of 39 seats in forming the government. However, in 2015 General Election held under the leadership of President Sirisena it managed 4,732,664 votes (42.38%) securing only 95 seats in Parliament which is a decrease by 49 seats.
In January 2018 MP Mahinda Rajapaksa said there is a yahapalana government as well as a yahapalana opposition in this country. He also accused that after the August 2015 parliamentary election, the UNP Speaker refused to recognize the Joint Opposition which had over 50 MPs, as a part of the opposition, and gave the opposition leadership to the TNA which had 16 MPs.
“The JVP which had six MPs was given the position of chief opposition whip. Hence, we now have a situation in this country where the Joint Opposition which votes against the budget every year and opposes the Government both inside and outside Parliament, is not considered by the UNP Speaker to be a part of the opposition, while the TNA which always votes with the Government at the budget and cooperates with them both inside and outside Parliament is considered to be the main opposition party,” he alleged.
Following Local Government elections held in February 2018, which saw former President Rajapaksa’s camp sweeping the victory, the National Freedom Front (NFF), which is part of the UPFA was seen trying another trick to gain separate recognition.
NFF Leader Weerawansa in Parliament requested Speaker Jayasuriya to recognize the NFF MPs as an independent group in the Opposition.
Rising to a Point of Order MP Weerawansa said he had already submitted a letter to the Speaker signed by 5 NFF MPs stating they intend to work as an independent group in the Opposition by breaking away from the UPFA.
He inquired the response of the Speaker with regard to this letter. He asked the NFF be granted the rights and privileges of other political parties in the Opposition. MP Weerawansa also said there were many past instances where parties which broke away from Alliances being recognized as independent groups in Parliament.
He said the NFF decided to submit this letter as the Speaker at a previous time told Parliament that the only reason not to recognize them as a separate group in Parliament was that they had not officially separated from the UPFA. MP Weerawansa said they would continue to work with the Joint Opposition.
Citing a past instance, he pointed out the JVP after contesting under the UPFA separated from it, but was recognized as a separate independent group in the Opposition.
The Speaker said he would first take up the matter at a Party Leaders’ Meeting and inform the House later. He said he wants to inquire the opinions of other party leaders with regard to it. MP Weerawansa said he has no objection for taking up it at a Party Leaders’ Meeting, but requested not to reject his request just because somebody objected to it at the Party Leaders’ Meeting.
At this point Leader of the House and Minister Lakshman Kiriella asked MP Weerawansa whether he had officially informed the UPFA of his decision to break away from the UPFA. Agreeing to this view, the Speaker observed it would be easier for him to make the decision if the UPFA was officially informed by the MP.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna which has Rajapaksa ally Prof. G.L. Peiris at its helm, was able to become the sole political party to record a remarkable victory at a main election after being formed (re-launched) one year prior to an election.
While Prof. Peiris remains the SLPP leader on paper, former President Rajapaksa was the unifying factor that got all parties under one banner to lead the election campaign with his brother Basil Rajapaksa playing the role of the National Organizer of the party.
Meanwhile, former President Rajapaksa was invited to attend the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Provincial Councillors membership drive by party Chairman G.L. Peiris, who was abroad.
Some 135 UPFA Provincial Councillors obtained membership of the SLPP during this ceremony.
Speaking to the Provincial Councillors, the former President said they should gear up for the upcoming Provincial Council elections.
“We won the local government election on 10 February this year. Now we are at a point where we should prepare ourselves for the second innings of the match which started on 10 February. The victorious innings should be the second innings,” he said.
By next general election, the SLPP led by Rajapaksa, will become the deciding factor