Campbell Park was engulfed with a bustling throng of people clad in blue during May Day Celebrations last year. But, in stark contrast, the ground was covered with a green canopy on May 1, this year as the United National Party (UNP), the key ally of the present government, chose it for its rally, and brought a huge crowd, heralding the UNP’s resurgence to its old self.
The crowd has brought fresh hopes for the party and instilled spirit among its activists to do politics with renewed vigour.
For the first time in a decade, the UNP managed to bring a large crowd from all parts of the country for a rally, giving the symbolic message to the electorate ahead of the possible general elections that the party has positioned itself to forge ahead against any odds.
Buoyed by the achievement after being in the government for 100 odd days, the UNP is applying pressure on President Maitripala Sirisena to declare a general elections forthwith.
May Day celebrations, by the main political camps this time, spoke of their present political standings in a constantly changing environment, and the direction they would take to gain the upper hand in politics outshining each other.
While the UNP looked more hopeful of its future, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the political formation led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is grappling with a key issue to be sorted out prior to any election.
President Maitripala Sirisena participated in the SLFP May Day rally at Hyde Park, and it was attended by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and party seniors such as Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dilan Perera, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had sent a message, to be read out at the rally.
In the meantime, the UPFA allies- Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the leftist parties, the National Freedom Front (NFF), Sri Lanka Mahajana Party and others, had a separate rally and a procession in Kirulapone.
SLFP MPs such as Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Kumara Welgama and Rohitha Abeygunawardane who were at the SLFP rally first, participated in this rally as well. In one instance, NFF Leader Wimal Weerawansa dubbed the two rallies as parts of an exercise by the same political alliance in all respects.
The nomination of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the UPFA Prime Ministerial candidate was the most articulate demand of these UPFA allies backed by a considerable number of SLFP MPs. For Mr. Rajapaksa, this May Day was a marked difference. He had attended May Day rallies and processions unfailingly since 1967. Yet, for the first time, he opted to keep himself away from any event related to May Day this year despite being invited both by SLFP and the UPFA allies for their separate rallies. But, he had sent messages to be read out at both the rallies. Probably, he would have anticipated that such participation in any of these two rallies would be politically counter-productive for his next political moves.
Clear signs have emerged that he would stage a comeback into politics, and as if to set the ground situation for it, he is addressing the public, mostly at religious events in Buddhist temples in every part of the country. On May Day as well, he attended one such event in Kuliyapitiya.
It is learnt, however, that he had a glimpse of May Day rallies on his way back in his convoy. At one point, he was encountered by a group of people marching in a May Day procession. Having seen the former President in his car, the people mobbed and greeted him. Afterwards, they cleared the way for him to travel, and cheered him.
Alongside his public activities, SLFP seniors undertook measures for uniting President Maitripala Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa, as otherwise it would be detrimental to the party at large , particularly at the next general elections. The dialogue between the two leaders was arranged in the President’s Office in the parliamentary complex yesterday.
The rank and file of the party kept their fingers crossed that a positive outcome would emerge from this dialogue, but, to their dismay, things did not happen in the way expected.
Prior to that meeting, Mr. Rajapaksa had a meeting with ten MPs, representing both SLFP and the UPFA allies, on Tuesday to discuss the agenda of the meeting at the residence of MP Susil Premajayantha. MP Anura Priyadarshana Yapa was also at that meeting. The first demand to be discussed was the fact that Mr. Rajapaksa should be nominated to spearhead the election campaign. In case, this demand is accepted the group will decide to seek a criterion to appoint the nomination board. All in all, they decided to seek a mechanism to strengthen the UPFA as their political movement further. But, all these will depend on whether there is an agreement to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa to lead the campaign.
With such preparatory work done at Mr. Premajayantha’s residence , the former President headed for talks with the President the following day. Mr. Rajapaksa was accompanied by former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, MPs Bandula Gunawardena, Kumara Welgama , Dallas Alahapperuma and Mahindananda Aluthgamage.
Initially, President Sirisena was supposed to be represented by the likes of MPs Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Dilan Perera and Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva. However, the team of the former President was in for a rude shock when they realized that these members had been excluded. Instead, Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Irrigation Minister Duminda Dissanayake and Land Minister M.K.D.S. Gunawardane turned up, and they were the ones who defected from SLFP right at the very beginning with President Sirisena ahead of the presidential election in November, last year.
The former President also wanted Western Province Chief Minister Prasanna Ranatunga to be in his entourage. Mr. Ranatunga obliged, but he declined to sit in the negotiation table after he noticed that Minister M.K.D.S. Gunawardane had been assigned to take part in talks along with President Sirisena.
“I cannot afford to see him even. Therefore, I will remain outside. You can proceed for talks inside sir,” he told Mr. Rajapaksa and remained outside the
MP Dalles Alahapperuma , who accompanied Mr. Rajapaksa mentioned that he expected the presence of Mr. Premajayantha and team., but some others had come instead. It was baffling Mr. Rajapaksa’s team.
Given the nature of this composition , the other side presumed that talks would lead nowhere as these representatives of Mr. Sirisena were the members strongly opposed to the former President. In fact, they are keen on a national government with the UNP after the next general election, rather than leaving any room for Mr. Rajapaksa to call the shots in the government.
The talks were conducted as planned. The nomination of Mr. Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister candidate was the major request. But, it was left to the SLFP Central Committee to decide. Likewise, Mr. Rajapaksa was opposed to the plan for the dissolution of the local authorities on May 15, as announced by Dr. Senaratne as the Cabinet spokesman. There was no agreement on this request.
President Sirisena himself briefed the participants on the matters concerned . He said the heads of most local authorities did not respect him, and that there was no use of keeping them in office any further.
The representatives of Mr. Rajapaksa did not consider the meeting either positive or negative.
The space was left for future talks on issues of concern.
MR faction look for alternatives
Likewise, the group backing Mr. Rajapaksa contemplates the next best option in case the President does not reach any understanding in this respect. One suggestion is that the pro- Mahinda Rajapaksa group should contest under the Chair symbol of People’s Alliance (PA) to contest the elections. In such an eventuality, there will be three main political forces in the fray- UNP, PA and SLFP
Anyway, in anticipation of any such eventuality, the PA has been revived. It was the party formed in 1994 as a SLFP -led front against the UNP at that time. The PA fielded Mrs. Kumaratunga as the main candidate and unseated the 17-year rule of the UNP.
But, the party remained inoperative since 2004. Now, the group supportive of Mr. Rajapaksa has revamped it with necessary documentary work involved. They have submitted the annual accounting reports, a requirement needed for sustaining the registration of political parties.
In case PA enters the electoral battle, SLFP is bound to be divided unavoidably between the former President and the current President, giving the upper hand for the UNP to make headway in the electorate .
One school of thought, harboured by the opposition camp, is that even a marginal defection of SLFP vote base would be detrimental at general elections.
Therefore, some SLFP seniors sound determined to leave no stone unturned in their endeavour to patch up differences between the two leaders in the greater interest of the party at this hour.
19th Amendment involves much administrative work
A great deal of effort has to be made to bring about consensus among the political parties. The major parties had to compromise a lot to accommodate each other’s views in the enactment of this legislation. Besides, what is unknown is the volume of administrative work attended to by the officials in consultation with the politicians, particularly Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse during the process.
Given the large number of alterations and amendments done during the committee stage, the officials of the parliamentary staff under the supervision of Secretary General of Parliament Dammika Dasanayake, had to do much administrative work to ensure the passage of the bill in the House.
In fact, at one point, there has been a suggestion to postpone the committee stage at least by one week. However, it is learnt that even Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa has not favoured such postponement.
The bill has been passed. Yet, it is yet to be signed into an Act. According to the Justice Minister, it would take at least a few more days for it to come into force.
President Maitripala Sirisena is commended widely for his role in the enactment of it with salient features included to ensure the independence of the police service, public service, judiciary and inclusivity in governance etc.
But, in the course of the implementations of its provisions, one can see the pros and cons in the practical sense. According to the Justice Minister, the President has to act on the advice of the Prime Minister in the appointment of the Cabinet of Ministers.
Then, there is no such necessity to act in assigning subjects to the Ministers appointed.
In this backdrop, the appointment of the Cabinet can also lead to a deadlock in case the President and the Prime Minister cannot see eye to eye. It is a phenomenon that can be anticipated in the event of the President belonging to one party and the Prime Minister to another.