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In Sri Lanka, political parties are “bought and sold”

ECONOMYNEXT – When Vedinigama Wimalatissa Thero, former General Secretary of the Our Peoples’ Power Party (OPPP) confessed that the party had been “bought” from its “owner” few political activists were surprised.

That is because “registered political parties are bought and sold,” head of the election watchdog group People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) Rohana Hettiarachchie told EconomyNext.

Wimalatissa Thero made the statement in an interview broadcast on the YouTube series “Truth with Chamuditha.”

He claimed that a group of Buddhist Monks who lead the OPPP “gave cash to Saman Perera who owned the party to take it. There was a transaction, money changed hands,” he said.

The devious behaviour came to light only because of the unseemly struggle among the Monks to grab the single-seat won by the OPPP on the National List.

First Wimalatissa Thero claimed the seat as the General Secretary of the party, saying the two leading Monks Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and Athureliye Rathana Thero both wanted it and until the dispute is settled, he would temporarily occupy it.

Then Perera who claimed to be the Chairman of the OPPP informed the Elections Commission he had sacked Wimalatissa Thero from the Secretary-ship and nominated another person to fill the position named Nishantha Ratnayake.

The new secretary promptly nominated Perera “on the understanding he would step aside for Gnanasara Thero to be appointed” the Monk’s spokesman Eranda Navaratne told EconomyNext.

Rathana Thero has in the meantime submitted a letter from Wimalatissa Thero withdrawing the Secretary’s nomination and nominating himself.

The OPPP is not alone in Parliament which has acquired a party registered under someone else.

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The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the biggest opposition group, is also a previously registered party which was registered under the name of businessman and one-time Chairman Water Resources Board Dr Senaka de Silva.

De Silva’s wife, Actor-politician Diana Gamage became the Deputy General Secretary of the SJB after the breakaway United National Party group took over the SJB.

Gamage who had been an active UNPer and has contested and lost at Local Government level is now a Member of Parliament as she was nominated by the SJB after the elections.

“When we acquired the party, she was an office-bearer, and we have her a position at that time,” a senior member of the SJB told EconomyNext.

There may not have been any cash exchanged as in the case of the OPPP transaction, but Gamage most probably owes the seat in Parliament to her husband’s “ownership” of the SJB.

PAFFREL’s Hettiarachchie says having a registered political party as elections near “is a source of funds and many other things.”

In January this year, he wrote a letter to the National Elections Commission calling on the Commissioners to discourage the practice.’

He pointed out that less than half of the 70 or so registered political parties are politically active in any way.

In his letter, he wrote that “it is publicly known that registered political parties have been sold for large sums of money.”

PAFFREL recommended that these political parties which have one or two members and are not active be de-registered if they have not held meetings or activities for a year.

Officials in the Elections Department also told EconomyNext that they would like to see a standard minimum set of regulations included in the Constitutions of the Registered Political parties. This, for instance, would discourage the party leaders from haphazardly sacking members.

The Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu does not agree with that.

He told EconomyNext that “a political party is a like a private club. They can invite, accept or expel any member.”

But “trading” in political parties, says Hettiarachchie, “hits the very core of our democracy.”

(Colombo, August 29, 2020)

Reported by Arjuna Ranawana