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Sunday, 23 August 2015





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SLFP purge heralds UPFA break-up

If there was any politician who foresaw the results of the Parliamentary election on Monday, he was none other than President Maithripala Sirisena.

Within hours of polling closure at 4 pm on August 17, President Sirisena, in his capacity as the SLFP Chairman, acted swiftly to remove 13 members from the Central Committee, the apex decision making body of the party, with immediate effect. He knew the party might have to enter into a reform-phase soon after the election and he needed to consolidate his power in the party before any such process.

Before the Parliamentary election, the balance of power within the SLFP’s decision-making bodies were very much in favour of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as most of the members who served in such committees were appointed by him.

President Sirisena was aware of the fact that he needed to make his own appointments before embarking on post-election internal reforms. As he made the move after the polling was closed, the mini-purge of pro-Rajapaksa elements in the Central Committee did not make any impact on the final outcome of the election.

One of the key moves by President Sirisena soon after the elections was the appointment of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to the party’s Central Committee. It was a clear indication that the President was intent on cleaning up the party as former President Kumaratunga was hostile to Rajapaksa and a staunch advocate of party reform.

Shock waves

The outcome of the Parliamentary election also underscored the need for immediate reforms as the results sent shockwaves through the rank and file of the SLFP. Although the UPFA coalition managed to obtain 95 seats, it was quite evident that coalition partners of the UPFA had penetrated into the vote base of the SLFP.

For instance, the National Freedom Front, led by Wimal Weerawansa, obtained parliamentary seats in Colombo, Matara, Anuradhapura, Kalutara and Moneragala districts. Had the NFF contested alone, it would not have been able to secure a single seat in Parliament. Therefore, it was quite evident that minor stakeholders of the UPFA had capitalized on the voter-base of the SLFP, depriving the SLFP candidates of their Parliamentary seats. This development was disadvantageous and detrimental to candidates representing the SLFP, the major stakeholder of the UPFA Coalition.

For instance, among the Colombo District MPs-elect of the UPFA, there is only one actual SLFP member - none other than UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha who came third in Colombo’s preferential votes list under the UPFA symbol. The other six members elected from the Colombo district are either members of minor parries of the UPFA or SLFP candidates who were originally cross-overs from other parties.

Although the UPFA seems like a formidable opposition coalition at this juncture with 95 seats in Parliament, its main party, the SLFP, has lost its strength in an unprecedented way.

Party discipline

This was a key concern of President Sirisena when he summoned all SLFP MPs-elect to Colombo on Thursday, two days after the election. Significantly, he did not invite any member from other constituent parties of the UPFA. All elected MPs of the SLFP, except Kurunegala district MP-elect Mahinda Rajapaksa, attended the meeting convened by the President.

Addressing the meeting, the President made his position clear on future political activity in collaboration with the UPFA. He stressed the need for protecting party discipline and not criticising the party’s decisions in outside fora. The President said firmly, that ‘stern action’ would be taken against any member who engaged in such activities, irrespective of his or her position in the party. This warning showed that President Sirisena was closely observing developments within the party, especially during the Parliamentary election campaign.

He also emphasized that the Parliamentary group of the party should only meet under the auspices of the party Chairman or former Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva. He said in no uncertain terms that “others” should not attempt to convene any group meeting for SLFP MPs.

Although the President did not refer to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa by name, it was clear to everyone that he was alluding to the conduct of his predecessor.

At this point, former Western Province Chief Minister and Gampaha District MP-elect Prasanna Ranatunga said a meeting, chaired by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was scheduled to take place at his residence in Colombo. Interestingly, Ranatunga, a vociferous supporter of Rajapaksa during the Presidential election, distanced himself from the meeting, saying he was just ‘facilitating’ the meeting and he was not involved in organizing it.

Rajapaksa’s meeting dodged

The meeting held at Prasanna Ranatunga’s house was attended by those UPFA MPs who had openly backed former President Rajapaksa’s un-official Prime Ministerial bid. However, a sizable proportion of SLFP MPs who earlier supported Rajapaksa dodged the meeting citing various reasons.

Speaking to his most loyal associates, Rajapaksa said he did not wish to be the Opposition Leader of the new Parliament. He later added a caveat saying the UPFA MP group should make a decision on the new Opposition Leader. He then changed his position again saying he was willing to accept the Opposition Leader’s post on the condition that such an appointment does not lead to the division in the party and majority of the UPFA parliamentarians do not have any objection over his appointment.

“I will raise my voice on issues concerning national security while being in the opposition,” he said.

However, the members who attended the meeting insisted that Rajapaksa should be appointed as the Opposition Leader - the same position he held 13 years back. They also went on to sign a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena seeking his approval to appoint Rajapaksa as the Opposition Leader. They also signed a similar letter addressed to the Speaker of Parliament requesting Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Opposition Leader during the first sitting of the new Parliament. During the discussion, the former President instructed his loyalists to desist from confronting the new hierarchy of the SLFP and the UPFA at this juncture.

At the time the meeting took place, the power struggle surrounding the national list of the UPFA was at its peak and the pro-Rajapaksa group had plans to present a separate national list to the Elections Commissioner.

Following Rajapaksa’s instructions, their resistance died down and they withdrew their decision to present a separate national list, countering new UPFA General Secretary Professor Vishwa Warnapala.

CBK leads national govt talks

The SLFP Central Committee too was scheduled to meet on Thursday under the auspices of President Maithripala Sirisena at the party headquarters. Although the Colombo District Court earlier issued an enjoining order preventing the Central Committee from meeting before August 24 without the party Chairman’s approval, the court order didn’t stand in the way of this Central Committee meeting as it was convened by the party Chairman according to powers vested in him by the SLFP constitution.

The highlight of the meeting was the participation of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who attended a Central Committee meeting after 10 years. She was warmly welcomed by party colleagues and officials as she entered the meeting room to participate in the affairs of the party’s supreme decision making body.

The main objective of the Central Committee meeting was to discuss the way forward of the party in the aftermath of the election defeat. The possibility of forming a national government with the UNP was widely discussed as the UNP, as an individual party, did not have absolute majority in Parliament. The Central Committee members said they had no issue with supporting a government led by President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the SLFP Chairman.

After taking viewpoints expressed by the Central Committee members into consideration, a six-member committee was appointed to discuss the formation of a national government in detail. The committee headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga also comprised Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Susil Premajayantha, Mahinda Samarasinghe and S.B. Dissanayake. The committee was tasked with reaching a consensus for the formation of a national government that will pave the way for solving the major issues faced by the country.

Premajayantha’s inclusion in the committee is of great significance as he was a key supporter of former President Rajapaksa in the recent past. Due to his pro-Rajapaksa leanings, Premajayantha was sacked as the UPFA General Secretary by President Sirisena just a few days before the election. However, as a result of his pro-Rajapaksa leanings, Premajayantha, a tail-ender in the UPFA preferential votes list in 2010, managed to become third in the UPFA list this year, obtaining more than 100,000 votes. However, it was clear that Premajayantha had joined the national government bandwagon just a few days after the election.

Meanwhile, three Central Committee members, Dulles Alahapperuma, Kumara Welgama and Pavithra Wanniarachchi vehemently opposed the formation of a national government on the grounds that the UPFA did not have a mandate to form a national government with the UNP. They were of the view that the party should function as the main opposition party in Parliament.

President to rectify ‘distortion’

In addition to the formation of a national government, the Central Committee also discussed the reasons that led to the election defeat of the party. At this point, a senior Central Committee member and a former Parliamentarian said the party could have prevented its defeat, had it appointed a Prime Ministerial candidate who could unite the party. Internal divisions within the party were cited as the main reason for the failure of the UPFA’s election campaign. Some Central Committee members said some candidates, who were not supportive of Rajapaksa, were not allowed to carry out their election campaigns freely. “Groups were deployed to various parts of the country to jeer at them during election meetings,” a senior Central Committee member said.

After this matter was raised, President Sirisena took a decision to accommodate some of the defeated candidates in the national list on the basis that they were defeated not by the opposition, but by a group within their own party.

“Some of our candidates were not able to carry out their elections campaigns due to pressure from pro-Rajapaksa candidates. They openly urged UPFA supporters not to vote for candidates supporting President Maithripala Sirisena. They lost the election as there was a hate-campaign against them, internally. The President has rectified that distortion when appointing national list members,” a senior spokesman of the party said.

As a result of President Sirisena’s intervention, five defeated candidates of the UPFA, Vijith Wijithamuni Zoysa, S.B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Thilanga Sumathipala were included in the national list which was presented to the Elections Commissioner on Friday afternoon. Other national list members included Sarath Amunugama, Dilan Perera, A. Ramanathan, M.L.A.M. Hisbulla, Malith Jayathilake, Faizer Mustapha and A.H.M. Fowzie.

Several former MPs, who were previously named as national list candidates of the UPFA, lost their seats following the decision to accommodate defeated candidates in the national list. They included D.E.W. Gunasekera, Tissa Vitarana, Prof. G.L. Peiris, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Tissa Attanayake, J. Sri Ranga, Reginald Cooray, Jeewan Kumaratunga, Tiran Alles and Prabha Ganeshan. The majority of them had been active supporters of former President Rajapaksa and his comeback bid.

Premajayantha prepares anti-MR list

Ironically, the CC member who prepared this seemingly anti-Rajapaksa UPFA national list was former UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha. Premajayantha’s role was revealed when new UPFA General Secretary Prof. Vishwa Warnapala informed the Colombo District Court that he had no objection to former General Secretary Premajayantha getting involved in preparing the national list of the UPFA. Warnapala had to inform the court about this development as it had earlier issued an enjoining order preventing Premajayantha from functioning as the General Secretary of the UPFA.

The large majority of national list members appointed to Parliament by the UPFA are SLFP members. It is evident that nominees of the constituent parties of the UPFA have been deliberately left out. Apart from Leftist leaders such as D.E.W. Gunasekera and Tissa Vitarana, two members from the National Freedom Front (Piyasiri Wijenaike and M.F. Muzammil) and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna representative (Somaweera Chandrasiri) have also been ignored.

By leaving them out, the President gave an indication that he was not willing to proceed with the UPFA in the future. The UPFA elections operations office in the SLFP headquarters was also closed down last week and there is speculation that President Sirisena might dissolve the UPFA on August 24. That would compel present constituent parties of the UPFA to function as independent and stand-alone entities in Parliament.

“I am not aware as to why we were denied the national list slots. However, it is a political decision taken by the President,” LSSP Leader Prof. Tissa Vitarana told the Sunday Observer.

Asked about the agreement the LSSP and CP reached with the UPFA prior to the elections, Prof Vitharana said it was not an official document, but was an ‘understanding’. When asked what future steps would be taken in this regard, he observed that a party meeting would be convened shortly to decide on the future course of action.

“As far as we are concerned we have always worked to help the SLFP. That was our policy. Now we have to re-examine our policies, because the SLFP has got together with the UNP to set up a so-called national government. We are unaware of the terms of that agreement,” he added.

Asked his opinion on including defeated candidates via the National List, he said “The people have rejected them and if they are being included then it means the SLFP leadership does not accord with the wishes of the people”.

D.E.W. Gunasekara commenting on his deprivation of a national list slot, said they had had no say over the process. “We were asked to submit our party’s names for the national list and we did so. That was the practice for a long time now. Giving us national list slots was a tradition since 1994. It has been violated this time,” he said.

MEP Vice Chairman Somaweera Chandrasiri said decisions with regard to the UPFA national list have been made in an arbitrary manner. “The Executive Committee of the UPFA did not meet prior to the finalization of the national list. The names were not discussed with other parties of the UPFA It was a list prepared at the sole the discretion of the acting General Secretary without discussing with other stakeholders. We hope to bring this issue to light.

National Freedom Front (NFF) Leader Wimal Weerawansa, commenting on the national list issue said the “national list scam” was similar to the so-called bond scam. “The President, who did not support victory for the UPFA, has now claimed the national list. He had filled it at his own discretion. This is an uncivilized political move. We are looking at it with shame and abhorrence. The people will make a decision on that move. The President has belittled and challenged the sovereign power of the people by appointing defeated candidates through the national list. People defeated them for a reason. The purpose of a national list is not to accommodate them back,” he said.

However, the President’s intentions are very clear. The President, at this point, wants to strengthen the SLFP, without allowing other constituent parties of the UPFA to cash in on the SLFP’s strength. In his letter sent to former President Rajapaksa four days before the election, President Sirisena said Rajapaksa had become a prisoner of minor parties of the UPFA.

Meanwhile, the SLFP hierarchy has so far sacked four members from the Executive Committee of the UPFA. The ’sacked’ members include Kumara Welgama, S.B. Chandrasena, Pavithra Wanniarachchi and T.B. Ekanayake. All of them were vociferous campaigners for Mahinda Rajapaksa during the Parliamentary election.

The sacked Executive Committee members received their letters on Friday and they were signed by the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA. By removing Rajapaksa loyalists from the UPFA list, President Sirisena will consolidate his power in the UPFA decision-making bodies too. As a result, any decision made by him over the future of the UPFA will be supported by the coalition’s Executive Committee.

Krishantha Cooray makes way

The United National Party, which won the election with 106 seats for its ‘UNFGG’ coalition, managed to stick to its original list when appointing the party’s national list. The UNP was entitled to 13 national list slots and UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim told the Sunday Observer that it was a “daunting task” to select 13 candidates from the list submitted to the Elections Department.

To make the General Secretary’s task easy, the party’s media unit head and Working Committee member Krishantha Cooray voluntarily stepped down from the list, saying he did not wish to be appointed on the national list. In his withdrawal letter, he told the party leadership that he did not need a parliamentary seat to serve the UNP.

The JVP too ran into a problem when appointing national list members as the party decided to appoint Matara district candidate Sunil Handunnetti as a national list member. This decision irked Chrishmal Warnasuriya who was a leading member of the JVP’s original national list.

He claimed that the party had decided to appoint Handunnetti as a national list MP without discussing the matter with members of the original national list. He accused the JVP of breaching the trust placed in them by the people.

In a statement posted on his Facebook page yesterday, Warnasuriya addressed party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and said that he was caught in a difficult position as a result of the decision made by the party.

“I sincerely hope that you had a REASON for doing what you just did. I am deeply perplexed as none have been explained to me!

However, now that you have taken this step, I will expect you to appreciate that I too will have to EXPLAIN all of this to the many who supported us, and who are now inquiring of me - WHY?” Warnasuriya asked in his Face Book statement.

Sunil Handunnetti, who was picked over Warnasuriya in the list, served as a Parliamentarian continuously for 15 years. Although many believed that the JVP would be able to secure a seat from the Matara district, the party did not receive sufficient votes as there was a close race between the two mainstream parties.


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