BY GAGANI WEERAKOON
At a much hyped meeting, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena took a decision to contest forthcoming Local Government Elections sans its ruling partner, the UNP. The SLFP meeting, which was held at the Presidential Secretariat behind closed doors, keeping even the security at bay, was not attended by the SLFP members, led by Kurunegala District Parliamentarian Mahinda Rajapaksa, who are in the Joint Opposition. The Party is said to be in talks with all parties and factions with a view to forming a massive electoral alliance by way of entering into various electoral and no-contest pacts.
Meanwhile, indicating that the forthcoming Local Government polls is to be fought among three formations, former President Rajapaksa said that he had already begun forming a broader political alliance with anti-United National Party (UNP) forces.
Rajapaksa appeared to be not convinced by the SLFP decision to contest elections without pairing up with the UNP. He was certain that there is no point in having discussions with the SLFP as long as the Party is protecting the UNP.
Rajapaksa, instead, told this writer that they are already in discussions with various political parties even though they had not yet decided on the name or the symbol of the party under which they would contest.
“We have narrowed it down to anyone who is anti-UNP,” he said when contacted.
Asked whether he is open for discussions with the SLFP, now that they had decided to contest without the UNP, he responded in the negative.
“We are looking at those who are against the UNP, who are not in agreement with UNP principles at all. There is a difference when you say you are anti-UNP and when you say you are going ahead without the UNP. The SLFP is still in the Government with the UNP, protecting and supporting the UNP. If they leave the Government or declare willingness to go separate ways, we could consider having discussions or working together. Unless and until it is done, there is no point in discussing,” he affirmed.
Meanwhile, at the meeting held on Friday (3) late afternoon, President Sirisena had indicated running out of patience and tolerance regarding the manner in which SLFP dissidents are acting.
“First I let them contest under the same banner. Then when they said they need to be independent, I let them sit in the Opposition. Things did not stop there and they started forming political parties. Now this has reached a juncture that I cannot watch developments by standing in a corner. We must take necessary measures to strengthen our Party to contest in future elections and win those,” President Sirisena has noted. He, however, has not opposed to the group in the SLFP who are in discussions with the representatives of the dissident group.
The two parties met last afternoon as well to discuss in detail to agree on certain areas where they could work together.According to sources, the two parties have decided to not contest against each other and to contest in what appears like a quota system.
According to sources, the agreement was for the each party not to contest in areas where the other side seems to have a strong hold. Accordingly, the Joint Opposition or the Mahinda faction will not contest in electorates where SLFP Maithri faction feels confident in winning and vice versa.
“Some felt this will be effective than either parties not getting a majority in local bodies and thus, compelling to form an alliance with UNP or any other party,” the sources explained.
Division in TNA
A display of apparent division of opinion was staged by Tamil Politicians on the proposed Constitutional reforms and on the Interim Committee Report of the Steering Committee when Vanni District TNA MP Sivashakthi Anandan accused Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan of denying his right to express views at the third day of the debate on the Interim Committee Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly.
This was following MP Anandan getting up and complaiing that he had been overlooked from the participation in the debate when the Assembly commenced sitting with its Chairman Karu Jayasuriya presiding.
“TNA comprises four parties. I am the General Secretary of one of those parties. I have been a member for Vanni District for the past 16 years. But, the Opposition Leader does not permit me to speak in this Assembly. The Opposition Leader violates my privileges as an MP. I spoke to the Speaker twice in regard to this matter and asked for time for me to speak. Please give me time so that I could speak of the problems of my people. Please assure that there would not be any injustice in future. The Leader of the Opposition continues rejecting my calls asking for time. I have the right to express my opinions. This is an example of the Opposition Leader preventing a member of his own Party from speaking in the Assembly. If I am not given a chance to speak here, I would leave this place. There is no point of my being here without letting me speak,” the MP said.
Chairman Jayasuriya responded saying that the list of the participants in the debate from the Opposition is prepared by the Leader of the Opposition. “I will take up this matter at the party leaders’ meeting.”
Soon after this incident, Leader of the EPRLF, Suresh Premachandran when contacted on Wednesday (1) said they will contest in the forthcoming LG Polls under a likeminded broader alliance as the Federal Party (ITAK) has no democracy within the party or the alliance.
“The proposed Constitutional reforms are nothing for the Tamils. This has nothing for the Tamil people. As Tamils and Tamil political leaders we too have our opinion about the proposed reforms as well as on the Interim Report. But those views are not allowed to be voiced,” he alleged.
However, it was clear that both Sampanthan and the moderates in the TNA are even willing to compromise their decades old demands on areas like federalism in order to push forward the Constitutional reforms that would solve the ethnic and national question.
This was evident when he called on people not to support anyone promoting separatism. This country should never be divided, he said.
It is well known that our National Issue has become internationalized, because of the blunders we have committed and because we have not been able to amicably resolve the national question ourselves. We should realize that we are being watched by the whole world. We have been cooperating with the present Government because we want the problems to be solved domestically, but remember if you do not do that the international pressure will only get worse.
Majority of Government leaders warned the country that this was the ‘last chance’ the country had to bring about a lasting solution to the ethnic or national problem by bringing in a new Constitution.
“For the first time the biggest representation of Tamil people, the TNA, has actively participated in the process of Constitutional reforms and this chance will never ever come to us. Already, it took decades to reach this juncture,” said the majority of the Cabinet Ministers and other ranks who joined the second day of the debate on the Steering Committee Interim Report of the Constitutional Assembly.
“Sri Lanka cannot afford to miss this window of opportunity to create political stability and achieve prosperity and economic development,” Finance and Mass Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, participating in the debate, said, while pleading with his colleagues to seize the opportunity and go forward as one nation.
He asked as to how anybody could object to a Constitution that guarantees rights of all citizens and essentially honours the Buddha’s teachings of ‘Metta, Muditha, Karuna, Upekkha’.
The Minister, who took the floor after UPFA MP Dullas Alahapperuma, said that MP Alahapperuma together with colleagues Nalanda Ellawala and Dilan Perera went from village to village campaigning for a new Constitution in 1995 under the ‘Sudu Nelum’ Movement. “It is he who asked in the House today whether the country needs a new Constitution. The draft Constitution that MP Alahapperuma then campaigned for was a far more progressive one than what we have proposed in terms of power sharing. That draft Bill did not contain the word ‘unitary’ but spoke about a united country. It even agreed to offer Police and land powers to the provinces,” the Minister said.
Samaraweera said that former leaders S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Rohana Wijeweera and also the Communist Party had pointed out that all had agreed beyond question that there is an ethnic issue in the country.
“All people, irrespective of background and which part of the country they live in, have suffered the horrors of violence for long years. They have sadly been deprived and cheated of the rights of economic prosperity that this nation could have achieved during the last 70 years. All the citizens of this country desire for lasting and sustainable peace, equal citizenship, respect, economic prosperity, equal protection of the law and they all want to call this land their home. We must be able to be united in diversity,” he said.
The Minister pointed out the Constitution making process followed by the Government was completely a bottom up and all inclusive process which left nobody behind.
The debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee on Constitutional Reforms, began on Monday (30) with the Parliament sitting as a Constitutional Assembly and from the outset it was clear there were deep divisions among the Parties.
The SLFP emphasized that there should not be any Constitutional reforms proposed that needed a referendum.
Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, Nimal Siripala de Silva said that the SLFP did not believe the Executive Presidency needed to be abolished.
“The SLFP accepts that the country needs a new electoral system. In the same vein we accept that there is a need for the devolution of powers. The new Constitution has not been finalized yet. After this debate, the Constitutional Council would sit to prepare the final draft for the new Constitution. Today’s SLFP stance on the content of a new Constitution does not differ from the standpoint of former President Mahinda Rapjapaksa, sometime back, with regard to the content of a new Constitution. It is not prudent to do away with the Executive Presidency entirely.”
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) however, charged that some groups were attempting to ensure the protection of the Executive Presidency through fear mongering. JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa said that no political party in Sri Lanka held the moral high ground to support the continuance of the Executive Presidency.
“All parties have suffered because of this post consolidating all powers in the hands of a single person. The country has suffered enough because of the Executive Presidency. There are some extremists in the South trying to fish in troubled waters by creating fear among the masses that by reforming the Constitution the country would be placed in harm’s way. People should by now understand who those power hungry elements are. People have enough of examples of what they did to this nation and how they did it. There is a golden opportunity before us today. What we need today is an inclusive Sri Lankan identity. We have passed many decades divided on racial, linguistic and religious differences. The time has come for us to shed petty differences and make use of the lessons we learnt from the past to usher in a bright future for the people of this country. We should not miss this opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Leader of the Joint Opposition in Parliament, MP Dinesh Gunawardana, also taking part in the debate, alleged that the Government was paving the way to adopt a federal system of governance through the new Constitution.
“The concept defined by the term ‘Orumiththa Nadu’ leads nowhere but towards federalism. We reject the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. This is a fraud. This is nothing but cheating the people. We are against it. The Maha Sangha has rejected it. The new Constitution should not be prepared on the basis of this report. We are against changing the National Flag and the National Anthem. The Executive Presidency should not be abolished at this time. The Provinces should not be amalgamated. The merging of the Provinces would create further troubles.”