By a “Sunday Observer” Staff Reporter
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa found himself in another political conundrum this week when his new appointment as the Opposition Leader was challenged in Parliament and his parliamentary membership too appeared to be at risk.
While the country grappled with a prolonged political deadlock since October 26 following Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Prime Minister he eventually stepped down from the post on December 14 after a seven-week long standoff with the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe whom he replaced.
Defeated through two no-confidence motion votes Rajapaksa next set his sights on the position of Opposition Leader as the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) became the largest group in the opposition. As a result on Tuesday, Rajapaksa was named as the Opposition Leader by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya while MP Mahinda Amaraweera of the UPFA was named the Cheif Opposition Whip.
However smooth sailing was once again not to be, as several parliamentarians opposed the appointments. The bone of contention was that Rajapaksa along with almost 30 Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members had obtained the membership of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which consists of Rajapaksa loyalists and former members of the SLFP.
The SLFP members joined the SLPP at the event at Rajapaksa’s official residence at Wijerama Mawatha, Colombo on November 10.
According to his opponents, Rajapaksa and several other MP’s by obtaining membership of the SLPP had ceased to become Members of Parliament under Article 99 (13) (a) of the Constitution. Article 99 (13) (a) states the seat of an MP will become vacant if the member resigns or is expelled or otherwise ceases to be a member of a recognised political party on whose nomination his name appeared at the time of him becoming a member of parliament.
With the SLPP never facing a general election, the argument was that by taking membership of such a party, Rajapaksa and the group now had no claim to their parliamentary seats.
Speaking to the Sunday Observer last week Rajapaksa refuted these allegations and categorically denied that he is a member of the SLPP as being alleged.
“One applying for party membership does not necessarily mean it has been accepted,” he said adding that the application must be accepted for a person to become a member of the party.
In spite of his claims, on November 10, the media widely reported that Rajapaksa had obtained membership of the SLPP along with 32 other MP’s including several SLFP stalwarts. According to reports, MPs Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene, C.B. Ratnayake, Janaka Bandara Thennakoon, Johnston Fernando, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Priyankara Jayaratne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Prasanna Ranatunga, Dulip Wijesekara, Janaka Wakkumbura, Namal Rajapaksa, Shehan Semasinghe, Thenuka Widanagamage, Arundika Fernando, Kanchana Wijesekara, Nimal Lanza, Indika Anuruddha, Prasanna Ranaweera, D.V. Chanaka, Anura Priyadarashana Yapa, T.B. Ekanayake, Chandima Weerakkody, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Sumeda G. Jayasena, Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Tharanath Basnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanaka Herath, Gamini Lokuge, W.D.J. Seneviratne, Susil Premajayantha, Wimalaweera Dissanayake, Lohan Ratwatte and Premalal Jayasekara all left the SLFP to join the new party.
The event was reported on social media pages linked to Rajapaksa including his official Facebook page, a fact pointed out by TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran in Parliament, who even went on to show some photos of MP’s receiving the SLPP membership.
Rajapaksa said the media had misconstrued the event and reported it as an event of handing over membership. “That card was not a membership card and I was merely distributing it”, he said, claiming it did not even contain a name. Responding to the TNA’s claims that its leader R. Sampanthan remains as Opposition Leader, Rajapaksa said Sampanthan and the group can hold any view they believe in. “The Speaker must make a decision and the UPFA General Secretary has already sent a letter to him confirming my political membership status,” Rajapaksa said.
Though the pictures portrayed a different picture, holding a press briefing this week after MP Mahinda Rajapaksa was named as the Opposition Leader by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage seated before a discreetly covered up party banner too reiterated Rajapaksa’s claims.
Assuring that Rajapaksa is still a member of the SLFP along with his fellow MP’s Aluthgamage claimed Rs. 3000 was deducted from Rajapaksa’s MP salary and credited to SLFP account. “It is a normal procedure that all SLFP MPs must follow to retain their membership of the party,” he said such payments would provide enough evidence that MP Mahinda Rajapaksa had not left the SLFP.
However, when questioned regarding the ceremony at MP Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official residence where he and MPs who supported him obtained membership of SLPP and the twitter messages of MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa saying that they had joined the SLPP, MP Aluthgamage ducked the questions. “The SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam will issue a statement clarifying that”, he said.
Writing to the Speaker TNA MP M.A Sumanthiran voiced his dissent against Rajapaksa’s appointment. According to Sumanthiran, the UPFA cannot be recognised as an Opposition party as it participates in the government.
“The Leader of the UPFA is the head of the Government and the Cabinet,” he said in his letter adding that he also holds ministerial portfolios thereby proving that the UPFA cannot be considered as a party in the opposition. He also said that in any event Rajapaksa and several other MPs have ceased to be parliamentarians as it is public knowledge that the group has left the SLFP to obtain membership of the SLPP.
Sumanthiran urged the Speaker to not recognise Rajapaksa or any MP who may have possibly vacated their seat in these circumstances as Leader of the Opposition before certain factual positions are clarified following the appointment of a select committee of parliament and a motion is submitted.
Faced with objections Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on Friday postponed his decision on whether MP Mahinda Rajapaksa could be appointed as the Opposition Leader. “A group of lawmakers have requested in writing to appoint a special committee. UPFA Secretary General Mahinda Amaraweera has written to me on the matter. So, I will give my decisions as soon as possible after considering the requests and opinions received,” the Speaker told Parliament.
As the Speaker requested more time, it appears the fate of Rajapaksa and his supporters’ membership in Parliament along with the possibility of obtaining the post of Opposition Leader will hang in the balance till a decision is made.