Presidential poll: Political alliances after Ranil’s announcement of candidature

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  • SLPP likely to back him, though Mahinda makes statement highly critical of Govt.’s privatisation policy
  • Namal phones Ranil to declare his candidacy, President wishes him well
  • UNP sources claim about 18 SJB MPs are ready to cross over
  • Dhammika Perera now emerging as “standby” either as presidential or prime ministerial nominee

By Our Political Editor

Despite wild speculation, some doctored and others engineered by individuals or interested groups, the clamour for an immediate parliamentary general election has died down or is even dead.

The reason: for many weeks now, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is empowered constitutionally to dissolve Parliament—which has now completed more than two and half years—wants a presidential election first. Constitutionally the presidential election is scheduled for a date between September 17 and October 16. And he is working towards that.

Wickremesinghe told a United National Party (UNP) confidant that the barrage of social media speculation was the work of interested groups. If a parliamentary poll is to be held, as claimed by ‘large groups,’ both in the government and outside, they could adopt a resolution in keeping with constitutional provisions. There was no such move, he noted and to the contrary, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), whose government he leads, has consented to his candidature. Only a formal announcement is awaited though some minor issues remain to be sorted out. Yet, there are sceptics who argue that Wickremesinghe may not contest and would pull out at the eleventh hour.

In this regard, a matter that has remained little known has surfaced now. Hambantota District Parliamentarian and SLPP National Organizer Namal Rajapaksa telephoned President Wickremesinghe. During the conversation, he spoke about the presidential election. He had conveyed that he proposed to be a presidential candidate on behalf of his party. President Wickremesinghe replied that he was perfectly entitled to be a candidate on behalf of his party and wished him well. The telephone conversation took place on a day in April. It is not immediately clear whether Namal, son of onetime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was on a “sounding out mission” since the party has not made a formal decision. Moreover, since April, there have been several new developments that have overshadowed his case.

President Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Rajapakshe at the ceremony to mark the opening of the new courts complex in Teldeniya.

On Thursday, SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking to the media from his party headquarters in Battaramulla, declared, “We are ready for any election, presidential or parliamentary. We are also opposed to the sale of national assets.” A videotape of the remarks was distributed among the media. Also associated with the occasion was SLPP General Secretary, Sagara Kariyawasam. Those remarks make clear the SLPP’s official position until formal decisions are made and announced thereafter. More importantly, he is also resorting to a fall-back option just in case there are untoward developments.  Even here, there is no longer a demand for a parliamentary general election first. There is a message in that posturing: we are ready for any eventuality. As for the sale of national assets, the SLPP is also arming itself with a strong complaint for later use in the unlikely event of going it alone. Significantly, on the last May Day, the Rajapaksas gained control of the party though the numbers backing them are less. It was organised by party founder Basil Rajapaksa and most members received his guidance to usher in crowds. The party also handed down funds for them unlike in previous years. UNP insiders said Wickremesinghe would make an official announcement of his candidature either “in late June or early July.”  Last week, he was busy naming committees to undertake polls work at the electoral level. There were also steps to lure voters. One such measure was the move to raise the wages of plantation workers to Rs 1,700 a day—a matter that is now being contested in courts by estate management companies. Another is a Rs 25 million grant to establish a museum in the East to honour Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) founder M.H.M. Ashraff. However, the late leader’s family has declined the offer. Deeds to issue lands free to the needy are being readied. So are the deeds to donate houses to the needy.

President Wickremesinghe has also been discussing many presidential election-related matters. In one instance, he had to reject a recommendation by Gampaha district parliamentarian Nimal Lanza to contest the presidential election without the backing of the SLPP. The idea, he had claimed, was to leave out associating with all the Rajapaksas—Mahinda, Basil, Namal and Chamal. That is the basis on which Lanza has said Wickremesinghe could win the presidency. He has opined he would receive more votes. However, the President had rejected the suggestion. Among those he had consulted were Parliamentarian Vajira Abeywardena and the president’s senior national security advisor, Sagala Ratnayake. The duo had also rejected the move. Moreover, in the SLPP, an unspecified segment is also known to back Wickremesinghe.

Lanza was earlier a close confidant of Basil Rajapaksa. When Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed the presidency, he received office space at the Presidential Secretariat. Among his tasks was to win over parliamentarians, particularly those from the SLPP, to support President Wickremesinghe. At that time, it was reported that he had the backing of 39 MPs from the SLPP and they would join at the appropriate time. However, that did not materialise. Lanza went on to form what was named the New Alliance, a group of MPs who support President Wickremesinghe. He opened a separate office too. Some of the New Alliance members belong to other SLPP splinter groups too. However, no new SLPP parliamentarians have joined it. Asked to comment on the advice he gave his leader, President Wickremesinghe, Lanza said, “I told him what I believed in. I did not talk of names. You can draw your conclusions.” He declined to elaborate.

A section of the invitees including lawyers at the ceremonial opening of the new courts complex in Teldeniya

In another development, a dialogue is underway with a faction of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya  (SJB) to obtain their support for Wickremesinghe. UNP sources claim there were 18 but the exact number will not be known until the dates are finalised for their switch. Among those SJB members who have received funds for development on an initiative of President Wickremesinghe are Ajith Manapperuma, J.C. Alawathuwala, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Harsha de Silva, Ishak Rahman and Kavinda Jayawardena. Among the others who have received funds for development activity in their electorates are Asanka Navaratne (Sri Lanka Mahajana Party – Rs 150 million)) and Champika Ranawaka (United Republic Front – Rs 150 million)

The SLPP appears to be reacting to some of the developments on Wickremesinghe’s front. Understandably, the measures they are embarking on seem to consider not only a lineup of their would-be candidates but also other steps to keep their rank and file happy. A development in this regard is the ‘re-emergence’ of Dhammika Perera, millionaire businessman and casino owner. He is a close confidant of SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa. His relations with President Wickremesinghe remained strained after he became President. However, last week, SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa ensured there was a rapprochement between the two. It is known that Perera has been underwriting the expenses of the SLPP. This included the recent May Day rally of the party as well as the installation of computers at the party’s “Operations Room” for the elections.

Months earlier, Dhammika Perera was listed as one of four persons who were likely SLPP candidates. However, the increased affinity of President Wickremesinghe to the leadership of the SLPP, particularly Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa, changed this. What is Dhammika Perera’s new role? If one is to go by his own confessions, Basil Rajapaksa has assured him that he would be the presidential candidate. That is if Ranil Wickremesinghe does not contest. If he does, Perera told a confidant he would be the party’s Prime Ministerial nominee. In such a scenario, it is not clear what would happen to Namal Rajapaksa. Of course, his father and onetime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is on record saying there is more time for Namal. Yet, his telephone call to President Wickremesinghe becoming public knowledge at the highest levels of the government and even the UNP, would be some loss of face. On the other hand, for millionaire businessman Dhammika Perera, election expenses countrywide will be no issue.

It is against this backdrop that one must view the letter SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote to President Wickremesinghe. His call was not to go ahead with “the sale of national assets and state-owned enterprises.” This is what the letter said:

“The government’s plans to sell off certain national assets and state-owned enterprises have given rise to discontent among trade unions, political parties and the general public. The present divestiture drive is ostensibly aimed at minimising govt. expenditure on loss-making state-owned enterprises and meeting certain IMF conditions in that regard. I ruled the country for more than nine years from November 2005 to January 2015 without ever selling a single state-owned enterprise. In fact, my government actually re-acquired some state-owned enterprises such as the Insurance Corporation, and Lanka Hospitals that had been sold off by previous governments and these enterprises continue to make profits for the state to date.

“My government had a pragmatic approach towards state-owned assets and enterprises. If a state-owned enterprise was making profits and providing a good service to the public, we saw no reason to privatize it. At times, a government may take a strategic decision to manage the prices of certain goods or services produced by state-owned enterprises for the overall benefit of the economy or to help low-income earners. The energy sector is a good example of this. There is no government in the world that does not subsidize certain earmarked economic activities.

During my tenure as President, even if some state-owned enterprises made losses due to a government decision to manage prices, our management of the economy resulted in an unbroken nine-year economic boom. We had no difficulty in paying off our debts or meeting the costs of the subsidies we maintained, and nobody even spoke of privatisation when I was President. Since the divestiture of certain sectors can have far-reaching consequences for the country, especially when foreign parties are involved, this is an issue that has to be approached with caution. As was resolved at the SLPP May Day rally, any restructuring of state-owned enterprises should take place with maximum transparency, according to a national plan, in a manner consistent with national security and in consultation with the employees.

“Having said that, I wish to stress that the trade union sector for its part, should take a more nuanced approach towards private sector participation in state-owned enterprises. Going by the dictionary definition of privatization, any involvement of the private sector in the ownership structure or the control of a state-owned asset or enterprise can be characterized as privatisation. However, trade unions should not oppose every attempt to obtain foreign or private sector investment in a government-owned enterprise. A pragmatic and non-dogmatic approach to such matters is required.

“If there are unutilised government properties or underperforming government enterprises, it makes sense to obtain private sector participation to turn such enterprises around. If a profitable state-owned enterprise needs further investment to add a new feature which cannot be financed by the government, it makes sense to award a share of that enterprise to a private investor in exchange for the investment. If an investor is willing to build a new enterprise from scratch, it makes sense to award shares in that enterprise to the investor so that a new state asset comes into being. Some political parties have an ideology-driven, dogmatic approach to privatisation and seek to privatise anything and everything that can be privatised. Many trade unions also have a similarly dogmatic attitude and tend to oppose any involvement of the private sector in state-owned enterprises. Both these extremes are harmful to the country. Trade unions should regard proposals to obtain private or foreign participation in a state-owned enterprise on a case-by-case basis and look at the overall benefit of such collaboration to the country.

“The only real way national assets and strategically important state-owned enterprises can be safeguarded is by having a government that takes a pragmatic and non-dogmatic approach to such matters. This is why it is important to take note of the fact that when I ruled the country for more than nine years, the economy flourished and there was not even a discussion on the subject of privatisation. The present government is an interim arrangement formed to run the country for the remainder of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term. Even the pro-privatisation lobby should realise that the hasty divestiture of state-owned assets at a time like this will not produce the best outcome for the country. Furthermore, the next presidential election is only a few months away.

“Hence, as a measure to ease the widespread discontent over the government’s divestiture drive, I wish to propose that all moves to sell off state-owned assets or enterprises be postponed until a new government is formed after the next presidential election. The new government will then be able to deal with state-owned properties and enterprises in accordance with the mandate they obtain at the election.”

The government has embarked on an internationally publicised divesture programme for certain identified state ventures. Since Mahinda Rajapaksa’s letter there has been no change. The process continues. The state concerns are: Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, Canwill Holdings Pvt. Ltd. (for Grand Hyatt), Hotel Developers Lanka Limited (Hilton Hotel), and Litro Gas Lanka Ltd including Litro Gas Terminals (Pvt). Ltd (LPG retailing).

It is pertinent to ask why no questions were raised over the issue since the process got underway after a decision by the Cabinet of Ministers. Even the assistance of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) has been obtained as Transaction Advisors. This is what the website of the State-Owned Enterprise Restructuring Unit of the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilisation and National Policies had to say:

“The respective Request for Qualification (RfQ) and Request for Proposal (RFP) will be published both locally and internationally and documents could be accessed by clicking on the entity of interest. The Government of Sri Lanka Seeks Transaction Advisors To Assist In Divesting Selected State Owned Enterprises:

“The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is in the process of implementing deep economic reforms including in the State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) sector. Such reforms are intended to enhance competition, productivity and efficiency across the economy. To implement SOE reforms, GOSL has set up the State-Owned Enterprise Restructuring Unit (SRU) under the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies (MoF). By Cabinet decision dated 13th March 2023, GoSL has mandated the SRU to divest an identified set of SOEs. To assist with such divestments, the SRU seeks to appoint reputed, qualified and experienced firms to provide transaction advisory services for the following entities.

1. Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation Ltd

2. Canwill Holdings Pvt Ltd (Grand Hyatt Hotel)

3. Hotel Developers Lanka Ltd (Hilton Hotel Colombo)

4. Litro Gas Lanka Ltd including Litro Gas Terminals (Pvt) Ltd (LPG retailing)

“The EOI and RFP for the above entities may be accessed by clicking on the entity of interest. Responses to the EOI and RFP must be delivered by hand or couriered. Proposals must be submitted no later than 16.00 hours (IST) on 27th April 2023. EXTENSION OF DEADLINE OF SUBMISSION OF EXPRESSION OF INTEREST (EOI) AND REQUEST FOR PROPOSAL (RFP) TO ACT AS A TRANSACTION ADVISOR TO THE STATE-OWNED ENTERPRISE RESTRUCTURING UNIT OF THE MINISTRY OF FINANCE, ECONOMIC STABLIZATION AND NATIONAL POLICIES.”

“Based on the multiple requests received from potential consultants at the Pre-bid meetings held on the 10th and 11th of April 2023, the State-Owned Enterprise Restructuring Unit and the Standing Cabinet Appointed Consultants Procurement Committee have decided to extend the deadline for the submission of the EOI and RFP, to no later than 16.00 hours (IST) on Monday, May 8, 2023.

Section 11 of Request for Expressions of Interest (EOI) has been amended to read: The EOI must be submitted in one original and a copy and clearly marked as “Original” and “Copy”. In addition, a soft copy in PDF Format on a memory stick must be included. The EOI must be either delivered by hand couriered to the address below, not later than 16.00 hours (IST) on 8th May 2023, and must be sealed in a plain envelope marked “EOI for [Entity’s Name]” on its top, left-hand corner.”

“Section 6.1 of the Request for Proposal (RFP) document has been amended to read: “6.1. The response to this RFP must be submitted in a sealed envelope together with a soft copy in PDF format on a memory stick, either delivered by hand or couriered to reach……”

A key player in the divestiture process said that “no instructions” have been issued to them to halt any of the processes. Moreover, he said, the divestiture of other state concerns has already been identified and the process to “privatise them” has got underway. Asked whether there has been a response from President Wickremesinghe to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s letter, he replied ,“We are not aware.”

Another development that has caused much embarrassment to the SLPP government is the case of Justice and Constitutional Reforms Minister, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. He has now found himself firmly in the saddle as the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with failure by rival groups to oust him through legal action. He will therefore be a presidential candidate opposing Ranil Wickremesinghe. The dilemma for the SLPP is to remove him since there are other ministers in the Cabinet – Nimal Siripala de Silva, and Mahinda Ameraweera – from the same party. Just this week, he was in Teldeniya where President Ranil Wickremesinghe declared open a new court complex.

At the highest levels of the United National Party (UNP), the focus appears to be on persuading a group in the Samagi Jana Balavegaya  (SJB) to join them. The timing is what they are focusing on, whether it would coincide with Wickremesinghe’s formal announcement of his candidature. As for the SLPP, since the days of the protests (aragalaya), Rajapaksas appear to have taken control of the party with May Day. They will no doubt secure their political demands but there is little doubt about the backing for Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is if he declares his candidacy for the presidential election. This is what remains in suspense now. Not whether the parliamentary elections will precede a presidential election.