New political order approaching: SLPP vs SJB | Daily News


New political order approaching: SLPP vs SJB

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa handing over nomination papers for the forthcoming General Election, in the presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa handing over nomination papers for the forthcoming General Election, in the presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Nominations for the general election to be held on April 25 will be received from today but most of the drama has been the infighting in the major opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) now on the brink of a major split, with its deputy leader Sajith Premadasa forming the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Negotiations between the Premadasa faction and the group loyal to party leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continued throughout last week and are still ongoing but hopes of a resolution are fading fast and time is running out for both the UNP and the SJB, with the period for nominations ending next Thursday.

Initially, the discussions centred on what conditions would be imposed by Wickremesinghe on former UNP parliamentarians wanting to contest with the SJB. There were negotiations on whether he would have to sign off on all UNPers seeking nomination from the SJB, a condition that the SJB was not agreeable to.

There were also deliberations about the party symbol. Many UNPers preferred to contest on the tried and tested ‘elephant’ symbol which has resonated with the Sri Lankan voter for more than seventy-five years. However, the UNP was reluctant to ‘lend’ the symbol to the SJB as it would then become the property of the Elections Commission for five years- and therefore the party ran the risk of losing the symbol.

Negotiations around these disputed issues could have been resolved had the UNP and the SJB made relevant amendments to their party constitutions, but this is where compromise was lacking. As a result, the talks between the two factions stalled frequently despite the best efforts of interlocutors which included Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and former Minister Malik Samarawickrema.

SJB faction

The SJB faction particularly felt that the UNP hierarchy was not keen on a solution as every compromise that was suggested was rejected. SJB stalwarts came away from the negotiations complaining that obstacle after obstacle was being cited, giving them the impression that the UNP leader was not sincere in his efforts at finding a solution.

A key event of the SJB, the opening of its party headquarters, was conducted as scheduled on Monday. There was some hope that the dispute would be resolved by that day but it was not to be, although stalwarts from both camps continued to publicly express the hope that come nominations, both factions would contest together. The SJB headquarters is also located in Kotte, a short distance away from where ‘Sirikotha’, the UNP headquarters is.

In his speech at the opening of the SJB headquarters, Premadasa stated that the ‘door was still open’ for Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists to join the SJB and offered the comfort of a slot on the National List, thus sparing him the rigours of an election campaign. Premadasa himself is planning to contest from the Colombo district, the home turf of his father Ranasinghe Premadasa, instead of the Hambantota district from which he has contested previously.

What was noteworthy at the opening of the SJB headquarters were those who attended. Perhaps the most notable appearance was from Lakshman Kiriella. In the lead up to the presidential election campaign, at a time when Wickremesinghe was aspiring to be the UNP’s presidential candidate, Kiriella staunchly supported him and has been identified with the UNP leader during many conflicts within party. He was also the Leader of the House during the previous government. Thus, his defection to the Premadasa camp does not augur well for the UNP and may indicate a shift in political fortunes for the party.

Former Minister Rajitha Senaratne, previously identified as a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist attended although his son Chathura, a former parliamentarian, did not attend. Senaratne (Snr.) is another stalwart who is not shy to voice his opinions but at the same time is an astute judge of the political climate. His shift of loyalties to the SJB also portends challenges for the UNP.

Also attending was former parliamentarian Mayantha Dissanayake, son of Gamini Dissanayake and younger brother of Navin Dissanayake, the latter also being the son-in-law of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The older Dissanayake sibling has spoken out a few times in favour of Wickremesinghe during the current dispute and once went on record stating that he would only contest from the ‘elephant’ symbol.

Wickremesinghe loyalists

The presence of former Ministers Malik Samarawickrema and Mangala Samaraweera were also significant. These two ministers, two former friends and loyalists of UNP leader Wickremesinghe have been involved in many a tricky negotiation on behalf of Wickremesinghe. During the presidential election campaign, they endorsed Premadasa wholeheartedly, believing that he was the only candidate who could pose a reasonable challenge to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

However, after the presidential election, they had kept a low profile. It has been suggested that they were disappointed at the manner in which the campaign was conducted. Therefore, there was speculation as to whether they were at odds with Premadasa. Their attendance on Monday meant that that they are back in the fold and could potentially play a significant role in the SJB’s general election campaign.

Former parliamentarians P. Harrison, Eran Wickremaratne and Niroshan Perera, previously identified as being in the UNP leader’s camp were also present at the opening of the SJB headquarters among the many other known Premadasa loyalists. It does appear that the SJB has attracted a vast majority of the UNP’s cohort of parliamentarians from the legislature that was dissolved on March 02.

As the week progressed, there were further developments in the UNP-SJB dispute. UNP general secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam wrote to the Elections Commission, stating that the party would contest from the ‘elephant’ symbol. SJB general secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara also wrote to the Commission, indicating their intention to contest from the ‘telephone’ symbol. These are however, formalities. It will be recalled that Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara made a similar notification stating that Maithripala Sirisena would contest the presidential poll which never eventuated.

As far as the SJB party symbol is concerned, there is no finality. Some are still hoping that a resolution of the impasse between the UNP and the SJB is yet possible and they could contest under the ‘elephant’ symbol. However, it is now becoming increasingly likely that the SJB symbol for the April 25 elections will be the ‘telephone’.

The task of negotiating a resolution has become harder as some spokesmen publicly spelt out their positions, likely with the blessings of their respective leaderships. Former UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara, addressing a news conference on Tuesday warned that the SJB must realise that its members may lose their membership in UNP because the UNP constitution states that UNPers cannot obtain the membership of another political party.

However, the SJB has countered this with the assertion that the SJB is not a political party but an alliance of political parties in which individual political parties have signed memoranda of understanding. As the Elections Commission does not recognise political alliances and acknowledges only political parties, the SJB has been registered as a political party, former Parliamentarian Sujeeva Senasinghe said.

Senasinghe noted that the SJB was formed with the blessings of the UNP’s working committee, that party’s highest decision-making body. “Anyone should be free to join the SJB. However, we will be compelled to obtain a stay order from courts if any of the UNPers are prevented from crossing over,” Senasinghe told the media on Tuesday.

Central Bank bond scam

As stances taken up by the two factions appear to be hardening, the mainstream UNP and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was faced with another hurdle- the arrest warrant issued on assistant leader and former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, following an application made by Attorney General Dappula de Livera. Karunanayake is wanted, along with nine others, in connection with the Central Bank bond scam.

Colombo Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake on Friday issued the arrest warrant on Karunanayake and the others. On Tuesday, Karunanayake’s lawyers filed a writ application in the Court of Appeal seeking to cancel the warrant. The petition also seeks an injunction to remove the case from the Colombo Fort Magistrate. Despite the Police actively searching for Karunanayake and visiting his residence many times, he remains elusive at the time of writing.

What this means is that, Wickremesinghe will lose the services of Karunanayake, a staunch loyalist, as he prepares for a final showdown with the Premadasa faction of the UNP which has now reinvented itself as the SJB. While some feel that a rapprochement between the two warring factions is still possible at this eleventh hour, it is becoming increasingly evident that if the UNP eventually splits, the lion’s share of party members will side with the SJB, leaving Wickremesinghe and a few loyalists stranded at Sirikotha, holding on to the party’s name board and its ‘elephant’ symbol.

It would be a sad plight for the Grand Old Party founded by the ‘Father of the Nation’ and first Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake in 1946. It is also eerily similar to the fate of the SLFP which is now reduced to a minor party.

Sri Lanka, it appears is approaching a new political order after seven decades of UNP versus SLFP. It may now become SLPP versus SJB for a few more decades to come.

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