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Namal Rajapaksa As Opposition Leader?

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Sunday, 19 September 2010 09:44 No Comment]

namal-sarath-495x278 Some time ago when Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was met by Namal Rajapaksa, MP and son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the parliament lobby, Ranil had asked a question from him: “When you ought to be in the government lobby why are you loitering in the lobby of the opposition?”

Namal has with a wry grin given a puzzling reply, “my father is the President, my uncle (father’s elder brother) is the Speaker. I thought therefore, why I should not become the opposition leader.” Ranil and the UNP MPs close-by were of course amused by his answer and they all had a hearty laugh. They all thought it was just one of Namal’s jokes. Whether Namal‘s reply was jocular or serious apart, the subsequent developments are giving out signals that his utterance is coming true.

It was Namal and Sajin Vass Gunawardena, MP, an acolyte of Mahinda and the founder of Mihin Lanka who orchestrated Operation 18A by inviting UNP MPs to the government to successfully pass the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in parliament. Nineteen handpicked MPs of the Nil Balakaya jointly carried out this operation with Namal and Sachin. Following the successful completion of this operation, at a discussion between Namal and others who were involved in the operation, a startling proposal was made: that was, Namal should now become the leader of the opposition. As Namal has to meet and mount tremendous odds within the government ranks, it is best he becomes the opposition leader whereby he could, while extolling the government for its virtues, also castigate and pull up the ministers whom he wishes and who are in dereliction of their duties. If the Mahinda Chinthana is to be duly implemented, Namal must capture the opposition power and become its leader, the group at the discussion pointed out.

Next, the group calculated the number of MPs needed to capture the opposition power. The Nil Balakaya has 19 MPs. There are 17 MPs won over by the Nil Balakaya from the opposition. As these MPs have already declared that they are not expecting portfolios, they have 36 MPs altogether, they reckoned. The present number of MPs in the UNP opposition is 43. In other words, Namal will only be short of seven MPs to seize power from the opposition and become its leader. It was their contention that if they launch another operation, they can lure another seven MPs from the UNP particularly because they can exploit the present crises and  controversies within the UNP.

In that event, Namal can become the opposition leader, they hoped. They argued that if Namal’s Nil Balakaya was able to acquire for the government, the 2/3rds majority needed for the passage of the 18th Amendment, confounding the entrenched convictions that such a majority is impossible in a proportional representation voting system, why can’t it also acquire for him the position of opposition leader?

There were two occasions on which an opposition leader was appointed with the blessings of the government in Sri Lanka. In 1983, Anura Bandaranaike was appointed as opposition leader by the SLFP government. In any case, it was more of a necessity of J.R. Jayewardene and less of the desires of the SLFP government, which launched him in that position. In 2002, Mahinda Rajapaksa became the opposition leader when Ranil was the prime minister and due to the latter’s requirements.

The final decision however in this appointment is within the powers of the speaker. In 1983, on the instructions of J.R. Jayewardene who was the president, the speaker at that time, E.L. Senanayake used his power to appoint Anura Bandaranaike as the opposition leader. In 2002, on Ranil’s advice, the speaker Joseph Michael Perera utilized his power to appoint Mahinda as the opposition leader.

When the present speaker was to be appointed in parliament, rumours were afloat that Mahinda had met Ranil ahead and entered into an understanding: that is, Ranil shall support the appointment of Chamal Rajapaksa as the speaker and in return, Ranil will have the support of the government to become the opposition leader.

Currently, a group of UNP MPs who are agitating for party reforms are jeopardizing Ranil’s position as opposition leader by threatening to sit as ‘independents’ in parliament if the reforms are not implemented. They claim that there are 25 UNP MPs with them. If that materialises, the Speaker will have need to use his powers to appoint an opposition leader. The Nil Balakaya must be optimistic that the uncle will not use his Speaker’s powers in favor of anyone else other than his nephew.

Namal has begun nursing the new notion of becoming the opposition leader only after the decision of Mahinda to bring the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) which is a UNP fortress coming within the Colombo municipal limits under the purview of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother.

At the first CMC elections after Mahinda was appointed as president, the latter could not bear to see the UNP win the elections even when its candidates contested as an independent group, despite the UNP being denied the right to use its party’s elephant symbol. Mahinda made his next manoeuvre, by winning over the elected candidates of the UNP ‘independent group’ and took control of the CMC .

Mahinda tried desperately to win the seats within the Colombo Municipal limits at the last Western  Provincial Council elections. But he failed. He is therefore apprehensive that the UNP will win at the forthcoming local council polls. In order to avert this impending defeat, he had converted the CMC into an authority and handed over its control to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

One of the chief objectives of Gotabaya’s recent tour of China was to secure aid to develop the capital city of Colombo on the same lines of Shanghai, the capital city of China. There are also rumours that discussions are being held to hand over the project to demolish the shanties in Colombo and build multi storey flats like in Singapore to a Chinese company. But there is a big question mark. How the ‘radar’ of the New Delhi South Block is going to react to this Colombo city transforming into a ‘Shanghai’.

No matter what, there are clear, ominous signs that there is a concerted attempt by Mahinda towards ‘Rajapaksa–ization’ of the opposition too by transferring the opposition leadership, which is now with the UNP, to his son Namal and handing over the reins over the Colombo city, the only district over which the UNP at the moment has power, to his brother Gotabaya. But one unassailable truth stands out that, even if Mahinda takes control of the UNP leadership as well as the UNP power over the Colombo District, he cannot win over the UNP voter base.

When the election results of the recent past are analyzed, this truth clearly comes to light. Though the UNP votes dropped, these votes had not gone to swell the vote bank of Mahinda. As the youthful UNP MPs claim, if these votes are to be secured, re-structuring of the UNP is imperative. Their threat to sit as independents is also to bring pressure to bear on Ranil to implement the party reforms with this objective also in mind.

Ranil on the other hand believed that after Lakshman Seneviratne left the party, the clamour and agitation for re-structuring will die down. But seeing the letter signed by 28 UNP MPs demanding an immediate meeting had unnerved him. Though he berated Kabir Hashim who brought the letter to him, Ranil was yet shocked and shaken by it while he was taking a rest in Diyatalawa. He realised that the letter which bore the signatures of 28 MPs is not a matter to be dismissed haphazardly.

As soon as he returned to Colombo, he tried to enlist the support of the group of new MPs whom he felt were with him to defuse the situation. These MPs, on the contrary, had told him re-structuring is essential in the circumstances. When Kurunegala District MP Abeysinghe suggested that Ranil should take up the position of senior leader and step down from his present leader post, he had rejected this offer by stating that nowhere in the world exists such party positions.

When a group of party seniors met Ranil with the proposal to appoint Karu Jayasuriya as the interim leader, Wickremesinghe as the opposition leader and Sajith Premadasa as the deputy leader, Ranil refused to agree. The latest mediator seeking to heal the rift in the UNP is Colombo District UNP MP Grero. The latter had met the private secretary of the Opposition Leader at the Cambridge Place office and then gone to meet Sajith at his residence. Sajith had told them that he has found a formula and based on that formula, Ranil shall be the senior and opposition leader, Sajith the leader and Karu Jayasuriya the deputy leader. But what Grero related to Ranil when he met him was, that Sajith was prepared to accept the post of deputy leader. Ranil who readily agreed to give the deputy leader post to Sajith told Grero to immediately summon the group of youthful MPs and intimate this to them.

Grero began sending SMS messages from Cambridge Terrace to a selected, few MPs including Rosy Senanayake, Ruwan Wijewardene, Yogarajan and Swaminathan conveying this message and summoning them for a meeting. Meanwhile, Kabir Hashim who was carrying the message of Sajith Premadasa group’s formula, met Ranil. The latter had told him that Sajith has agreed to accept the post of deputy leader. Kabir Hashim who was obviously puzzled and embarrassed by this statement, had conveyed this to Dayasiri and the Sajith group. When Dayasiri spoke to Sajith to confirm the truth of Ranil’s statement, there had been a flare up and a heated argument between them. Sajith had firmly repudiated the story that he agreed to accept the post of deputy leader.

Ranil who was fearing to summon a parliamentary group meeting, assuming that there is a rift within the Sajith group, now hoped against hope to summon a parliamentary group meeting. The Sajith group having realised Ranil’s plan, resolved the dispute amicably and commenced discussions on Ranil’s plan. Ranil’s plan is to agree for the appointment of Sajith as deputy leader and divert the threats directed against his leadership towards Karu Jayasuriya’s post. He has told the party seniors to go back and propose Sajith Premadasa’s name for the deputy leader post while discussing with Karu Jayasuriya, the present deputy leader.

In a recent development, Dr. Harsha De Silva, the UNP National List MP along with UNP MP for Gampaha, Ruwan Wijewardene, has met Ranil on the 16th with the proposal to make him the senior leader, Sajith Premadasa the leader and Karu Jayasuriya the deputy leader. Ranil who flew into a rage over this proposal had told them not to bring such proposals again and he would not step down from his leadership under any circumstance. When the two of them were about to leave, Ranil had inquired from Harsha whether he is participating in Sajith Premadasa’s function where Sajith is to address members of the professional associations or whether he is attending his function which coincidentally is on the same day at the J.R. Jayewardene Center. When Harsha replied he will have to attend both, Ranil has exploded that he would have to sack him if he attends Sajith’s meeting. Harsha had however explained that as both are party events, he would be obliged to attend both. Ruwan Wijewardene who was also present had defused the situation from further escalation by inducing Harsha to leave the premises. Incidentally, calls were also being originated from the Cambridge Terrace office to inform the UNP MPs not to attend Sajith’s function.

In another unsavory situation involving UNP MP John Amaratunge’s controversial tour of the UN with the President, the latter had stated at the cabinet meeting immediately after the 18th Amendment was passed, that Amaratunge wished to cross over before the amendment was passed on condition that he is given the speaker post. As the President refused to grant that request, Amaratunge did not cross over. After it was rumoured that Amaratunge was in the President’s delegation to the UN General Assembly and Ranil having heard of this, inquired from Amaratunge about this story doing its rounds. Amaratunge had explained that he was undertaking the tour because his daughter is in Washington whom he wished to visit and it is a private tour. Ranil had then told him to make a statement through the media to that effect and warned him not to go on the tour.

Meanwhile the government media reported that Amaratunge had gone. Owing to the inordinate delays in the implementation of the party’s constitutional amendments and the change in the leadership, the MPs who are most vociferous about the party re-structuring, have been compelled to focus their discussions on a change of opposition leadership instead. There is a precedent in the UNP party history when a vote was taken to appoint the opposition leader. That was in 1994, when a contest sprung up between Ranil and Gamini Dissanayake. At that juncture, the party leader D.B. Wijetunge decided to hold a secret ballot to select the leader. In that voting, Gamini won by two or three votes.

The UNP MPs who have signed the letter to summon an urgent group meeting must now be thinking that if the 28 MPs sign a letter to hold a secret ballot, Ranil could be defeated. They are of the opinion that Ranil is scared to summon a parliamentary group meeting because he has no confidence in a majority of its members. If the UNP MPs do not arrive at a consensus on the appointment of the opposition leader, chances are, Mahinda’s attempts to thrust the opposition leader post officially among his family members will become unavoidable.

It was the UNP that tailored Mahinda’s clothes and also draped him to become a dictator. When the election petition was filed against Mahinda, no UNP MP attended court on the days of trial. The UNP which alleged furiously that the presidential election was corrupt and results rigged via a computer fraud is now ignoring the election petition case. Lawyer Upul Jayasuriya who is appearing for General Fonseka in the election petition case has advised an aide of Fonseka to speak to Karu Jayasuriya and inquire about the reasons as to why the UNP is so indifferent. Karu’s reply was, because the General was critical of the UNP, the UNP MPs were disheartened.

In contrast, Mahinda has always been pressurizing his ministers over the phone on court days, from early morning, urging them to be present in court on presidential election case dates; defeating the election petition being his aim. Wimal Weerawansa was a minister who attended court due to Mahinda’s pressure. But, in the list of names for the delegation to tour the UN recently, it was Champika’s name and not Wimal’s that was included. Wimal was axed because he staged a satyagraha against Ban Ki-moon’s panel. Previously, he was a regular member of the UN delegation. Wimal however staged the satyagraha at Mahinda’s behest.

Arrogant and willful, Wimal nevertheless had to swallow his pride in the face of Mahinda’s powerful position thanks to the 2/3rds majority, for he knew that if he dared voice any dissent, his neck will be severed.

More than Wimal, it was the UNP which contributed to the inordinate power build up of Mahinda. But for the support of the 17 UNP MPs, Mahinda would have had to eat humble pie coming down from the pedestal of executive presidency and would have had to take up the executive prime minister post.

Now, Mahinda has left for the UN assembly as undisputed victor: securing the necessary 2/3 majority in parliament for the executive presidency and passage of the 18th Amendment. Before attending the UN assembly, Mahinda is to meet a friend in Germany. This is Mahinda’s maiden visit to an European country after the war. It is noteworthy that SL state leaders make private tours to European countries very rarely. If they did go, they were always official.

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