SLFP, ‘JO’ talks intensify; Sirisena asked to sever links with UNP

  • Both factions appoint teams to negotiate moves to jointly contest local polls, but Rajapaksa places tough conditions 
  • Senasinghe’s media conference remarks pushes President to ‘JO’ corner, insists on total commitment to a clean and corruption-free Govt
  • Party leaders discuss various means of holding LG polls early, Musthapha no-confidence motions unlikely to come up before committee stage vote on his ministry

With a new thaw in relations, feuding factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are inching their way towards reconciliation.
This is notwithstanding the main cause for that need for unity – winning the local government elections in January next year, almost fading away. Hopes have been raised again afer the Elections Commission announced yeserday theat nominations for 93 laocal bodies will be held likely on December 12, just 14 days afer tomorrow. A Gazette notification is to be issued today. Yet, a fresh rapport appears to have emerged.

On Wednesday Joint Opposition leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa urged his ‘JO’ leader in Parliament Dinesh Gunawardena to raise an issue of privilege. This was after UNP State Minister Sujeeva Senasinghe made some strong remarks against President Maithripala Sirisena at a news conference following revelations that Senasinghe had been in touch with Arjun Aloysious, the man who was being investigated by COPE, the parliamentary committee on public enterprises, while he was a member of the committee. Gunawardena did raise issue saying the State Minister had violated Standing Orders. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has now referred the matter to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee chaired by Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC.

Also on Wednesday, four leading Buddhist prelates, including the head of the Buddhist Vihare in Los Angeles, met President Sirisena. This was over reports that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was to be arrested over a case involving the construction of a memorial in remembrance of his father D.A. Rajapaksa in their southern ancestral home of Medamulana. If there were any allegations, they said, that a case could have been filed against him. The fact that an arrest was being planned smacked of political vengeance. That such a move came in the backdrop of the new rapport and the ongoing dialogue was cause for concern for Sirisena. He put the matter on hold.

The past many days have seen an increase in contacts between the two factions. The two sides have appointed committees of three members each to take forward the reconciliation efforts. Representing the Sirisena faction are Nimal Siripala de Silva, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Dilan Perera. Representing the Rajapaksa faction are C.B. Ratnayake, Pavithra Wanniaratchchi and Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena. The task of the two teams is to narrow down the differences and to reach accord on contesting the local government elections together. That could well be a stepping stone for cooperation in other areas.

“Even issue by issue we can extend support to the Government. However, first our expectations will have to be fulfilled,” ‘JO’ leader Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. As revealed in these columns earlier, Minister Susil Premjayantha, with the blessings of President Sirisena, initiated the first dialogue between the two rival factions. He went as far as to address a meeting of the ‘JO’ parliamentary group. There, he explained the need for the SLFP to unite so the party will become stronger.

At this meeting, some MPs expressed the view that they would have to face the same issues they encountered during the parliamentary elections in August 2015. At that time, Sirisena declared that Rajapaksa, even if he won, would not be made the Prime Minister. Rajapaksa said Premajayantha’s verbal proposal was rejected at the first meeting. After a lengthy debate, Premjayantha was asked to forward a letter setting out the issues he sought to discuss. That letter reached Rajapaksa the previous Friday. One of the preconditions of the ‘JO’ is for Sirisena to sack the UNP from the Government. “Rather than the UNP, the policies of our two sides are almost the same,” declared Rajapaksa. Another ‘JO’ demand has been the immediate halt to the sale of ‘national assets.’ Yesterday Minister Susil Premajayantha continued his discussions with ‘JO’ leaders.

On the other side, many speakers at SLFP’s Central Committee meeting chaired by Sirisena on Tuesday evening were also in favour of reuniting. There were exceptions too. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga asked “horuth ekka veda karanna puluwanda?” or can we work with rogues? Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, senior Vice President of the SLFP, shot back “Eeta vediya horu innawa ney deng” or there are more rogues now. Felix Perera, a former Fisheries Minister, retorted “obathumiya ge kaaley horu hitiye nedda?” or were there no rogues during your tenure. No decisions were reached at the meeting.
Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, State Minister for Finance told the Sunday Times, “President Sirisena told the Working Committee that Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and John Seneviratne were also holding discussions with the ‘Joint Opposition’ and they were being assisted by former Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne.” He said in addition there were several others also including Minister Susil Premajayantha.

He added, “Jayaratne explained the consequences of the two sides contesting separately and the advantages if we were to contest unitedly. He said that whenever the party was divided, since 1956 the party suffered losses. He said the differences in the past were much more serious, but they were able to unite and in the event of contesting separately the chances of losing were high. Several members agreed that discussions should continue in order to bring the two sides together.
“Several members also raised the issue about the criticism made by UNP backbenchers against President Sirisena. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva commented about State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe’s strong criticism in particular over the Bond Commission. President Sirisena said some of the UNPers believe that they were able to form a government on their own, but Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is aware that formation of such a government on their own was not possible. The President said that internationally the government’s recognition has come due to the co-habitation of the two main parties. He said he was confident that the Prime Minister did not want to breakaway.”

President Maithripala Sirisena speaking at the Nikarawetiya meeting where he lashed out at those who were critical of his policy of clean and corruption free governance.

Minister John Seneviratne said “the majority of Central Committee members were of the view that ‘we should contest together’.” He said President Sirisena thanked SLFP members for highlighting the Treasury bond issue. Many members asked him to act on the Commission report once he receives it.”
Before leaving for his daily yoga classes, clad in a blue track suit Rajapaksa appeared relaxed as he spoke from his Wijerama residence, once the residence of President Sirisena. Interrupting him on a few occasions were a stream of visitors, most of them clasping a sheaf of betel leaves. Some greeted him, went on their knees in reverence. He touched their heads. They stood behind him to take photographs. Others were carrying invitations mostly for weddings. Ushering them in was Udith Lokubandara, his Secretary. A former parliamentarian, he is the son of W.J.M. Lokubandara, a former Speaker.

When the first moves at reconciliation were made, Rajapaksa said, he had asked that all sections of the ‘JO’ be consulted. This is particularly to obviate criticism that he was acting like a dictator. So when Premjayantha’s letter arrived, Rajapaksa said he spoke to the ‘JO’ parliamentary group on Tuesday. Among the highlights in the letter was a proposal to reactivate the People’s Alliance where Rajapaksa remains the President and former Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne the General Secretary. A common symbol was to be found and candidates are to be fielded jointly. The basis suggested was to share 40% of the candidates by each side and leave the remaining 20% for other partner members of the alliance. Ahead of this meeting, Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and John Seneviratne also met Rajapaksa at his Wijerama Residence.

“We cannot work with the UNP. This is our concern,” Rajapaksa said. His remarks that “even issue by issue we can support the Government” seemed to suggest that his faction’s support would be available to Sirisena beyond the realm of the local government elections. However, the moot question is whether Sirisena would heed the ‘JO’ demand to part ways with the UNP. That is a highly unlikely prospect. Even if he does not, the chances of the two sides forging unity for the local poll is not an impossibility. Here again, there could be a two-fold outcome – it could strengthen relations within the SLFP and distance it even further from the UNP. More so, when the polls campaign turns acrimonious. Asked about investigations pending or concluded against members of his family, Rajapaksa replied, “Ehwaa usaviye beraagamu” or we will settle them in courts. “Only Maithripala Sirisena can unite the party. No one else can. He is the Executive President and leader of the SLFP,” declared Rajapaksa. Yet, how far could Sirisena go?

His confidence that the Prime Minister would not want to break away is by itself a political puzzle. Ahead of the 2015 presidential polls, Sirisena teamed up with the UNP with his own backers in the SLFP. The rest in the SLFP supported Rajapaksa. Therefore, if his assertions were to come right, he is hoping to only win back the rival faction together to fight the local election and to govern thereafter – with the UNP. In a sense, such an exercise, if successful, would amount to a “grand coalition” with virtually no opposition or a political pyramid where Sirisena sits at the apex. Of course the question remains whether the UNP would favour such a move. A high ranking UNP source said “we have no concerns about the SLFP re-uniting. That is their internal matter. However, if it is a matter of forming a Government, we have 113 in our favour.”

There are other senior SLFPers who hold a different view. They concede they are badly miffed by a number of developments, some of them most recent. That includes the move by the UNP to get Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrested. This, they believe, was to scuttle their ongoing dialogue. However, a UNP minister who did not wish to be identified countered this by saying, “When we do not act, we are blamed for it. When we do, we are blamed again.” Another is the news conference called by Development Strategies and International Trade State Minister Sujeeva Senasinghe. There he castigated President Sirisena and claimed he was doing it on his own “without the permission of the leader.” If this assertion is correct, he has made himself liable for disciplinary action by the party hierarchy. Here are some of the highlights of the news conference:

“I have respect among lawyers because I am a clean person. The treasury bond issue is very complicated. It may take 6-7 months to understand the transactions. I studied a lot about this. I am the one who asked most of the questions from Arjun Aloysius at the COPE. Nobody else questioned him. I am the one who questioned him about the conflict of interest of having his father in law as the Governor of the Central Bank…….

“The Central Bank had said that there was no Board Paper on Direct Placements since 2008. Cannot the President understand this? This is where the catch is. We submitted this to the Auditor General. He did not take care of this. After the first COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises) ended its probe, I got an opportunity to write the book. I did not have the information and therefore got details from Arjuna Mahendran and other officials. Is it wrong that I spoke to him? This is a plan to fix the UNP. Even the Auditor General and COPE Chairman were on the other side. Former COPE Chairman D.E.W. Gunasekara was also on the other side. This became a headache to some. I was an obstacle to them. If I make that disclosure it will be known who pressurised me. After the first COPE committee sessions were over, I started writing the book. I had to find information from persons like Arjun Aloysius, Arjuna Mahendran and former officials as to how these transactions take place. That is the reason I had to talk to Arjun Aloysisus. He is not an accused anywhere. After the second COPE was set up, I never spoke to him.

“The Commission has now said that the information gathered was not relevant, but why did they release our names and sling mud at us? The media has crucified us. One media institution has gone on to say I won the elections using this money. I am speaking on my own. I have not even asked the Prime Minister. I am disappointed about the President. We made sacrifices and got him elected not to lay political traps. One institution has created the impression that Rajapaksa era will be ended and the UNP also ended. By 2020 so he (President) will inherit power.

“I called him and told him a month ago. What has happened by extending the term of the Commission? It should have been given three months and the matter ended there. Here the term is being extended to give them the opportunity to sling mud at us. Where are the Commissions for the MiG deal, what about the spectrum deal, for the ship deal, advertising firms? These are my personal ideas, not the Prime Minister’s ideas. We made sacrifices to form this Government. We need to protect it. Ravi Karunanayake is my colleague. I do not criticise him, but also do not defend him. There is no COPE ruling that I cannot speak to anybody. If I am having deals it would be only two calls.

“The Bond Commission is not something the President needed. It was appointed to sling mud at us and it ended. This government should continue. If the President is attacked by a website that is not correct. In the same manner if we are attacked through the media that is also not correct. When he initially said he was coming with 20 persons to join us and it was revealed that only four persons were coming. But, Ms Rosy Senanayake and I said he should be accepted. He is the President, he cannot point fingers. If he can appoint a Commission on bond transactions, he can do the same thing about other issues. This is my personal opinion. It is painful when my character is assassinated. The President should not be a part to destroy a young UNP politician.”

Senasinghe’s remarks have generated serious controversy in Government circles. Some SLFP ministers say his role should be probed. He was not an original member of the COPE but was a replacement after a UNP Tamil parliamentarian representing the hill country resigned unexpectedly. According to COPE records, he has stoutly defended the UNP position that there was no wrong doing in the Central Bank bond issue. His book was an elaboration of this position. Telephone records before the Bond Commission claimed that from July 4, 2015 to March 3 this year, he had made 227 calls to Arjun Aloysius whose Perpetual Treasuries Ltd. (PTL) was the subject of the COPE probe. This revelation established that Senasinghe had known Aloysius at least from July 2015. A question that arises in the public interest is whether his relationship prompted Senasinghe to defend PTL, move to courts to seek to prohibit reportage (later withdrawn) and write a book defending the bond transactions?

At the SLFP Central Committee meeting Sirisena said that there was no substance in the claims made by State Minister Senasinghe. He said he would make a statement at the next meeting of the Government Parliamentary Group. Addressing a public meeting in Nikaweratiya on Friday, Sirisena alluded to the remarks. According to a news release from the Presidential Secretariat, he said, “If there are complaints against my decisions to stop corruption and fraud, I will continue the struggle together with people — President.

“If there are undue criticism and complaints against the decisions taken by me to stop corruption and fraud, I am ready to leave all positions and join the people to continue the struggle.

“As the government of SLFP did wrong things, the SLFP candidates lost in 2015. If the UNP is doing the same faults and mistakes being in the government, people will not approve that”, he said. “The people elected a new government, expecting a correct programme which would change the existed (sic) corrupted system of governance. Everybody should be ready to start a correct journey to fulfil that expectation of the people. The politicians should love the country and the people, without acting according to their political powers and private agendas,” the President emphasised.

“Whatever said by whomsoever, I am committed to a clean and good political culture throughout my 50 years of political life. I will act with patience and equanimity with my experience of that long political journey. I am not a stranger to the political arena”, he stated. “Though there are complaints against the decision to postpone the Provincial Council Election, even the SLFP wants the elections to be held soon. We have done every commitment in this regard”, he said.”

As he made those remarks, more than 45 UNP parliamentarians handed in a signed petition to President Sirisena. In that they urged him to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to probe corruption during the previous regime. This is much the same way he has appointed a Commission to probe the current administration over the bond issue.

These developments came as the prospects of local government polls in January next year almost diminished. This was after the Court of Appeal on Wednesday suspended until December 4. the operation of the Delimitation Commission report gazetted in February this year. This, the petitioners have said, was on the grounds that the Minister, in terms of the law, was not empowered to alter the number of members from a particular ward in a local authority. He was only empowered to make alterations to the boundaries of the local authority. This was on a petition filed by six electors from different parts of the country. A three-judge bench observed that the Local Government Minister had acted ultra vires the powers vested in him under the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance. Besides hearing the petition, the Court is also to hear intervenient petitioners from political parties and civic action groups. The Attorney General is to now file a motion in the Appeal Court tomorrow to seek the early hearing and conclusion of the case.

At Tuesday’s Central Committee meeting, Sirisena said that they had prepared a list of candidates and urged members to be ready for local polls in January. Though 90 percent was complete, he said that he had agreed that the lists could be amended depending on the ongoing discussions with the ‘Joint Opposition.’ That has not prevented the UNP from accusing the SLFP of being responsible for moves to delay the polls. Minister Lakshman Kiriella, Leader of the House, made the charge at a party leaders’ meeting on Friday evening. Even Premier Wickremesinghe who had just returned to Colombo from New Delhi took part in the meeting chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. However, the SLFP representatives strongly denied the allegation. The party was represented by Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sarath Amunugama and Mahinda Samarasinghe.

“They kept blaming me then for delaying elections. They called me all kinds of names. People can express their views through the franchise and this Government has been denying it,” said Mahinda Rajapaksa. He said various excuses have been given and added that “this is killing democracy.” He said there is no point blaming the people. The Government must answer whoever is responsible. “There are stories that the counsel from Local Government Minister Musthapha’s chambers were responsible. If this is correct, it is a shame,” he said.

The ‘JO’ parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena has already handed in a motion of no-confidence against Musthapa. Another motion of no-confidence was also handed over by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which is demanding that Minister Musthapa should resign.

JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva told the Sunday Times, “We will not allow the postponement of elections due to internal divisions within the SLFP. They cannot rob the democratic rights of the people until they iron out their differences. It is very clear that it is the SLFP members who have gone to court to get the elections delayed. Therefore, we need to win the right to hold the elections. On the other hand, we must take stern action against all those who tried to deny the people their right to an election. For our part, the JVP will do its utmost to ensure that the election is held as quickly as possible.

“We have organized a series of protests in this regard. The first of these will be held in Colombo on November 30. It is the Minister in charge of the subject Musthapha who has failed to perform his duty consecutively. It is the Minister who issues the Gazette. What he has done is to issue a Gazette notification which can be easily challenged in courts. Therefore, he has either neglected his duties or deliberately issued a Gazette notification which can be challenged.”
The party leaders meeting chaired by Speaker Jayasuriya on Friday evening in Parliament focused on ways and means of holding the local elections early. Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya and Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya together with two of his officials were present.

One of the matters discussed was the possibility of the Attorney General filing a motion before the Court of Appeal to advance hearings on the petition by six electors. Another was to introduce a Bill to give legal effect to the creation of multi-member wards in local bodies, the subject of argument before the Court. However, it was noted that it would be time consuming. It would take a minimum of one and half months.

Elections Commission Chairman Deshapriya said he would recommend to his other members that polls be held to the 93 local bodies which do not have multi-member wards. However, some party representatives did not favour the conduct of a staggered poll. The meeting also saw Deputy Minister Ajith Perera who was one of those representing the UNP declare that he planned legal action over references made to him for making telephone calls to Arjun Aloysius. He, however, did not say against whom such action was being taken.

The remarks led to Premier Wickremesinghe intervening to say he was also going to make a request for the transcripts of the conversations carried out by his party members. He said this was to “initiate disciplinary action” if there has been any wrongdoing. However, the Commission of Inquiry into the bond issue said that only call records were available from service providers and not details of conversations.

‘JO’ parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake insisted that a date be given before December 6 to debate their respective no-confidence motions against Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Musthapa. This would be ahead of the votes of his Ministry being taken up for discussion during the committee stage debate of the budget. Premier Wickremesinghe said this was not possible. Party leaders are to meet the Speaker again to decide on a date.

The political developments in the past many days, it is no secret, have further deteriorated the relations between the UNP and the SLFP. The statement by Sujeewa Senasinghe has helped President Sirisena move more towards reaching a rapprochement with the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp, said an SLFP Minister negotiating between the two SLFP factions. To that extent, it has added impetus to the negotiations now under way within the feuding factions of the SLFP. Quite clearly, the UNP has been drifting away with little or no strategy to cope with the issues it faces. Like the Sujeeva Senasinghe fiasco, sporadic responses at the lower level seems to be doing more damage to the party that is already reeling from the ill effects of the bond scam. More so with the absence of any inputs from the party hierarchy.

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