The “Sunday Times” Political Editor
President Maithripala Sirisena wants to conduct a parliamentary general election first after seeking approval at a non-binding national referendum.
Towards this end, sources close to the Presidency said, he has sought the opinion of the Attorney General Dappula de Livera. He has concurred that the move was possible but the President’s own legal advisers have differed in their view.
Even if he wishes to go ahead, he has a number of other obstacles to surmount. Main among them is the support of political parties, particularly those in the opposition. The backing of their support base may not be forthcoming.
For weeks now, the matter has been engaging the attention of President Sirisena. So much so, he approached Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa at a meeting on June 3 in the afternoon. It was the same day Rajapaksa, together with three other MPs from the opposition, met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the morning.
That meeting was largely centred on ascertaining the possibility of giving the burdened people some relief in the form of an “economic package.” Yet, Rajapaksa asked Wickremesinghe at that meeting whether there would be Parliamentary elections and he replied “there is no decision yet.”
President Sirisena’s meeting with Rajapaksa was essentially to discuss the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacres. He gave him a brief on matters relating to ongoing investigations and the proposed changes he was making in the security establishment. He said he had already removed from office the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), retired crime investigator DIG Sisira Mendis, a former Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Before him, the post had been held by officers of the Sri Lanka Army. The first CNI was Major General Chula Seneviratne, who has had a long intelligence career and is now retired. He was followed by Major General Kapila Hendavithana, who was earlier Director General of Military Intelligence (DGMI). Sirisena has now appointed Major General Ruwan Kulatunga, an officer trained in intelligence and is the Regimental Commander of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (SLLI).
During the conversation with his predecessor, President Sirisena then broached the subject of conducting the parliamentary general elections ahead of this year’s presidential polls. He then told him that he had consulted the Attorney General. Rajapaksa was non-committal and kept asking him a number of questions. Sirisena said a stable government had become inevitable in the light of what was going on in the country. The best thing was to give the people the opportunity to elect a new government that will meet their aspirations, he said. Rajapaksa, the savvy politician that he is, declared that he would have to consult leaders of all opposition parties and obtain their views first. The mood in the predominant party in the opposition, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is strongly in favour of the scheduled presidential elections and not a parliamentary election first. “We are not here to pull Sirisena’s chestnuts out of the fire,” quipped a senior member.
Sirisena’s main aim in going for a parliamentary general election first is because he believes that would lead to the defeat of the United National Party. Hence, he thinks, its leader and Premier Wickremesinghe will not be able to become a presidential candidate and would thus see a serious crisis within his party. To say the least, his political battle with the Premier is now a national priority. It is no secret that there are sections in the UNP who want to replace Wickremesinghe as leader and thus deny him the presidential candidacy. Two UNPers have shown signs of wanting to be in the fray. One, backed by Sirisena himself, is Sajith Premadasa though that support would be political anathema for Premadasa. The other is Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who has stepped up meeting civil society groups and even Colombo based diplomatic community periodically. Of course, he has declared he will become presidential candidate if the UNP wants him.
Like there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, President Sirisena’s latest gamble has more signs of failure than success. The most important is the question of support from political parties. The opposition spearheaded by the SLPP is sure to oppose the move not to mention the United National Party (UNP) led United National Front (UNF). Above all, there is also another more important question -whether the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which is led by President Sirisena will back them. The reason – it was just last week that 23 SLFP parliamentarians handed in a letter to Sirisena assuring him of their support for his presidential candidature. In return, Sirisena assured he would make a public statement that he would be the SLFP presidential candidate. It did not happen. These MPs are now livid.