By Uditha Devapriya –
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya is now five months old. It officially began on February 11, when the Election Commission recognised Sajith Premadasa as its Chairman and Ranjith Madduma Bandara as its Secretary. Two days later, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, and Mano Ganesan’s Tamil Progressive Alliance pledged their support and joined in. The Working Committee of the United National Party approved the swan as its symbol on February 19; five days earlier, Ranil Wickremesinghe had agreed to file nominations as a common front under that symbol, ostensibly to resolve a division in the party. On March 2, the SJB was launched at the Nelum Pokuna; as of then the swan was still in. Eight days later, however, the SJB had chucked out the swan, and adopted the telephone.
The SJB has gone ahead in many respects since this troubled beginning. It has also, in many other respects, gone back. It’s spearheading the most youth-oriented campaign from all the opposition parties. It’s housed by several ex-UNP MPs who enjoy the kind of broad support its parent party lacks. That parent party, incidentally, is led by a five-time Prime Minister who’s lost more elections than we can keep track of, who insists on parties accommodating young newcomers even as his party keeps on shooting down calls to give way to younger faces at the top. The conflict between the two – an extension of an older conflict between the youthful-populist and the ageing-neoliberal halves of the UNP – has, at least according to the optics, come out in favour of the youthful-populist wing.
The problem is that despite these credentials and despite the sway it holds over a youthful electorate, the SJB is marred by some not so pretty legal issues.
Earlier this week, Colombo District UNP nominee Oshala Herath leaked several recorded conversations with the Chairman of the Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, and member of the Commission, Ratnajeevan Hoole. Without getting into the bigger issues – issues about the Election Commission as an independent institution – what disturbs me, and those who want to see a level playing field at the upcoming polls, is the question of whether the SJB has legal standing as a political going concern.
On February 2, Sajith Premadasa and Ranjith Madduma Bandara “acquired rights to” a UNP led outfit that had earlier contested under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stewardship. That same day they took oaths as Chairman and Secretary of this party, the Ape Jathika Peramuna. A request to change its name to the Samagi Jana Balavegaya was made to the Commission around then and approved by the Commission, through its Commissioner General Saman Sri Ratnayake, on February 10, though it took more than a week for the three Commissioners – Deshapriya, Hoole, and Nalin Abeysekera – to place all their signatures.
The first problem arises with the Commission’s approval of that name change. In a letter to the party Secretary dated February 6, the Commissioner General acknowledges that the AJP requested the renaming of the party and the recognition of its new Chairman and Secretary after a Working Committee meeting at which officials agreed to disregard a provision in the Constitution, Section 22 (II), when appointing the new office-bearers.
Section 22 (II) forbids a member of another duly registered political party from becoming a member of the new party. When Premadasa and Bandara took over the AJP, they did so as members of the UNP. Ergo, they were members of the UNP when taking oaths as members of the SJB. The fact that the SJB overlooked this, while appointing them as office-bearers, seems to point at a violation of the party Constitution.
Yet when Herath inquired how Premadasa and Bandara could be recognised as SJB officials while retaining membership of a separate “duly registered” party, the EC replied, on March 15, that they could bypass that provision because of a “purported change” they had made to the Constitution. This flatly contradicts the EC’s February 6 communiqué, which refers to officials disregarding, not amending, that provision.
In any case, as Herath argued in his Writ Application to the Supreme Court, the Working Committee of the SJB “does not have the power to take such a decision in contravention of the Constitution.” Now if it couldn’t amend the provision, it could only have disregarded it. If it didn’t disregard the provision, it could only have amended it. Either way, as things stand, the party seems to have been founded on a violation of its own Constitution.
Herath proceeded to collect evidence for a case against the SJB. One of his arguments was that at the time of its inauguration the Working Committee didn’t have the power to amend the provisions of its Constitution. On the other hand, if the appointment of Premadasa and Bandara added up to such an amendment, that amendment could only have been made on February 2, i.e. at the Working Committee meeting where it was decided to appoint the new office-bearers and rename the AJP. Now according to Section 8 (3) of the Parliamentary Elections Act, parties need to inform the Commission of any alterations “before the expiry of a period of 30 days.” If the February 2 meeting constituted such an alteration, had the SJB made a submission about it within that stipulated period?
This is where the plot thickens, considerably. On March 13, the former Chairman of the Ape Jathika Peramuna, Senaka de Silva, paid a visit to the Election Commission. Herath alleges that the meeting had been engineered by the SJB to counteract him.
A later recorded conversation between Herath and the Election Commission Chairman tells us what transpired at the meeting. De Silva is supposed to have informed the Commission that officials of the Ape Jathika Peramuna held its Working Committee meeting on February 2. He is then alleged to have notified the Commission of the alteration made at the February 2 meeting, i.e. the appointment of the new Chairman and Secretary.
Now here’s the biggest bombshell. Herath accuses Senaka de Silva of having persuaded the Election Commission to backdate his application, so as to make the notification conform to the 30 day limit. If notifying the Election Commission of the amendments after the eligible period contravenes the Parliamentary Elections Act, he points out, getting the Commission to backdate documents to make them appear legal must be illegal. Herath contends that the SJB’s ruse was to make it look as though they had notified the Commission of the February 2 appointments within the specified time. The respondents to his Writ Application, he alleges, would, if the case was allowed to proceed, use the backdated application as proof that they had recognised the appointments as constituting an amendment, and had duly informed the Commission of that amendment within 30 days.
What we have here are the allegations of a contestant from a party questioning the very foundation and the constitutional grounding of a breakaway faction. The facts, regardless of what can be inferred from them, speak for themselves.
At a press conference a month ago, Herath unequivocally conceded that “wrong is wrong”, whether it’s a Rajapaksa or a Premadasa, and that the SJB houses several people who, he insinuated, “are responsible for the betrayal of the January 2015 mandate.” It is curious that while citing comparatively trivial examples of such betrayals – for instance, the Lakshman Kiriella Central Expressway controversy – he did not refer to the even bigger undesirables in his party, including those involved in the Central Bank scandal.
Political affiliations and allegiances aside, however, the seriousness of his allegations can’t be denied. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya must hence make a statement against the case that nearly got built up against it. I say that for two reasons. One, the publication of the recorded conversations gives space to concerned citizens, or politically motivated individuals, to take up Herath’s case once elections are done. Two, that means that the legal continuity of the SJB, as well as the appointment of Premadasa and Bandara, will be open to question; that in turn means if the party as a going concern ceases to exist because of a technical formality, all those votes cast for it at the election are in jeopardy.
Thus what really aggrieves me is the possibility of a legal argument invalidating those votes. It is at one level an annulment of the franchise of a section of the population that continues to believe in the values and the ideals of the SJB. The SJB, for its part, should honour those who hold it in high regard over not just the Pohottuwa, but also the UNP. It should honour them by making a convincing case against the prevailing view that it does not have legal standing; that it abrogated its own Constitution when coming into being; and that it made unholy alliances to bypass legal formalities. Elections are just weeks away. As participants in those elections, the members of the SJB must stand ground. They must stand.