By The “Sunday Times” Political Editor
President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa met last Wednesday to discuss a potential caretaker grand coalition which the two leaders agreed was necessary to pull the country out of the “economic mess” and address other critical issues badly affecting the people.
If the upcoming dialogue ends successfully, it will see Mahinda Rajapaksa ensconced as the new Prime Minister, replacing Ranil Wickremesinghe. Of course, there is a long, long way to go. The first round focused mostly on the standpoints of the two sides and what could be the broader parameters in a new arrangement. So far, the talks are showing positive signs.
Though President Sirisena was alone at the meeting, the presence of Basil Rajapaksa, the ideologue behind the former President, has added greater significance. It is not only because he returned early to Colombo from a visit to his home in Los Angeles, but also in the light of him being reported earlier to be opposed to any initiatives by Sirisena.
The fact that he has been asked to join in has cleared a hurdle for Sirisena, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Basil Rajapaksa is widely respected for his political acumen and for planning political strategies. At the talks, he articulated what could form the broader role for the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) in a proposed caretaker grand coalition.
Their party would come as an independent partner. Similarly, others too could be invited to join in, he opined. Those remarks made clear that there would be no reunification of the SLFP though it will see an accord on the important issues to be tackled. Basil Rajapaksa had also said that at the next elections, each prospective constituent of the caretaker grand coalition would be free to contest on its own, both at the next presidential and parliamentary elections.
The talks were held at the residence of former Minister and one of 15 SLFP breakaways, S.B. Dissanayake – No. 1070/2 Denzil Kobbekaduwa Mawatha, Battaramulla. As Sirisena and the two Rajapaksa brothers continued talking, Dissanayake walked in every now and then. He was not engaged in the entirety of the talks.
It was just weeks earlier that Rajapaksa berated Dissanayake with some of his Opposition colleagues. It turns out that the former Minister had erroneously blurted out some matters angering Rajapaksa. Things have since been smoothened out and Dissanayake played the broker. This is much the same way he played the same role for weeks on the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The front page lead story in the Sunday Times last week revealed exclusively that Sirisena was set to take some tough political measures, including a possible cabinet re-shuffle. Talks with Rajapaksa came as a high priority. Another was the appointment soon of a new Chief Justice. He also focused attention on what he strongly feels is a worrying law and order situation. He was deeply concerned about the ‘unprofessional conduct’ of the Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera, whom a section of the UNP government is supporting. For reasons unexplained, they want to keep him in office. Sirisena wants to remove him from office and has already earmarked a successor. On both these issues, some ministers have launched a proxy war on Sirisena. More details on them later.
President Sirisena began his dialogue with Rajapaksa with a serious lament. He said that it was “extremely impossible” for him to work with Premier Wickremesinghe. He charged that the Prime Minister was scuttling many of his efforts. He was firmly of the view that he “should go” before the economy crashes and people face even bigger hardships. He had cited many an example. It is widely known that tensions between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had peaked to a high level in the past many weeks. So much so, at last month’s meeting of the SLFP Central Committee, a sub-committee was named to review the SLFP’s relationship with the UNP in the past three years or more.
S.B. Dissanayake told a news conference on Thursday that they had recommended that the SLFP should withdraw from the coalition with the UNP and go for a caretaker Government. Mahinda Rajapaksa was willing for such an arrangement until elections, he said.
Wickremesinghe left early on Tuesday night on a visit to Norway and Britain. In Norway, where he is on a three-day official visit, he is studying optimum computerised warehousing from a leading manufacturing company there. He will also meet Prime Minister Erna Solberg, widely regarded as a friend of Sri Lanka. Not long ago in Colombo, she delivered the Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture and declared she was fascinated by Sri Lanka. In Britain, on October 8, Wickremesinghe will address the Oxford Union on “The Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean Region.”
There is little doubt that within both the SLFP and the SLPP there would be apprehensions about Sirisena’s initiatives with his predecessor Rajapaksa. Quite clearly, it is he who has made the approach and that illustrates the degree to which he has been isolated and placed helpless. He tried to reach out before the Local Government polls as well, and was snubbed by the SLPP. In the results that followed, his SLFP came a poor third.
One need hardly say that the main reason is the lack of assertiveness. Some close to him said there were no advisers whilst others insisted that he did not take good advice. Yet, indications that things are shaping up to make it a reality have begun to surface. A main one is the offer by G.L. Peiris, the current de-jure leader of the SLPP, to hand the leadership post over to the de-facto leader Rajapaksa. This is expected to be a reality in the coming weeks. That will give Rajapaksa the official clout to negotiate with strength from his party and to persuade others who may be opposed to linking up with the President. There were also other SLPP seniors who wondered whether Sirisena would renege at the last moment and back out.
Ideologue Basil Rajapaksa, ahead of the President Maithripala–Mahinda meeting, has been consulting key figures in the ‘Joint Opposition’ to ascertain their views.
There were apprehensions in the United National Party too. One angry senior member declared “voters gave Wickremesighe a mandate to be Prime Minister. How could this be changed.”
A ‘Joint Opposition’ member specialising in economics and waxes eloquent on the subject frequently opined that it was time “to do something,” as he called it, “before the country goes into ruin.” He had insisted that “we should act since we cannot wait for one more year. He said that most ministers were not working but were engaged in corrupt activity. More people are going to suffer.”
Another told Basil Rajapaksa that the SLPP should maintain its identity and agree to urgent measures to revive the economy. At least two were strongly critical of Premier Wickremesinghe. They said large-scale corrupt activity under the UNP should be exposed before the polls. In this regard, at least two prominent UNP ministers have come under close scrutiny by state investigative agencies over multimillion deals. This is on the instructions of President Sirisena.
The President Maithripala-Mahinda talks bring to the fore an all-important question – whether they have the numbers in Parliament for a proposed grand coalition. The handful who are familiar with the dialogue, from both sides, are confident. But then, they were also confident of passing a vote of no-confidence on the Prime Minister a few months ago. One of them said there were UNP parliamentarians, including some ministers, who were supportive. That, they said prior to the no confidence motion as well. However, this could not be independently verified. At present the SLFP has 23 members in the Government, whilst the ‘Joint Opposition’ has 54, besides the 15 breakaway SLFP MPs sitting in the Opposition. That totals 92 MPs, still short of a simple majority of 113, short by a sizeable 21.
Among those to be asked to join the caretaker grand coalition would be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) though it is not immediately clear they would accept the offer. In a move that appeared to appease the TNA, Sirisena has asked that lands in the north should be returned to their original owners before December. Significantly, the Rajapaksa-led SLPP did not react to that statement. Without the TNA or the JVP, the caretaker grand coalition will have to count on at least 21 or more UNP – or the UNF (United National Front) MPs, to cross over. The UNF includes the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya) and the Muslim parties.
In another move, which may or may not be related to the President Maithripala-Mahinda dialogue, Sirisena’s attention has also been drawn to the appointment of a new Chief Justice. Priyasath Dep, the incumbent, is due to retire next week. The Chief Justice is due to deliver judgments on the SC appeal by Duminda Silva, who was convicted of the murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, an adviser to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an intra-party turf battle in the Kolonnawa electorate. The deceased was the father of Hirunika Premachandra, now a UNP MP and nursing the Ratmalana electorate. Chief Justice Dep will attend a ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court on October 11 and thereafter to say farewell the next day.
Tipped to succeed was Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya. However, Sirisena has not made a firm decision and is also now seriously considering the next senior-most Supreme Court Judge, Eva Wanasundera. She will reach her retirement age of 65 years in February 2019. She has acted for the Chief Justice when he travelled abroad. The President has been advised that the appointment of Wanasundera will not diminish the chances of Jayasuriya becoming the CJ since he would be eligible even after February 2019.
Conventionally, the next senior-most Supreme Court judge has been appointed CJ upon retirement of the incumbent in the office, but there has been precedence when the Attorney General is brought from the official Bar to the post, the latest being when Sarath Nanda Silva and Mohan Peiris were so appointed. The then President J.R. Jayewardene appointed Neville Samarakoon from the private bar as the Chief Justice and later over-looked the senior-most Justice Rajah Wanasundera and appointed Justice Parinda Ranasinghe in the late 1980s.
Before President Sirisena’s departure to New York, Premier Wickremesinghe is learnt to have raised the case of Jayasuriya. He had then replied that he would look into the matter after his return. However, when Wickremesinghe raised issue again, this time before his departure to Norway and Britain, Sirisena declared he had not yet taken a firm decision. But unlike earlier, Sirisena cannot simply appoint his pick for the post. Once he makes a decision, the President will have to send his nominee’s name to the Constitutional Council which will give its approval, or otherwise.
This has brought about a separate development as some of the Council members’ terms have expired, and they have not been replaced so far. The remaining members could still meet to take a decision but the Council would have to have a quorum of five. There are only four now, viz., Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Premier Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. On the face of it, the weight of the Constitutional Council is in favour of the Prime Minister. Lawyers advising the ‘JO’ say the President could resort to the “law of necessity” if the Council is unable to meet and decide, but that will open another controversy.