Contradictions over SLPP’s support for President at upcoming poll

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  •  Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa appear to be backing Ranil, but Namal talks about a separate candidate
  • Major parties prepare for May Day as a test of strength for the election
  • SLFP losing its lustre and breaks up into rival factions; Chandrika and Maithripala at odds over who did what for Sirima; Wijeyadasa coming forward as a candidate


By Our Political Editor

The National New Year holidays are over but normal life is yet to return to normal in most areas. In Greater Colombo, most shops, and restaurants, like in other provincial towns, remained shut. One of the main reasons has been the inability of transport services to bring back those who had gone mostly to their homes. The rush was far too heavy, and they could not cope.

An example was those travelling from Kandy to Colombo having converged in the central province capital from outlying areas. On average, it took two and half to three hours to just board a bus. Ahead of the national holidays, there was also heavy pressure on transport services, but the frequency of disruptions or delays was far less. This phase came, much to the surprise of both government and opposition parties, after crowded shopping sprees. They were good and there was a demand. Of course, there were also problem areas. For the first time, most could not buy their regular bottles of arrack because prices have gone sky high. In the hinterland, kasippu mudalalis or illicit brewers had a field day.

With less than six months to go for a presidential election, whether these will come as good omen for the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government led by United National Party leader and President, Ranil Wickremesinghe remains to be seen. As repeatedly pointed out, in accordance with the Constitution, a date for the presidential election will have to be anytime between September 18 and October 18. Of course, such a date will be known before July 17—the date by which the Election Commission has to make a formal announcement.

Both President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP government, for whatever kudos they have won for creating a conducive climate, are getting increasingly embroiled in issues that cause doubts about their future in the public mind. Not so long ago, the SLPP was touted as promoting the presidential candidature of millionaire businessman and casino owner, Dhammika Perera. It faded away, when onetime President and SLPP leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, publicly declared that Wickremesinghe was being considered as one of their presidential candidates. This was when his brother, Basil Rajapaksa, the founder, and key strategist of the SLPP, was in the United States.

On April 9, the SLPP’s Central Executive Committee meeting was held. In a move that raised some eyebrows, ex-Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena was quoted by different media as saying that their leader Mahinda Rajapaksa would decide on the SLPP candidate.  However, Basil Rajapaksa had by then met President Wickremesinghe at his former Mahagama Sekera Mawatha (Paget Road) residence on April 5. At this meeting, the details of which were reported in these columns, Basil Rajapaksa made clear that Wickremesinghe would be the SLPP presidential candidate.

So much so, he told him that the SLPP leadership was willing to mark time without making any comments if he would approach those in the opposition wanting to join their ranks. In fact, he revealed that two cabinet ministers were having talks with Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa. Now, to cap it all, young SLPP parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa is repeatedly making public remarks that the SLPP will name its own presidential candidate. It was only weeks earlier; his father, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had declared that there was more time remaining for Namal. The contradictions are increasing unless that is part of a strategy to finally veer around Wickremesinghe. Nevertheless, such political tactics are far too transparent and not marketable.

Test of strength: May Day

Be that as it may, an event that will shine the light on the political strength of the UNP and the SLPP will come on May Day. Both sides are preparing to show their strength. The UNP had originally planned to hold its rally at Torrington Square. Due to advice from security officials, it has now been shifted to the area adjoining the Elphinistone Theatre in Maradana.  It is the main road and traffic on this day will be banned. The SLPP will hold their its at Campbell Park and Basil Rajapaksa is focusing his efforts on this to ensure a bigger turnout.

The national holiday season did not deter activity both in the diplomatic and political front. As is now known, Parliament will debate the Easter Sunday massacres on April 24, 25 and 26 with the complaint made by onetime President Maithripala Sirisena to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) being one of the main issues. In that complaint, he alleged that an Indian diplomat had told him that his country was behind the attacks. Although he volunteered to appear before a court and make the same claim, he did not do so.  Sirisena returned to Colombo last week after a private visit to Thailand. It was arranged by his wealthy gem businessman friend who lives mostly in Thailand, Mohamed Akram. He and close members of his family stayed in a hotel. Among the places he visited was the temple at the Royal Cemetery at Wat Ratchabophit.

During his absence from Sri Lanka, at least two persons describing themselves as Sirisena’s aides had been sending SMS messages to Indian diplomats purportedly on behalf of the former President. This is to initiate meetings and to ascertain whether it was possible to have them. It is not immediately clear whether Sirisena himself has given his consent to these meetings.

URF’s political moves

One of the hot topics of discussion among opposition political groups is the formation of alliance ahead of both the presidential and parliamentary elections. One such is the newly formed United Republic Front (URF) led by Patali Champika Ranawaka. “The declaration of bankruptcy is the main reason we formed this party,” he told the Sunday Times. He said there would be a second convention of the URF by the end of May. “We will come up with a comprehensive plan for economic recovery,” he said. Asked whether he would be contesting the presidential election on behalf of URF, he replied “yes, if the policy making body of my party chooses me.” There is little doubt he would be the choice and other sources said preparations for his candidature were underway.

Ranawaka said that it was an urgent need to prepare the environment for the youth to do politics freely. It was the responsibility of adults to create the necessary environment. He said the freedom and creativity of the youth would be given space under the United Republic Front.

There are 26 members under the age of 40 in the current parliament. But there are 57 people in the 60-90 age group in parliament. Involving the youth community in politics is also the need of the hour. Ranawaka also pointed out that the URF would create the right environment for the youth today, not tomorrow. Youth representation in Parliament should be increased. Currently, 26 people under 40 represent Parliament. But it is much less compared to adults., he said.

Justice and Constitutional Reforms Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe speaks at the SLFP meeting last week.

In a brief interview with the Sunday Times, Ranawaka said: “The worst crisis Sri Lankan government had to face within the ongoing economic downfall was the loss of one trillion rupees due to the unprecedented rise in treasury bill interest by 93% in 2023. What was the reason for such a dramatic increase in the interest rate for treasury bills? At the beginning of the protracted process of debt restructuring, the Sri Lankan Government assured the public that domestic debt would not be restructured. This was reiterated by several government statements and spokesmen who clearly indicated that the government would meet the required sustainable debt level without restructuring domestic debt. However, anyone who is capable enough to comprehend the Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) would realise that a domestic debt restructuring is imperative to achieve the required levels of debt sustainability. Yet, the Government only aggravated the crisis on itself by withholding the relevant information from the general public and changing its stance continuously. This created great uncertainty in the market and hence a drastic rise in the treasury bill interests costing nearly rupees 1 trillion extra to the government.

“It is clear that the government’s efforts to restructure foreign debt did not meet the timelines prescribed by the IMF. In fact, the deadlines to complete the agreements with the ISB holders and receive the third tranche of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility lapsed last month. The misconception of the fact that the agreement between the government and the ISB holders did not matter to the bilateral donors was exposed when the government failed to achieve an agreement with the bondholders this week. This will potentially jeopardise the ongoing IMF programme and bring the entire economic process of the country back to square one where the fuel queues and food shortages were the daily routine.

“The further the government delays the probable agreement with the bondholders the more uncertainty created in the markets which will adversely affect the stock trading and banking sector. While it is a recommendation to be transparent among the lenders when it comes to debt restructuring, it is the fundamental right of the public to be informed about the current status of affairs. The Parliamentary Committee for Ways and Means has looked deeply into the matters of financial irregularities and the shortcomings of revenue collection to the government. Contrary to the popular rhetoric that the political sphere is the root cause of all corruption and mismanagement, in practicality, it is apparent that the thread of corruption runs through all sectors of society. The medical professionals, the pharmaceutical industry, traders, infrastructure services, goods and commodity dealers, the transport sector, state authorities of regulatory bodies etc. all are interconnected with an invisible chain of corruption linked to financial transactions. The committee takes this into consideration and proposes a digital platform for all transactions and a move towards digital currency.

“Making all transactions transparent and accounted will prevent the misappropriation of payments, bribery and even extortion. Even the chain of agricultural produce, till it reaches the consumer, could potentially be brought on to a digital transparent platform where the unbearable and unjust price hikes and outrageous profit margins maintained by traders could be exposed and ceased.”

In the case of Ranawaka, he left the SJB and has now formed the URF. However, the SLPP broke into different groups. That includes the Freedom People’s Congress led by Dullas Alahapperuma, The Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya or Supreme Lanka Coalition led by Wimal Weerawansa (The parties of the Supreme Lanka Coalition include the Democratic Left Front, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, the Communist Party of Sri Lanka, the National Freedom Front, the Piwithuru Hela Urumaya, the Vijaya Dharani National Council, and the Yuthukama National Organisation). An alliance known as ‘New Alliance’ was launched under the leadership of Nimal Lanza. Minister Susil Premajayantha, Trade Minister Nalin Fernando, Former Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Former Minister Piyankara Jayaratne, are in the group. Parliamentarian Roshan Ranasinghe remains an independent after launching an anti-corruption movement. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faction operating with former President Maithripala Sirisena is another group. Another group, including G.L. Peiris, Dilan Perera, and Nalaka Godahewa are supporting the SJB. Shan Vijayalal and Chandima Weerakkody too are supporting the SJB. Part of the SLPP, including Ministers Mahinda Amaraweera, Kanchana Wijesekara and Shehan Semasinghe are directly working with the government.

These ‘walkouts’, if one may call them, have set a serious poser for the SLPP.  The party is unable or finds it unwieldy to expel those who have willingly quit the party on which they won the parliamentary general elections. The numbers are so many and as a senior member pointed out, “it is like shooting ourselves in the foot.” That is not all. The malady continues to grow and turns out to be highly embarrassing. Take for example the case of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Reforms. He has now declared that he would be a presidential candidate possibly from the SLFP. He was present at a recent SLFP event and spoke. He later declared that he had been under pressure from the Buddhist clergy to be the presidential candidate. Ironic enough, his nexus is with Maithripala Sirisena, who has been debarred by the District Court from being the leader of the party, The case is due again on May 9.

Acting Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva, at their meeting last week.

SLFP infighting

Another event, if not serious, rather laughable, was about the SLFP, once a premier political party but has now lost its lustre. Amidst the talk of various parties forming alliances comes news of the SLFP to the fore. According to a well-informed source, a high-ranking member sought the support of the SLFP leadership for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidature at the presidential election.

Amidst these moves came the 108th birth anniversary of Ms Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.  Two rival factions within the SLFP were present at the same venue.

Both factions—one supporting former President Srisena and the other supporting the government—took part in the event.

Srisena is having an interim injunction, preventing him from functioning as the Chairman of the SLFP. (The Colombo District Court on Thursday extended the injunction until May 9.)

The two factions were seen seated on two opposite sides of the hall. Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe too took part in the event and was seen seated along with Sirisena.  Also seated along with Sirisena were the SLFP’s Acting General Secretary Dushmantha Mithrapala, Sarath Ekanayake and Thilanga Sumathipala. The SLFP’s Senior Vice President Nimal Sripala de Siva, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, Jagath Pushpakumara and Duminda Dissanayake were seated on the opposite side.

Both sides during their speeches made comments critical of the rival faction.  Speaking at the event, Nimal Sripala de Silva (overseeing chairman of the SLFP), said, “Sirmavo Banadarnaike, took decisions intelligently.  She did not give organiser positions  to vagrants on the streets. She is strong not as a woman but as a man. We need such masculine leadership to take forward our party. She would have never removed our organiser posts when we wake up on the following  morning. She never became a dictator. She protected democracy. She never changed the party constitution saying that she needed more power. Therefore, everyone loved her.

“They talk about leftist politics. There is no leftist politics left in the world. It has now become a name board, even though we say we have a policy, we cannot remain hugging that and staying according to that. SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike carried out the policies which were needed in that era.”

Former President Sirisena who has functioned as chairman of the SLFP declared, “The crisis faced by the SLFP currently is small compared to the situations in those days.  The crisis was greater after Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s civic rights were taken off. Then all the sons, daughters and sons in law created numerous parties and left their mother (Ms Bandaranaike) alone. We stood by her and remained with her. Look at the Sirmavo Bandaranaike’s statue. As SLFP members could we join any political part? Check your conscience.

“There could be persons who take positions in this country, but since the day I joined this party, I have not done any fraudulent activity and have not even fraudulently taken a penny. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike too chased out a corrupt minister or two from his government. In my government too, I chased out a  corrupt Minister. A minister was removed as he too was deemed corrupt.

“This party was nourished by the blood of S.W.R.D, Bandaranaike and the tears of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Therefore we who get strength from the blood and tears of them should vow that we would not be partners of other parties. If we have a brain and heart we should put aside our differences and work towards the victory of the party at the upcoming presidential election.”

The SLFP’s Acting General Secretary, Dushmantha Mithrapala, said, “Sirmavo Bandaranaike did not go after benefits and did not betray the SLFP. Therefore, we should not preach from the sky. If we want to preach we should do it by getting down to the ground.”

A separate ceremony to celebrate the 108th birth anniversary of Sirimavo Bandaranaike was held at the BMCH in the evening. This event was under the patronage of former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. At that event, Mahinda Amaraweera and other SLFP members who support the government were also there.

Journalists posed questions to Kumaratunga after the event. Her responses:

Q: Maithripala Sirisena says that the sons, daughters and sons-in-law of the Bandaranaike family abandoned Sirimavo Bandaranaike after her civic rights were removed and that it was he who stayed with her and protected the party.

Kumranatunga: “What a lie, when madam Sirimavo lost her civic l rights, Vijaya Kumaratunga, Anura Bandaranaike and myself were there with her. He (Maithripala Srisena) was not there, he was a small boy at Polonnaruwa. He was a clerk of an MP named Wijesinghe.”

Q: They say that you want to tie the SLFP and the UNP together. Mathiripla Sirisena says so. Is that true?

Kumranatunga: “What a lie. In 2019, when they tried to tie the SLFP along with the SLPP, it was I who said no, because they removed me from the party and propped up to the SLPP. After a year he said the things we said and complained and cried that the SLPP did this and that to them. Now why should we go with the UNP when the SLPP is having a government keeping President Wickremesinghe as its leader? There is no UNP government, and we do not try to prop up the UNP.

“What we want is to rebuild the SLFP which was destroyed by Mathiripala Srisena. The SLFP I handed over to him had been broken into six pieces.  What he says in the morning changes during the day and again changes during the night and the next day, a party cannot be led like that.”

There was a tea party where members of the rival SLFP factions took part. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva had made an early departure. But state Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna, MPs Jagath Pushpakumara and Duminda Dissanayake were at the tea party.

The SLFP’s state-sector trade union leader, Roy de Mel, expressed concerns about the closure of the SLFP headquarters. He pointed out that they were now unable to pay the salaries of the staff attached to the headquarters and were not in a position to continue with the administrative work.

Sirisena asked Duminda Dissanayake, “What are you’ll doing by keeping the SLFP headquarters closed? Why don’t you get that opened soon?”

A final ruling on the situation at the SLFP will come only after the case is heard by the court. As for the other parties, their attention continues to be on alliances and seeking support from one another.