Range Bandara’s “Loud Thinking” and Ranil’s election campaign

1 June 2024 12:00 am – 0      – 128

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe (centre), UNP General Secretray Palitha Range Bandara and  UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena greet crowds at an election rally


When some UNP seniors and party office-bearers met to discuss the situation  Range Bandara in his capacity as Gen Secy was also present. Some of those present began to criticise Range and blame him  for bringing the Government into disrepute. Ranil Wickremesinghe however intervened  and put a stop to “Bandara baiting”

Even though Range Bandara’s proposal was his personal point of view and only a suggestion, it was not perceived as such. Sections of the media and social media along with Opposition political parties treated it as an official Government announcement

  • The essence of what Palitha Range Bandara proposed was this -. Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the country’s leadership at a time of a great economic crisis
  • The Range Bandara proposal provided further ammunition to those critics  of Ranil who opined that he would not hold a presidential election
  • Many in the media expected an official statement to be issued by the Government distancing itself from Range Bandara’s views
  • Range Bandara had discussed  his fears and concerns with Ranil  Wickremesinghe and proposed that the elections be postponed and the  presidential and Parliamentary terms be extended by two years at least.  Ranil had responded by saying that he was committed to a presidential  election followed by a Parliamentary poll

Sri Lanka’s political stage was enlivened last week by the solo performance of United National Party (UNP) General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara. Addressing a media briefing on May 28, the policeman-turned-politician came out with a suggestion that the presidential election due this year and the Parliamentary election scheduled for next year should be postponed while the terms of office for both should be extended by two more years. The former Puttalam district and ex-state minister wanted a resolution passed by Parliament to that effect and ratified by the people at a referendum.
The essence of what Palitha Range Bandara proposed was this -. Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the country’s leadership at a time of a great economic crisis. Considerable progress has been achieved by the Wickremesinghe Government to remedy the situation. A degree of economic stability has been established but more time is needed to ensure greater economic stability.
Presidential elections are due this year and parliamentary polls next year. These elections along with the election campaigns could affect the current momentum of economic recovery. The steady progress of economic growth could be disrupted. As such both elections should be postponed so as to continue with the journey towards greater economic stability and growth.
The current terms of office of the President and Parliament should be extended by two more years for both. A proposal to this effect should be presented in Parliament as a resolution and passed by all political parties together and followed up by a referendum to get the people’s support and endorsement.  Thus the president and Government could continue unfettered for two more years and  achieve economic stability for Sri Lanka.

Non-Starter

The above in essence was Range Bandara’s suggestion as revealed to the media. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the proposal, it was obvious from the start that Palitha’s project was a non-starter. In the first place, it was unclear as to whether  he envisaged postponements and extensions of the terms of office were constitutionally feasible. Even if it were so, gaining two-thirds support in Parliament was hardly possible. Furthermore obtaining the people’s endorsement at a referendum was virtually impossible.
Range Bandara’s suggestion was nothing new. The UNP Chairman and sole National List MP  Vajira Abeywardena has been saying frequently that all political parties should get together and enable President Wickremesinghe to stay in power longer so that he could lead the country on the road to economic recovery. However, when the UNP Gen Secy stated the same sentiments in a more crystallised form, it was viewed differently and more definitively.
Even though Range Bandara’s proposal was his personal point of view and only a suggestion, it was not perceived as such. Sections of the media and social media along with Opposition political parties treated it as an official Government announcement.
Moreover it was regarded or depicted as a concrete proposal of the UNP and not as an idea being floated by the party general secretary on his initiative.

“His Master’s Voice”

Furthermore the authenticity of  Range Bandara’s  proposal was seriously doubted. It was seen as having emanated from President and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Just as SLPP Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s pronouncements and statements are laid at the door of Basil Rajapaksa, Range Bandara was suspected of being a mouthpiece for Ranil Wickremesinghe.The irrepressible leader of the TPA, Mano Ganesan stated openly that  Range Bandara was ‘his master’s voice” and that the “master” was none other than the president himself. The general impression was that Wickremesinghe after confirming earlier that the presidential poll will be held was now trying to scuttle it through the party secretary.
So it was open season on Range Bandara and by extension Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Various political parties opened fire. As was to be expected, there was strong criticism of  Range Bandara’s proposal. Vehement opposition to the proposal was expressed by many. Some even threatened to take to the streets and revive the “Aragalaya” protests if the Government went ahead  with the proposal. Few bothered to note that  neither the President nor the Government had endorsed or approved Range Bandara’s proposal openly or officially.
A contributory factor to this state of affairs was the approach of Ranil Wickremesinghe himself. Everyone knew he was contesting the presidential elections and that an electoral campaign in his support was on. Yet Wickremesinghe had not officially announced that he was going to contest. When asked at media briefings he would evade giving a direct reply. Ranil would talk about the economy and avoid talking about elections.

Attack on Two Counts 

This  seeming reluctance on the part of Ranil has enabled his opponents to attack him on two points. One was to allege that Ranil was afraid to face elections because he would lose and therefore will not contest polls. The other was to accuse Wickremesinghe of conspiring to put off the presidential elections and remain in power  as president  “by hook or by crook”.
The Range Bandara proposal provided further ammunition to those critics of Ranil who opined that he would not hold a presidential election. Wickremesinghe was now attacked as plotting to avoid a presidential poll he was sure to lose by extending the presidential term through a referendum. What many of those subscribing to this allegation failed to take note of was the inherent contradiction in the charge. If Ranil was going to lose at a presidential poll then how could he win a referendum? If on the other hand Ranil could win a referendum then why can’t he win a presidential election?

Damage Control 

While the Opposition parties were having a field day lambasting Range and Ranil on the one hand and re-iterating their commitment to electoral democracy on the other, the UNP itself was in an unenviable situation. Many in the party were themselves surprised by the proposal of the party general secretary. Some engaged in damage control.
Chief among them was former Cabinet minister Ravi Karunanayake. It is an open secret in UNP circles that Ravi has been eyeing the Gen Secy post held by Range for long.  “It was nothing but a personal statement by Range Bandara. This is not the decision of the President,” Ravi Karunanayake told the “Daily Mirror.” Karunanayake asserted that the presidential election would be held as scheduled in October, followed by the general election.

PM Dinesh Gunawardena

Many in the media expected an official statement to be issued by the Government distancing itself from Range Bandara’s views. A press release from the President’s media division was eagerly awaited. However in an unexpected twist, the official  communique  dated May 29th was issued by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s media division. Here are a few  relevant excerpts –
“Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena emphatically said that the Presidential Election will be held this year in accordance with the constitutional provisions as already announced by the Elections Commission. He pointed out that the Election Commission has already made an announcement that the Presidential Election would be held between September 15 and October 17 this year.”
“Speaking to journalists after attending the inauguration of Martin Wickramasinghe’s Life and Literature Section at the National Libraries Board in Colombo on May 29, he dismissed the suggestions about the postponement of the Presidential elections and General elections. The Prime Minister said it was wrong to make proposals that have not been discussed by the government or the ruling alliance at any time.”
“The government’s stand on the election has already been announced. The Election Commission declared that the presidential election will be held in accordance with the provisions in the constitution. They have announced that it will be scheduled between the months of September and October. The government’s stand on the election has already been announced, the Prime Minister said.”
“The Prime Minister stated that after the presidential election, it will be the general election. He added that attention has been paid on holding provincial council and local government elections on the same day. “Some people declare various things without responsibility. I am telling the countrymen that a democratic government or parliament will not allow the government to make sudden announcements about something that has not been discussed in any situation and to create unrest in the country irresponsibly,” he said.”

June 3 Press Conference

In view of what had happened, there was a general expectation that the Wickremesinghe Governmentt would disassociate itself from Palitha Range Bandara. That has not happened. He was neither abandoned nor thrown to the wolves. Instead Range Bandara has proclaimed  that he would convene a press conference on  June 3rd and explain in detail the reasons behind his proposal. He is also scheduled to appear in several TV shows next week.

Range Bandara and Ranil 

When some UNP seniors and party office-bearers met to discuss the situation  Range Bandara in his capacity as Gen Secy was also present. Some of those present began to criticise Range and blame him  for bringing the Government into disrepute. Ranil Wickremesinghe however intervened  and put a stop to “Bandara baiting”. He said that the UNP Gen Secy had merely expressed his thoughts on the matter and made some suggestions personally. He (Range) had not stated those views were those of the Government or party. Therefore Range Bandara was entitled to his own opinion and none should criticize him stated Wickremesinghe.
I was unable to  speak directly with Palitha Range Bandara on this matter but was able to  communicate with informed sources close to the UNP Gen Secy. According to these circles Range Bandara had been extremely worried that conducting the presidential and Parliament elections,one after the other, would take up too much time and  transform the prevailing situation. “Election fever” would disrupt the current course of life for many weeks and even months. As such the on-going journey towards economic emancipation would be affected.
Range Bandara had discussed  his fears and concerns with Ranil Wickremesinghe and proposed that the elections be postponed and the presidential and Parliamentary terms be extended by two years at least. Ranil had responded by saying that he was committed to a presidential election followed by a Parliamentary poll. However Range Bandara could make his ideas on the matter public if he so desired. Stating your thoughts publicly  would be a way to test political and public opinion on this issue , pointed out Ranil. The choice was left to Range.

Wigneswaran’s Support

Hence Range Bandara had gone ahead and articulated his ideas openly. Even though Political party leaders and sections of the media have been critical, a few MPs are said to have quietly supported Range Bandara on this issue. Former Supreme Court Judge and Jaffna district Parliamentarian CV Wigneswaran has openly welcomed the suggestion made by Palitha.
Notwithstanding the support in certain quarters for postponement of elections and extension of electoral terms, the people on the whole would be against the idea. If there are attempts to implement these ideas, the emergence of spontaneous mass protests cannot be ruled out. Besides in fairness to President Wickremesinghe, he too is keen on contesting and winning the presidential poll. In the final analysis, Range Bandara’s “loud thinking” has proved that the Presidential election cannot be postponed.

Election Campaign

At the same time this distracting exercise has to some extent damaged Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election campaign in the short term. Ranil’s image has been somewhat tarnished and  campaign dented at least  for now. Also the plan to deplete the SJB of MPs through the campaign code named “Operation Sajaba” will be affected. MPs planning to cross over may have second thoughts now.
However, this temporary setback can be  overcome with the passage of time. Once it becomes obvious that Ranil has no intention of postponing elections and poll dates are announced the climate would change. Once Wickremesinghe’s  official election campaign  gets underway in a big way the dynamics of electioneering would have a transforming effect. The Range Bandara affair would pale into insignificance.

Not Postpone But Win Poll 

The  loud thinking of Range Bandara about elections affecting the country’s economic recovery are quite valid. The best way to address them is not to  postpone polls but to ensure that the poll is won. What the supporters and allies of Ranil Wickremesinghe  could and should do is to conduct a  powerful election campaign that would  result in the incumbent president successfully tasting the fruits of victory.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

 

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