New political alliances challenge old order | Daily News

New political alliances challenge old order

Picture by Sulochana Gamage
Picture by Sulochana Gamage

Last week saw the return of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the country in what may turn out to be a politically noteworthy development. The week also recorded a flurry of activity in many political parties indicating a realignment of political forces in the country that could be very significant.

Former President Rajapaksa was forced to leave the President’s House on July 9 as protesters calling for his resignation stormed his official residence in the heart of the City. He had to hurriedly leave the country and travel to the Maldives Islands. From there, he flew first to Singapore and then by a private jet to Thailand.

However, he then opted to return to Sri Lanka instead of remaining in Thailand, where his visa entitled him to stay longer (up to 90 days). Through formal and informal channels, he maintained a dialogue with the Government and President Ranil Wickremesinghe and steps were taken to facilitate his return.


Gotabaya’s return

If there were concerns about the former President’s arrival in the country, these turned out to be unfounded. He returned to the country on Friday night aboard a Singapore Airlines (SIA) flight. This was in stark contrast to his departure. Despite news of his impending arrival, there were no protests seen at the airport or at any other place.

Many members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) including Cabinet Ministers were on hand to meet and greet him at the VIP section of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). He was whisked away to his new official residence at Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo by motorcade amidst tight security. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited him the next day.

As a former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is entitled to the privileges of accommodation, security, a staff and allowances, although some Opposition MPs have questioned his eligibility as he resigned and not retired. Anyway, steps have been taken to grant these facilities. All former Presidents have been using such facilities including former Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. The latter however had to vacate the official residence allocated to him due to legal issues.

Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s return to the country, there has been much speculation about what he would do next. There is a section in the SLPP which prefers him to re-enter politics from Parliament. Another faction believes that it is best if the former President takes a break from politics at least until the next election.

There is certainly a pathway for former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to return to Parliament, if he so wishes. This is through the National List. SLPP’s National List Parliamentarian Dr. Seetha Arambepola has already publicly indicated her willingness to resign to accommodate former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa via the National List.

It would not be unusual for former President Rajapaksa to return to Parliament. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa returned to Parliament at the 2015 General Elections as a MP. Former President Sirisena did the same, returning to Parliament after leaving the office of President. This is seen even in foreign countries such as the UK where resigned or retired Prime Ministers serve as backbenchers in Parliament.

At this time, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is said to be considering all options. Initially he is said to have indicated that he would prefer a quiet retirement away from the hustle and bustle of politics. However, since then, he has been requested by SLPP stalwarts to reconsider this decision.

Many other political parties and alliances also made their presence felt last week in a series of events. Among them was the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now led by former President Sirisena. The party held its annual Convention, with former President Sirisena trying to consolidate his power.

The SLFP has been rocked by some of its members defying a party decision and obtaining Cabinet portfolios in the current Government. They include party seniors Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. The Party is considering disciplinary action against these two Ministers shortly.

Among the resolutions endorsed by the SLFP’s Central Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, was a change in party regulations that empowered the Party Leader and the Central Committee to take decisive action against those who flouted Party decisions and discipline.

Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was quick to publicly criticise this decision, saying the party was becoming a dictatorship under former President Sirisena. It remains to be seen whether the SLFP will now go ahead and move to expel ministers De Silva and Amaraweera from Party membership.

While that will be a drastic measure, if it is attempted, it will most likely result in a legal tussle. Previously, when political parties have attempted to expel members who have defected to rival parties, such attempts have not been successful when the defectors took the matter to Courts.


New political groups

In what is becoming a trend, three separate political groups made their debuts last week. Among them was a group of 13 SLPP MPs who have styled themselves the ‘Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa’ (NJS). This group of MPs is led by former Ministers G. L. Peiris and Dullas Alahapperuma.

It will be recalled that, at the outset of the debate on the Interim Budget, Prof. Peiris made an announcement on the floor of the House stating that this group, consisting mostly of professionals, will henceforth function as an ‘independent’ group in Parliament instead of being a part the SLPP.

It is noted that most members of this group formed the core of the organisation ‘Viyath Maga’ which was instrumental in promoting Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a potential Presidential Candidate in the lead up to the 2019 Presidential Election. It appears that they have now decided to break away from the SLPP.

Another group that made its political debut was the Nawa Lanka Nidahas Pakshaya or New Lanka Freedom Party (NLFP) under the leadership of Parliamentarian Kumara Welgama. This party has the blessings of former President Kumaratunga who opened the party’s office at Battaramulla.

The opening was also attended by SLPP Parliamentarians Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Chandima Weerakkody. Also present were former Ministers Jeevan Kumaratunga and Patali Champika Ranawaka who leads the self-styled 43rd Brigade. Ranawaka entered Parliament at the last election from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

At the opening, former President Kumaratunga was scathing in her assessment of the SLFP. “There is no SLFP today. There are no policies or people in the party. Only the name-board is there,” she said. She hoped that the NLFP would continue the policies of SLFP founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

The NLFP appears to be projecting itself as an alternative to the SLFP and former President Kumaratunga is known to be a driving force behind moves to form the party. Kumaratunga’s disagreements with her successors, former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena are well known.

Yet another political alliance made its appearance last week. That was the group of parties that included the Lanka Samasamaja Party, the Communist Party, the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP), Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, the Democratic Left Front and several other smaller political parties.

Calling itself the ‘Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya’ or the ‘Supreme Lanka Coalition’ (SLC), the Party held an inaugural meeting on Saturday in Maharagama. Wimal Weerawansa is the new Party’s Leader. Its Deputy Leaders are Udaya Gammanpila and Tissa Vitarana. MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara will be its National Organiser.

The SLC also includes Parliamentarians Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera and Gevindu Kumaratunga and JNP MPs Jayantha Samaraweera, Mohamed Muzammil and Weerasumana Weerasinghe. It is of note that all these Parliamentarians entered Parliament as candidates of the SLPP at the last election.

The SLC is marketing itself as an alternative to the SLPP, claiming to follow the ideals of securing national interests but also striving to eliminate corruption and nepotism. It is however an umbrella organisation for the many smaller parties that previously sheltered under the SLPP banner.


Grand Old Party’s convention

Concluding last week was Tuesday’s annual convention of the ‘Grand Old Party’, the United National Party (UNP) which celebrated its 76th anniversary at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. It is the first time in 28 years that it was holding a convention with its Leader as the President of the country.

It is no secret that President Ranil Wickremesinghe plans to use the opportunity he has as the President of the Nation to revive the party which suffered successive electoral setbacks under his leadership in recent years. The Convention saw a gathering of the UNP faithful and other invitees too.

Among those present were other party leaders such as Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem and Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara, who recently defected from the SJB.

The UNP’s Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene had recently told the media that he was supportive of an attempt to restore the UNP to its former glory by inviting the SJB to its fold. However, no SJB representatives other than Fernando and Nanayakkara were present at the Convention on Tuesday.

The mushrooming of political alliances last week and attempts to rejuvenate the SLFP and the UNP signal one common factor- the dilution of the absolute power held by the SLPP, with the formation of splinter groups. How this will impact at the next National Election will be watched with great interest.


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