Same goal, different paths | Daily News

Same goal, different paths

The next presidential election is not due until January 2020- eighteen months from now- but, judging by the posturing of major political parties and the rhetoric that is being bandied about, it seems that the campaign for the poll is already underway.

That the contest is between the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is a foregone conclusion. However, it is still anyone’s guess whether there will be an eleventh-hour reconciliation between the SLFP and the SLPP.

In a bid to strengthen his hold on the SLFP and appease SLFP dissidents to some extent, President Maithripala Sirisena made key changes to the party structure earlier this month. The major change was replacing General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake with Professor Rohana Laxman Piyadasa.

In accepting the appointment, Piyadasa, whose specialty is mass communications, committed an inadvertent faux pas. Flanked by the President at his side, Piyadasa said ‘President Mahinda Rajapaksa’ and quickly corrected himself. As the video clip of the slip of the tongue went viral on social media, the irony was not lost on SLFPers: many of them are in a mindset where they still regard Rajapaksa as their leader.

Since the restructuring of the SLFP, Dissanayake has come out swinging, declaring that President Sirisena will be the party’s presidential candidate in 2020. The statement was made at a briefing where Piyadasa was also present and many are regarding this as an almost official declaration of the President’s candidacy- if that was ever in doubt. Dissanayake also called for the formation of a ‘broad coalition’ to support the President.

This announcement has drawn an angry response from the SLPP. Its chairman, former minister G.L. Peiris quite categorically stated that the party will not support President Sirisena’s candidature. Peiris claimed that despite the restructuring of the party, it appeared that Dissanayake was still announcing party policy.

‘Group of sixteen’

Peiris also called upon the so-called ‘group of sixteen’- those SLFPers, including ministers, who voted against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the recent motion of no-confidence and subsequently quit the government to sit in the opposition- to decide on their political future.

The group, which include SLFP seniors S. B. Dissanayake, John Seneviratne and Susil Premajayantha, claim that they are ‘independent’ but there is growing speculation that they will cast their lot with the Rajapaksa and the SLPP shortly. Peiris’s remarks appeared to be an invitation for this course of action.

The ‘group of sixteen’ is not without its own share of problems. Foremost among them is the plight of former minister in charge of sports, Dayasiri Jayasekara, who has been found accepting a one million rupee donation from a company affiliated with Perpetual Treasuries Limited which is at the centre of investigations into irregularities into the sale of Central Bank bonds.

Previously, while within the government, Jayasekara was a forthright campaigner against the alleged bond scam. Now exposed as having accepted a donation of questionable integrity, Jayasekara states that such donations are the ‘norm’ in politics. Investigations are continuing and Jayasekara was grilled for several hours by Police earlier this week.

In the SLPP, much of the attention has been focussed on who its presidential candidate would be because the 19th Amendment to the Constitution bars Mahinda Rajapaksa from running for a third term. The clear frontrunner is former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recently made the keynote address at a conference of ‘Viyath Maga’, a network of professionals and entrepreneurs. Most interpreted this as a manifesto of sorts for his potential candidacy. UNP front-liner Mangala Samaraweera was quick to lampoon it, labelling it ‘Vipath Maga’.

A further indication of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s intentions came this week when Udaya Gammanpila, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, called a media briefing. Gammanpila said Rajapaksa had requested him to explain the true legal position and the procedure in respect of renunciation of the US citizenship.

Rajapaksa is presently a dual citizen of the United States and Sri Lanka and the 19th Amendment prevents dual citizens from seeking high political office in the country. Gammanpila’s effort appeared to be an exercise designed to allay concerns in some quarters about Rajapaksa’s eligibility to run for President. This was the most overt indication yet that Rajapaksa has his eyes firmly set on contesting the Presidency.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy

In a related development, the rumour mill went into overdrive when outgoing United States envoy Atul Keshap called on Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday. Even sections of the mainstream media reported that Keshap had suggested that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was ‘unpopular’.

However, both Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office and the United States embassy in Colombo have denied these reports, maintaining that the meeting was merely a ‘courtesy call’ by the outgoing ambassador on the former President.

Interestingly, SLPP Chairman Peiris, when asked about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy, was non-committal. Peiris maintained that a final decision regarding the SLPP candidate would be made by Mahinda Rajapaksa at the “appropriate time”.

The UNP has however already reacted to the possibility of the younger Rajapaksa as a candidate. Minister Harin Fernando, who is also the party’s propaganda chief, said ‘it would be easier for the UNP’ if Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the rival candidate. “We have many things to tell the people about former the defence secretary and we will do so at the right time,” Fernando said, adding that Rajapaksa always does things through ‘militarisation’.

However, the UNP too has been saddled with the woes of the Central Bank bond sale controversy, with State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe being revealed as being among those who received a three million rupee donation from a company associated with Perpetual Treasuries Limited.

Since the revelation, Senasinghe has been in damage control mode, offering to resign if his party requested him to do so and stating he would donate the money to the Dalada Maligawa. Senasinghe also appeared in a television talk show and the consensus was that he did himself more harm through that appearance, trying to defend and justify his actions in a belligerent manner, instead of being contrite.

Adding to the party’s problems is the arrest of Yashodha Bandara, son of State Minister Palitha Range Bandara. He is being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and misusing state property after he met with a serious accident.

In the midst of these controversies, the UNP leadership was also mindful of keeping its parliamentarians happy. That was why five UNP MPs were sworn in as state ministers and deputy ministers this week. There had been concerns that UNP backbenchers, dissatisfied with the recent reforms in the party, were planning to go public with their complaints.

UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has announced that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the party’s candidate for the 2020 presidential election. The one plus point for the UNP is that, unlike with the SLFP and the SLPP, no one from the party has publicly challenged this proposition.

What is clear at this stage is that the coalition government in its present form will continue, most likely until the presidential election, if only for the reason that there is no alternative. However, as the countdown for the election approaches, there is every likelihood of its partners embarking on different political directions to further their prospects at the poll. 



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