MR-Ranil dialogue

First step towards new political culture?

  • Mangala Samaraweera declined to attend Govt. talks
  • Some UNPers doubt Govt. bona fides
  • Tilvin Silva says Ranil walked into trap
  • Sajith Premadasa objects to confining party voting rights
Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe calling at Temple Trees on President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s invitation for one-on-one talks last week (on July 10 Saturday) is generally hailed as a possible start to an auspicious political culture in our country.

Ranil Wickremesinghe had been severely criticising the much publicised move by the government to repeal the Constitutional provisions limiting the tenure of the incumbent President to two terms. Wickremesinghe had announced that they were opposed to Constitutional reforms designed to entrench nepotism, but they would support an amendment providing for the creation of office of an Executive Prime Minister accountable to Parliament.

Opposition to more terms
A Constitutional amendment designed to lift the present two term limit on a serving President had been under discussion in government circles for sometime and in fact, President Rajapaksa himself had given his consent to this proposal. However, the left constituents of the government, the CP, LSSP and the Democratic Left Front led by Vasudeva Nanayakkara made a strong objection to the proposed move. They also took up the position that the Executive President should be replaced by an Executive Prime Minister accountable to Parliament. The JHU and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna said that they had no objection to removing the two-term limit on an incumbent President as long as he is duly elected by the people. They later agreed to the proposal to replacing the Executive President with an Executive Prime Minister. The SLFP ministers, who initially backed the proposal to increase the number of terms that a President could serve, later kept mum on the subject.
Opposition leader Wickremesinghe said in Parliament on July 5 that the UNP is agreeable to the abolition of the Executive Presidency in consonance with the recommendations of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) chaired by Prof. Tissa Vitarana. “The UNP is not prepared to support Constitutional reforms promoting nepotism. But we are willing to support a people-friendly Constitutional amendment and participate in talks on such an amendment,” Wickremesinghe told in Parliament. However, political sources say that President Rajapaksa invited Ranil Wickremesinghe for talks on Constitutional reforms on July 10 when it became quite apparent that he would not succeed in mustering a two thirds majority in Parliament for passing the proposed amendment to repeal the provisions relating to the two term limit on the tenure of a serving President.

Ranil meets President
Ranil Wickremesinghe, following a cordial exchange of views with President Rajapaksa at the talks held on July 10, informed the latter that he wished to apprise the party of the contents of the talks held and to lead a party delegation for the next round of talks. The second round of talks was held at Temple Trees accordingly on July 12 Monday. The government delegation led by President Rajapaksa included Ministers Basil Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena, Susil Premajayantha, Dinesh Gunawardena, G.L.Peiris and Dulles Alahapperuma. The UNP delegation led by Ranil Wickremesinghe included Karu Jayasuriya, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, Joseph Michael Perera and General Secretary, Tissa Attanayake. Wickremesinghe had invited Mangala Samaraweera too to join the UNP delegation, but the latter had declined. Mangala had suggested that SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem be invited to join the delegation, but at the time Hakeem was not available in Colombo.
Following the second round of talks, both parties appointed two committees each for the purpose of carrying forward the negotiations. President Rajapaksa and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will not attend future routine meetings of the two committees of their respective parties except when key topics are taken up for discussion. The Presidential Secretariat also issued a press communiqué that the government and the UNP had reached agreement to create the office of an Executive Prime Minister accountable to Parliament to replace the Executive President.

Misgivings of UNPers
Even after calling at Temple Trees for talks, some UNPers appeared to harbour misgivings about the bona fides of the government in seeking a dialogue with the UNP on Constitutional reforms. Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, for instance, created ripples of amusement when he asked the government at the talks whether there would be more UNP crossovers to the government once the ongoing talks are over as it happened on a previous occasion. “We signed an MOU with the SLFP in 2007 after several rounds of discussions, and 17 of our MPs crossed over to the government soon after. Will there be a repeat performance following the present talks as well?” he asked. A smiling President Rajapaksa replied, “We will not accept any more crossovers from the UNP this time.”

Later, Ranil Wickremesinghe told the media that he proposed to apprise the DNA and other political parties of the outcome of the talks held with President Rajapaksa.

Dialogue under fire
Meanwhile, the UNP leaders’ participation in talks with the government has come in for flak from a section of the UNP membership. They feel that the decision by the UNP leadership to hold talks with the government at a time when the party had launched a wave of protests across the country over spiraling prices of essentials, the failure to grant the promised Rs.2500 pay hike and the move to remove the two term limit on the President, is inappropriate and ill-timed.

No Muslim
The day following the second round of talks, UNP MP Kabir Hashim and WPC member A.J.M. Mussamil, who met the UNP leader, faulted him for the failure to include a Muslim representative in the delegation that met President Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe had explained to them that he invited Rauff Hakeem to join the delegation, but he could not make himself available on that day adding that Hakeem would participate in the talks to be held in future to represent the minority communities.
SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem who was on a visit to Libya returned home only on July 11. He had to attend a public function organised by the SLMC-controlled Kalmunai MC the following day. Meanwhile, the President had told Ranil Wickremesinghe that he was planning to hold talks with other political parties including the TNA and the SLMC too on the topical issues.

The government holding a dialogue on Constitutional reforms exclusively with the UNP has come under fire from the JVP. Addressing a recent media briefing JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said, “The Constitution is the supreme law of the country. Two political parties alone cannot amend the Constitution. This is a task all political parties should participate in. Talks with the UNP are a trap set by the President and Ranil Wickremesinghe has been caught in this trap,” said Tilvin Silva.

On LG electoral reforms
In pursuance of the agreement between President Rajapaksa and UNP leader Wickremesinghe, Ministers Basil Rajapaksa and Dinesh Gunawardena met a UNP delegation comprising Tissa Attanayake, Lakshman Kiriella, Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, and SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali on Tuesday. It is learnt that the participants decided to call for the appointment of a Delimitation Commission to redefine the areas of jurisdiction of local government authorities prior to holding of local government elections due in the first quarter of the next year and to also obtain a report of the Commission within three months.

It transpired during the discussion that the number of local government bodies had been reduced by about 50 percent following the introduction of Pradeshiya Sabha system during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the implementation of Gam Sabha system would lead to a twofold increase in the present number of local government bodies. The participants also had agreed to a proposal to set up multi-member wards covering thickly populated localities in the areas of Local Authorities. They had also agreed that the Chairman or the Mayor of a local body should be elected by the members and there should be provision for proportional representation based on votes polled by unsuccessful candidates.

The participants had also agreed to carving out wards with bias towards the ethnic grouping concentrated in a particular locality while ensuring that no injustice is caused to the particular ethnic group.
The UNP delegation accepted in principle the proposals on revising the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance, and UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake is expected to submit a report on the proposals which were adopted at the bilateral talks to the UNP Working Committee due to meet tomorrow.

SLMC to relax
The attitude of the SLMC towards the government which had been cold and unfriendly for sometime appears to have begun thawing since of late. The main reason for this change is that the majority of party MPs have taken up the stand that the party should extend its co-operation to the government. A group of MPs from the East has been telling the party leadership for sometime that they are not in a position to get development work done in their respective areas due to their being in the opposition, a situation, they had pointed out, that would continue for another six years and therefore, they have no option other than to maintain cordial relations with the government However, their request fell on deaf ears as both party leader Rauff Hakeem and General Secretary Hassan Ali had preferred to work in co-operation with the UNP.

The opinion that the SLMC should build a rapport with the government has now emerged more pressingly. Now there is a move to present this opinion in the form of a resolution at the meeting of the SLMC Executive Committee due to be held at the New Town Hall, Colombo today. The proposed Constitutional reforms and the changes to the Local Authorities Elections Ordinance are expected to figure prominently at the deliberations of this meeting which is to be attended by over 1000 members from all over the country, a party spokesman said.

SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem was the chief guest at a ceremony held in Kalmunai last Monday to mark the induction of Mashoor Moulana as the Mayor of the SLMC-controlled Kalmunai Municipal Council and the opening of the Rs.45 million market complex in the town. Hakeem, who had been an uncompromising critic of the government, took many people by surprise when he made several remarks complimentary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the public rally that followed. He also said he hoped that the President would hold talks with the SLMC just as he did with the TNA.

Meanwhile, SLMC sources said that Rauff Hakeem would participate in the ongoing talks between the government and the UNP on Constitutional reforms. These are signals pointing to the SLMC‘s willingness to work closely with the government in the future, said a senior SLMC member.
The SLMC is also planning to hold talks on proposed Constitutional reforms with government coalition partners like the CP and LSSP of the left and also minority parties like the CWC and the Upcountry People’s Front.

UNP reforms
The UNP Working Committee is due to meet at the Sirikotha headquarters tomorrow for the first time after handing over the Reforms Committee report to party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The most significant recommendation of the Committee is that elections to all top posts in the party except that of the General Secretary be held in the event of the failure to reach unanimity over the selection of candidates vying for the posts. Only UNP MPs and the Working Committee members are eligible to vote at the election of office bearers.

Sajith up in arms
A large section of the UNP including leadership aspirant Sajith Premadasa has articulated their strong objection to confining the right to vote at the election of office bearers of the party to MPs and Working Committee members. They say that the right to vote should be extended to members of the PCs, local government bodies and electorate level organisers who had unsuccessfully contested the general elections. The Working Committee meeting to be held tomorrow is expected to turn stormy as a section of the membership has planned to haul the Reforms Committee over hot coals over this issue. If the Reforms Committee report is approved by the Working Committee, its recommendations will be incorporated in the party Constitution. The new Constitution will be presented at the party Convention due to be held in December this year for adoption.

A non event
The UNP had initially planned to hold a special convention on August 7 to adopt the reforms Committee recommendations, however, chances are that this convention is going to be a nonevent, a senior party member said. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe will leave for India on a one week visit soon after tomorrow’s Working Committee meeting. He is expected to visit Europe thereafter. Therefore, there is no possibility of holding the special convention scheduled for August 7, the party senior explained.

Meanwhile, the ‘rebel group’ agitating for party reforms led by Sajith Premadasa is carrying on their organisational activity regardless of other developments in the party. Janahamuwas (public rallies) are being held at electorate level under the ‘Jatika Jeewaya’ programme launched by Sajith Premadasa and these ‘janahamuwas’ are being used as a forum to put across the message that there is an urgent need to change the leadership of the UNP. The UNP MPs fighting for party reforms are the main speakers at these meetings. The organisers make it a point to pick the Udagamas established by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa under his Gamudawa programme as venues for their ‘janahamuwas’ being held under the `Jatika Jeewaya’ programme. The latest ‘Jatika Jeewaya’ ‘janahamuwa’ was held at Kesbewa recently. Sajith, at this meeting, had taken to task the Reforms Committee for denying the party members of the PCs and local government bodies as well as the electorate level organisers the right to vote at elections to be held to top posts of the party.
The UNP, in spite of their participation in talks with the government on Constitutional reforms, has now launched a series of anti-government demonstrations across the country. However, the protests staged recently in Kadawatha and Thotalanga in Colombo had been a flop, due to poor turn-out.

Wimal’s fast
The fast unto death staged by Minister Wimal Weerawansa to press UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to dissolve the panel of experts on Sri Lanka appointed by him came in for flak and derision from many people. However, some people who call themselves ‘patriots’ hailed this fast as an act of patriotism.
Government had to face much embarrassment when the activists of the Jatika Nidahas Peramuna surrounded the UN compound preventing the staff from leaving the premises. A section of foreign media created a worldwide sensation filing dispatches saying that a mob led by a government Minister laid siege on the UN compound in Colombo and took the UN staff hostage.

Govt. dissociates itself
The External Affairs Ministry later had to undergo much difficulty to contact the UN headquarters in New York to undo the damage caused by the fast and the siege on the UN compound. Several government high-ups too tried to contact UN Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-moon without success. Minister G.L.Peiris who succeeded in contacting Ban Ki-moon later explained to him that the government had nothing to do with the ongoing fast opposite the UN compound. He made it clear to the UNSG that the Minister who staged the fast was the leader of a minor political party in the government coalition. He assured him that adequate security had been provided to the UN premises and the staff could move about freely and do their work free from any hindrance.

Meanwhile, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa spoke to UN Resident Coordinator Neil Buhne and assured him that the government had provided necessary security to the UN compound and the government had no hand in the incident.
Meanwhile, the External Affairs Ministry prepared a special document for UN SG Ban Ki-moon to issue as a statement coming from him saying that the panel of experts appointed by him would not level war crime charges against anyone in Sri Lanka. This document was sent to the UN headquarters in New York and the SG duly issued it as a statement of his as prearranged. Wimal Weerawansa was to give up the fast soon after the issuance of this statement. However, due to a communication gap, Weerawnasa had to continue the fast until 4.30 p.m. on Saturday. The intimates of Weerawansa who were agitated over the delay in hearing from the UN SG, made an appeal to President Rajapaksa who was in Kandy to intervene to stop the fast. The President helicoptered to Colombo and rushed to the bedside of Weerawansa opposite the UN compound. The Minister ended his fast after drinking a glass of water offered by President Rajapaksa.

Experts’ panel to meet
The panel of experts appointed by Ban Ki-moon which Wimal Weerawansa wanted to be dissolved is due to hold sittings this week. The minister’s fast which ended as a damp squib only lent support to anti-Sri Lanka campaign carried on in the West. He has also become a laughing stock among his political opponents in the JVP and the UNP.