By November 5, 20170 CommentsReport

Local polls: SLFP going it alone despite risky prospects

  • Reunion moves falter, Senaratne proposes UNP-SLFP joint  bid as ‘trial balloon’ but Sirisena faction not interested
  • President softens stance in taking tough action against Rajapaksa  loyalists, while Ranil warns he won’t tolerate ginger groups

Any prospects for immediate re-unity between feuding factions of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) appeared dim on Friday but seemingly desperate behind- the-scenes moves continue.

President Maithripala Sirisena chaired a meeting of SLFP MPs and ministers loyal to him at the Presidential Secretariat and it exuded a conciliatory mood. Those loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not turn up. He counts them as 55 MPs, more than the SLFP MPs loyal to Sirisena. Yet, Sirisena declared the SLFP will contest the local polls under its hand symbol. There would be no disciplinary action against the dissidents — and issues raised by the ‘Joint Opposition,’ he said, would have to be discussed separately.

Those remarks put paid to claims by UNP Minister and Cabinet spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne that the SLFP and the UNP would field candidates together. He had in fact wanted to ensure that happens in the Beruwala electorate. He represents the Kalutara District where the electorate is located. It also drew a strong denial from SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake who said there were no such plans.

Some senior UNPers described Senaratne’s remarks as a ‘trial balloon’ to ascertain whether the SLFP’s Sirisena faction would turn to the UNP. This is in the wake of leading sections forecasting the possibility that Sirisena wants to lean towards them when his efforts to re-unite his own party received a lukewarm response from dissident leaders of the Rajapaksa faction. This did infuse a sense of euphoria among the UNP leadership since it has enhanced the prospects for election successes for the UNP. This is in marked contrast to fears that Sirisena’s SLFP may end up being a poor third — and even a fourth, in JVP strongholds.

Amidst talks of re-unity in the Sri Lanka Freedom Parry (SLFP) Leader of the dissident faction Mahinda Rajapaksa took time off to watch the CH –Kandy rugger match in Colombo yesterday. He was accompanied by wife Shiranthi. Minister Malik Samarawickrama Chairman of the United National Party (UNP) offers ‘rata kadju’ to the Rajapaksas. Pic by Amila Gamage

SLFP dissident leaders made clear to an interlocutor that a re-unity process would consume considerable time and cannot certainly take place before the local polls. One of them said the parameters within which such unity was possible would have to be first agreed upon. Thereafter, it would have to be endorsed by the ‘JO’ parliamentary group. It would then have to win the approval of other constituent parties in the ‘JO,’ he explained. Thereafter, there would be a tussle for selecting candidates, each jockeying to get their loyalists on the list.

Sirisena did some morale boosting at Friday’s meeting by telling those present that he had received many telephone calls. They were, he said, from Rajapaksa loyalists, who confessed they had been forced to keep away but had extended their support to him, albeit privately. True enough, among such callers would be those who were playing safe by keeping both sides happy until a ‘decisive’ moment arrives. But the fact that none turned up does raise questions that many are hesitant to return to the old fold. They are alive to the reality that grassroots level politics under Sirisena would change considerably and pose challenges to their own role. This is at a time when the coalition’s popularity is at a low ebb. Other sources also spoke of the entry of new interlocutors who were trying their own hand at SLFP unity.

 

The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last week revealed how a last minute bid is being made to re-unite the feuding factions of the SLFP. Minister Susil Premjayantha, who was removed by Sirisena as the SLFP-led UPFA (United People’s Front Alliance) coalition General Secretary, has been at the forefront of some shuttle diplomacy between the leaders of the two factions. This week, Premjayantha acknowledged to confidants that progress had been lacking but vowed to pursue his efforts ‘for the sake of the party.’ However, developing political events are overtaking his initiatives.

With no unity in sight, Friday’s meeting focused only on one main issue. It is preparations for the upcoming local council elections. The Sirisena-led SLFP will now finalise its own list of candidates. It was only week’s earlier Rajapaksa loyalists were dumped as electoral organisers. Now, there appears to be a dearth in some areas. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga had to be pulled out of virtual retirement to be the Attanagalla organiser. There was heavy flak for the appointment of the Anamaduwa organiser who acquired notoriety for getting a teacher to kneel down before him some time ago. He is still serving a suspended sentence for his crazed act. So much so, Friday’s meeting discussed launching a membership drive. This will only mean more Rajapaksa loyalists having to make way for Sirisena supporters. There was a temporary respite in the removal of such organisers in electorates until Friday’s meeting. This will see a further exodus of sorts to the Rajapaksa faction, officially, once implemented.

 

Yet, Sirisena told his MPs that no disciplinary action was being contemplated against those backing Rajapaksa — a marked contrast to earlier weeks where they were warned vigorously of consequences. It indicates uncertainty on how to deal with the problem — a blow-hot-blow-cold approach. Echoing this view, UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera told the Sunday Times, “The discussions on Friday were fully focused on the preparations for the upcoming local elections. The ‘Joint Opposition’ members were invited for the talks on several occasions, but they did not turn up. At the meeting we discussed that we would contest under the SLFP symbol. The ‘Joint Opposition’ can join us at any moment and contest with us. However, if they decide to contest on their own they can do so too. We will not obstruct that.”

Though Amaraweera refers to the ‘JO’ it was only SLFP members of the Opposition who were invited for Friday’s meeting. This is the first time he said “the ‘JO’ can join us – an invitation in effect to other partners of the Opposition grouping too.

Added Deputy Transport Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna: “President Sirisena said that there will be only a limited time of 60 days for the campaign. We discussed how we will get about with our organisational activities and strengthen the newly appointed organisers. We also discussed about enlisting more members to the party. The President said that at the upcoming discussions the progress made also should be reported.

“There were questions raised about how the ‘Joint Opposition’ could be brought together. The general agreement was that if any members of the ‘Joint Opposition’ were interested they could support us. The President noted that there was no necessity to take any action against the ‘Joint Opposition’ members. The issue about the conditions placed by the ‘Joint Opposition’ should be discussed separately. The President said they should try and get the support of other parties as well.”

That the SLFP has been placed in a dichotomous situation by the en masse absence of Rajapaksa loyalists is quite clear. Ahead of Friday’s meeting, the mood among the leaders was to act tough on the dissidents if they did not turn up for the meeting. This was why legal opinion was sought before letters were sent out to the dissidents inviting them. In what seemed a counter response, again on legal opinion, the Rajapaksa faction MPs took up the position that they did not receive such letters thus considerably negating grounds for disciplinary action. Rajapaksa himself said that invitations can’t be sent at the last minute either.

This no doubt is a serious dilemma for Sirisena and his loyalists. The conciliatory mood last Friday, in marked contrast to previous occasions, underscore their predicament. Whilst fielding candidates from the SLFP at the local polls, the Sirisena faction has to move forward without the support of the Rajapaksa faction. If that was bad enough, making it worse is the fact that the Sirisena faction would also have to contend with another front, the UNP, its coalition partner in the Government.

The SLFP is going it alone, conscious of all the odds it faces including the prospect of losing badly. That the Sirisena faction did not turn to the UNP is also significant by itself. Here in lies the cause for all the tensions within the SLFP. Sirisena loyalists accuse their coalition partner, the UNP for the ill effects on the Government. Whilst the cost of living has been rising to unprecedented levels, they complain, the public allegations of rampant corruption in ministries were bringing the Government, particularly the SLFP, a bad name. The problem was that their own track record when in Government from 1994-2015 was anything but clean.

They have claimed that they were finding it difficult to visit their electorates since this was one of the main woes of their supporters. On the one hand, they were being accused of dancing with the devil (UNP). On the other hand, SLFP Ministers with Sirisena were afraid of being prosecuted over alleged wrong doings under the previous administration.

Paradoxical enough, one of the main public complaints is also the Government’s inability, contrary to pledges made during presidential and parliamentary elections, to deal with those involved in high profile cases of corruption. The surprise move to arrest Gamini Senarath, Chief of Staff of the then President Rajapaksa and three others, also ruffled feathers in some Government quarters at the highest level. Detectives of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) want to arrest Senarath but have not been able to track him down. Clearly, he had prior information of moves to arrest him. Hence, detectives filed a motion in court impounding his passport to prevent travel abroad. At one time, he is alleged to have been at the residence of a UNP minister who is from the south. There was speculation yesterday that Senarath would surrender this week to court.

More so, Sirisena discussed with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a gamut of issues during a one-on-one meeting last Monday (October 30). The lengthy meeting was joined in later by Minister Malik Samarawickrema, who is also the UNP Chairman. Fuller details of what transpired are not clear. However, a source familiar with the talks said a wide range of issues figured. They included the upcoming local polls, rising cost of living, relations between the two coalition partners among others. Sirisena is on record saying that the SLFP would determine its own political course by December this year. This is in the backdrop of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two coalition partners coming to an end in August. The December dateline being given so that the Budget be passed and the Government has the funds to function for 2018.

Just the day after the meeting, on Tuesday night, Wickremesinghe chaired a poorly attended meeting of the UNP parliamentary group. He frowned on his party MPs for forming ‘power blocs’ within the party and said he would not allow them. If anyone wanted to take part in such meetings or other events as a caucus, he said that they should first obtain his permission.

He was alluding to a group of some twenty UNP parliamentarians gathering at a resort hotel in Tangalle to spend a weekend a fortnight back. The event had been organised by former Finance Minister and then Foreign Affairs Minister, Ravi Karunanayake. Some of the MPs, it was reported, had been critical of coalition leaders and had made adverse comments. The Premier said he had been out of Sri Lanka when the meeting by a group of MPs took place. Otherwise, he would not have allowed that to happen.

Wickremesinghe said in the past too there had been ‘power groups’ within the party — for example the so called ‘Ginger Group’ which functioned in the mid-1960s. This was a team of young backbencher MPs who voiced strong views against some of the workings of the then UNP Government. After the meeting ended, the Premier entertained the MPs who had come for the meeting to dinner. The meeting was attended by around 25 MPs. Sections in the UNP query whether Sirisena raised issue over the Tangalle meeting during talks with Wickremesinghe since he has also been the subject of criticism there. It has centred on the resignation of Karunanayake following disclosures made before the Commission of Inquiry probing the Central Bank bond issue.

UNP parliamentarians, including those who took part in the Tangalle meeting, did urge Sirisena during a recent meeting to re-instate Karunanayake to the Cabinet. The President replied that he had not asked him to quit his post. Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader, who has assigned an office in ‘Temple Trees’ for Karunanayake has since named him to the ten member UNP nomination board that will select candidates for the local polls. The former minister has also been directing a string of complaints against Attorney General’s Department counsel who grilled him before the Bond Commission. Letters have been sent out to the Chief Justice and the Commission.

Beginning today, UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim will chair meetings for five days to pick United National Front (UNF) candidates who will contest the local polls. In a new move, it will not only be the members of the Nomination Board that will participate, but also representatives of constituent parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Organisers in the districts will be invited to come before the meeting and present their list of candidates for local councils in that area. Chaired by Hashim, other members of the Nomination Board are Malik Samarawickrema, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ravi Samaraweera, Sajith Premadasa, Ravi Karunanayake, Thalatha Athukorale and Kavinda Jayawardena. Three lawyers advising the UNP have also been co-opted to the Board.

With the enormous challenge for President Sirisena who has shied away so far from conducting elections, a humiliating loss for the SLFP would have far reaching consequences. Although the local polls would place the UNP at an advantageous position in the light of the crisis within its coalition partner, it would be wrong to assume there are no pitfalls for the UNP. It would also have enormous challenges, and rely heavily on its ‘block vote’ to see it to the winning post. How many new voters the UNP has won over in the last two and three quarter years in office is to be seen.

Commission to probe SriLankan and Mihin Lanka
The Government will probe the national carrier SriLankan Airlines and the now defunct Mihin Lanka.
Whether it should be a Presidential Commission of Inquiry or a Commission of Inquiry will be decided upon by the Cabinet of Ministers.
A Commission of Inquiry (COI) and a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (SPCI) are both appointed for the purpose of holding an inquiry and obtaining information on (i) the administration of any public body; (ii) the conduct of any public officer; (iii) any matter which is in the public interest or in the interests of public safety and welfare. There are, however, significant differences between the two.The SPCI can also be mandated to inquire into “the administration of any law or the administration of justice”. Only a Judge of the Supreme Court or of any other court not below a District Court may be appointed to the SPCI.The SPCI has full authority, power and jurisdiction to inquire into the conduct of any Prime Minister, Minister or other public officer, and especially to report of whether there has been, on the part of such persons, “(i) the misuse or abuse of power, interference, fraud, corruption or nepotism; (ii) any political victimisation of any person; (iii) any irregularity in the making of any appointment or transfer of any person, in the granting of any promotion to any person, or in the termination of the services of any person; or (iv) the contravention of any written law.”

 

A COI, on the other hand, may only report its findings on the matters specified in its warrant. No consequences flow from such report, although the Government may take consequential administrative action. However, a 2008 amendment to the COI Act now empowers the Attorney General to institute criminal proceedings in a court of law in respect of any offence, based on material collected in the course of an investigation or inquiry by a COI.

Under both laws, the President may (in the warrant) grant immunity from prosecution to all persons who give evidence in respect of their evidence, and such evidence may not be used against such person in any civil or criminal court.

The move is the result of a lengthy discussion at last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting. The matter surfaced when Public Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim tabled a Cabinet Memorandum to formally liquidate Mihin Lanka. At present, operations of that carrier remain suspended as SriLankan Airlines which took it over is settling a large volume of debt. Mihin Lanka was set up under the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration as a budget airline operating in the region.
President Sirisena had earlier directed Minister Hashim to formally wind up Mihin Lanka since it is bleeding the country’s resources. The Minister told his colleagues last Tuesday that this airline had been established without any approval by the Cabinet of Ministers and since inception had swallowed Rs 19 billion in operational losses.

When Hashim described the travails of Mihin Lanka which the Government had to inherit as parana pau (or old sins), Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe interjected to say “we are saying parana pau but what are we doing to those who have committed these sins?” He noted that Mihin Lanka has been losing billions of rupees and the ministers had to allocate funds periodically.

Minister Sarath Amunugama joined in. He said it was not only Mihin Lanka that should be probed but also the national carrier SriLankan Airlines. This saw a chorus of ministers joining in. They even included ministers representing the UNP. Among them: Malik Samarawickrema, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, Harin Fernando and Sarath Fonseka.

When all of them exhorted that the two airlines should be probed, President Maithripala Sirisena declared he was willing to appoint a Commission if the ministers so wished. That saw a loud ovation. Ministers clapped, tapped on their tables and even raised their hands in approval.
However, that moment was short lived. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe intervened to appeal that there should be no Commissions of Inquiry. He said backbenchers of his party had been demanding the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee. He said he would go ahead with that. There was momentary silence thereafter.

However, later this week Premier Wickremesinghe had changed his mind. An authoritative source said yesterday that he had agreed that a Commission should now probe both SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka. Hence, the source said the matter would now be conveyed to the Cabinet so a formal decision could be taken. Wickremesinghe has already told his confidants, who spoke on the subject with him, that he was now in favour.
SriLankan Airlines has come in for severe criticism over alleged corrupt deals as well as colossal expenditure, mainly in the past, but not confined to the past. Funds for the national carrier are obtained from state banks on the basis of guarantees issued by the Treasury.

Official spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne faced a barrage of questions on the two airlines at the weekly news conference on Wednesday. Here are excerpts:
Q: Mihin Lanka is to be liquidated. Its debt amounts to more than Rs 4,868 million. It owes the People’s Bank Rs 1,100 million. The loans for SriLankan is Rs 1,500 million. What will happen to this debt?
A: These are loans from State banks and need to be paid. Only yesterday it was revealed that among the first Board of Directors have been Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Roshan Gunatilleke and Sajin Vass Gunawardena. Aircraft have been purchased without any tender procedures. Our government has been forced to take the burden of this debt.
Q: Are you looking into the reasons for the losses. It was mentioned that a Commission was being appointed
A: Without any feasibility report, the company was launched on a political decision. They appointed political henchmen. Going by the Board of Directors you can see this. They are not even those who tightened a nut in the aircraft. How can they make profits?
Q: Have you decided to appoint a Commission?
A: That was also discussed yesterday (Tuesday), about the appointment of a Commission.
Q: Will the licence be given to another agency.
A: That will remain open. After discussions in Qatar (during the President’s recent visit), a representative from there came here on Saturday itself. The discussions were concluded on Sunday and he returned on Monday saying he would return in two weeks’ time”.
There were also other significant issues that came up for discussion at last Tuesday’s weekly ministerial meeting.

Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema raised eyebrows among ministers with a proposal that three acres of state land behind Shangri La Hotel at the Galle Face Green be sold outright. This hotel opens on November 15. The UNP had strongly opposed the previous Rajapaksa administration’s outright sale of eight acres of land for US$ 125 million. Such protests saw a shift in policy to prevent outright sales and to offer state lands only on long leases. “This is one of those rare occasions when a minister has identified a party and wants approval to sell land to them. It is not even a long lease,” a ministerial colleague of Samarawickrama said on grounds of anonymity. He questioned the basis on which the recipient of the land has been identified. The estimated value of the land had been placed at more than five billion rupees.

President Sirisena pointed out that the land in question came under the purview of the Ministry of Defence. Hence, he noted, that his permission was required before it could be divested. It was agreed that in the event of that extent of land being given, the process should be transparent. It should be on the basis of competitive bidding, he said. As a result, Minister Samarawickrema’s memorandum was not approved.

Another subject of discussion was the import of milk powder. Minister Sarath Amunugama, Chairman of a ministerial subcommittee on milk production, said that a foreign based milk food import firm was abusing its position in Sri Lanka. It was discouraging incentives to local production through different means. As a result, domestic production has fallen. He was of the view that the company concerned should be asked to pack up and leave Sri Lanka. President Sirisena concurred with the view. He said whenever there was a controversy, a minister from the company’s host country would visit Sri Lanka and apply pressure on the Government.

As a prelude to further action, Premier Wickremesinghe said he would examine the matter at a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM). He said he would forward a report to the Cabinet of Ministers. According to a ministerial source, “tough action against the company concerned is on the cards.”


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