President Maitripala Sirisena displayed greater flexibility to the call by a section of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the political combination led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to nominate Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Ministerial candidate. But he is under pressure from his loyalists not to do so. Now, the President is caught in a dilemma.
He dissolved Parliament in a proclamation issued last Friday and declared the General Elections. Subsequently he summoned a meeting of the senior members of the SLFP being its Chairman. UPFA Secretary Susil Premajayantha, who was on an overseas visit, cut short his stay and rushed back to participate at this meeting last Monday. Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, and SLFP General Secretary Anura Priyadarshana Yapa were among the other participants at this meeting.
Wide consultations ensued regarding the political crisis, and the party seniors aired their view that the SLFP would suffer a severe blow at the forthcoming polls, unless unity was seen ahead of the nomination period. A faction of the party rally behind former President Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking nomination for him to contest the election. In addition, almost all the allies of the UPFA back the candidacy of Mr. Rajapaksa.
"The two leaders harboured acrimony to such an extent that it was hardly imagined they would patch-up differences with each other. After the presidential election, Mr. Sirisena even uttered, “I would have been subjected to a six-foot burial had Mr. Rajapaksa been re-elected to office.”"
The pro-Rajapaksa political formation has evolved into a force to reckon with now. Currently, legions of grassroots members have thrown their weight behind Mr. Rajapaksa. It has also been in evident of large gatherings at public events attended by him, particularly at Buddhist Temples.
Finally, the SLFP hierarchy has been convinced that accommodating Mr. Rajapaksa on board is absolutely essential for the UPFA to attract voters this time. Mindful of this political reality built at grassroots level, it is also learnt that SLFP seniors advised the President to take a more watchful approach. President Sirisena fell out with his predecessor as he decided to challenge the latter at the Presidential Election. Mr. Rajapaksa, considered invincible until then, was subjected to a surprise defeat at the last election, and it thus ended his rule since 2005. The two leaders harboured acrimony to such an extent that it was hardly imagined they would patch-up differences with each other.
After the presidential election, Mr. Sirisena even uttered, “I would have been subjected to a six-foot burial had Mr. Rajapaksa been re-elected to office.”
No matter what happens, the party seniors stressed the need for the two leaders to see eye-to-eye once again in the greater interests of SLFP. One senior MP, under conditions of anonymity, said that the United National Party (UNP) would score above a weaker and divided SLFP, and therefore the unity between the two leaders was of paramount importance.
"he President’s decision sent shock waves to the UNP, which never anticipated such a political patch-up. "
Following such advice, the President has been amenable to the call for granting candidacy to Mr. Rajapaksa. According to reports, the President agreed to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa as a candidate, but not to name him for the Prime Ministerial post, if UPFA emerges victorious with the highest number of parliamentary seats at the August 17 General Elections.
The President’s message was communicated to Mr. Rajapaksa by Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa and Nimal Siripala de Silva in Kandy last Tuesday. It was also attended by a few other MPs. In fact, former UPFA MP Keheliya Rambukwella was on record saying that the President agreed to assign Mr. Rajapaksa to spearhead the election campaign.
The sudden flexibility on the part of the President has surprised and shocked many in the political circle. It is noteworthy to examine the reasons for the President to soften his position at the last minute. Earlier, the President was categorical that Mr. Rajapaksa would not receive nomination at all. It now appeared that he has acted under compelling circumstances. On the one hand, he is the head of the SLFP. By virtue of his chairmanship of the party, he has become the chairman of the SLFP-led UPFA as well. Then, it becomes his bounden duty to lead the party to victory at any election as its leader. But, the internal squabbles would block the path of the party’s political success at the General Elections. The faction, backing Mr. Rajapaksa is adamant on their demand. All factors placed President Sirisena in a precarious position as some others close to him did not tolerate the presence of Mr. Rajapaksa. Especially, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is dead against it, and is fighting tooth and nail to stop it. Nonetheless, President Sirisena has been forced to withstand all pressure and take a decision regardless of his political animosity with Mr. Rajapaksa.
President faces stiff resistance from his loyalists
The political leaders loyal to the President are opposed to giving nomination to Mr. Rajapaksa either as an ordinary candidate or the Prime Ministerial candidate. Soon after the President took a decision, leaders such as Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Reginald Cooray, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ven. Athuraliye Ratana Thera, and S.B. Dissanayake met with the President yesterday and discussed in detail about the consequences of accommodating Mr. Rajapaksa on board.
They argued that the President won the election purely on a campaign against the Rajapaksa rule and its misdeeds; and therefore, the entertainment of Mr. Rajapaksa with candidacy would dampen the aspirations of the people who voted against it. But, they noted the strong backing enjoyed by Mr. Rajapaksa within the SLFP. The President has to reconcile both factions anyhow, with only a few more days remaining for the elections.
The President’s decision sent shock waves to the UNP, which never anticipated such a political patch-up. After Mr. Rajapaksa was ejected by Mr. Sirisena at the Presidential Election, mainly with the backing of the UNP, the party imagined that the political stage would be set surely for it to return to Parliament at the next elections as the single largest party. But, it took a political beating when the President did not act exactly in the way the UNP anticipated. At one point, the President did not opt to dissolve Parliament soon after the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The delay in the dissolution has not been favoured by the UNP. The next decision to accommodate Mr. Rajapaksa dealt a lethal political blow to the UNP in the run-up to the General Elections.
In the analysis of the performance of the 100-day programme, the UNP has to make a great deal of efforts to convince voters in its favour at this election. Its popularity waned somewhat due to the suspension of some development activities at village level and the Central Bank bond scam. Also, its dealing with the Tamil Diaspora and some decisions taken in favour of the minority communities have antagonized segments within the majority community.
The Opposition camp would try to capitalize on these aspects for electoral gains, posing fresh challenges for the UNP to corroborate its actions during the 100-day programme.
In the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution through Parliament, the UNP, as the dominant party of the government, played a pivotal role. The party may bank its fortune on this achievement.
Premiership holds greater significance under 19 A
The General Elections, among others, would determine the country’s premiership. This is the first General Election declared after the 19th Amendment was signed into law. The Prime Minister holds more power under the new piece of legislation incorporated into the Constitution. The Executive President has the authority to pick someone commanding the majority support of Parliament to the post. But, unlike in the past, the President cannot remove the Prime Minister. Also, the President has no authority to dissolve Parliament for four and-a-half years.
The Cabinet is restricted to 30 under the provisions of the 19th Amendment, and the President has to appoint it in consultation with the Prime Minister. In the assignment of subjects to those chosen for ministerial posts, the Prime Minister has to decide. Alongside the Prime Minister, is an ex-officio member of the Constitutional Council, the body that appoints members to the Independent Commissions on elections, public service, national procurement, police etc.
Therefore, the battle for premiership assumes greater significance this time than on previous occasions. In the past, it was a position subjugated to the executive presidency. Now, there is a clear demarcation of power in terms of certain aspects as outlined in the 19th Amendment.
For EPDP Regional Alliance first, National Alliance second
The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), the northern ally of the UPFA, contemplates political strategies to be tried at this election. The party contested under the betel symbol of the UPFA last time. But, now it is considering the possibility of contesting under its own Veena symbol as the first preference. Or else, it is looking at the formation of a new political front with some other parties as an alternative to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the North and the East. Eventually, it would consider the betel symbol to be part of the national alliance.
However, the party is having an internal discussion in Jaffna these days to finalize its work ahead of the nomination dates.