( BY The Sunday Times Political Editor)
- Both major alliances confident, but dramatic internal battle rages within UPFA
- Sirisena’s suspension of two party secretaries apparently linked to dispute over National List nominees
- International Crisis Group says resolution of ethnic issue depends on what happens at elections
When a messenger from the Presidential Secretariat arrived at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s temporary residence in Mirihana on Thursday morning, he was away. So the messenger left a letter he brought with a staffer at Rajapaksa’s residence.
Rajapaksa was in Kurunegala, from which district he is contesting for tomorrow’s parliamentary elections. When he learnt that a letter from President Maithripala Sirisena had come, he asked that it be opened and faxed to Basil Rajkapaksa. He was expected to read the contents and brief the former President on the telephone.
As that was happening, the news went viral. The five-page letter written by Sirisena as President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), only hours earlier, had been leaked by someone to the social media. In the letter, Sirisena said, “In the event the UPFA is able to secure 113 seats……it is not you (Rajapaksa) who should be named as Prime Minister but some other senior leader in the party…” He was cautious enough not to say Rajapaksa will not be sworn in and seemed to express what appeared clearly is an opinion or wish. He is conscious of the Constitutional provisions and his duties as a President. Sirisena added, “In the event the UPFA is not able to reach the 113 mark, but comes close to it, I could intervene as the Executive President to obtain the remaining seats for the Government.” That remark seemed significant. Such seats, it is obvious, would have to be sought from those in opposition parties who may secure a less number of seats. They could mean even the UNP too. Of course, all that depends on the outcome of the elections tomorrow.
Though he had not read the letter but learnt of the contents, Rajapaksa was cautious. He told a UPFA rally on Thursday night in Kadawatha that he was aware a letter had come from Sirisena. “I don’t know whether it is a love letter or a break-up letter,” he remarked. Addressing the final rally of the UPFA on Friday night in Kurunegala, however, he said the ‘love letter’ was good news for him. By then the UPFA’s General Secretary, Susil Premajayantha, had invited partners of the alliance for a breakfast meeting on Friday at Rajapaksa’s Mirihana residence. He had also made known his immediate response to Sirisena’s letter – and the response was that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be the UPFA’s Prime Ministerial candidate. The emergency meeting discussed the possibility of obtaining the consent of likely Prime Ministerial aspirants named in Sirisena’s letter — Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne, Chamal Rajapaksa, Athauda Seneviratne, A.H.M. Fowzie, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa – to a statement that they favoured Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister in the event of a UPFA victory at the elections.
Saying that he was speaking on behalf of the seven members named, John Senevriatne said none would accept the Prime Ministerial position. Later on Friday, Premjayantha told a news conference at the SLFP headquarters the seven had sent a letter to President Sirisena with their signatures saying they would not accept any Prime Ministerial position offered to any one of them. They had expressed support for Rajapaksa, he said. However, the Sunday Times learnt that A.H.M. Fowzie did not sign. The letter had been drafted by former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva. Premjayantha said the Alliance had also written to the Commissioner of Elections urging him to direct the media that Sirisena’s full letter should not be further publicised. This was to ensure fairness to other candidates, they said. In addition, the prospects of obtaining signatures to a petition from all UPFA candidates urging Sirisena to recognise Rajapaksa are also being explored.
In another surprise move on Friday afternoon, Sirisena suspended Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa from their positions as the general secretaries of the UPFA and the SLFP respectively. Appointed as acting UPFA Secretary General is Prof. Vishwa Warnapala while Duminda Dissanayake, who is contesting from the Anuradhapura District on the UPFA ticket will act as General Secretary of the SLFP. The District Court (DC) of Colombo also allowed a petition filed by Dissanayake and Warnapala on Friday for an interim injunction to prevent Premajayantha and Yapa from acting and discharging duties as general secretaries of the UPFA and the SLFP. Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya has declined comment on the controversy saying his views could impact adversely on one side or the other. Well informed sources said Sirisena’s suspension of the two secretaries was probably aimed at thwarting any moves by Rajapaksa to name new persons on the UPFA National List in the event of its victory. This is by substituting those named in the list already provided to the Department of Elections. Rajapaksa loyalists said Sirisena planned a similar move to place on the list new names of his choice.
At the breakfast meeting it was decided that Rajapaksa should respond. He sent a three-paragraph letter in Sinhala to Sirisena. The English translation is: “I reject the baseless allegations based on information from another party. However, I am happy about your statement which says we will get a majority in Parliament. Soon after the presidential election, when results came on January 9, I left Temple Trees and handed over the leadership, on your request, based on a decision made by me. I wish to recall that in February 2015 a majority of party members and the public appealed to me to return to active politics. Like I bowed down to public opinion on January 9, I expect you to respect public opinion at these elections.”
The UPFA’s Media Committee chief Dilan Perera told the Sunday Times, “In terms of the SLFP Constitution, the president of the party can suspend a member. However, he cannot appoint an office bearer. He or she has to be elected by the Central Committee. On the other hand, the President of the SLFP is not empowered to remove the General Secretary of the UPFA or appoint another person in his place. It was barely 24 hours ago the President, for whom I have the highest respect, said Premajayantha and Yapa were fit enough to be Prime Minister, even above Mahinda Rajapaksa.” He said that the UPFA had also written to the Commissioner of Elections reminding him of his assertion earlier that no secretaries of political parties could be removed from office after nominations until the elections were over.
Wittingly or otherwise, Sirisena’s letter also ruffled feathers in the higher echelons of the United National Party (UNP). It was firstly over the letter itself. Secondly, it was over his remarks that he would intervene as Executive President to “obtain the remaining seats for the Government” if the UPFA does not receive 113 seats or the required working majority in a 225-seat Parliament. The letter, itself, some argued tended to give the ‘wrong’ notion that the UPFA was on the road to victory. The offer “to obtain” remaining seats they said meant the concept of a National Government would only be considered if the number of seats secured by the United National Party (UNP) was less than 113 seats.
However, officially the party made clear it was not worried. “We are not concerned about internal issues of other political parties. We are confident that the voters would give us a convincing mandate to form a government,” said the UNP’s joint campaign manager Karu Jayasuriya. The other manager is Malik Samarawickrema, Chairman of the party. Jayasuriya added, “During the campaign rallies, we have seen the overwhelming support for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party candidates.”
A main contender at the polls in the south after UPFA and the UNP, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) forecast that the outcome of the letter would pave the way for a havul aanduwa or a mixed Government. “Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hopes to become Prime Minister have been dashed. His group will be isolated whilst others will get together. That creates the need for a strong opposition which can ensure checks and balances,” JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times.
A detailed discourse on the varied aspects of tomorrow’s polls had to be restricted in view of the guidelines set out by Elections Commissioner Deshapriya. He had earlier placed a ban not only on interviews but also political discourses in the Sunday media (both electronic and print) during the 48 hour ‘campaign free’ period ahead of polls. However, last Wednesday he made exceptions. Commissioner Deshapriya said in a letter to print media organisations, “As discussed at the action committee on media guidelines, I wish to bring to your kind notice that if you intend to publish any political column or article in the weekend English publications, contents of such articles should not demote or promote any candidate/independent group/candidates. Yet, if you have the slightest doubt, that the contents could cause any demotion or promotion, it is highly desirable not to publish such.
“Further, measures should be taken not to publish any advertisement, supplementary article, interviews, media discussions, meeting minutes that lead to the promotion of a party/candidate, in the newspapers of 15th, 16th and 17th of August 2015, and also requested not to allow the promotion or demotion of any party or candidate through cartoon, caricatures or such.
“Further, of reports of political meetings or interviews conducted by seriously contesting political parties/groups on 14th of August 2015, I have no objection in the publication of such articles only in the newspapers of 15th August 2015 provided such parties/groups are given equal space and prominence.”
Commissioner Deshapriya’s media guidelines are part of measures he has initiated to ensure tomorrow’s polls are free and fair. In fact some measures he has introduced to crack down on those using cut-outs and posters have led to a drastic reduction. So much so, the fact that a poll is just ahead is not evident in most areas. This has been a contributory factor to relatively less violence.
Impact of Sirisena’s letter
If the Department of Elections and the Police were monitoring different poll campaigns to ensure election laws are observed, President Sirisena’s letter to Rajapaksa came as an unexpected diversion. On Thursday night, it became the subject of late night television talk shows on different channels. Participants from different political parties were using the letter to their advantage. On one channel, a UPFA candidate claimed the letter underscored an admission of victory for them. On the other hand, a UNP candidate was to say that the Rajapaksa campaign was in dire straits after Sirisena’s declaration that he would not make Rajapaksa the premier. Interestingly, most of them had copies of the letter, all evidently printed out from the same social website for it bore the black backdrop. There is little doubt that Sirisena, though leader of the SLFP and thus the UPFA, was irked by the UPFA’s use of his photograph in posters and advertisements. “As they try to project the split in the party I have been watching patiently the use of my photographs in the UPFA advertising campaigns,” he said. He has thus gone public that he was opposed to the move, reportedly on the grounds that he had chosen to remain neutral.
Sirisena also blamed former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa for the deterioration of the “close relations and friendship” between him and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He charged, “His attempts to project me as an unsuccessful politician and carry out a campaign against me have backfired today. I expected that you will be decent enough to intervene and protect my independence when Basil Rajapaksa was trying to scuttle my political future, but you failed to do so until I was selected as the common candidate on November 21.”
Basil Rajapaksa responded to the reference when he spoke to a senior SLFPer. “I am happy President Sirisena has not found fault with the former President and only placed the blame on me,” he said. Noting that Sirisena’s letter has been carefully worded to ensure there was no conflict with the Constitutional provisions, he also cited an earlier instance. He told the SLFPer how a similar letter from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was delivered to Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees in 2005 when he was Prime Minister. Though it was handed over at midnight, that letter was never released to the media and its contents are still not public, he added.
Here are some salient features in Sirisena’s letter to Rajapaksa: “…….During the three meetings we had in the past seven months and the telephone conversation two days prior to the signing of the nominations for the Kurunegala district, I emphasised that you should not contest the elections as I was prepared to take the responsibility of leading and directing the party’s campaign to victory. But, as soon as you signed the nomination papers that hope went away. If you had not decided to contest the elections, I had the capability of taking the leadership to attract the youth, professionals, the middle class in the urban areas, civil society, political parties, the Tamils and the Muslims who supported me at the Presidential elections.
“I had no intention of removing you from politics by telling you not to contest elections. I proposed certain constitutional provisions under which you could have continued your political future respectfully. I am aware that most of your family members were agreeable to that. But you rejected these proposals without any love or feelings towards the SLFP as you became a prisoner of small parties and groups which were linked to the UPFA. These groups were only looking to enter parliament by exploiting your political value of gaining votes. ……. As a result, it is sad to see the disadvantage to some of our senior members in the race for preferential votes……
“……..Didn’t you see that the extremism you nurtured contributed to your defeat on January 8 by identifying the party as representing only the Sinhala Buddhists? A great party does not deserve this. I now have that responsibility of clearing that image to show that we do not represent a particular ethnic group or religion. But aren’t you surrounded by persons who spread racism trying to increase their preference votes. They are not SLFPers. They should not be allowed to control the party or its members. When you were President, you repeatedly said that there is no majority community and a minority community………Those who are trying to exploit your political ability to gain votes and keep on praising you, call me secretly or send me messages through their emissaries that after the Parliamentary elections they are prepared to join me to continue their politics. They are requesting portfolios to protect their political future. Some of them who have accepted portfolios earlier and show that they are faithful to you are projecting some of the candidates as enemies of the party and damaging their credibility…….
“….. I appeal to you to show flexibility, cooperation, give your blessings and make a sacrifice for the sake of the SLFP and the people of the country in naming the Prime Minister by allowing me to name one among Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne, Chamal Rajapaksa, Athauda Seneviratne, A.H.M.Fowzie, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa. It is hilarious to see you have been visiting temples to receive blessings since you were defeated on January 8. I have doubts your visits to temples have gained you spirituality and good thoughts, because I am aware of the manner you acted in the period from January 26, 2010 to November 21, 2014. During private meetings with our party members and discussions you have been speaking with hatred. I appeal to you not to make statements that spread racism and promote divisions in the party for the UPFA to gain higher number of seats at the upcoming elections……”