SLFP faces decisive moment, crucial make-or-break meeting on Friday

  • Premajayantha makes last-bid effort for reconciliation; more dissidents may be fired, but Rajapaksas also remain tough
  • After all-party meeting, minister says pitch now ready for local polls in January; date by Elections Chief, not necessarily a Saturday

One more desperate, last minute bid to re-unite the feuding factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — those backing President Maithripala Sirisena and others, his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa — has got under way amidst serious doubts whether it would materialise.

The compulsion is triggered by a feared defeat for the SLFP at the local council elections, now back again on a shaky schedule for January, next year. The latest search for peace is after Sirisena, the party leader, declared war just days earlier by removing some Rajapaksa loyalists as district organisers and appointing his own loyalists to the posts. The fate of those not changed so far would now hinge on this week’s peace moves. Sirisena also called simultaneously for the stepping up of investigations linked to the previous administration, particularly those of the Rajapaksa family.

The new re-unity exercise is being undertaken by Minister Susil Premajayantha, a onetime General Secretary of the UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance), the grouping under which SLFPers contested the last parliamentary elections. Although there has been no formal announcement about his role nor an acknowledgement of his task, Premajayantha has told seniors in the Rajapaksa faction that he has the endorsement of President Sirisena for his assignment. His thrust has been on uniting the two factions so they may field candidates together for the local polls. Months earlier, Premajayantha himself was embroiled in a controversy after he told Sirisena that a group together with him intended to sit as an independent entity in the Opposition benches of Parliament. The group alleged that Sirisena had leaned more on the UNP than on his own party.

“There has been a lot of pressure. My position was that the matter should be discussed with the rank and file. I told them to come back after doing that,” former President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times referring to the fresh moves at rapprochement. However, he did not identify who the interlocutor was. He added; “We have already formed our party. We have a new symbol. We have taken up a position against the Government on behalf of the people. We have voted against the budget last year. Parties cannot get votes by intimidating people and threatening that there are files against them. That is trying to infuse fear.”

Rajapaksa said that, contrary to media reports, he has not received any invitation for a meeting of all SLFP parliamentarians on November 3 (Friday). President Sirisena had summoned the meeting to discuss the party’s programme of action for the local council polls. It is largely two pronged — to adopt a joint strategy and field candidates together or take disciplinary action if the invited dissidents do not turn up. Such action would no doubt be expulsion from the party.

“I am told that none of our MPs has received invitations for such a meeting. If they (the party leadership) are genuine, they should have given us such invitations at least a fortnight before,” Rajapaksa added. On the other hand, an SLFP office bearer who did not wish to be identified, said the letters were sent out to pro-Rajapaksa SLFP MPs after legal opinion was sought. The idea, he said, was to bear in mind the need to initiate disciplinary action if they do not turn up. This was also to be discussed at the upcoming meeting.

When the question was posed to Rajapaksa, he said; “Let them try that. There is no way. Most of our members are senior SLFPers”. The former President left yesterday for India on a three-day visit to take part in a religious event.

That Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podu Jana Party (SLPJP) will be at the forefront of the ‘Joint Opposition’ local council election campaign was reflected elsewhere this week. Its convenor, Basil Rajapaksa attended a meeting of political party representatives on Thursday. It was summoned by Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya to discuss matters related to the impending elections. Basil Rajapaksa raised a series of questions raising eyebrows among participants as to whether the onetime SLFP stalwart, who ran election campaigns, was not conversant with polls laws. “I am representing a new political party. I have even forwarded earlier a list of 100 questions on procedural and other matters to Commissioner Deshapriya. We need to be sure of everything,” he told the meeting.

Commenting on the new reconciliation efforts, Basil Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times; “We are keeping the doors open. We do not rule out anything.” He, however, did not elaborate except to say that the impending local polls would lay bare how the public viewed the present government.”

Even if Sirisena’s faction was now holding out an olive branch, its concerns on how things have taken a worrying turn in the past is not lost on them. In the Qatari capital of Doha, President Sirisena, on a two-day visit this week, was having breakfast at the five star Sheraton Grand. Seated with him were most members of his entourage. During an informal talk, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne noted that the situation would have been quite different if strong action was taken on investigations into high profile cases. There would have been no electoral threat. Senaratne, who himself has bribery charges against him pending, named a ministerial colleague who had allegedly been passing over details pertaining to investigations to the Rajapaksa family members. He named a member of the Rajapaksa family with whom the minister concerned was very close and had regular contacts with.

President Sirisena being warmly greeted by Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani

The remarks by Senaratne in Doha prompted Sirisena to recall the occasion where he raised this issue at a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers. This was reported in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of July 9. The next morning, the minister in question and another important person (he named them in this conversation) called on him at his official residence at Paget Road and handed over “two or three” copies of files, he said.

The files contained details of investigations and the matters reportedly pending before the Attorney General’s Department. Thereafter, he had been surprised when he received a phone call from a person holding high office in a province. He (the person holding high office) had said that a lady member of the Rajapaksa family had spoken to him about the files the President had received earlier that day. He had been asked by the lady why he was rushing to pursue action and an appeal had been made not to go ahead. Sirisena noted that the files had been given to him and at the same time, the information had been passed on to the ‘other side’ (anith peththata). He had later queried from the important person concerned how this could happen but there had been only silence. Senaratne also strongly criticised a very high ranking Police officer for his tardy role in pursuing investigations.

The saga of the local polls, sometimes on and other times off, took a significant turn at last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. It clearly laid bare that one of the main coalition partners, the United National Party (UNP), was adamant that polls should be held in January next year. As revealed last week, even a group of UNP parliamentarians who met President Sirisena made clear their party’s position that local polls should be held in January. Ministers were discussing another memorandum by Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faiszer Musthapha last Tuesday to further amend laws relating to local bodies.

The move angered Minister Kabir Hashim. He charged that Minister Musthapha had told Parliament that all required amendments to laws governing local bodies had been concluded. He was now coming with another amendment. He said he was speaking as General Secretary of the UNP and wished to make the party’s position clear — they were for elections in January next year.

Hashim noted that Minister Musthapha had set up a committee to deal with a new electoral system more than one and half years ago. He then declared it would only take two months. Even the Elections Commission Chairman had expressed reservations about the timeline. The issue had been raised at the joint Council of the SLFP and the UNP. Minister Musthapha said he would sort things out but reneged on his promises. Yet, there had been protracted delays. The UNP was even prepared to conduct polls on the previous electoral system, Hashim pointed out.

Musthapha hit back at Hashim, saying that the reason was because the SLFP did not favour the old electoral system. Hence, a new system had to be formulated. Hashim accused the Local Government Minister of “finding excuses.” It was President Sirisena who said “calm down, calm down” and do not be upset (kalabala venna epaa). He declared that they could find a way out soon. That Tuesday evening, Sirisena flew to Qatar. Among the other members of his entourage were City Planning and Water Supply Minister Rauff Hakeem, Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Badiudeen, Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faiszer Musthapha, Foreign Affairs State Minister Wasantha Senanayake and Power, Renewable Energy Deputy Minister Ajith P Perera, Mujibur Rahman and Azad Sally. Sirisena’s son Daham accompanied the President, but did not take part in any of the events. He was, however, introduced to the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the latter’s official banquet for Sirisena.

That same Tuesday, just hours after the weekly ministerial meeting had ended, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting of representatives of political parties at ‘Temple Trees’. Among those who took part were SLFP: General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera (UPFA General Secretary), Faiszer Musthapha, JVP: Anura Kumara Dissanayake (leader), JHU: Patali Champika Ranawaka (leader), SLMC: Rauff Hakeem (leader), UNP: Kabir Hashim (General Secretary) and Progressive Tamil Alliance (PTA): Mano Ganeshan (leader).

A lengthy discussion ensued on the subject of local polls. Dissanayake said that his party had supported changes to local government laws when it came to Parliament as well as backed the new electoral system in the strong belief that there would be elections. He warned that if those responsible failed to hold elections, the JVP would not be hesitant to join hands with other forces who the Government did not like, to demand that polls be held. The SLFP representatives expressed reservations. At the end, Premier Wickremesinghe declared that elections should be held in January next year. He was to note that issues faced by the SLFP should be resolved by itsef but putting off elections was not democratic. Even before Sirisena boarded SriLankan Airlines scheduled flight UL 217 to Doha that Tuesday evening, he had been briefed by the SLFP representatives on details of the meeting at Temple Trees.

Media reports on Wednesday about this meeting which spoke of possible local elections on January 20 or 27 angered Elections Commission Chairman Deshapriya. He shot off a letter to President Sirisena appealing to him to urge ministers not to announce dates since it was the prerogative of the Commission to do so. Evidently those who made those declarations had gone on the basis that polls would have to be held on a Saturday. However, Commissioner Deshapriya told the meeting of political party representatives on Thursday that such a requirement did not apply to local council elections. Therefore, he said, he was considering conducting the local polls even on a Friday. He would decide on the matter once the Minister issued the Gazette notification.

Local Government Minister Musthapha told a news conference on Thursday that he would issue the Gazette on Wednesday, November 1. This was after the Cabinet of Ministers approves the notification at the weekly meeting on Tuesday. Here are highlights of what he told the news conference:

“This week we had a meeting of party leaders presided over by the Prime Minister. At the meeting all the political party representatives took up the position that local council elections should be held as soon as possible. The minority parties had been urging that the Ambagamuwa and the Nuwara Eliya Pradeshiya Sabhas should be further divided in keeping with the population and land extent. We were able to discuss the issue with Tamil parties in the estate sector and the Sinhala parties and reach a settlement.
“Similarly there is a demand for a separate Pradeshiya sabha in Sainthamaruthu, in the Kalmunai Municipal council area. The Prime Minister during the election campaign promised that a separate Pradeshiya Sabha will be created for the Sainthamaruthu area. I wrote to the TNA and also the Ministry made all arrangements to keep to the promise given by the Prime Minister, but now, the political parties there, are demanding that four Pradeshiya Sabhas should be created in the area. We cannot do that at once, as requested. We need to discuss that with the political parties and the civil society in the area. I will assure that without consulting the political parties and the Civil Society no decision will be taken.” Legal sources said yesterday that groups in the Sainthamaruthu area (Batticaloa District) were consulting legal opinion to go to courts. The idea is to seek to delay polls until their grievances are addressed. A similar situation is also developing in the Trincomalee district.

Minister Musthapha went on to say; “Also, the decision taken to create three councils each in Nuwara Eliya and Ambagamuwa will be presented to the Cabinet next week. Though, as the Minister I have powers, I hope to submit it to the Cabinet and take a collective decision. I hope to explain to the Cabinet the reasons for carving out additional councils. This gazette notification will be issued on Wednesday (November 1). We will keep to the January deadline of holding elections. Even the President, during his visit to Qatar told me to somehow see to holding the elections in January. I cannot give the date for the elections, but I can create the pitch for the conduct of the elections.

“The President and the Prime Minister had promised this. There are also some mistakes in the Sinhala version of the amendments. I have taken this up with the Cabinet. The corrections will be made in a manner that it is effective from the date the Speaker certifies it. It says if a party has received less than 20 per cent of the vote for a council and less than three members have been elected the Women representation requirement will not be compulsory. I cannot approve the conduct of the election on a distorted version. The Sinhala version is distorted. The English and Tamil versions are correct. It is not my mistake or the Parliament’s, but due to a mistake by an official. The Elections Commission and the AG’s department have advised that a correction be made. Though I wanted to follow a simple process through Parliament to correct it, the AG’s Department has advised me to follow the process. Even during the budget debate this can be passed so that the elections will not be delayed. We always worked in a manner so that the elections can be held without delay. Some things discussed in the Cabinet are being reported, some ministers and MPs are challenging me of trying to show-off. Some are trying to take political advantage.

“This is an era when people try to gain political advantage, even through a death. Some try to show that because of their demands they got things done. That is not a problem for me. The President gave me a responsibility.

Q: The Prime Minister has said elections will be held by January 20.
A: We are working towards that goal. I think we can achieve that. I thank the media for supporting.

Q: Doesn’t it show that the elections have been deliberately delayed?
A: I did the right thing always and did not keep away from the media. The Ambagamuwa–Nuwara Eliya issue and the error made was something that I could not resolve on my own. Soon after the mistake was detected, I told the President and the Prime Minister to summon a party leaders meeting.

Q: As the Minister can you certainly say the Local Government polls will be held by the end of January next year?
A: I have not lied. I am certifying that because I can do it. My position was that when there are challenges I need to resolve them to go ahead. I don’t have challenges now”.

Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leader and Minister Mano Ganesan who urged the creation of new Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Nuwara Eliya district told the Sunday Times; “There will be three more councils each for the Ambagamuwa and the Nuwara Eliya areas. Therefore, the Tamil parties are satisfied with the response. Also the Walapane, Kotmale and Hanguranketha areas which have a bigger Sinhala population will be re-demarcated in a manner to have two councils each. We do not see any obstacle now. It was decided at the meeting chaired by the Premier that the gazette notification can be issued by next week.”

Mylvaganam Thilakarajah, UNP MP for Nuwara Eliya District, also welcomed the creation of more local bodies in the district. He told the Sunday Times; “Securing new local bodies is a significant political achievement as the demand was put forward to government from Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) which is a political alliance of key three Up-Country political parties except the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). We have been given repeated assurances by government leaders including subject Minister Faizer Musthapha at the all-party leaders meeting. It was only on Tuesday that it was decided that the Government will heed our long standing demand.”

“According to the proposal submitted by the TPA, it envisaged twelve new local bodies after dividing existing five local constituencies in Nuwara Eliya. Ambegamuwa and Nuwara Eliya constituencies would be divided to three further constituencies while Walapone, Kotmale and Hanguranketha will be re- demarcated to form two constituencies each. “Soon after the proposals submitted, a Technical Committee was appointed by the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils headed by Chief Secretary of Province to evaluate the possibilities of creating new bodies considering geographical location, population and access to local bodies”.

“The committee’s evaluation process paved the way for the formation of new bodies. We have made our case on why new bodies should be created for the betterment of the people and their day to day access with government services. In Ambagamuwa where nearly 250,000 people reside, only one council attends to their needs. Plantation people living in remote areas have to travel about 65 kilometres to access state services,”

The conduct of the local polls now hinges on one factor – the issue of a Gazette notification by Local Government Minister Musthapha. Yet, until that is done and the Election Commission initiates measures to conduct nominations and elections thereafter, doubts will linger. More so, since it comes after a game of public teasing which had been going on under one pretext or the other.

A more significant aspect of all this would be how issues within the SLFP will be resolved. Friday’s meeting of SLFP Ministers and MPs will be crucial. The mood among SLFPers backing Mahinda Rajapaksa is that they should go it alone together with the ‘Joint Opposition’ at the local polls. Such a move will no doubt precipitate a situation where more dismissals of Rajapaksa loyalists will become inevitable. An extension of that position would be the threat of defeat at the polls. Rajapaksa declared last week that the SLFP would come third or fourth.

If that were to happen, it is no secret that Sirisena would not only lose his leverage within the party but also trigger questions over his presidency. Perhaps to shore up situation, some of his advisers are now coming up with new ideas. One is to table in Parliament the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the bond issue at the Central Bank once it is received by Sirisena. The term of the Commission has now been extended till December 8 and public hearings are to resume next Thursday. This is besides initiating legal action against those identified for wrong doing. Placing the report before Parliament, Sirisena loyalists believe, will demonstrate that the President was transparent in his actions from the moment he appointed the Commission and its findings were reported to him. The burning question would be whether it would take place before the local council elections.

The coming weeks, no doubt, will be most challenging for President Sirisena. He has been largely blamed for putting off Provincial Council elections. He has also been blamed for delaying the local council polls on different occasions and been accused of being frightened of elections. Hence, how he would engage in course correction for the rest of his term, when relations with his coalition partner UNP have soured considerably, remains crucial.

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