We have to form a new government

ParlimentIn the wee hours of April 3, 2004, Maithripala Sirisena, the then General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, received a telephone call from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. A sleepless election night had come to an end and the results indicated the United People’s Freedom Alliance, of which the SLFP was the main stakeholder, was in a position to form a government. The former President, who was also the leader of the UPFA, sounded jubilant.

“Maithri, it is clear that the UPFA can form a government. We will secure a clear majority. I need to discuss some important matters about forming a new government. Can you meet me immediately?” the former President asked her General Secretary who was at his personal residence in Polonnaruwa.

“Madam, it will take at least four hours for me to come to Colombo,” the General Secretary replied. At that point, the former President immediately arranged a helicopter to facilitate transport for Sirisena.

When the SLFP General Secretary arrived at the President’s Office, two gentlemen were already having a serious discussion with the former President inside her office room. They were Kusumsiri Balapatandendi, former Secretary to the President and the late Lakshman Kadirgarmar, the dynamic and charismatic Foreign Minister of the CBK administration. As the former President saw Sirisena, she invited him to join the meeting.

“We have to form a new government tomorrow. The Prime Minister and the new Cabinet should take oaths,” Kumaratunga explained.

“Who should be the Prime Minister, Maithri?” the former President suddenly asked an unexpected question. All eyes in the meeting room were directed at the General Secretary of the party.

“Madam, it is you who should decide the Prime Minister,” Maithri replied politely, with a smile on his face, as he was totally unprepared for a question of that nature.

“Now the JVP has become very powerful within the UPFA. They have about 40 seats in the House. Tilvin Silva has already sent me a letter suggesting three names for the Prime Minister’s post,” CBK said while handing over the letter to the General Secretary.

The JVP had suggested three senior SLFP Parliamentarians as potential candidates for the post of Prime Minister. Their first choice was Lakshman Kadirgarmar, an Oxford educated lawer who was arguably the most successful Foreign Minister produced by the country. Their second choice was Anura Bandaranaike, the brother of President Kumaratunga, a former Speaker and a former Opposition Leader. As its last choice, the JVP had nominated Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary of the SLFP who signed the UPFA agreement on behalf of the party.

However, Maithripala Sirisena’s response to the letter came as a shock to everyone.

“Madam, our voters expect Mahinda Rajapaksa to be the Prime Minister.”

Kumaratunga was taken aback for a moment with Sirisena’s answer. She never considered Rajapaksa as a potential candidate for the position. She attempted to shoot down Sirisena’s idea stating the JVP was not ready to accept Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister of the UPFA government.

In response, Sirisena said the UPFA should act in the best interests in the people without giving in to the JVP’s demands. However, the closed door discussion ended without conclusion and it was clear that Kadirgarmar – who was fully backed by the JVP – was the front-runner for the post of Prime Minister.

Immediately after the meeting with Kumaratunga, Sirisena and Balapatabendi visited Kadirgarmar’s residence at the Wijerama Mawatha to meet him for a separate discussion. For one and a half hours, Sirisena attempted to convince Kadirgarmar that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the people’s choice for the Prime Minister’s post. Towards the end of the meeting, Kadirgarmar, though reluctantly, agreed to stay out of the Prime Ministerial race.

Then, Sirisena and Balapatabendi again visited the President’s House to meet the former President. They informed Kumaratunga that the former Foreign Minister agreed to opt him out. “What about the other two names?” the former President asked indicating she was still not ready to accept Rajapaksa as a viable option. At this point, Sirisena explained that leaving Rajapaksa out of this would cause a division in the party and that would eventually play into the hands of the UNP. He said in no uncertain terms that the UPFA would not be able to form a government if the party failed to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister of the new government. After long-drawn discussions, the former President agreed to appoint Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister as there was no other option.

It was Maithripala Sirisena who was instrumental in making Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Minister of the UPFA government in 2004. Rajapaksa too was aware of this and many assumed that he would, in return, appoint Maithripala Sirisena as the Prime Minister of the UPFA government after the General Election in 2010. But, after the election, Rajapaksa appointed D.M. Jayaratne, who was already in the twilight of his political career, as his Prime Minister. The appointment came as a disappointment to Maithripala Sirisena and Nimal Siripala de Silva who were senior and active politicians of the SLFP.

It was later revealed that the Rajapaksas were unhappy about the ‘theme’ of Maithripala Sirisena’s election campaign in 2010 and they considered him as a threat to their political careers. The theme of his election campaign was “Maithri yugayak arambamu’ and the Rajapaksas feared that Sirisena would position himself as a future President if he became the Prime Minister of the UPFA government. Within the first four years of Rajapaksa presidency, Sirisena was never in the picture when it came to Prime Ministerial prospects. It was no secret to the SLFP that Basil Rajapaksa was grooming himself to be the ‘future’ Prime Minister of the UPFA government, in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s third term. As a result, there was a deep sense of frustration among seniors of the party.

However, the post of the Prime Minister came to Maithripala Sirisena on a platter when it was revealed that the opposition was considering to field him as the common candidate of the opposition at the Presidential election. Two days before his defection, Rajapaksa agreed to offer the Prime Ministerial post to Sirisena in a desperate bid to prevent a possible split in the party. At that point, the offer was too late and Sirisena had already made up his mind to declare himself as the common candidate of the opposition.

MR unlikely to meet Maithri again

It was against this backdrop that, Rajapaksa, along with some of the MPs supporting him, met President Sirisena to discuss five main points. However, it was clear to political observers that the ‘bottom-line’ of the meeting was to urge President Sirisena to make way for Rajapaksa to become the Prime Ministerial candidate of the ruling. Sirisena, showing his astuteness and political acumen, agreed for a meeting with Rajapaksa but promptly shot down his prime ministerial hopes. From the standpoint of the Rajapaksa camp, the meeting ended unsuccessfully without leaving space for anther discussion. Inside sources of the SLFP said Rajapaksa lashed out at those who organized the meeting saying the discussion was a total embarrassment for him.

With the outcome of the ‘unsuccessful meeting’, the Rajapaksa camp realized that the former President would not be accommodated as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the SLFP. Now, the group is ready to contest separately for the Parliamentary election with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the leader of their new political coalition.

The first indication in this regard came during the Kurunegala rally. Two hours before the Kurunegala rally started, Rajapaksa left Colombo saying he wanted to go to Kandy via kurunegala. Although Rajapaksa did not take part in the Kurunegala rally, he went to the venue and observed the crowd from his vehicles. It was an indication that the former President was assessing his strength before making a final decision on contesting the General election as a separate group. Rajapaksa also observed the May Day rally organized by the pro-MR group in a similar manner, without making a public appearance at the rally.

While addressing the Kurunegala rally, Wimal Weerawansa gave a clear indication of the pro-MR group’s intentions when he called for immediate dissolution of Parliament. Many speakers who addressed the rally said President Sirisena should dissolve Parliament immediately and go for a General election. This came as a surprise to some as they thought the Rajapaksa camp was not ready for an early election.

Pro-MR group prepares to contest separately

The Rajapaksa camp prefers an early election for two reasons. Firstly, they fear that the next General election will be held under a new electoral system, as suggested by some sections of the SLFP and the JHU. The new electoral system will be detrimental to the Rajapaksa camp as they cannot thrive on the so called popularity of former President Rajapaksa under the new system. Each candidate will have to look after his or her electorate and their individual performances will make a huge impact on the final result of the party. So, the Rajapaksa acolytes will not be able to go around the country – as they do now – carrying posters and cut-outs of their leader to entice voters. On the other hand, they think dissolution of Parliament will prevent the dissolution of over 230 local government bodies whose terms have already come to an end. The dissolution of Pradeshiya Sabhas will be a severe blow to the Rajapaksa campaign as “pradeshiya sabha members’ are the main driving force behind the movement.

Under the previous regime, the PS members and local government representatives received ample money to carry out development projects in their respective areas. This entire process, needless to say, was characterized with corruption and financial misappropriation. While carrying out various development projects in their villages, a sizable proportion of PS members used these public funds for personal purposes, at various levels. It ‘oiled’ development wheels at village level and this was a win-win situation for the government as well as for the local government representatives.

When the new government came to power, funds did not trickle down to Pradeshiya Sabha members and it was a matter of serious concern for them. That was one reason why, a large number of UPFA local government members aligned themselves with the ‘pro-Rajapaksa’ campaign. They even go to the extent of spending their personal money to support to support this campaign as think bringing Rajapaksa back to power is the only way-out for them.

The Rajapaksa camp will lose this support base if and when the government dissolves Pradeshiya Sabhas. That was why former President asked about dissolution of Pradehsiya Sabhas during the discussion with President Sirisena last week. To prevent any such development, the Rajapaksa group is now exerting pressure on the President to dissolve Parliament and go for a General election.

At the same time, the BBS is attempting to form another political movement with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their leader. This will come as a pro-Sinhala Buddhist political movement and they think Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be a leader who can appeal to the Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments. This political party and the pro-MR group will act separately at the next election. But, they are likely to unite in Parliament, after the election. By contesting as two political fronts, they are trying to secure a bigger ‘Parliamentary share’ for Rajapaksa after the election. At the same time, they are trying to distance the BBS ‘officially’ from the Rajapaksa campaign as the hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist organization was instrumental in driving away minority votes from the MR camp at the presidential election. While distancing the BBS, Rajapaksa is attempting to cash in on that ‘distance’ by fielding the BBS as a separate political entity at the next election. To conceal this plan, the BBS will openly criticize the conduct of Mahinda Rajapaksa as part of their election campaign to make ethnic and religious minorities feel that the former President is no longer with the BBS.

Dissolution of Parliament

Interestingly, the United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the pro-Rajapaksa group are on the same page when it comes to early dissolution of Parliament and holding General election. The UNP is of the strong belief that holding a General election at this point would be advantageous to the party. The UNP’s willingness for an election was clearly demonstrated at the mammoth May Day rally organized by the party at Campbell Park in Borella.

President Sirisena has assured the UNP on several occasions that Parliament will be dissolved before the end of May. It is now getting delayed due to differences of opinion over electoral reforms. Although there was a party leaders meeting on Monday over electoral reforms, the discussion ended without any positive outcome as various parties came up with various concerns in this regard. As there was no final agreement, the President informed party leaders to present their written submissions on Wednesday.

President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the National Executive Committee have already agreed that the next election will be held under the present electoral system. This decision will remain the same even if Parliament passes the 20th Amendment as the public requires more time to familiarize themselves with electoral reforms. In that context, it is not exactly clear as to why certain political parties are pushing for a hasty electoral reforms process. The SLFP is desperate to get the General election postponed as they are aware of the fact that their party machinery is in total disarray following the outcome of the presidential election. The JHU too, apparently, wants more time to formulate their future political plans and strategies. At this point, it looks as if the JHU will contest under the UPFA ticket at the next Parliamentary election. It is evident that these parties are trying to rush electoral reforms in a bid to delay dissolution of Parliament.

Speaking to the Daily News, Leader of the Democratic People’s Party Mano Ganesan explained the position of minority parties on this matter.

“There should not be any haste in adopting the 20th Amendment as it has to ensure rights of all political parties functioning in the country. That is why the Assembly of Minority Parties (AMP) unanimously agreed this should not be treated as an urgent bill. The majority of political parties representing minorities consider ‘district’ as their base and not ‘electorates’. Therefore, their concerns should be addressed before introducing electoral reforms. That is why we urge the government to hold the forthcoming Parliamentary election under the present PR system,” Ganesan said.

“We are not against electoral reforms. But, this should be done with consensus and not in an ad-hoc manner. Sometimes this process may compel us to hand over this task to the new Parliament. We don’t have any issue with that,” the party leader added.

However, before dissolution of Parliament, the MPs have to ensure that the Speaker has authorized the 19th Amendment to the constitution which was passed with an overwhelming majority in Parliament. Informed sources told the Daily News that there was a delay in obtaining the Speaker’s Authorisation for the 19th Amendment.

Following its passage in Parliament, the Attorney General’s Department has to fulfill necessary legal requirements to obtain the Speaker’s authorisation. A spokesman from the AG’s department told the Daily News that the Attorney General’s work was completed on Friday. But, the Daily News learns that the English and Tamil translations of the final document were not finalised on time and that was the reason for the delay on the part of the Speaker.

The Speaker was due to authorise the constitutional Amendment on Monday but it did not happen due to this “translation issue”. A senior spokesman of the government told the Daily News on Monday that it would at least take two more days to finalise the translations.

What requires emphasis is the fact that as long as the 19th Amendment does not have the Speaker’s authorisation, the obnoxious 18th Amendment is still in force. If President Sirisena dissolves Parliament before obtaining the Speaker’s authorisation for the 19th Amendment, the entire effort will be in vain and the constitution reform process will come back to square one.

Defence Secretary in hot waters

The President’s security still remains a hot topic among political sources due to certain developments last week. It was revealed that the IGP and the senior DIG who is in charge of the President’s Security Division had not taken adequate measures to ensure security for the Head of State. Both the IGP and the head of the President’s Security Division were appointed by the former President while he was in office. They were not replaced by President Sirisena when he was elected to power and that decision raised many an eyebrow.

In addition to that, some senior officials who worked very closely with the former President and his family members were handpicked for key position. One such official was B.M.U.D. Basnayake who was appointed as the Secretary of Defence replacing Gotabaya Rajapaksa. His conduct came under serious question when the Defence Secretary made media statement over the accounts held by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Avant Garde investigations. Two months ago, during a session of the National Executive Council, it was revealed that the new Defence Secretary maintained close connections with his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In spite of such revelations, he continues to function as the Defence Secretary of the country, posing a serious threat to the country’s new administration.

It was revealed last week that a remark former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga made with regard to the investigation into Avant Garde private security firm was leaked to the former Defence Secretary within 30 minutes. The remark was made by the former President during a telephone conversation with the Basnayake and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, apparently, was privy to this discussion! It is quite evident that secret channels of information are still being maintained at the Ministry of Defence and the new government has miserably failed on the intelligence front.

The country still does not have an overall intelligence chief to deal with such delicate matters. Although a few names have already been proposed in this regard, no final decision has been made. The absence of an overall intelligence chief poses a grave threat to the lives of leaders of the present government, including President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Those who worked very closely with the top echelons of former government are still holding key officers and no action has been taken against them.  (DailyNews)

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