Range Bandara’s remarks backfire: Parties get ready for presidential poll

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  • Opposition political parties flay UNP General Secretary’s election-postponement suggestion
  • NPP says comment was confirmation that Ranil fears defeat at poll; SJB says no constitutional provision to put off the election
  • Wickremesinghe’s northern visit wins acclaim from Tamil politicians


By Our Political Editor

Palitha Range Bandara, the General Secretary of the United National Party, one of the oldest in the country at 77 years, believed he was bequeathing his biggest gift to his leader and President, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

He called a news conference at Sri Kotha, the party’s headquarters, on May 28 to tell Sri Lankans and the world about it. He declared that President Wickremesinghe should be allowed a further term of two years in office. This was through a resolution of Parliament to be supported by the government and opposition parties with a successful outcome, subject to a national referendum.

That Range Bandara displayed the least political acumen, unlike almost all his predecessors, as the General Secretary of the UNP, is one thing. What was worse was that his remarks became the rallying point for opposition political parties. National People’s Power (NPP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, identified as a formidable presidential candidate, said that Range Bandara’s move was confirmation that UNP leader Wickremesinghe feared defeat at the polls. Speaking on behalf of another formidable candidate, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa, was G.L. Peiris.  He told a news conference that neither Parliament nor the President could postpone the presidential election. He argued that the sovereignty of the State is with the people in accordance with the Constitution.

Range Bandara triggers a political storm

President Ranil Wickramasinghe may have made a statement that the term of office of the President and the term of Parliament should be extended by two years because he knows that the public servants will not work when the presidential election is approaching, declared Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front (NFF). There were also others in the opposition joining the fray. The news, first reported widely on social media within hours, sent shockwaves in political circles and the Colombo-based diplomatic community. Though the General Secretary of a reputed political party, Range Bandara was unaware that his political gift was impossible to deliver. “You cannot extend the term of a President through a resolution in Parliament. It can only be done through an amendment of the Constitution and will require a two-thirds majority or 150 votes,” Saliya Peiris, President’s Counsel, told the Sunday Times. He was also onetime president of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

UNP seniors said that Range Bandara’s proposal fell on the ears of President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday afternoon when he chaired the Management Committee of the United National Party (UNP) at the Presidential Secretariat. Among those who took part were Sagala Ratnayake, Harin Fernando, Manusha Nanayakkara, Ruwan Wijewardene and Ravi Karunanayake. Not quite familiar with what had taken place, some of the participants opined that the proposal ran counter to a decision by the Cabinet of Ministers to conduct the presidential elections first. The factual position was that President Wickremesinghe, who had decided on conducting the presidential poll first, had apprised the cabinet. Thus, it fell on Prime Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, to formally declare that presidential election would be held in accordance with the Constitution.

This was a time when President Wickremesinghe’s image was taking an upward trend, particularly after his visit to the North. Here are two messages posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. Amirthanathan Adaikalanathan MP declared, “We express our gratitude to President Wickremesinghe for his efforts in advancing development projects in the North. Granting land rights to the people brings significant relief to them.

Hon. S. Noharthalingam MP“During his three-day visit to the North President Ranil Wickremesinghe inaugurated numerous development projects, which we, as the Tamil National Alliance, are prepared to endorse. The initiative to grant free land deeds to individuals who previously held land licenses deserves commendation.”

In the past, no other President has won encomiums from northern MPs, the people’s representatives. Against that backdrop, regrettably, President Wickremesinghe should have acted more forcefully against the UNP General Secretary for his ill-conceived proposal. He failed to do so and delayed it.

The only formal reaction from President Wickremesinghe was from his Media Division which took note of his observation that none of the candidates aspiring to run in the Presidential Election had announced their intention to abolish the executive powers associated with that position. Formally there are no candidates and that speaks for President Wickremesinghe, too. The other is the manifestos of those fielded as candidates by the leading parties are yet to come out. Hence, it is too early to expect declarations from them. The President’s Media Division said Wickremesinghe made the remarks when he was taking part in a “What’s New” dialogue with young legal professionals. The news release declared, “President affirmed the inevitability of future Presidential Elections, stating that financial provisions for this purpose have already been allocated.” That is the moot point and a delay in responding to the remarks has cost him much.

To make matters worse, General Secretary Range Bandara made the proposal on May 28. He summoned a news conference, also at Sri Kotha, on May 30 and it lasted only 51 seconds. There, he declared that he would make a detailed statement on June 3—in three days’ time. That silence until tomorrow is deafening. Is he unable to explain why the proposal was made? In the past, there had been many illustrious General Secretaries in the UNP. This is a marked contrast. He is unable to uphold the dignity of the party and its leader.

President Wickremesinghe answering questions from northern youths during his visit to the North last week.

In addition to his earlier remarks, Peiris claimed at the news conference that even if any motion was passed by Parliament with the support of all 225 MPs to postpone the elections, that would not be legitimate since the Executive and Legislative branches did not have the right to do so. Claiming that no one could admit the President’s lack of awareness of Range Bandara’s statement, Peiris alleged that the Government had wanted to check what would be the public reaction to such a proposal. He also stated that the ‘unexpected’ public reaction received by the Government would hamper its attempts to postpone either of the two national elections. He said that neither of these two elections could be postponed, like how the Government postponed the Provincial Councils and the Local Government elections.

A legal expert with knowledge of the constitution, who did not wish to be named, declared that there was provision under Section 83(B) for “a Bill for the amendment or for the repeal and replacement or which is inconsistent with the provisions of paragraph (2) of Article 30 or of Paragraph (2) of Article 62 which would extend the term of office of the President or the duration of Parliament, as the case may be, to over six years, shall become law if the number of votes cast in favour thereof amounts to not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present), is approved by the People at a Referendum and a certificate is endorsed thereon by the President in accordance with Article 80.”

If one is to go by the much-publicised slogan for the event this week, Satana Arambamu Rajaratin  (Let’s begin the battle from Rajarata), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) launched its polls campaign from Thalawa in the Anuradhapura district. It was a rally presided over by party leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.  It seems noteworthy that friction within the party has surfaced as the campaign got underway. One of the notable absentees was Finance State Minister Shehan Semasinghe who represents the Anuradhapura district. He is widely regarded as a backer of President Wickremesinghe. “You can drop in at a funeral home without any invitation. That has remained a custom. However, you cannot do the same for a meeting,” he lamented to the local media.

One of the main speakers was Namal Rajapaksa MP who is now the national organiser of the SLPP. In addition, Basil Rajapaksa, founder of the SLPP, has proposed that he together with Rohitha Abeygunawardena should be made members of the Joint Strategic Affairs Committee. Namal Rajapaksa said, “Mahinda Rajapaksa has not given false promises. The government that we form will be an agriculture-based government and will be tied up with new technology. “May has always been an important month for Buddhists. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa who brought an end to terrorism. He was able to unite the country. However, the government we formed faced conspiracies both from inside and outside. There were even international forces and terrorist organisations.

A Jaffna youth poses a question to the President during the interactive session.

“Gotabaya Rajapaksa took over a country which had collapsed economically. In 2015 it was one of the most developed countries in Asia, but the Yahapalana government brought down the country. Therefore, we faced many challenges. The COVID pandemic was something which we had not experienced earlier, but the government did everything possible for the public. If the Sampur and Uma Oya projects launched by Mahinda Rajapaksa had been completed there woud not have been a need to have power cuts. It is against such backdrop that the “Aragalaya (protests). was lunched. That was a different project. Pohottuwa is party of the people. We will make this party the party of the youth and the future generation. Mahinda Rajapaksa is with us.”.

Anuradhapura District Parliamentarian S.M. Chandrasena, noted, “During the ‘protests’ even my house was burnt. We have not been deterred by that. The SLPP cannot be defeated in Anuradhapura. It is a stronghold. The SJB or Anura Kumara cannot change that.” Kurunegala district MP Johnston Fernando noted that the SLPP was ready to face a general election. “The SLPP, unlike the JVP, does not start too early. The party starts its work at the right time, and we have the ability to face the presidential or any election,” he said.

Hard on the heels of the SLPP rally, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP) held its own meeting in the vicinity, at Hingurakgoda. “Does this country need more presidencies that go from father to son?” NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake asked in a speech. He said: “There is a presidential election in October this year. We have come to Polonnaruwa and talked on many occasions. We have fought. When the price of paddy went down, we came on foot from Hingurakgoda to Minneriya and protested saying ‘Please give a fair price for paddy.’ When the import of chemical fertilisers was stopped and our crops were destroyed, we fought for you as farmers to come together on the streets and demand fertiliser. When the price of fertiliser for the farmers increased, they demanded that they should be given a fertiliser subsidy. Today we have come to invite you to form a new government that will protect the rights of the peasants and build agriculture that will secure the lives of the peasants. It can be done. The government knows it better than we do.

“The ruling elite that has governed the country until now is scared more than ever. An unexpected event in the history of Sri Lanka is happening now. In the past, when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government fell, Ranil gets the crown. When Ranil’s government gets fed up, naturally Mahinda gets the crown. Now both Mahinda and Ranil are running for the government. Sajith thinks that he will get the auto crown thanks to his father. But what has happened now? In the face of the rise of the National People’s Power, the dream of their own power was destroyed. Range Bandara said he will not vote. But we are not worried. The people are gathered from the village to win the National People Power’s compass.

“Today, the wedding ring, the kid’s quiver, the water motor, and the hand tractor are pawned. Some people mortgage the field and cultivate it themselves. As farmers living in this country, we have been saddened. But the rulers have not been like that. The governments that our people have built so far are governments that treat the rulers’ families and relatives, thugs around the ruler, and black market businessmen, allowing businessmen to steal billions of people’s wealth. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed he took care of the people, would the moneylender who brought the sugar be allowed to steal 1500 crores from sugar taxes? They served the blackmarket businessmen around them. Many of the children of MPs in the government and in the opposition got jobs in embassies. Their children go to the big embassies of the world. Our children, in the Middle East, get a job to mix concrete, and a daughter to wash clothes, cook and sweep in a house.

“Next, a programme should be prepared to alleviate poverty in the village. If farming becomes a profitable business, the lives of farmers will be improved. If the lives of the rural people are to be improved, a proper development programme is needed to uplift agriculture. The Netherlands is a smaller country than our country. Today, it has become the country that exports the most agricultural products in the world. There is a need to collect the experiences and research available in the world to uplift our agriculture. Many scholars who studied at the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka and the Faculty of Agriculture at Ruhunu University are doing research in many countries of the world today. An agronomist doing special research on soil in the United States, said that he would like to come and work under a government of the National People’s Power.”

National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa told a news conference that the government was in the last phase of its governance. “President Ranil Wickramasinghe may have made a statement that the term of office of the President and the term of Parliament should be extended by two years because he knows that the public servants will not work when the presidential election is approaching. When the presidential election is approaching, statements would have to be made to change the mentality of the public servant not working and ignoring the president.”

Weerawansa’s NFF is among seven political groups that have formed the Sarvajana Balaya. Others include publisher and businessman Dilith Jayaweera’s Mawbima Janatha Party, Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, the Communist Party, Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s Democratic Left Front and Gevindu Kumaratunga’s Yuthukama National Organisation. Also associated with the grouping is Sarath N. Silva, a onetime chief justice. The reason to form a Sarvajana Balaya ? Udaya Gammanpila told the Sunday Times that was prompted by what has been repeatedly highlighted in recent surveys. Some 24 percent of the voters, according to these surveys, have still not made up their mind on whom to cast their vote. They had earlier voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Hence, he said, the Sarvajana Balaya  believed they could tap those votes.

Although President Wickremesinghe is yet to formally announce his presidential candidature, he has been busy activating the UNP mechanisms in the districts and electorates. This week, he appointed organisers to undertake political campaigning. The party’s Working Committee will also meet this morning to discuss polls related issues.

President Wickremesinghe also said this week that Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund were now being finalised. He said a period from 2027 to 2040 has been given to repay our existing debt. The Presidential Media Division also quoted him as saying, “Artificial intelligence should play a major role there. That is why we are trying to promote Artificial Information technology. Everyone should remember that our country has no future if the development goal is not won.

“Also, artificial intelligence has spread globally. If we want to leave a unique mark in Asia, we are more than inclined to do that. And this is also our thinking in the agriculture modernisation programme. The government has also focused on researching the existing relationship between artificial intelligence and Buddhist philosophy.”

It will be a month from now when President Wickremesinghe writes to the Election Commission declaring his intention to call a presidential election. Even with that, political parties have already gone into election mode and their activity will peak in the coming weeks.