Further splits in SLPP while UNP strengthens itself

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  • Basil irked by Lanza group’s moves, urges President to restrain his one-time ally
  • UNP plans 76th annual convention on September 10, with a view to revamping party for upcoming elections
  • President to address Parliament on Wednesday to seek consensus on 13A, but Tamil parties insist on devolution within federal setup
  • Government’s reconciliation proposals range from anti-terrorism bill, truth-seeking mechanism, pardon for prisoners to new land commission

With the upcoming elections in mind, the UNP has launched a campaign to revamp the party by holding grassroots level (Balamandala) meetings. UNP leaders are seen here attending the Balamandala meetings in Minuwangoda and Kaduwela

By Our Political Editor

This week has seen a clear escalation in political battles among constituents of the government.

Amidst tight security where even fire-fighting equipment was on standby, the United National Party (UNP), in limbo since its humiliating defeat at the August 2020 parliamentary elections, was busy regrouping. Its policy-making body, the Working Committee, met at SriKotha last Wednesday. It decided that the party’s 76th annual convention will be held on September 10 at the Nelum Pokuna Arts Theatre near Viharamahadevi Park.

The party’s General Secretary, Palitha Range Bandara, said yesterday, “After the convention, our party will have some structural differences. We have already set up 132 grassroots-level organisations (Bala Mandalayas). Ranil Wickremesinghe will act as leader of the party and intervene in matters whenever necessary. This is whilst he continues to function as a neutral President.” The UNP and the SLPP will move in their separate ways, he said. “The Working Committee endorsed a decision by our Management Committee for the 76th convention to be held on September 10,” he said.

That development, no doubt, will pave the way for the convention to authorise the UNP to form a broader alliance with like-minded groups, both for the presidential and parliamentary elections thereafter. The UNP’s senior leaders have chosen to seek this arrangement in view of the short time available for a countrywide strengthening of the party machinery ahead of an election. As previously reported, Nimal Lanza, a one-time parliamentarian of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna  (SLPP), has already put together a political grouping. He claims that there are 40 MPs supporting his yet-to-be-named group, though it has established an office at 118 Lake Road in Rajagiriya.

This new development has begun to irk sections of the SLPP, particularly the one led by its founder Basil Rajapaksa. Last Sunday, he met President Wickremesinghe. He told him that members of the party were displeased by what Lanza, his one-time friend, was doing. He said he feared this could cause divisions within the party and sought his good offices to restrain him. President Wickremesinghe, a well-informed source said, gave ear to the former Finance Minister’s lament but gave no response. This seems a farcical situation for the frontliners of the SLPP. It was just weeks earlier that SLPP parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa and his colleague cum relative Nipuna Ranawaka (Matara District) called on former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They appealed to him to use his good offices to persuade Sugeeswara Bandara (former President’s Private Secretary) to withdraw from Lanza’s group. However, he continued his role and told friends he would seek nominations at a general election to be a candidate for the Colombo district.

And now, Basil Rajapaksa, who at one time wielded unlimited clout in his party, was appealing to President Wickremesinghe, who leads the government under the SLPP, to save them from Lanza. That is by persuading him to give up his alliance and not to influence members of the SLPP.  As previously revealed, Lanza, whose main task is to win them over, operates from an office in the Presidential Secretariat. He reports to President Wickremesinghe regularly on the progress of his mission. The actions of both Namal and his uncle Basil have made one thing clear — the SLPP, in contrast to winning over members, is now strategizing to keep out the ‘feared ones.’

Dinner meeting at Amaraweera residence

Little wonder, Basil Rajapaksa’s Sunday meeting with Wickremesinghe became the subject of discussion last Tuesday night. This was when Lanza was on one of his many missions to win over more members to his group. It was a dinner meeting held at the Mahagamsekera Mawatha official residence of Agriculture Minister Mahinda Amaraweera. “Basil knows what happens when Nimal Lanza gets involved. That is why they are afraid,” quipped Parliamentarian Priyankara Jayaratne.  Among those present for the event were Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Susil Premjayantha, Nalin Fernando, Lasantha Alagiyawanna, and Duminda Dissanayake. Considerable time was spent discussing the situation in the SLPP and the new group. References were also made to some members of the SLPP criticizing others whose views were now different. “We should not worry about such things,” cautioned Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. “They can say these things now. There was a time when they could not walk down the street or even say “paan” or bread. He praised President Wickremesinghe for bringing calm to the country. The dinner where hoppers, string hoppers, and rice were served also focused on other issues in the SLPP. Lanza also told the gathering that he had held talks with former President Maithripala Sirisena, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Other than briefing them on his mission, no decisions were made at these meetings. Tiran Alles and Kumara Welgama. There would be more rounds of talks in the coming weeks, he said.

That constituents in the government are at loggerheads has been taken note of by some parties. Take, for example, Mano Ganesan, Leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance. At a meeting held at the Jaffna Press Club last Wednesday, he said President Wickremesinghe is cleverly creating divisions within the SLPP and declared that “interesting events would soon follow.” He noted that the SLPP was now surfacing after a lengthy seclusion during the protests (aragalaya) last year. This was through the conduct of meetings which were not necessarily voluntary. He noted that there had also been behind-the-scenes overtures to win over those in the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

In a broader sense, the SLPP has splintered into different factions. The BR (Basil Rajapaksa) faction, backed by some 19 to 21 MPs now, contends that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected President by Parliament only for the current term. They claim they have not decided yet on whom they will field as their presidential candidate. The other is the Nimal Lanza group that has now successfully garnered the support of 40 MPs, according to his claims. His goal is to form a new political outfit that would eventually become partners in a UNP government. The group will support Wickremesinghe in a presidential election. A third faction, with examples like ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Ramesh Pathirana, State Minister Shehan Semasinghe is in favour of the SLPP extending support to Ranil Wickremesinghe. In addition to these three groups, the future role of the two one-time SLPP factions, one led by Dullas Allahapperuma and the other led by Wimal Weerawansa, also remain to be factored in.

Not to be outdone, the SLPP has initiated a string of grassroots-level Balamandala meetings and a dialogue with the people to win support. Some of their assertions appear contradictory and make it unclear whether they have changed their stances. For example, Urban Development and Housing Minister Prasanna Ranatunga told his supporters at a meeting in his office at Udugampola, Gampaha that his party would put forward a “trump card candidate” for the presidential elections at the correct time. Many are bound to contest “the impending election,” he said. “However, the SLPP has the largest voter base. We will obtain a clear victory at both the presidential and parliamentary elections,” he added.

Johnston Fernando, a former Cabinet Minister, and an aspirant for a new ministerial position told a Bala Mandala meeting in Polgahawela last week: “Even though it is said that SLPP members cannot return to villages, 70 percent of the Bala Mandala are complete. Our houses were burnt, and our MPs killed but we can rise from the ashes. We will win the presidential election by obtaining over 200,000 votes. We will win the parliamentary election by obtaining over 400,000 votes and will send 11 candidates to parliament from the Kurunegala District. Why are we having these Bala Mandalas when our critics exclaimed and claimed that Pohhotuwa (SLPP) cannot hold meetings in the villages? They declared that we are finished. The members of parliament and ministers of our party are hiding or have resigned, they said. They said they are not to be found. However, what we can say is that we have already completed 70 percent of our Bala Mandala meetings. Our message is that we are ready to face any election and secure victory.” Rohitha Abeygunawardena (Kalutara District) said, “Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mistake was that he took decisions by only discussing it with four or five people. We call upon President Ranil Wickremesinghe not to do the same thing.”

Proposals on 13th Amendment

Another matter of importance this week is the deadline given to political parties represented in Parliament to submit “suggestions and comments on the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. A note in this regard seeking such representation before August 15 has been sent by Presidential Secretary Saman Ekanayake. The move is intended to facilitate a dialogue on the implementation of 13A without Police powers, a commitment made by President Wickremesinghe. Already, Wimal Weerawansa has handed in a set of proposals on behalf of the party he leads, the Utthara Lanka Sabhagaya. The proposals will first go before a committee headed by Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena.

On Wednesday, President Wickremesinghe will make a statement to Parliament. It will deal mainly with devolution and matters related to reconciliation.

On July 26, all party leaders were issued copies of a 16-page document. listing out a catalogue of measures adopted or to be adopted by the government. A similar 15-page document was given to all party leaders on June 18 with 15 different subjects. Among the highlights of this publicised document that forms the backdrop for the government’s reconciliation efforts are:

  • Anti-Terrorism Bill – The Drafting Committee will meet on July 18 to consider proposals made by various stakeholders. Amendments suggested to the Bill will be taken up for discussion by the Committee. After appropriate action, the bill will be gazetted.
  • Truth Seeking Mechanism and the Bill: The Interim Secretariat for Truth Seeking Mechanism has been established and a Director General appointed. Applications have been called for key staff for the operation of the Secretariat for the purpose of stakeholder consultations, preparation of draft guidelines and policies until the formal mechanism can commence with the passing of the law.

Under the Interim Secretariat, the first Civil Society Stakeholder consultation was held on July 11 with the participation of 60 CSO members at the Presidential Secretariat. The Minister of Foreign Affairs chaired this meeting with the participation of the Secretary to the President. The Interim Secretariat is continuing to engage other stakeholders and UN agencies in its work.  The Foreign Minister will brief the EU and other interested parties regularly.

  • Granting Presidential Pardons to Prisoners involved in LTTE activities: Justice Vigneswaranm MP and Charles Nimalanadan, MP have requested the President to grant presidential pardons to 46 prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. These are prisoners involved in LTTE activities. They are under the following three categories: i. Remand Prisoners – 21; ii. Prisoners who have been imposed the Death sentence – three, and iii. Prisoners who have been imposed other sentences 22. It has been decided to consider only prisoners under (ii) and (iii) categories above since the President, in terms of Article 34(1) of the Constitution, may consider any offender (prisoner) who had been convicted of any offence in any court within Sri Lanka for granting a pardon.

In the first instance, 22 prisoners under category (iii) have been considered since special procedure stipulated in the proviso to Article 34 (1) of the Constitution should be followed to grant a pardon to a prisoner who has been sentenced to death. Accordingly, considering recommendations of the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, the President has granted approval to remit the balance sentences of 14 prisoners under category iii and release them.

  • Establishment of a National Land Commission: Steps are being taken to expedite the establishment of the National Land Commission and a National Land Policy. A draft National Land Commission Law has been prepared in this regard. Accordingly, the Cabinet granted approval on July 4 for the draft to be further studied by the Cabinet Sub-committee appointed for formulating a policy pertaining to the alienation of state land and submit recommendations to the Cabinet.

A Land Policy Act will also be ready by September for the National Land Commission to be guided in its functions within the framework of the Land Commission Act.

  • Lands to be released by Armed Forces in the Northern Province: Total land area in the Jaffna district is approximately 253,283 acres. Land occupation by security forces in 2009 was 28,812.17 acres (Army 25,293.82), Navy 480,35 and Air Force 1038), comprising 2,488.31 acres of state land and 24,323.86 acres of private lands, amounting to 10.58% of the total area.

About 90- 92% of lands occupied by the security forces and police in 2009 have been released from time to time. Accordingly, 22,918.56 acres have been released (state 817.09 acres and private 22,101.47 acres).

Further, the release of lands is planned under the following categories with the consent of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Police.

Lands that can be released immediately: Army and Navy have identified 1.36 acres in Jaffna, while Army has identified 12.56 acres in Kilinochchi and 20 acres in Mullaitivu. There is no change in land usage of the Air Force.

Lands can be released in 3-6 months: Army has identified 52.90 acres in the Jaffna district. No change in Navy and Air Force land usage.

Lands that can be released temporarily for specific purposes, agriculture and seasonal crops: the Army has identified a land strip of approximately 289.30 acres from the Army Cantonment in Palaly. There is no change in land usage of the Navy and the Air Force.

Lands that cannot be released: A board headed by a Major General was appointed on July 5, 2023 by the Commander of the Army to study which lands in the Northern Province can be released. Board proceedings are ongoing and the report will be submitted on or before July 22.

  • Implementation of the 13th Amendment: Constitutional Amendment to safeguard the full powers of the Provincial Council under List 1 (with the exception of Police powers)
  • To include specified functions in List III in the Provincial Councils List subject to agreement amongst political parties in Parliament.
  • Bills to be presented to Parliament: Appointment of Divisional Secretaries, Give effect to the powers of the Provincial Council in respect of Education, List 1 Schedule III. A Bill to establish Provincial Boards for Vocational and Technical training, a Bill to empower Provincial Councils to undertake Agricultural modernization and all agricultural grassroots services, a Bill to establish a Provincial Tourism Board, a Bill to raise the limit for industries of national importance from Rs 1 million to Rs 250 million in the Industrialization Act, and a Bill to establish District Development Councils adhering to the 13th Amendment.

These developments come as one of the key players in the All-Party leaders conference, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) called for “power sharing” in a federal structure, “consistent with the aspirations of the Tamil people.” A statement from Jaffna District TNA parliamentarian Abraham Sumanthiran in Parliament said, “The 13th Amendment to the Constitution is part of the constitution of Sri Lanka, and not a separate appendage. The President and all of us have taken an oath to uphold and defend it. Thus, the non-implementation of any part of the constitution is a violation of the whole. To that extent, we insist on the full implementation of the devolution arrangement currently extant in our constitution. That however will not meet with the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. That we need to make power sharing arrangement meaningful has been recognised both locally through various processes from the Mangala Moonasinghe Select Committee until the Constitutional Assembly 2016-2019, under then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, during President Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure.

“Nine Provincial Councils that were functioning, albeit with deficiencies, have ceased to be due to a legal snag in the process of changing the electoral system.

The Select Committee on electoral reform under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in its Report submitted to Parliament last year has stated that those provincial council elections which have been stalled for more than three years negate the democratic rights of the people and had recommended to hold the election under the PR system that existed previously. It also recommended that suitable legislation be enacted to enable this.….”

On Wednesday, President Wickremesinghe will make clear that only the proposals that are approved by Parliament will be enforced. Quite apart from measures for ethnic reconciliation, he has a long way to go in resolving the issues before him.

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