Soon after President Maithripala Sirisena assumed duties as the SLFP Chairman, his close associates, including former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, called on him to introduce drastic reforms to ‘clean up’ the party. For obscure reasons, such calls fell on deaf ears and no tangible action was taken to bring about meaningful party reforms. He even retained the General Secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA who had been appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Due to his failure to reform, President Sirisena had a political party that was a kind of a ‘monster’ beyond his control.
The nomination process of the UPFA was, therefore, entirely handled by its General Secretary Susil Premajayantha and President Sirisena’s internal battle for good governance in the party suffered a serious setback.
When he realized that he was not in a position to prevent Rajapaksa from becoming a candidate, President Sirisena laid down certain conditions to allay the fears of those who were concerned about Rajapaksa’s return to politics.
The President insisted that Rajapaksa should not be appointed as the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA. He also added that the former President would not be appointed as the leader of the UPFA group contesting the election. Another stated condition was that Rajapaksa should only contest from the Hambantota district, his traditional stronghold. President Sirisena also opposed giving nominations to nearly 20 ex-MPs of the UPFA who faced bribery, corruption and criminal charges. The large majority of them were staunch supporters of the former President.
The Rajapaksa group, despite all their bravado, had to bow to certain conditions including the one preventing Rajapaksa’s prime ministerial candidacy. At the same time, they circumvented certain conditions by exerting pressure on the President. For instance, UPFA seniors, including the party General Secretary, stressed that the former President should contest from the Kurunegala district to make way for his son, Namal Rajapaksa, to enter the new Parliament with ease.
Finally, on July 9, ending weeks of speculation, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed UPFA nomination papers to contest the Parliamentary election from the Kurunegala district.
Rajapaka’s path to nomination was rugged. Even on Wednesday night, he had doubts about contesting under the UPFA ticket due to various issues with regard to nominations. Some of his die-hard loyalists did not receive nominations to contest from the UPFA. This sent shock-waves across the pro-Rajapaksa camp on Wednesday as they initially thought they could get nomination for the entire ‘Abhayaramaya cabal’ from the UPFA.
One key issue was the UPFA’s decision on Wednesday to reject nominations for Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga, a staunch supporter of the pro-Rajapaksa group. Ranatunga’s application for nomination was turned down on the basis that two of his siblings, namely Arjuna Ranatunga and Ruwan Ranatunga, were in the UPFA candidates’ list for the Gampaha district. Both of them are ex-Parliamentarians. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, too, was of the view that the Western Province Chief Minister should not be given nomination to contest the Parliamentary election.
The rejection of Ranatunga’s nomination was a serious blow to the pro-Rajapaksa camp. Ruffled by the development, Rajapaksa informed the UPFA seniors that he would field a separate team for the election, if the party rejected Ranatunga’s nomination.
He also asserted that all members of his ‘core group’ should get nominations of the UPFA, irrespective of allegations against them. The ‘core group’ included Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Johnston Fernando, Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Lakshman Wasantha Perera who were previously blacklisted by President Sirisena.
Premajayantha ‘man of the match’
It is learnt that the pro-Rajapaksa group even prepared a separate list of candidates as a contingency plan. They also explored options to contest under the ‘Apey Sri Lanka Nidahas Peramuna (Our Sri Lanka Freedom Front) under the ‘budding flower’ symbol. They also sought legal advice as part of their preparations for a last minute pull-out.
One of their advisers was a former bigwig of the judiciary who recently joined the Rajapaksa camp by making a public appearance at one of his meetings in the deep south.
While making preparations to pull-out, they kept exerting pressure on the UPFA to accept Ranatunga’s nominations as well as those of other members of the ‘Abhayaramaya cabal’. Former Parliamentarian Dullas Alahapperuma was heavily involved in the discussions with UPFA seniors over the nominations’ issue.
Rajapaksa initially planned to sign his nomination papers on Wednesday. . He even had an auspicious time to sign nomination papers at his residence in Mirihana on Wednesday afternoon. However, the plan did not materialize as there was a strong sense of indecisiveness over the nomination process of the UPFA. It was also revealed that the anti-Rajapaksa group within the SLFP also prepared a separate list of nominations without the names of Rajapaksa allies.
That was an indication that they too were expecting an eleventh hour pull-out just before the signing of nomination papers.
At the same time, there were various issues over the national list of the UPFA as a number of party seniors expressing willingness to enter Parliament from the national list. Among them were the General Secretaries of the UPFA and SLFP, Dullas Alahapperuma, Dilan Perera, Professor G.L. Peiris and several other Parliamentarians of the UPFA.
In a major development, the UPFA, on Thursday morning, agreed to nominate Prasanna Ranatunga to contest from the Gampaha district in the face of heavy pressure exerted by the pro-Rajapaksa faction. It was clear that the UPFA General Secretary had turned himself into an open supporter of the former President who stepped down from the party leadership six months ago.
Man of the series
The UPFA General Secretary even attended a meeting that took place at Prasanna Ranatunga’s residence on Wednesday, where he was dubbed by Ranatunga as the ‘man of the match’.
The remark was a clear indication of the role played by Premajayantha in the UPFA’s nomination process. Acknowledging Ranatunga’s remark, Premajayantha had reportedly replied: ‘Prasanna is the Man of the Series’!
The decision to give Prasanna Ranatunga nomination ended Rajapaksa’s pull-out threat. The Rajapaksa group organized a press conference at Abhayaramaya, in Narahenpita, to make their position clear on the elections. Addressing the press conference, National Freedom Front Leader Wimal Weerawansa said the former President signed his nomination papers on Thursday morning.
By the time Weerawansa made the statement, Rajapaksa had not signed his nomination papers. He actually signed the nomination papers around 9 pm on Thursday at his private residence in Mirihana. By Thursday morning, almost all key members of the ‘Abhayaramaya cabal’, including Wimal Weerawans, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena and Dullas Alahapperuma, had signed nomination papers to contest from the Alliance led by President Maithripala Sirisena.
Amidst the nomination saga of the UPFA, President Maithripala Sirisena had another tough meeting with key civil society members who were instrumental in his election victory in January. They were livid at the news reports stating that the President had agreed to give nomination to Rajapaksa to contest from the coalition led by the President. The meeting started at 8.45 p.m. at the Presidential Secretariat.
Ven. Sobhitha absent
The notable absentee at the meeting was the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, Convenor of the National Movement for a Just Society. It was later revealed that Sobhitha Thera had turned down a request to take part in the meeting on the grounds that there was no room for any discussion as the nominations had already been finalised.
However, Sobhitha Thera had made his position clear to the President in a telephone conversation a few weeks ago and said he was dejected over the entire issue surrounding the former President’s candidacy. Gamini Viyangoda, Professor Sarath Wijesuriya, Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, Ven. Dambara Amila Thera, Saman Rathnapriya, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Joseph Stalin, Ravi Jayawardena and Keerthi Tennakoon attended the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat on Wednesday night. Malith Jayathilaka, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Foundation, attended the meeting from the President’s side.
During the discussion, the civil society members expressed disappointment over the nomination process of the UPFA and said they felt “betrayed” and “cheated” after the UPFA agreed to give nomination to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the Parliamentary election from the UPFA.
President Sirisena promised the civil society activists that he would make his position clear on the UPFA nominations on July 13.
He also added that he never got involved in the nominations of the UPFA as it was handled by the party General Secretary. However, the President said four UPFA ex-MPs would not receive nominations due to the charges against them.
Explaining the logic
According to those who were present at the meeting, President Sirisena had also made several other remarks to explain the logic behind this move.
He said he did not want any political party to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament at the forthcoming election. “There were three occasions in history when political parties had absolute power. In 1970, the United Front had a two-thirds majority and the UNP, in 1977, had a bigger majority. Again in 2010, the UPFA had a two-thirds majority in Parliament. As a result of this, they made decisions detrimental to the country in the long run.
The civil society representatives said they were disappointed that the President had only managed to block nomination of four ex-MPs who faced charges.Purawesi Balaya organization Convenor Gamini Viyangoda pointed out that the other ex-MPs who faced various charges over their conduct in the previous regime had made themselves eligible for the UPFA nominations.
“This is a defeat for the forces, including the President, who launched the people’s revolution on January 8,” he asserted. Viyangoda said the UPFA, under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, never won a two-thirds majority in Parliament through the people’s votes. “Under the present electoral system, it is practically impossible for any political party to get a two-thirds majority in the House.
Even Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two-thirds majority came as a result of crossovers. Therefore, there is no point in worrying about a two-thirds majority at this point.” During the discussion, the civil society representatives asked the President whether he would appear on the same stage with the former President. In response, the President said he would not stand alongside Rajapaksa during the UPFA election campaign.
Viyangoda, speaking at the meeting, also criticized the ‘one-on-one’ meeting between the incumbent President and the former President.
At this point, some of the civil society activists, including Dambara Amila Thera, defended the President’s position on the meeting saying they had no issue with President Sirisena holding discussions with Rajapaksa if it served a purpose.
Meanwhile, in another development, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga left for the UK on Thursday amidst the controversy over the UPFA’s nominations. Many assumed she had left the country due to disappointment over the present state of affairs in the party.
CBK’s Lodon trip
However, sources close to the former President said her London trip had nothing to do with the nomination issue. “The former President left for the UK to attend a family matter that was planned a year ago,” the former President’s office said in a statement on Thursday.Sources close to Kumaratunga told the Sunday Observer that she hopes to return to Sri Lanka next week. After her return, she is expected to make a special statement announcing her position on the Parliamentary election. It is widely speculated that the former President will align herself with the ‘good governance front’ formed on Friday to protect the ‘January 8’ mandate.
A day after former President Rajapaksa signed nomination papers, a group of former UPFA Parliamentarians, including stalwarts of the SLFP, decided to contest the election from the UNP in protest against the UPFA’s decision to give nomination to the former President.
They decided to join hands with the UNP solely on the grounds that they did not want to be seen as stakeholders of former President Rajapaksa’s election campaign.
They stressed the need for protecting the people’s mandate expressed at the Presidential election and contesting as a common front.
A key figure among them was Patali Champika Ranawaka, the General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya. Ranawaka was a strong critic of the UNP when he was a member of President Sirisena’s cabinet and accused the party of trying to usurp the powers of the President when the UNP pushed for a ‘fully-fledged’ 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
When it came to the 20th Amendment, Ranawaka accused the UNP of sabotaging electoral reforms for petty political gains.
A few months later however, it was the Prime Minister who rescued Ranawaka when he and his party were at a critical juncture due to former President Rajapaksa’s candidacy.
During the discussions on Friday, they explored the possibility of joining the UNP as the “United Front for Good Governance” with the symbol ‘diamond’ and contesting the election on the United National Party ticket. Key UPFA stalwarts namely, Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Arjuna Ranatunga, S.B. Dissanayake, M.K.D.S Gunawardena, Piyasena Gamage, Sarath Amunugama, Reginald Cooray, Sudharshini Fernandopulle, Neomal Perera, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera and Hirunika Premachandra were expected to join the Front. Interestingly, Duminda Dissanayake, the son of Berty Premalal Dissanayake, was not openly involved in discussions on joining the UNP.
It was in the grapevine that he had been offered the position of UPFA electorate organizer in Kalawewa, a post held by his father for a long time.
Following his defeat, the Rajapaksas offered the position to former Minister S.M. Chandrasena, a close associate of the Rajapaksa family and a political rival of Berty Premalal Dissanayake. It was one reason why Duminda Dissanayake extended his support to Sirisena at the last presidential election.
To accommodate new groups and ex-UPFA MPs supporting the party, the UNP, on Friday, was looking at the possibility of contesting the election as the United National Front.
The official announcement in this regard was expected to be made at the party convention scheduled for Saturday. Even in 2001, when the party formed a government, it contested as the United National Front with the support of a group of SLFP MPs including S.B. Dissanayake, Mahinda Wijesekera and G.L. Pieris. The party’s traditional symbol ‘Elephant’ will remain unchanged at the election. The move suggests that President Maithripala Sirisena will have to stay neutral at the Parliamentary election as all his ‘friends’ have now aligned themselves with the UNP.
But, on the other hand, this development will make Mahinda Rajapaksa the de facto head of the UPFA’s election campaign. However, battle lines have now been drawn clearer as almost everyone who pushed for a culture of good governance in the country is now in the same camp, making it easier for the voters to make their choices. “While President Mathripala Sirisena had put the party before the country, UNP Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too, as always, had put the country before the party.
The party’s new move would naturally deprive several UNPers of the opportunity to contest the upcoming election as the newcomers have to be accommodated,” a UNP candidate said on Friday, commenting on developments on the UNP front.