The political environment is getting intersting by the day as the Presidential Elections are approaching. For the political camp led by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), days roll by with preparations for its first ever convention on August 11, primarily meant to install Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as its leader and to announce his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate. In the meantime, the political force led by the United National Party (UNP) suffered a setback this week since the formation of a well-knitted alliance had to be put on hold over sharp divisions within the party on the presidential candidacy.
It is undoubtedly a blow that the UNP hierarchy could not proceed with the event to sign an agreement with its allies on August 5 despite initial plans to do so. A formidable faction of the party that includes the likes of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Highways Minister Kabir Hashim and Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama asserts itself in full measure seeking candidacy for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs Minister Sajith Premadasa. Premadasa has also started mobilising the party’s grassroots level mechanism in his favour.
The faction asked for changes to the constitution of the proposed alliance giving an upper hand to the party in decision making. Officially, the UNP says that the event was postponed indefinitely to find time to incorporate views of the dissident group. But, it is not the sole reason. In fact, according to inside sources, the Sajith Premadasa group had planned to bring a large number of supporters to the signing ceremony as a show of power in pursuit of candidacy. It triggered security concerns regarding the event, and therefore the plans were shelved till August 5. The organizers feared that it would lead to violent clashes between the supporters of the two factions.
- Hashim advocates presidential candidacy for Premadasa and Ratnayake for the Prime Minister
- As suggested at the group meeting, the two leaders had one-on-one meeting on Tuesday night
The Premadasa group is working on programmes countrywide in pursuit of candidacy. Against the backdrop, the party’s parliamentary group met on Monday evening to discuss the business scheduled for this week in Parliament. Many expected the meeting to be tense due to recent squabbling over nomination for the presidential elections. In contrast, it appeared to be a smooth sail. Only Colombo district MP Mujibur Rahaman made some remarks relevant to infighting and asked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister Sajith Premadasa to sort out the issue amicably.
Interestingly, Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake inquired about media reports that Ministers Sagala Ratnayake and Kabir Hashim had clandestinely met with Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is tipped to be the presidential candidate of the rival side. The meeting actually took place on Sunday evening.
Hashim advocates presidential candidacy for Premadasa and Ratnayake for the Prime Minister. But, the two appeared to have met Mr. Rajapaksa separately on the same day. So, it fueled speculation leaving scope for interpretation in different ways.
Once Dissanayake inquired about the purpose behind the visit, Hashim replied that it was purely personal. He said Rajapaksa called on him when he was on sick bed at one point. He said he reciprocated it with the same courtesy this time.
“Otherwise, I have political differences with Mr. Rajapaksa. Even at the recent meeting in Kegalle, I was harshly critical of Mr. Rajapaksa,” Hashim said.
It evoked an angry response from Minister Sarath Fonseka.
“I was also requested at once by someone to patch up differences with Gotabaya Rajapaksa. How can I do it shamelessly? That is what I asked from that person who came up such a suggestion. At village level, ordinary UNPers don’t sit even for tea with SLFPers or vice versa. Hereafter, if you criticize Gotabaya in front of your party men, let them know that you are going to sit with Gotabaya the very next day,” Mr. Fonseka thundered.
The Prime Minister made use of the opportunity to crack a joke as he said, “Both of you got caught red-handed as you saw him the same day. If you all had seen him on separate days, nobody would have caught attention,”
Amidst such remarks made in lighter vein, the MPs made a request for Wickremesinghe and Premedasa to meet with each other and sort out the internal problem.
It seems that the party is already split. In evolving a solution, no faction is ready to strike a compromise. The Premadasa faction sticks to its guns and the other faction also does the same. Therefore, the crisis is unlikely to settle that easily.
As suggested at the group meeting, the two leaders had one-on-one meeting on Tuesday night. What transpired at the meeting was not available to the press. However, sources close to the Prime Minister said that the meeting ended without any solution in sight. The prime Minister and Minister Premadasa expressed their intension to contest. It means there is no patch-up.
Now, the Sajith Premadasa faction is planning to prevail upon Mr. Wickremesinghe to call for a vote at the parliamentary group meeting and the Working Committee to decide on the candidate.
Besides, President Maithripala Sirisena had one-on-one meeting with Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa on Monday evening, and decided forge ahead with bilateral talks between the SLPP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
President Sirisena is appeared to have reached some understanding with the Opposition Leader in respect of the presidential elections. SLFP is likely to be aligned with the SLPP for a grand alliance. However, some of its MPs have decided to team up with the UNP.
Meanwhile, the leaders of the parties aligned with the SLPP had their regular meeting with Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa in the chair on Tuesday and discussed arrangements for the August 11 convention.
After August 11, things look that dramatic political changes coupled with crossovers and defections will unfold ahead of the presidential elections.