ECONOMYNEXT – There’s bitter invective being directed at a government Cabinet Minister these days by a faction of the ruling alliance and that is prompting speculation whether some cracks are appearing in the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna (SLNPP).
Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansha is the target for the hate speech and is being attacked for his call for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be given a bigger role in running the ruling alliance, side-lining Prime Minister Mahinda.
Weerawansha’s comments which appeared in the Sunday Sinhala newspapers the Lankadeepa and the web-only Aththa did not explicitly ask for the PM’s removal as party leader.
The ruling alliance was internally stressed last month when Weerawansha and several other smaller alliance partners vehemently opposed the handing over the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port to a joint Indian-Japanese venture.
Weerawansha joined Trade Unions, far-left and Nationalist Parties to stage demonstrations bringing enough pressure on the government leadership for it to say it will not go through with the deal, although officially the agreement has not been cancelled as yet.
An angry Indian government said that it had been “promised at the leadership level” that the tripartite agreement signed by the last government would be honoured. That implied that either President Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had made the pledge to New Delhi.
At that time the General Secretary of the alliance MP Sagara Kariyawasam upbraided Weerawansha for his actions.
This weekend Weerawansha’s comments over the party leadership made matters worse.
It drew another sharp reaction from Kariyawasam who demanded that the Minister withdraw the statement and issue an apology.
Kariyawasam, who reports to the Party’s National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa, told reporters Weerawansha “does not have a right to make decisions regarding the SLPP as he does not belong to it.” Weerawansha leads the tiny National Freedom Front which is an alliance partner of the SLNPP.
“We are very disappointed that, as the leader of a party that has joined our alliance and as a member of the cabinet with collective responsibility, he has made such a lowly, third class comment,” Kariyawasam said. Several younger SLPP MPs also attacked Weerawansha in public.
In a riposte, Weerawansha told reporters outside a courthouse in Negombo yesterday that he was a foremost loyalist of the Prime Minister, creating the “Mahinda Sulanga movement” and setting the foundations for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. “If that is something wrong I have done then I will apologise,” he said.
He also took credit for proposing the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the Presidency.
As he spoke in Negombo, the SLNPP Parliamentary Group meeting being held in Parliament exploded in arguments over Weerawansha’s statement.
Multiple sources told EconomyNext that several SLPP MPs including State Minister Nimal Lansa launched blistering attacks on Weerawansha.
When another State Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara tried to intervene asking the Members to refrain from criticising a colleague who was not present, the veteran was reportedly abused.
The Prime Minister then intervened and calmed the situation down, sources said.
Later in the day at lunch, Weerawansha was seen in earnest conversation with the PM in the MP’s lounge.
After the meal, when the Leaders of the Parties in the alliance met, Rajapaksa had said he had not seen any statement where Weerawansha had said he wanted the PM removed from the Party Leaders position.
Party sources said that the attacks on Weerawansha are particularly because he led the opposition to the handing over of the ECT to India.
The people who wanted that to happen are not happy with Weerawansha, they said. “the current attacks are all part of that.”
The Prime Minister has put together one of the most varied coalitions in Sri Lanka’s political history. The parties that have joined him range from the former radical left with Nanayakkara to the Sinhala supremacist Weerawansha.
Embedded inside the party are the entrepreneurial Ajith Nivard Cabraal. Also in the party is former United National Party Cabinet Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who is warming the backbench.
But increasingly there have been whispers from the smaller parties in the alliance about the lack of important ministries and powers allocated to them.
The most number of complaints have come from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which entered into the alliance after lengthy negotiations with the SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa.
Of the alliance partners, the SLFP holds the most number of seats with 14 while Nanayakkara is the only member from his party and Weerawansha has two. All of them contested under the Pohottuwa banner.
The General-Secretary of the SLFP Dayasiri Jayasekara on occasion has voiced concerns that their party apparatchiks at the ground level have not been able to hand out jobs to their supporters and they have not been able to fulfil the promises they made.
Another Senior SLFP official said that the promise of two National Seats that was made to them after the Parliamentary elections were not kept and the one seat was given to Dr Suren Raghavan who has less than a year as a member of the party.
He also complained that the number of high posts, such as Chairmen of government Corporations and bodies that were handed out to SLFPers were very few.
“They have brought the alliance together but don’t know or don’t want to maintain the alliance through frequent consultations and consensus-building,” the source complained.
Alliances that the SLFP ruled with, such as the United Left Front under Sirimavo Bandaranaike, he pointed out “worked hard to keep the alliance and also ensure capable people in the smaller parties got good posts and key ministries.”
“This is not happening with our alliance, they (the Rajapaksas) dominate and take decisions around their table,” he said.
But the greater concern it appears to be is probable, near retirement from politics by the Prime Minister.
One former SLFP MP said that Weerawansha “is very close to MR and he may be worried that in the future when Mahinda retires, he may have no place.”
Commentator Victor Ivan agreed that there will be moves to prepare for a post-Mahinda era for the party and the alliance.
“Mahinda has certain skills, public relations and inter-personal skills and charisma that other leaders do not have and that is how he has attracted all these people. He calls people on their birthdays and even compliments the opposition on a good speech,” Ivan said.
The Prime Minister appears in command of all his powers although occasionally he has shown some physical weaknesses.
Is this the beginning of seismic events in the SLPP that precede the exit of Mahinda? Time will tell. (Colombo, February 10, 2021)
By Arjuna Ranawana