By Uditha Jayasinghe and Nuwan Senarathna
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday led from the front by calling on the public to give a two-thirds majority to a coalition led by the United National Party (UNP) at the next general election to abolish the Executive Presidency and outlined plans to form a new coalition titled the National Democratic Front (NDF),insisting the constitutional crisis had shown that no other major party could be depended on to implement the changes needed to protect democracy in Sri Lanka.
Fresh from a seven-week battle with the Executive and taking oaths as Prime Minister for the fifth time, Wickremesinghe addressed a packed rally organised by his party at Galle Face Green. A visibly cheerful Wickremesinghe cracked a few jokes before detailing future plans amidst firecrackers and cheering supporters. He pledged to establish a broad coalition to promote democracy and said the proposal would be presented to the UNP Executive Committee as early as this Friday.
“I have no doubt the proposal will be accepted. We will call it the National Democratic Front (DNF).
This coalition is needed to promote and protect democracy. I ask everyone here and the public at large to give us a two-thirds majority at the next general election. It is clear we cannot depend on anyone else to abolish the Executive Presidency. We need to have the capacity to do this ourselves. There are still many laws that undermine the independence of our institutions, hinder the development of human rights and prohibit the expansion of democracy in this country. We need to change this,” he said.
Wickremesinghe also insisted the UNP and its coalition parties remained committed to reconciliation and a political solution to the ethnic issue but these would be achieved within a united Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe thanked pro-democratic elements including opposition political parties, civil society and the public that supported the UNP during its tussle with the Executive and emphasised that he was grateful for their backing.
“This is the people’s power. No one can defeat this,” he said while gesturing at a packed Galle Face Green.
“During 51 days you were my strength. For everyone who stood with us to protect democracy I bow my head in gratitude and salute you. When they made the changes on 26 October it was the people who stood up and said you cannot destroy the democracy of this country. We are here today because of the stand you took.”
Wickremesinghe, recalling that the UNP backed President Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate in 2014, quipped: “We cooked a hopper on the fire. The hopper cannot be cooked without a pan. It is the pan that faces the fire. Now we know the pan has the capacity to withstand the heat.”
He also pointed out that even Adolf Hitler first came to power as part of a coalition and then built a dictatorship that resulted in a World War and the deaths of millions.
“After all the carnage of World War II if Hitler was still alive today he would have told the American and Russian allied forces that he only wanted a general election,” Wickremesinghe said, pointing out how MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and his loyalists were attempting to paint his actions as an effort on the side of democracy, rather than the opposite.
Touching on the all-out brawls that erupted in Parliament after it was reconvened on 14 November, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe hailed the bravery of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and insisted it was up to the public to decide whether the people who misbehaved in the House should be allowed to continue to represent it.
“We played sixes in Parliament and then in the courts. That is how we managed to drive them away. The 19th Amendment was very clear that only a two-thirds majority can dissolve Parliament. Having breached that and undermined the Constitution they brought examples from lesser known countries to justify their actions. They probably don’t even know where these countries are, whereas we have followed British parliamentary traditions. If they wanted an election they should have brought a motion to Parliament and asked for a vote. That was all that was needed. We intend to speak with all political parties on when elections should be called. That is the way it should be done.”
Wickremesinghe conceded that mistakes were made in the past three years and accepted that the UNP had to change its focus and fast-track implementation of election pledges to meet the aspirations of its voters. He also acknowledged that the economic needs of the masses must receive greater attention so that the “home economy can be fixed like the national economy.”
“You voted against us at the last election. But you stood with us to protect democracy,” he said.
“We must understand out shortcomings and find solutions. We need to build closer relationships with our public and ensure their needs are met. We will fast-track anti-corruption measures and work to build a society that is free and law-abiding. We need a just society, not one that throws chili powder. When we make mistakes tell us and we will adjust. It is not easy to govern a country but we will do our best to find a compromise that works in the best interests of the country.”
UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa also highlighted public efforts to protect democracy and pledged to work on developing housing and land rights in the country. He emphasised the need for the party to work more for the benefit of the masses and said this would be the main aim of the UNP in the next 10 months to a year. Many of the other speakers struck a similarly conciliatory tone and shaped their speeches with an eye on upcoming provincial and other elections next year.
“We sent the people who attempted to get power through the back door, out the front door. Because of this conspiracy our economy suffered, the reputation of this country suffered and the grants that were supposed to come failed. The relief that was to come to the public stopped. The confidence placed in Sri Lanka by the international community was lost. The attempt to illegally take power besmirched the dignity of Parliament. This attempt should never be forgotten by the people,” Premadasa said.
Recalling the behaviour of United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) parliamentarians, Premadasa insisted that much of their action was instigated by MP Rajapaksa and his son. But democracy and Parliament were protected by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, insisted Premadasa, who called on the people to remember the bravery and steadfastness of the Speaker.
“They are attempting to pave the path to the President’s House and Temple Trees by sullying war heroes. Was that not what happened when they threw chili powder at police in Parliament? They brought money and gifts but none of our parliamentarians accepted them. This has proven the unity of the UNP and its coalition parties,”
Premadasa also praised the independence of the Judiciary and observed that attempts being made to give interpretations of the Supreme Court decisions were detrimental to the independent institutions and their ability to uphold democracy in Sri Lanka.
“However, the greatest strength was given to us by you. It was the people who pushed aside their religion, ethnicity and other divisions and gathered together to support us. This is what is important to us. They dedicated their livelihoods and came to the streets to support us. It is because of this support that for the fifth time Ranil Wickremesinghe has become the Prime Minister. You created this momentum that allowed us to beat this conspiracy to grab power.”
The pro-democratic forces included average people, civil society and even political parties with ideological differences, Premadasa said, expressing gratitude for the campaign that was built to protect democracy in Sri Lanka. Premadasa also noted that he never for one moment doubted that Wickremesinghe had the confidence of the House when he proposed the confidence motion in Parliament last week.
“For me, my conscience is greater than positions. My father died for this party and I will not betray him. If I take on a position it will be on the shoulders of all of you. We have just won a great victory. We have come to a good place now and we must continue to build on this momentum.
UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake also pledged the party would refocus on campaign pledges given in 2014, even though some of them were put on the backburner and drive forward the economy to benefit the public.
“We want to tell Rajapaksa not to try shortcut politics again. You can’t buy parliamentarians. We won without shedding even a drop of blood. We have repeatedly shown our majority in Parliament. We must now move forward and build this country. We have to right our wrongs. We have to move out of divisive politics and work for the benefit of the people. The UNP has shown its unity. Not just the UNP but our coalition parties and civil society have displayed their strength. Other than Rajapaksa’s declining ‘Pohotutuwa’, all other ethnicities and political parties have come together.”
Karunanayake hinted that his removal from the Cabinet had sidelined him but he said that did not deter him from battling to regain their mandate.
“Even though we were tossed into a corner we came forward when our party and our democracy was under threat. In 2015 we were given a mandate to end a dictatorship, family rule and protect minorities. The Government that is to come will restart this journey to implement the pledges that were given in 2015.”
Contending that the price cuts that were made during the past few weeks were misleading, Karunanayake recalled that higher price reductions were given to fuel and essential items in early 2015 when the coalition government came to power.
“They have said we were trying to sell Sri Lankan land. Who sold the Shangri-La land? Who tried to sell Port City land? How can they accuse us of selling State assets? We have to establish a government that serves the people. Forgive us for delaying our pledges. We promise that during the next year and a half we will implement everything that we agreed to in 2015. Not only will we discharge our responsibilities but we will also remain in power.”
UNP National Organiser Naveen Dissanayake called on the public to support the second tier leadership of the party, describing the relationship to be as close as “the bark to a tree.” He also warned UNP’s detractors that the party was prepared to fight for its interests.
“We will work to hold elections without delay. There will be provincial council elections as well as presidential and general elections. These will give the people a chance to decide. We will back our party members. We will give them jobs and other support that is needed to defend democracy and work in the best interests of this country.”
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Champika Ranawaka, speaking as part of the United National Front (UNF) coalition, opined that the most crucial focus of the moderate and progressive public must be to ensure that the Rajapaksa family never returned to power.
“Just as much as people need food and clothes, people also need pride and sovereignty. It is that freedom that came under threat on 26 October. We will always fight for that democracy and freedom. The Rajapaksas said they would topple the Government but in the end who fell? They said they would develop the economy, appreciate the rupee and protect State assets but did any of these things happen? The public were not duped by their rhetoric.”
Despite all these efforts, MP Rajapaksa and his allies failed, he added, partly because they failed to understand the depth of opposition against them and miscalculated the opposition they would face from Parliament and civil society.
“We showed that ‘Appachchi’ cannot do this. We will never give room for the Rajapaksas ever again. Some people are questioning the decisions of the Supreme Court but we will not allow this. It is clear from these statements that elections can only be given by legitimate governments and not people who attempt to grab power. We protected Parliament. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and the rest of the parliamentarians showed how to behave with calmness and dignity in the House. We will take this effort by the Parliament, Supreme Court and the people forward.”
Ranawaka asserted that the coalition would work to speed up delayed investigations and other pledges made by the Yahapalanaya Government.
“Our final goal is not just to form a government but win the presidential elections. After that we want to form a Parliament that has a clear majority. But this path will come with challenges. We will bring a people’s order paper and the first act will be to punish the Rajapaksas for their many corrupt deals. If we are mindful and focused during the next few months we will get a government that will work for the people.”