By Himal Kotelawala
United National Party (UNP) seniors backing Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa in the race to the executive presidency defended their decision yesterday to oppose the 11th hour move to abolish it.
Speaking to the media in Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s official residence in Colombo this afternoon, Ministers Thalatha Atukorale, Ranjith Madduma Bandara and Ravindra Samaraweera said that all party leaders of the UNP-led United National Front (UNF) alliance were not only vehemently opposed to the move, but were also fully behind the candidacy of Premadasa.
Insisting that they were not opposed to abolishing the executive presidency, Atukorale said a majority of the UNP and the UNF were merely against the indecent hurry with which it was being pushed, with an election just weeks away.
Atukorale also defended President Maithripala Sirisena who, as President, has the sole power to convene the Cabinet of Ministers.
“We asked the President who wanted this done. He said somebody had made him a request to take it up with the Cabinet. It’s clear who made the request. But those of us dedicated to preserving party unity will not comment on it further,” she said, refusing to reveal a name.
Echoing similar sentiments, Madduma Bandara said his party is committed to abolishing the executive presidency.
“The UNP has always stood for abolishing. But we had four and a half years to do it. Proposing to abolish it just before an election betrays a fear to face that election,” he said.
“All UNF leaders opposed it. Minister Rauff Hakeem and all other party leaders expressed their support for Sajith in a meeting held at Committee Room 8 of the Parliament. In such a context, it was inappropriate to bring this up at the last minute,” he added.
However, pressed by journalists on the willingness of the Premadasa camp to see it through once elected, the Minister declined to promise anything.
“We won’t make a promise like that. But our candidate, once he has won, will take the necessary steps. This doesn’t need to be an election promise,” he said.
The Minister of Public Administration also suggested, tongue in cheek, that it might’ve been a section of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) who had convinced the President to convene yesterday’s Cabinet meeting in an attempt to stop that party’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa from running.
“Or maybe they were just afraid of Sajith running,” he added.
All three Ministers loudly opposed the notion of taking action against the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader for “speaking his mind” and expressing his support for Premadasa.
“As a UNF leader, Minister Hakeem has a right to speak up,” said Madduma Bandara.
The Ministers’ repeated claims of not being opposed to abolition notwithstanding, their preferred candidate Pemadasa on Tuesday, in that very location, refused to give a straight answer when asked about his position on the matter, arguing that no scientific survey had been conducted on the people’s mandate for it.
Asked about this, Minister Atukorale told RepublicNext said it was too early for Premadasa to comment on it.
“Until his candidacy is officially endorsed, we cannot comment on that. We have held discussions with all the relevant groups and parties and informed them [of our position]. You will know before 7 October,” she said.
When pressed about the call for a scientific survey, she said, with some apparent hesitance, that Premadasa was indeed for abolishing.
“It’s too early for him to comment. Past candidates had pledged it three times. They signed MoUs but it never happened. But we will, of course. He is of the view of getting it abolished, and he will announce it once the nomination is confirmed,” she said.
“Members of the alliance have agreed to support him. He’s the only candidate they have pledged their support to. He has also started talks with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan,” she added.