By Our Political Editor
- UNP’s problems continue with No Confidence motion against Rajitha Senaratne
- President agrees to the demand for the removal of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe from the Cabinet
- Strong moves by SLFP to retain executive presidency; Sirisena may contest again; UNP has fall-back option
Ousted Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe manages a grin as he leaves the Justice Ministry office on Wednesday. Pic by Indika Handuwela
The clock was ticking away towards midnight signalling the dawn of Tuesday when President Maithripala Sirisena chaired a meeting of his coalition partners and “friendly” political parties at his Paget Road residence in Colombo.
Even if those present were not conscious of the grim reality around, the forebodings ahead for the coalition partners were ominous. The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) expired that midnight. Though unwittingly, they were together witnesses to that demise of a document that had brought them together, with much fanfare, for what was widely touted as good governance.
Until yesterday, The Sunday Times learnt, neither side had mooted to the other the idea of a renewal. This is amidst growing signs that they will go their separate ways come the Provincial Council and Local Government elections. The meeting that Sirisena chaired that night was no exception. It also foretold the course of events to come. The two parties to the coalition have now agreed to disagree on issues they were blissfully united and on which they made public pledges to take this country forward. This was ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.
The main subject at Monday night’s discussion was the long-awaited Constitutional changes. Noting that it is the President “who should provide leadership to get the Constitutional Amendment approved by Parliament,” Sirisena then declared, “I decided to contest the Presidential election as the common candidate of the people to complete that task.” He noted that the President, “needs the assistance of Parliament to change the post of Executive President. As leader of the main party, he said, he should provide the leadership to pass the required Constitutional Amendment with a two-thirds majority.”
Now, two years and over seven months into his office, Sirisena was chairing a meeting to address issues relating to the Constitution. Among those who took part:
The UNP – Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Lakshman Kiriella, Ravi Karunanayake and Rajitha Senaratne.
SLFP (Pro-Maithripala group) – Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) – Rauff Hakeem
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – Patali Champika Ranawaka
Democratic People’s Front (DPF) – Mano Ganeshan
Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) – Palani Digambaram
The meeting began at 9.30 p.m. with TNA leader Sampanthan lamenting that the issue of making changes to the Constitution has been dragging on. He said the TNA had supported a change of government on the grounds that the Tamil community would be given a better deal. For Sampanthan, who won the coalition’s support to become the friendliest Leader of the Opposition to any ruling party in Sri Lanka’s political history voicing only limited issues, mostly confined to the North and East in Parliament, it has now become a dilemma. The TNA is fast losing public support in the North in particular for its coy relationship with the Government. Though the situation is being exploited by different dissident groups there, the TNA’s strong point still remains the absence of a formidable political party in the North. Yet, the tide is changing for it.
Mano Ganesan’s dramatic walkout
Both Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and Rajitha Senaratne endorsed the viewpoints expressed by Sampanthan. Samaraweera noted that the TNA has accepted the Sri Lanka flag and the one nation principle. He said that the Constitutional changes should be given high priority. Premier Wickremesinghe declared that the UNP was already prepared to go ahead with the draft proposals. It was noted that the SLFP was yet to place its own proposals for consideration.
National Co-Existence and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan (TPA) then staged a dramatic walkout from the meeting following a dispute over formation of new local bodies in the Nuwara Eliya District. It came after Premier Wickremesinghe told party leaders that the new local bodies could not be formed now since similar requests had been made by different political parties. Ganesan was demonstrating his defiance to the leader.
Ganesan later told the Sunday Times, “I intervened and explained the extreme condition in the Nuwara Eliya district where more than 400,000 persons are represented in two Divisional Secretariats. In the rest of the country the representation rate is marked as one council per 10,000 persons.” He said people living in remote plantation estates have to travel 15 kilometres to access a Divisional Secretariat for their daily administrative work. Earlier, Premier Wickremasinghe gave us an assurance to form new local bodies in the district ahead of parliamentary polls. Trusting his words, we got a mandate from the people at the last parliamentary polls to address this injustice. This is an extreme condition unlike any other part of the country. I said at the meeting that this could not be allowed to continue under this Yahapalanaya Government.” Minister Susil Premajayantha was to support Ganesan’s remarks. That a plantation sector group is now taking up cudgels with the UNP leadership is noteworthy.
The meeting also briefly discussed issues relating to postponing elections of local bodies, provincial councils, proposed new electoral system, and the position of Provincial Councils whose terms had expired. Premier Wickremesinghe was to reiterate his position that all issues could not be addressed in a hurry.
The meeting ended with a decision that draft amendments to the Constitution should be ready before September 6. As for the UNP, its position is incorporated in the draft proposals put out by the Steering Committee. This was revealed in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) headlined “Special Features in updated draft of new Constitution” of June 11. The latest draft, possibly with new changes, is expected to be released thereafter.
Significantly, the new draft is to be accompanied by another separate document. That will enumerate the position of the SLFP with regard to the proposed Constitutional changes. The most important among them, the party’s Constitution Committee, has decided on the SLFP’s insistence that the Executive Presidential system should remain. The SLFP committee said there should be no changes to the existing provisions in the Constitution. There are also other minor changes the party has suggested. The retention of the Executive Presidency therefore will become the bone of contention between the two coalition partners, not least among the groups that campaigned for Sirisena to get elected on the premise that he would abolish it. At least officially, the UNP is in favour of abolishing the Executive Presidency. There are, however, formidable UNP sections which feel it should be retained and preliminary work to foist leader Wickremesinghe as the candidate is under way. This could well be a fall-back plan. On the other hand, the non-abolition of the Executive Presidency will pave the way for Maithripala Sirisena to contest a second time in 2020.
SLFP Constitutional Committee
As reported in these columns, the SLFP Central Committee had appointed a special committee to analyse the recommendations of six sub-committees tasked to draft a new Constitution. The committee was headed by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. It was asked to compile a report by party leader President Maithripala Sirisena. The other members of the committee included Ministers Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Dayasiri Jayasekara and State Minister Dilan Perera.
The issue of a separate document setting out the SLFP position which seeks to retain the Executive Presidency is sure to raise eyebrows. Sirisena has explained that he had no role in the decision of the party’s Committee. Its findings, he had explained, represented the views of the party over which he had not exerted influence. This of course is in marked contrast to Sirisena’s previous statements where he declared that after concluding his current term, he would retire to his homestead in Polonnaruwa. The words of late J.R. Jayewardene, father of the 1978 Constitution, continue to echo. He declared that when in opposition they are foolish to criticise the Executive Presidency but wiser when they become President.
When the Monday night’s meeting ended, it was near midnight. Then, Sirisena said that all others except those from the UNP could withdraw. Premier Wickremesinghe and all his ministers stayed behind. The Prime Minister told the President about the decision made by his party’s Working Committee, the main policy making body and the Parliamentary Group, to remove Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, from his portfolio. The UNP delegation had earlier expected to do some tough talking on the assumption that Sirisena may entertain reservations. Wickremesinghe began quoting the powers of the Prime Minister vis-a-vis the Constitution on removing a Cabinet minister. Sirisena cut him short politely with a remark that “Rajapakshe is creating trouble, isn’t he?” He then set out the procedure to be followed. The UNPers were pleased. One of them said, “H.E. (His Excellency) was in a very good mood.”
The procedure Sirisena set out for the expulsion of Rajapakshe was that the UNP should write to him citing the Working Committee decision to remove the Minister. He also wanted the UNP to issue a public statement giving details including the fact that it had requested the President to remove him. In doing so, Sirisena was clinical enough to ensure that there was no finger pointing at him over the Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe issue. It was the UNP, which had nominated him and it was now seeking his removal. By Tuesday morning, UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim had written to Sirisena and also issued a statement. His statement said:
“At the United National Party’s (UNP) Working Committee meeting held last Thursday (August 17), a charge was levelled against Hon. Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe that he has been continuously violating the collective responsibility of the party and the Cabinet in recent times. Accordingly, it was unanimously agreed that he should be given until Monday (August 21) to correct these statements, failing which he should be removed from his Cabinet Ministerial post.
“The Working Committee discussed the matter with party Chairman Malik Samarawickrama and informed Mr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to take necessary measures to correct his earlier statements. He agreed to this. However, he then violated this agreement and failed to correct his statements. Moreover, he continued to criticise Ministers from his party and the policies of the Government during the weekend, further violating collective responsibility of the Cabinet.
“Given this situation, Mr Rajapakshe has failed to adhere to the decision of the party’s Working Committee and has continued to criticise Government Ministers and Government policies. As such, the UNP Leadership has informed the President to remove him from all his Ministerial portfolios in line with the party’s Working Committee decision.”
Sirisena had on Tuesday forwarded Hashim’s statement to Rajapakshe in a bid to persuade him to resign. The Minister did not attend Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. With no response from him, Sirisena signed a proclamation removing him from the Justice and Buddha Sasana portfolios. Talatha Athukorale was sworn in as Justice Minister on Friday and Gamini Jayawickrema Perera as the Minister of Buddha Sasana. Rajapakshe had planned a political show of strength over his sacking. Though a larger turnout was expected at the Justice Ministry when he visited it for the last time as Minister, the numbers were smaller. There, he seized the opportunity to accuse the UNP leadership of “illegally” handing over to the Chinese the Hambantota Port. He also charged that some UNP leaders were involved in the Central Bank bond scam and he would fight to expose them. The learned President’s Counsel also opined that signing an agreement with the Chinese company for the Hambantota Port was in violation of the Constitution. He claimed that such a move required a two-thirds majority of Parliament.
Mahanayakes briefed on UNP position
Making matters worse was another factor. The meeting of the UNP Working Committee that was held on Thursday (August 17) coincided with a statement issued by Most Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanaratana Thera, the Mahanayake of the Asgiriya Chapter, that they were opposed to the No-Confidence Motion then contemplated against the Buddha Sasana Minister. Premier Wickremesinghe was concerned over the reactions of the Buddhist clergy. UNP leaders were speaking on the phone to some of them to explain the situation.
Wickremesinghe dispatched UNP Chairman, his confidant and point man Minister Malik Samarawickrema for meetings in Kandy with the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters. Samarawickrema was to later report back to the Prime Minister that the two prelates had appreciated the Government’s position and endorsed the action to be taken. More details of Wickremesinghe’s meeting with Rajapakshe after the Working Committee and parliamentary group meeting ended have emerged. The Premier is learnt to have told Rajapakshe that he could keep the Buddha Sasana Ministry and could opt to take on another portfolio. This is if Rajapakshe expressed regrets for his conduct and apologised. However, the Minister had rejected the offer.
Earlier, last Monday evening Premier Wickremesinghe chaired a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group. Much of the time was devoted to parliamentary business the next day (Tuesday). Wickremesinghe made an important announcement — all MPs will receive Rs 20 million each for “infrastructure development” in their respective electorates. He said former Foreign Minister and one-time Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake would monitor the programme and report to him periodically on the progress. Government sources said the Rs 20 million payment would also go to Opposition MPs. The ‘infrastructure development’ payout is just ahead of the impending local and provincial council elections. State Minister Sujeeva Senasinghe was to raise issue over Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to be followed by Minister Harin Fernando. Wickremesinghe replied that the party had already taken a decision on the matter. He declared the meeting closed saying he had an engagement later with the President.
No-faith motion against Rajitha
The past weeks have seen the UNP’s standing countrywide taking a bad beating. It began with events relating to the resignation of Ravi Karunanayake as Foreign Minister. This week, Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was removed from his portfolio. Now, a third, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne will face a Vote of No Confidence in Parliament. Due to appear in the Order Book of Parliament is the following motion:
“Since the Minister Rajitha Senaratne has refrained from taking part in the investigations against him by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption on allegations levelled against him by Members of Parliament and other parties, the process of implementing justice has been obstructed,
“Since there is a public opinion building up that he is responsible for the allegations, as he has refrained from taking part in the investigations and clearing his name,
“Since, he is responsible for creating a crisis in the Medical education in Sri Lanka by using his powers arbitrarily to commercialise the medical education in Sri Lanka and sacrificing it to the business community,
Since, there is a misuse of public funds by using public funds to maintain a privately owned hospital with public funds after making misleading statements that the Neville Fernando hospital has been acquired by the government,
Since, as the Health Minister he has misused his powers by acting in a manner favourable to the SAITM through the Attorney General by failing to submit to the courts details in relation to a Writ Application in the Court of Appeal case (No: 187/2016),
“Since, he has created a crisis regarding the minimum medical standards in medical education by deliberately avoiding the issue of issuing the Gazette notification on the minimum standards for medical education prepared by the Sri Lanka Medical Council.
“Since, the right to life of the public was put at risk by failing to promptly act during the outbreak of the Dengue epidemic and the fact that state run hospitals refused to admit Dengue patients,
“Since, there was a case of corruption and caused a financial loss to the government by purchasing pharmaceuticals to the value of Rs. 986 million from a recently registered private firm (Armes) owned by Dilshard Ikram Mohamed who is a close relative of Rumy Mohammed, a close friend of Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne and appointed as a Working Director of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation to which Dr Senaratne recommended a drug for cancer which has been rejected by the specialist and not completed the minimum period of use before usage,
“Since he has caused a major financial loss to the state and a fraud by handing over the Modera Fisheries Harbour to a private institution without following tender procedures while serving as the minister of Fisheries,
Since, he has misused his powers and obtained bribes as a minister by appointing one of his secretaries Lalith Anuradha Seneviratne to a Chinese Company named Blue Ocean Fisheries to which he issued a licence for deep sea fishing and demanded shares of the company,
“Since he has interfered in the independence of judiciary by intimidating and bringing pressure on the judiciary and the Attorney Generals Department,
Therefore the Parliament resolves that the confidence in Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine to function as a minister has been lost. “
The No Confidence Motion came just a day after Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake castigated Senaratne in Parliament. Speaking on the adjournment motion on the drought situation. He declared, “The Health Minister says anyone can get free medicine from government hospitals as well as get tests done. Then why are there so many pharmacies and laboratories outside Government hospitals? There were only funeral parlours outside hospitals those days.
“If the Government health sector is functioning well, will the Health Minister go to Singapore for treatment? If he had faith in the local health service, will the Health Minister take Rs 10 million from the President’s Fund and go to Singapore to get treatment?
“If that is the case he should have got his surgery done at the National Hospital. Why is the Health Minister going to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital? He should be ashamed of himself. For a man in the rural areas, to get Rs. 150,000 from the President’s Fund for a heart operation, he must visit the Grama Sevaka and get a doctor’s certificate and the District Secretary’s certification. The Minister got Rs 10 million without any of these. How were the Matara and Modera fishery harbours given on lease? There was an investigation by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption and then he spoke to the President and got the Director General removed. His brother in law is in the Ayurveda Department. His wife is giving appointments through letters.
Those are the things to be investigated. He is the only one who lost an MP post due to a court case .He must thank Ranil Wickremesinghe for taking him from the national list.” Speaking to reporters this week, Senaratne claimed that the contents of the motion against him were “all lies.”
With a comfortable majority in Parliament, the motion is sure to be defeated. However, that is not to say that Senaratne, an official spokesperson of the Government, will come unscathed. His credibility takes a beating almost every week when he addresses the news conference after the Cabinet meeting. Disclosures in Parliament, even if some are right or wrong, are bound to further affect his credibility. Needless to say that embarrasses not only the Government but also the UNP which is reeling with one political disaster after another.
This week’s political developments will no doubt have a bearing on the two coalition partners, the SLFP and the UNP. The SLFP spokesperson at the weekly news briefings, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, declared this week that if the UNP were to form a new Government, it would require seven more MPs. On the other hand, he said, if the SLFP (pro Sirisena) wanted to form one, it would require 17 more MPs. Thus, he said, there was no option but for the two leaders, President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe, to continue to work together.
Much against his own wishes, ground realities project an entirely different picture. With no new MoUs to guide them, both the SLFP and the UNP are veering towards their own goals notwithstanding the challenges they face together. For the SLFP, the first test of strength would come when the local council and provincial council elections are held next year. Will the party remain the formidable SLFP or yield that position to the pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa group? This is its biggest worry. It has been exacerbated by threats from some SLFP ministers to quit in September and function as ‘independents’ in Parliament – a move that could debilitate the pro-Sirisena group. An early warning signal came on Friday when Labour Minister John Seneviratne abstained from voting (against) an amendment moved by the ‘Joint Opposition’ on the Local Government (Amendment) Bill in Parliament.
For the UNP, which is gearing itself to contest separately, the challenges are both within and outside. From within, younger groups have been expressing frustration over their inability to play a bigger role. This week, none other than a VVIP raised the query why the UNP was not nominating ‘young blood’ for ministerial positions and confining nominees to only very senior persons. From the outside, the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam portends a devastating blow. Significantly, it is President Sirisena who holds the key here and would have to decide whether or not to go ahead with the Commission findings. He would be in an unenviable position since his own SLFP ministers have pressured him that appointing a Commission was one thing but it was important that he should act on its findings, should they be detrimental to the powers-that-be.
In essence, political necessity demands the inevitable that the SLFP and the UNP go it together or as both sides say pave the way for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the other hand, sharply differing stances every week, if not every day, make it inevitable that they would have to part someday. With many a promise unfulfilled, how soon remains the critical question.