(Excerpts From the “Sunday Times” Political Column of November 5th 2017)
President Sirisena discussed with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a gamut of issues during a one-on-one meeting last Monday (October 30). The lengthy meeting was joined in later by Minister Malik Samarawickrema, who is also the UNP Chairman. Fuller details of what transpired are not clear. However, a source familiar with the talks said a wide range of issues figured. They included the upcoming local polls, rising cost of living, relations between the two coalition partners among others. Sirisena is on record saying that the SLFP would determine its own political course by December this year. This is in the backdrop of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two coalition partners coming to an end in August. The December dateline being given so that the Budget be passed and the Government has the funds to function for 2018.
Just the day after the meeting, on Tuesday night, Wickremesinghe chaired a poorly attended meeting of the UNP parliamentary group. He frowned on his party MPs for forming ‘power blocs’ within the party and said he would not allow them. If anyone wanted to take part in such meetings or other events as a caucus, he said that they should first obtain his permission.
He was alluding to a group of some twenty UNP parliamentarians gathering at a resort hotel in Tangalle to spend a weekend a fortnight back. The event had been organised by former Finance Minister and then Foreign Affairs Minister, Ravi Karunanayake. Some of the MPs, it was reported, had been critical of coalition leaders and had made adverse comments. The Premier said he had been out of Sri Lanka when the meeting by a group of MPs took place. Otherwise, he would not have allowed that to happen.
Wickremesinghe said in the past too there had been ‘power groups’ within the party — for example the so called ‘Ginger Group’ which functioned in the mid-1960s. This was a team of young backbencher MPs who voiced strong views against some of the workings of the then UNP Government. After the meeting ended, the Premier entertained the MPs who had come for the meeting to dinner. The meeting was attended by around 25 MPs. Sections in the UNP query whether Sirisena raised issue over the Tangalle meeting during talks with Wickremesinghe since he has also been the subject of criticism there. It has centred on the resignation of Karunanayake following disclosures made before the Commission of Inquiry probing the Central Bank bond issue.
UNP parliamentarians, including those who took part in the Tangalle meeting, did urge Sirisena during a recent meeting to re-instate Karunanayake to the Cabinet. The President replied that he had not asked him to quit his post. Premier Wickremesinghe, the UNP leader, who has assigned an office in ‘Temple Trees’ for Karunanayake has since named him to the ten member UNP nomination board that will select candidates for the local polls. The former minister has also been directing a string of complaints against Attorney General’s Department counsel who grilled him before the Bond Commission. Letters have been sent out to the Chief Justice and the Commission.