President Maithripala Sirisena, during the last few days, had both gained and lost. The gain was in the international arena when he undertook a state visit to Germany, the first by a Sri Lankan Head of State in 43 years. The last Tuesday is visit was seen as a major stride in his renewed efforts to build economic and political ties with the western world, a relationship that had remained strained somewhat during the previous rule.
The presidential entourage consisted of Strategic Development and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Primary Industries Minister Daya Gamage, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Vocational Training Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
The government is keeping its fingers crossed that the visit would open opportunities for Sri Lanka to develop its economy with financial cooperation with Germany, a leading economy in the world.
The two countries officially sealed their diplomatic relations on December 9, 1953. Since then, Germany has cooperated with many sectors in Sri Lanka. Today, a number of German institutions - the German Cultural Centre, the GTZ and the Sri-Lanka German Business Council to name a few- operate here.
Ahead of the visit, the President was buoyant that the country’s reeling economy could be revitalised. “My first presidential visit to Germany is to increase economic and cultural ties with EU giants starts today,” he had tweeted before his departure.
In contrast to his elation on achievements in the international arena, he has to grapple with domestic political issues of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The SLFP is heading for a crisis as some of the party’s former and sitting local government members had converged to a hotel in Kochchikade, Negombo last Saturday and passed a resolution calling for the formation of a new political movement under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The confab, attended by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, was seen as a further step towards the creation of a political movement primarily in view of the next local authorities’ election. Already, the SLFP is virtually divided with one group comprising mainly of middle rank and grassroots level members, rallying behind Rajapaksa.
The SLFP seniors, loyal to the President, surprised by this latest development tried to undermine the action taken by its local government members. Social Empowerment Minister S.B. Dissanayake even disputed the number that attended the Negombo conference, charging that the Rajapaksa camp was only exaggerating the number of participants.
The event took place in defiance of the SLFP Central Committee’s decision to toughen disciplinary action against party members who acted contrary to party policy decisions. But the Rajapaksa faction is confident it can lure more SLFPers to the proposed new party.
Still, political challenges lie ahead for it to win future elections. At the last parliamentary election, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the SLFP-led alliance- was able to muster the support of a majority of SLFP supporters at the behest of Mahinda Rajapaksa. However, the UPFA could not win the election. Then, for the Rajapaksa camp to win future elections, it should position itself to attract floating and minority voters.
The fixed traditional vote base alone will not suffice.
President Sirisena, currently on a visit to Germany, is to discuss the latest development in the party upon his return to the country and decide on the next course of action. However, some SLFP seniors, loyal to the President look unperturbed by the imminent split. Fisheries Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said the SLFP would be reorganised after expelling whom he called ‘rabble rousers’. “Let anyone join the new party.
We will restructure our party with new faces. We have a whole lot of new members aspiring to contest under the present leadership,” he said. Also, he said the SLFP would discard parties toeing a communal line, but embrace moderate parties to form a new front.
At last Friday’s Central Committee meeting, the President had been disturbed over attempts by those in the joint opposition to form a new party by splitting the SLFP. He had said, “I could recall how some of these joint opposition members came before me and grumbled against Mahinda Rajapaksa injustices at that time.
There are seven or eight such members. I would expose them at the right time.” Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva cautioned against initiating disciplinary inquiries against a large number at once. But, SLFP General Secretary Minister Duminda Dissanayke expressed his views otherwise, and stressed the need to rid the party of what he called ‘bad eggs’ . “It is not a large number. We have to rid the party of a rotten lot, and revamp it. Otherwise, there is no way forward for us,” he said.
Afterwards, it was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who took a swipe at the joint opposition. She asked the SLFP leadership not to allow the joint opposition to function as an independent group in Parliament.
“They will try to find a way for criticising the party leadership and it should not be entertained,” she said.
Her remarks evoked an angry response from MP Kumara Welgama who was the only Rajapaksa loyalist serving in the Central Committee. He had retorted: “we have been denied the right to get our voice heard in the House. That is the reason for us to ask for independent recognition”. he had said.
The newly appointed Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray also joined the exchange of views with critical remarks on party members who had sided with the joint opposition.
UPFA MP Prasanna Ranatunga attended the Negombo conference with his head shaven. Just before entering the meeting hall, his new hair style was noticed by Mahinda Rajapaksa who was accompanied by MP Bandula Gunawardane.
“What is the sudden reason for you to have that new haircut?” asked Mahinda Rajapaksa. Before he answered, Gunawardane sneaked in jovially saying that Prasanna Ranatunga was trying to look like a notorious underworld figure called ‘Thunmulle Padme’ “Recently, he was likened to underworld figure called’ Thunmulle Padme by a government leader,” he explained drawing peals of laughter.
In the meantime, actress turned Galle District MP Geetha Kumarasinghe, during private conversations with others, relayed how she was requested by a senior SLFP minister close to the President not to attend the Negombo meeting.
“If you go for this meeting, I cannot look after you,” the senior minister hailing from Kandy, had reportedly told her. “There is no need for you to look after me; the people of Galle can look after me,” Ms Kumarasinghe had replied.
Recently, the joint opposition broke coconuts as a ritual at the Seenigama Devale, a shrine devoted to a local deity.Subsequently, it has been decided to participate in similar rituals at other devales dedicated to local deities at provincial levels in keeping with traditional beliefs.
One such ritual was performed at Ammaduwa Devale in the Ratnapura District. Thus divine wrath was invoked against the government.
A workshop was conducted in the parliamentary complex last Monday for MPs regarding the proposed Sectoral Oversight Committees meant to oversee the functions of each ministry, a practice of the House of Commons.
However, the participation of MPs remained very low, much to the dismay of the Prime Minister. Also, the joint opposition leader, Dinesh Gunawardane expressed disappointment over the low participation.
The inaugural function was followed by a tea break. United National Party (UNP) MPs Edward Gunasekara, Wasantha Aluvihare and S.M. Marikkar were having tea with Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader Udaya Gammanpila. They were chatting about who would be appointed as chairman of these committees.
Gammanpila remarked that the chairmanship should be offered to the Opposition if the government was genuinely interested in overseeing the work of ministries. The Prime Minister, who noticed Gammanpila enjoying tea with a few of his MPs, was quick to say in lighter vein, “It is scary to walk by you”. (lagin yannat bayai).
Gammanpila responded,, “It is me who should be more scared by what you say.”
Marikkar joined in, “Sir, Udaya is willing to be a chairman of an overseeing committee.”
The Prime Minister said, “Let’s try to restrain him at least by doing so.”
Gammanpila came back with a response. “I can show my work as the chairman of such a committee. But, I can never be subdued doing it my way.”
The Public Representation Committed, headed by Lal Wijenayake, is deliberating with the public at district level these days on the constitution making process. In Jaffna, it entertained public views recently when both moderate and extremist views were placed before the committee. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) member of the Northern Provincial Council M.K. Shivajilingam submitted his proposals advocating a power-sharing arrangement based on the Swiss Federal model to resolve political issues here. In fact, he asked for a confederate structure.
“The proposed system of government shall be sharing of power between the Centre and the States and called the “Union of Sri Lanka”. The power shall be devolved to the greatest extent possible, and unless and otherwise explicitly delegated, all powers shall rest with the States. The Union of Sri Lanka shall be a confederal in structure and would comprise autonomous sovereign states and a confederate unit,” he said in his proposals adding that they were his individual proposals, but not those of his party.
“This is the only option to subdue the demand for a separate state,” he told the committee.
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