SLPP to go it alone: No partnership with the SLFP

  • Basil Rajapaksa insisted on Pohottuwa symbol and ruled out Chair
  • Speaker Karu Jayasuriya may not contest
  • Hurried moves to abolish executive presidency – President and PM pass the ball
  • Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) will be set up on October 5

In what seemed revealing by itself, President Maithripala Sirisena, began an emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday afternoon with the remarks “Ogollo hadissi cabinet resveemak illuva. Onna mang dunna. Kiyanna kiyana thiyana deval” or “You asked for an emergency Cabinet meeting. Here, I have now given it. Hence, say what you have to say now.”

Prime Minister and United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, then proposed that a decision be made to immediately abolish the executive presidency. He said among others, civil society groups were making that demand and there was still time for Parliament to approve it and make it effective. Thereafter, a national referendum, in keeping with provisions of the Constitution, could be held. What was hoped for, since then, was the parliamentary general elections.

Premier Wickremesinghe made no mention of the Gazette notification which the National Election Commission (NEC) had promulgated last Wednesday midnight calling for presidential election on November 16. For this purpose, nominations have been fixed for October 7. Nor did he refer to the delay in the 2015 pledge by the Yahapalanaya (“Good Governance”) government to abolish the executive presidency once voted to power. The proposal was being made more than four and half years later and posed a serious question – whether it was bona fide or mala fide?

Support in Premadasa’s favour in the UNP has been increasing and this was translating into more pressure on Wickremesinghe. For him, authoritatively abolishing the executive presidency meant no contenders and simply no trouble in his party.

With speculation of a possible tie-up between President Sirisena’s SLFP and the UNP factions backing Sajith Premadasa earlier for the presidential election, the two leaders are seen in conversation at an export awards ceremony in Colombo this week. Pic by M.D.Nissanka

There were only two Ministers – Ravi Karunanayake and Rajitha Senaratne – who were strongly supporting the proposal. Both argued that the government had made repeated pledges to the people that the executive presidency would be abolished. It was in the UNF election manifesto, they said. Hence, they argued that there was still time to go ahead. However, the move met with an unexpected barrage of opposition. Even President Sirisena weighed in unexpectedly.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera, outspoken on such occasions, described Premier Wickremesinghe’s proposal as a “conspiracy” by some in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the United National Party (UNP) against the victory of either Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He said it was not borne out of a genuine need but an anti-democratic exercise to deprive rights of others who want to contest the presidential election. He also used some strong words to say, “this is the most despicable act of cowardice ever attempted.” Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka declared, “This is not the forum to decide whether or not to abolish the executive presidency.” He said the matter should have been taken up at the government parliamentary group, where a discussion should have been allowed and a decision taken. Thereafter, it should have been moved in Parliament if that was the requirement, he said.

Endorsing this view was former UNP Chairman Malik Samarawickrema. “This is not a matter for the Cabinet to deliberate on. Why did we wait for four and half years after making all the pledges,” he asked? Others who spoke out strongly against were UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim, Mano Ganesan, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Palani Digambaram. Notably, some strong loyalists of Premier Wickremesinghe remained silent at the meeting and the proposal was not accepted by the ministers. There were handshakes and mirth all round when Premadasa loyalists gathered at the residence of a minister. There was a toast too as they held up a celebratory drink. Wickremesinghe later confided to a confidant that he had never seen such “ugly scenes” at a Cabinet meeting and accused Mangala Samaraweera and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem of coming prepared to disrupt the meeting.

When he walked out of the Presidential Secretariat, Premadasa was accosted by the media. He told them, “It is a disgrace that just after the presidential election has been declared, to present a proposal to abolish the executive presidency. It is completely unethical.  Why such a discussion did not take place earlier, even yesterday or last Tuesday when the Cabinet met prior to the Gazette from the National Election Commission (NEC).” Added Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem, who has been a loyal backer of Wickremesinghe: “We feel this is done by the Prime Minister. We have found out that he is the root cause. The President said (at the Cabinet) that this matter should have been resolved within the UNP and the United National Front. He also said that it was unnecessary to call a cabinet meeting to discuss such a matter.

“A majority of the cabinet was not in favour of this. We also challenged them to bring this to parliament and get the approval from the parliamentary group. We said we will defeat this by getting two thirds or most of the parliament would vote against. This is done to weaken our (Sajith) faction. The Prime Minister is the one who made this proposal with the utmost urgency. We stayed with him (Wickremesinghe) during last October 26 political crisis. He gave us a promise to have a government with a new vision. But he is betraying us and doing this because he has a defeatist mentality.  He is doing this to stop a good candidate contesting in the election.”

Samawickrema, who is now a strong backer of Premadasa told the Sunday Times, “I can say categorically that the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA), will support us.” He said together with him, Minister Mangala Samaraweera and UNP Chairman and Minister Kabir Hashim had met representatives of these political parties. He said, “We are looking forward to propose Premadasa’s name when the Working Committee meets possibly next Tuesday.” He added, “We don’t want to break the party. We want to practise democracy within the party.”

Referring to Samarawickrema’s remarks, JHU leader Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka said his party’s support was on the understanding that Premadasa accepts the set of policies and proposals put forward by them. “When we supported Premier Wickremesinghe in 2015, we did so without any understanding. This time, however, we have a clear-cut policy,” he said.

Plan B

At the end of the ministerial meeting, Premier Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of the would-be members of the proposed Democratic National Front (DNF) in Parliament. However, only SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem turned up. Premadasa met the same group and won the support of some, including the SLMC and Mano Ganesan’s TPA.

With the dates announced for nominations and elections, there is now no alternative for Wickremesinghe but to formally decide on who the UNP candidate would be. There are expectations he would summon the party’s Working Committee for a meeting next week. He has asked some ministers who are loyal to him and abroad to return. Until yesterday, at least officially, Wickremesinghe has not changed his mind from contesting. He has only looked at an option or what his backers call a ‘Plan B’.

That is to field Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the alternative candidate. In the light of the most recent developments, how members of the Working Committee would react remains a critical question. Another is whether members of the UNP parliamentary group would also be invited to join in to choose a candidate. Either way, both sides were confident that they had wider support. Premadasa told a news conference on Friday that Wickremesinghe could be Premier and leader of the UNP if he (Premadasa) is chosen as candidate. Though he claimed earlier that he would not take a step backward and would remain the UNP presidential candidate, he said this week that he would abide by the Working Committee’s decision – an evident shift of position.

How did the move to suddenly abolish the executive presidency originate? Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are passing the ball to each other. On one occasion, Sirisena told at least two different Cabinet Ministers backing Premadasa in separate comments, that it was Minister Ravi Karunanayake who was behind the move to abolish the executive presidency. He said he had been canvassing for it. He was backed by Premier Wickremesinghe, he added. In turn, Wickremesinghe told a public meeting in Pasyala on Friday that it was President Sirisena who had asked him to discuss the abolition of the executive presidency at the Cabinet.

A third view is that the Cabinet meeting was summoned after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M. Sumanthiran spoke to the President to discuss matters relating to the abolition of the executive presidency. Sumathiran told the Sunday Times,  “I asked the President about the pledge of abolishing the executive presidency. He told me that this would be the last presidential election and he would take steps to abolish the executive presidential system before his term ends, keeping with the assurances given earlier including at (Ven.) Sobitha Thera’s funeral”.

He went on to say that on Wednesday, when the TNA delegation headed by R. Sampanthan met the Prime Minister “we called for the abolition of the executive presidential system in keeping with the promises given during the 2015 election campaign. We suggested that since there was not enough time to implement the proposal, it could be presented to Parliament, and they could go through the second stage in the next term of Parliament”.

There is no gainsaying that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe wanted it for their own political reasons, though, after the issue misfired, they are pointing fingers at each other. They are both accountable and should take the responsibility as the country’s top-most leaders in power. As pointed out earlier, Sumanthiran did tell a friend after a previous meeting with Sirisena that if the President was serious when he suggested that to him three months ago, there would be no executive presidency.

Sumanthiran had conveyed the outcome of his talks with the President to Premier Wickremesinghe when the latter was in Jaffna as earlier reported in these columns. Thus, the seed was planted on the PM’s mind on the need to hurriedly abolish the executive presidency. It sprouted when Premier Wickremesinghe found that was an excellent opportunity. So much so, he did not even consult his parliamentary group or the Working Committee but went ahead. Being friends, Sumanthiran’s counsel was readily available to Premier Wickremesinghe. Though it is true, often, the TNA membership is not always familiar with reports in the English media and some of their leaders take the liberty of using their name-board to back up claims. This is particularly on occasions when they must defend their proxy, the UNF government. And, Sumanthiran is all too well known for that fine art.

The PM and Karunanayake were in touch with President Sirisena on the telephone. That was how the latter agreed to their request to summon an emergency cabinet meeting. This did not really mean that Sirisena was part of the campaign but was a willing party to the exercise. He let it play out at the Cabinet. He saw the trend. That saw some dissenting views from him at one point, a signal to ministers present that he was not necessarily in favour at that point of time. That opened the door for others to open out much to the disenchantment of Wickremesinghe. After all, that was his own Cabinet that was resisting.

Before coming over to the Cabinet, on Wednesday afternoon the Premier summoned a ‘pre-cabinet’ meeting at Temple Trees, his official residence. Such meetings, to formulate a unified approach by the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) on issues, are held every week before the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. He wanted to make sure that the ministers would extend their support. Minister Navin Dissanayake spoke in favour of Wickremesinghe’s proposal but was stoically silent at the Cabinet meeting leaving Karunanayake and Senaratne to carry the can. On Friday night, Premadasa learnt that Dissanayake would now back him.

Rajapaksa’s support

Besides, the ‘promoters’ of the move claimed that they had the backing of President Sirisena, the TNA and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). They even claimed, though wrongly, that Opposition and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, was in favour. This, they pointed out, ensured a two-thirds vote for the passage of the abolition in Parliament.

Before attending the emergency cabinet meeting, ministers who were loyal to Premadasa had a meeting of their own. They decided that they would oppose any move to abolish the executive presidency since it was aimed at denying him the presidential candidature. It was Minister Ravi Karunanayake who made a pitch for SLPP support from its leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The occasion was the home coming reception of his son Namal, last Tuesday night, at the Mount Lavinia Hotel where some 1,500 guests, local and foreign, attended. He seized a moment from Rajapaksa, when he was moving around, to buttonhole him and pose the question of SLPP support. How he came to that conclusion is not clear, but Karunanayake did tell his like-minded colleagues that support from Rajapaksa and his parliamentarians was forthcoming. That tipped the scale.

SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times, “Yes, Ravi Karunanayake did ask me. I told him I would have to consult my party and I did not make any other commitment.” He added, “I did speak to my people. I can say that we are not going to support it. We do not want to resolve problems within their own party. Earlier, they placed restrictions through 19A to prevent me from contesting though the voters could have decided on such a thing. Now, they want our help because they cannot decide on a candidate from their party for the presidential election. Not because they want to genuinely abolish the executive presidency. They had more than four and half years to do away with it. Instead of resorting to devious means, why couldn’t they find a candidate?” He re-iterated that the executive presidency should be abolished but that had to be done faithfully for the benefit of the people and the country. Not this way, he added.

Rajapaksa was also livid with Thilanga Sumathipala, SLFP parliamentarian for saying that he was in favour of hurriedly abolishing the executive presidency. He had reportedly made those remarks to National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa,  Rajapaksa made a telephone call to Sumathipala on Thursday and told him not to spread fake stories about him. The latter, who had been apologetic, had tried to explain that he had not said so and had uttered different words. That did not please Rajapaksa who declared that the MP should be more careful of what he says.

The hurried move to abolish the executive presidency came in a week when sections backing Wickremesinghe (including himself) wanted Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as the ‘alternative candidate.’  He was groomed afresh this week as “national candidate,” one who will “abolish the executive presidency.” If Premier Wickremesinghe tried to abolish the executive presidency with a process due to begin last Thursday, Jayasuriya said in a statement on Tuesday that he would need one year for that. There were some concerns in political circles that Speaker Jayasuriya made the statement of becoming a UNP candidate whilst holding the office of Speaker and on the official letterhead, a move that would raise questions over his impartiality. All previous presidential contestants since Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga vowed to abolish the executive presidency when they contested. In fact, she gave in writing to JVP’s Nihal Galappatty, who withdrew his candidature, after she said she would abolish the executive presidency by July 15, 1995.

Wickremesinghe had hoped that the abolition of the executive presidency would pave the way for a parliamentary general election. Thus, he would remain party leader and Prime Ministerial aspirant. When he would formally summon the Working Committee is not yet known. The Premadasa loyalists are waiting for a meeting with him after their last round of talks where Wickremesinghe appointed a Committee to talk to all those groups and parties that supported the UNP in 2015 presidential election. He then urged Premadasa to come up with a winning formula.

The Committee comprises Kabir Hashim, Mangala Samaraweera and Ranjith Madduma Bandara. As the fourth person, Wickremesinghe named Minister Rajitha Senaratne, though he is not a member of the UNP. The Committee did have meetings with other groups and parties.

Within hours of his Tuesday’s statement expressing willingness to be the UNP presidential candidate, if he is called upon, Speaker Jayasuriya telephoned Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The latter has already declared himself as the presidential candidate of the JVP-led alliance National People’s Power. Even before he was officially named candidate by the UNP, Jayasuriya invited the JVP leader for a discussion on abolishing the executive presidency, a request which Dissanayake rejected.

The JVP leader replied that if he (Jayasuriya) or the UNP wanted to abolish the executive presidency, the best way would be for them to support the JVP alliance and his candidature. He pointed out that the JVP was not willing to help the UNP solve its internal problems. The JVP had already brought forth a draft 20th Amendment to the Constitution, he said. Dissanayake declined to comment on the details of his conversation. However, he told a meeting of JVP senior leaders who met at their Battaramulla office about the telephone call from Speaker Jayasuriya and the response he gave. The leaders had endorsed that it should be the party’s position since the JVP had taken the initiative by bringing forth a draft 20A.

In a new development, the Sunday Times has learnt that Speaker Jayasuriya may not accept the UNP candidature. A source familiar with ongoing issues said he has chosen to remain as Speaker and will make his position known. It has been prompted by personal and political reasons, the source said. He now wants to broker a meeting between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. It is relevant to mention that even Sajith Premadasa, who held talks with Jayasuriya, offered him the post of Prime Minister, if he were elected President. That leaves only Wickremesinghe to be the contender if he does not favour Premadasa.

News from the NEC

Bad news came even when the “pre cabinet” meeting was in session at ‘Temple Trees’ on Tuesday afternoon. The National Election Commission (NEC) issued a Gazette notification on Wednesday, September 18. Signed by Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and members N.J. Abeysekera and S. Rathnajheevan H. Hoole, it said:

“And whereas paragraph (3) of Article 31 of the Constitution requires that a poll for the Election of the President be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of office on the President in office;

“Now Therefore, we, by virtue of the powers vested in the Election Commission by Section 2 of the Presidential Election Commission by Section 2 of the Presidential Elections Act. No 15 of 1981 read with Article 104 B of the Constitution:

1.     October 07, 2019 as the date of nomination of candidates from the Election of the  President;

11 .  Election Secretariat, Sarana Mawatha, Rajagiriya, as the place of nomination of candidates for such elections and

111.         November 16, 2019, as the date on which the poll for such election shall be taken.”

There were two aspects to this notification, both very important. Usually, when a Gazette on impending election is published, the contents are not known ahead, not until such copies are released. This time, however, NEC officials had told media outlets even before the Gazette was out. Last Tuesday, Commission Chairman Deshapriya had a meeting with all recognised political parties where guidelines for the upcoming polls were discussed in detail. There, he indicated that the Gazette notification in question would be issued on Friday (September 20). However, advancing it by two days, one well informed source said, was very significant. “It is possible they want to go ahead with the presidential election and thus obviate criticism that they failed in this task too, much the same way they could not hold Provincial Council elections. Though it was not the NEC’s fault, sections did blame it,” said the  source.

SLFP Parliamentary group meeting

When indications emerged that Premadasa was facing difficulties in becoming the UNP’s presidential candidate, President Sirisena summoned a meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group on Sunday night. Of the 20 MPs now remaining, 18 were present. The absentees were Nishantha Muthuhettigama (Galle District) and Malith Jayatilleke, National List.

Sirisena sought the “frank views” of those present and gave them a brief speech. He noted that the SLFP’s best chances were with the Pohottuwa (the symbol of the SLPP – a budding lotus flower). He opined that the SLPP would need the support of the SLFP to obtain 50 plus 1 of the votes and noted that “we cannot go along with the UNP.” Claiming that “whoever we support will be the winner,” he said he hoped that the SLPP would agree to the SLFP’s demand for candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa to contest under the Chair symbol.

He said he also hoped that the SLFP’s demand for 31 percent each on candidates for the parliamentary elections, national list, Provincial Councils,  and district level be heeded by the SLPP. Sirisena said there should be a “neutral symbol” and argued that “we cannot go to the people” or “take part in a campaign” without it. He said the party should negotiate a common symbol. Sirisena also said that he had seen polls surveys where Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s had been predicted to get only 37% of the votes. “Sajith is not going to be given the candidacy. Therefore, we need to negotiate a common symbol,” he asserted.

Deputy SLFP Chairman Nimal Siripala de Silva urged that the symbol be not made an issue and declared that the party should go along with the SLPP. He said that on no grounds should the SLFP extend support to the UNP. Those who voiced views in favour of a partnership with the SLPP included Mahinda Samrasinghe, Duminda Dissanayake, Ranjit Siyambalapitiya, Dayasiri Jayasekera, Mahinda Ameraweera, Thilanga Sumathipala, Faiszer Musthapa, Weerakumara Dissanayake and Shantha Bandara.

The role of Duminda Dissanayake, a former SLFP General Secretary, was a talking point since he was earlier reported to be veering towards the UNP. He was seen last week in Medamulana at the wedding of Namal Rajapaksa. Just last week, Premier Wickremesinghe told a Presidential Commission inquiring into corruption that Dissanayake, then Agriculture Minister, and President Sirisena were responsible for hiring a multi-storied building in Rajagiriya for the Agriculture Ministry. It had been done by paying a colossal amount as rent. Dissanayake has in turn denied impropriety.

The discussion paved the way for a one-on-one meeting between President Sirisena and his predecessor, SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday night at Mahagamsekera Mawatha, the official residence of the former. The meeting came on a phone call from Rajapaksa. The focus, during the near hour-long discussion, was on the SLFP-SLPP partnership arrangement. Sirisena made another effort towards a partnership  in the light of prospects for presidential candidature for Premadasa becoming distant. Rajapaksa declared that his negotiating team could meet up with their SLPP counterparts and carry forward their discussions.

This is what the two sides did on Thursday afternoon. The SLFP side comprised Mahinda Ameraweera, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Lasantha Alagiyawanna. They spoke with SLPP architect Basil Rajapaksa in the absence of Dullas Alahapperuma, who is now abroad. SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris too was not available. Basil Rajapaksa spoke on behalf of his party. He made clear to the SLFP delegation that the Pohottuwa symbol could not be changed to any other under any circumstances. This explicitly means there will be no SLFP-SLPP partnership and the dialogue has ended.

Further confirmation that the Pohottuwa symbol has come to stay came on Friday. This was when the SLPP Secretary Sagara Kariyasam and Administrative Secretary Renuka Perera visited the National Election Commission (NEC) in Rajagiriya. They paid the deposit for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, thus confirming that he is the candidate backed by SLPP and opposition parties. It was also confirmation that the symbol is Pohottuwa.  The news angered President Sirisena who charged that the SLPP had done this without any intimation to the SLFP.

Basil Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times, “In as much as Pohottuwa is the symbol of the SLPP, the Chair is the symbol of another party. How can we, therefore, change our own party’s symbol? As one can see, there is nothing called a common or neutral symbol. Each political party has one.” He said it could not be done for the presidential election. “However, the matter can be discussed when it comes to the parliamentary election, polls for Provincial Councils or local councils,” he pointed out.

SLFP-JVP alliance?

As reported last week, with the talks between the SLFP and the SLPP deadlocked over a symbol, this weeks’ developments are a further confirmation that a partnership would not materialise. SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera, told the Sunday Times, “We would be forced to have talks with anti-UNP political powers which support the leftist ideology if the issues between SLFP and SLPP are not resolved. There are differences of opinion over the main presidential candidate and one for the premiership.  We need to protect our party identity and protect our party supporters.  If the SLPP does not act with flexibility, we could conduct talks with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and form an anti-UNP alliance. Despite Jayasekera’s lofty assertions, whether the JVP would be a willing partner in an alliance with the SLFP is a billion-dollar question. More so, when the JVP has been avoiding engaging President Sirisena and taking a strong posture against the SLFP and its policies.

SLPA being formed

Leaders of political parties that make up the Sri Lanka People’s Alliance (SLPA) met at the official residence of Opposition and SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, at Wijerama Road, on Thursday. They endorsed their constitution and decided that the formal signing and launch of the SLPA should be held on October 5, just two days before nominations. The venue is yet to be determined. Thereafter, the election campaign for their candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be carried out by the Alliance.

This week’s political developments, some unexpected, have a significant bearing on the November 16 presidential election. For the SLFP, though unwittingly, President Sirisena, the leader, has burnt his boats with the SLPP. His party General Secretary Jayasekera hopes to seek solace in the JVP but the prospects of an alliance are much dimmer than what the SLFP could possibly work out with the UNP.  The SLFP’s faded hopes now rest only on Premadasa and a last-minute wish that he could be the UNP’s presidential candidate.

For Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader, Thursday’s emergency cabinet meeting was a major debacle. Even if he places all the blame on President Sirisena, efforts to hurriedly abolish the executive presidency have backfired. If one were to argue that Sirisena was the cause, then Wickremesinghe has quite clearly “fallen for a Sirisena trap.” This by itself is a sad tale. This has badly weakened his position and given him second thoughts on sacking UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim and two non-Cabinet rank ministers. He has only two choices now – contest himself and bear some ignominy. That is if he still does not want Sajith Premadasa. That is the dilemma of the UNP, once a grand old party and now riddled with rivalry and rancour.

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