(Excerpts From the Political Column in the “Sunday Times” of September 17th 2017)
Ahead of the polls the SLFP’s Central Committee has endorsed President Maithripala Sirisena’s move to field candidates on the UPFA ticket. The bulath kole (Betel leaf) is their symbol. Sirisena has chosen to take a tough line against party parliamentarians whom he believes are trying to “destabilise” the SLFP by consorting with the rival faction.
In a move that gave a strong signal to others, he sacked Deputy Minister Arundika Fernando from his post as Deputy Minister of Tourism and Christian Affairs. Fernando visited Sirisena at his Paget Road residence to offer an explanation.
While he was there, the President asked Fernando to accompany him to an event in Orugodawatte, fuelling speculation that he had relented and apologised. A minister, Chandima Weerakkody in fact publicly stated they would see Fernando back in a separate ministry.
However, Fernando told Mahinda Rajapaksa that he had not apologised and later told a news conference he would not go back to the Government which he said was on the verge of collapse. He had earlier been questioned by the police on his meeting with a fugitive relative of Rajapaksa, former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga in Japan recently.
The Joint Opposition’s parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena told a news conference on Friday that Fernando had stated that he would sit with the ‘JO’ and “co-operate with it to oust the UNP government. When Parliament meets next week, Fernando will ask the Speaker to give him a different seat,” Gunawardena said.
Some nine SLFP parliamentarians who were planning to sit as independent MPs in the Opposition bench have abandoned the move, at least temporarily. Among them is a vociferous minister with strong links to the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP.
Though he conveyed his decision to leave to Sirisena, the minister in question has had second thoughts. His colleagues say it is related to an investigation by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) into an allegedly fraudulent deal. Informal moves by a group of SLFPers supporting Rajapaksa to forge an understanding with the Sirisena faction to field common UPFA candidates have also come a cropper.
Sirisena was not in favour of their suggestion to form a broad alliance under a different name and have a separate symbol. He has insisted that they were welcome to contest under the UPFA, much the same way they did during elections in the past.
Now, Sirisena has asked the party leaders not to give nominations to any Rajapaksa faction members who have attempted to undermine the SLFP that he leads. Some such supporters in PCs are now being removed from posts of ministers whilst changes are also being made among electoral organisers. Whether this would consolidate Sirisena’s position or weaken both him and the SLFP remains a question.