Parliament turns into polling centre to elect 8th President

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The Parliament Chamber was converted into a polling booth, for the first time in its 40-year history, on Wednesday (20) and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at 10:00 a.m. advised all legislators to follow procedure and adhere to best behaviour when exercising their democratic rights.

Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayaka, who functioned as the Returning Officer, explained the voting procedure to all members. Deputy Secretary General Kushani Rohanadheera called MPs by name and the ballot paper was handed over to each MP. Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena was first to vote, followed by Acting President and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

The total number of votes cast was 223 with Parliamentarians Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and S. Gajendran abstaining. Four votes were designated as invalid. Kurunegala District MP Samanpriya Herath and Digamadulla District MP
D. Weerasinghe, who came for the election from hospital, were assisted to the polling booth by Parliament staff.

At around 11:45 a.m. counting of the ballots began with SG Dasanayake announcing three candidates or an MP named by each of the three candidates, as their representatives, to be present as observers. Accordingly, Wickremesinghe named Harin Fernando as his representative while Dullas Alahapperuma named Dilan Perera and Anura Kumara Dissanayake named Vijitha Herath as their representatives. 

Secretary General Dasanayake announced to the House that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected as the Eighth Executive President. Also, according to the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act (No. 2 of 1981), the relevant Gazette Notification, signed by the Secretary General of Parliament, was issued Thursday evening.

Six times Prime Minister and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe became the Eighth Executive President of Sri Lanka by polling 134 votes.

Wickremesinghe, polled 52 votes more than his opponent Dullas Alahapperuma, who came second by polling 82 votes. The third candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, received three votes.

Wickremesinghe, speaking, after being announced as elected as the eighth Executive President of Sri Lanka, requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to allow him to take oaths somewhere in the Parliament Premises – outside the Chamber – the place he spent ‘his entire life’.

He also recalled how both he and the Speaker started their political journey in 1973.

“Now I have been elected as the President by this Parliament and it gives me immense pleasure that you are chairing the Parliamentary sittings and announcing my name from the Speaker’s chair. We both started our journey together,” he added.

Thanking Parliament for electing him, Wickremesinghe invited his fellow candidates Dullas Alahapperuma, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa to join hands with him to establish a new programme to overcome the economic crisis in the country.

“We had 48 hours to stay divided and let’s come together now to work on a new programme.”

He also invited former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena too to join hands with him to come out of the current crises the country is facing. 

Alahappruma, however, in his speech did not congratulate Wickremesinghe as is traditional. Instead, Alahapperuma said he wished the latter would have a mind-set to listen to the voice of the people who are extremely disappointed at the moment.

 “We tried to introduce common people’s politics instead of politics of elite class in the country. That attempt failed. However, I have no personal grudges against anyone. I will never betray my faction. I am not a wealthy person. All I have is my principles and honesty,” he said.

Speaking further, Alahappruma said the conduct of the politicians should be focused on re-establishing the credibility and the trust of the people.

Accepting the defeat in the Presidential race, Anura Kumara Dissanayake said it was not an unexpected result and however, no one should deceive themselves by believing the result portrays the people’s true expectations.

Dissanayake said, “It is true that this result shows the current composition of Parliament. However, no one should believe this portrays the true expectations of the general public. There is a huge gap between the MPs’ conduct in this House and the expectations of the public. This election result does not reflect the ground reality. It is only restricted to the walls of this Chamber. People severely criticise the conduct of this Parliament. Unfortunately, we cannot expect more than this result from the House at this moment.”

Dissanayake said that they met many political parties and civil society movements, right after the people’s protests against former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Government started.

“Why do we know that this result does not reflect the ground reality? That is because we met many factions, political parties and civil society movements. The proposal we presented them was to elect the President and the Premier from those who do not have affiliation with political movements. Once, the Speaker’s name was proposed for the Presidency as well. Name of an MP of Northern Province was proposed for the Prime Minister post. MP M.A. Sumanthiran’s name was proposed for the PM’s post. When we held discussions with MP Rauff Hakeem, he proposed to appoint two female MPs as the President and the PM. There were many progressive proposals like this. If we could have been able to implement any of these proposals, this House would have gained a positive image,” he said.

Dissanayake said he expected that Dullas Alahapperuma could get 113 votes following the announcement of several parties that they would support the latter during the vote.

“However, that did not happen. We have seen how the MPs were being traded in the past. We know the history of this. This is just like how trees are being sold in the villages. This is my opinion. Some might be offended by this. But I have to tell this in the Chamber because such uncivilised persons are here,” he stressed.

Wickremesinghe was sworn in as President at the Parliament Complex 24-hours later.

The swearing in ceremony was held in solemn manner on the second floor of the Parliament Complex. Following a brief guard of honour, that was accorded to the new President by the armed forces, he was sworn in before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.

After being sworn in, the new President immediately turned to his spouse Prof. Maithri Wickremasinghe and gave her a light kiss on the cheek.

Afterwards, he went personally to greet two former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. He also turned around to take a look at the photos of former Premiers D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

He spoke of their old acquaintances as well as of the present crises facing the country. He also recalled his 45-year-long political journey and how he had come to be voted to the highest office in the land by his fellow MPs.

The Opposition Leader then reminded the new President that he will not be addressing him as the HE (His Excellency) as that form of address has been prohibited by the latter. Afterwards the President met political party leaders and he reminded them of the need for the new President to address Parliament in the aftermath of him taking his new office. The President then stated that by next week he would place before the country his new policy statement ahead of proroguing the House.

He advised the party leaders to decide on a date and inform it to him to publish it in a Gazette Notification. The new President then invited the guests for tea and refreshments and at this event most of the MPs inquired from him about the formation of the new Cabinet and the new PM. The President stated that he has already received a favourable response from his fellow MPs on the need to form an All-Party Government.

But, he insisted that till the establishment of such a Government the existing Cabinet will be sworn in their respective posts. The MPs then wanted to know who would be in the running to become the new PM. The President observed that the tradition within the Parliament is for when the Parliament elects the new President the vacant post of PM is to be filled by the MP who had functioned as the Leader of the House.

Former MP Prof. Ashu Marasinghe said that in such a scenario both the new President and the new Premier would be schoolmates and from the same class. However, Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena opined that there had been previous instances as well of MPs having held similar posts in this country.

After the swearing in, the President immediately convened a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss matters pertaining to national security. He then instructed the heads of the Tri-forces, Inspector General of Police (IGP), Defence Ministry Secretary and the Minister of Public Security on the measures that should be implemented to maintain national security. He then headed to the PM’s Office at Flower Road as the Presidential Secretariat had been taken over by the protesters.

Before the secret ballot

In the lead up to the secret ballot on Wednesday (20), Wickremesinghe spent most of his time holding talks with various groups of MPs within the SLPP as well as with other political parties. These talks had been initiated on behalf of Wickremesinghe by UNP Deputy Leader Ruwan Wijewardene, party Chairman Vajira Abeywardena, Secretary General Range Bandara and National Organiser Sagala Ratnayake.

Johnston Fernando and Prasanna Ranatunga from SLPP, MPs Nimal Siripala de Silva Mahinda Amaraweera from SLFP and former ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara held continuous talks with various SLPP factions and implored them to vote for Wickremesinghe. They had also held talks with Opposition parties as well and they had all informed that they will be supporting Wickremesinghe on his efforts to steer the country towards a new political culture and path.

On the day of the nomination (19 July) Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena proposed Wickremesinghe’s name for the Presidency and it was seconded by Manusha Nanayakkara.

In the morning of the day, Wickremesinghe, addressing the Government Parliamentary Group, placed before them his programme to rid the nation of its many crises and ease the economic burden heaped on the public. After being elected as the new President Wickremasinghe personally went towards most of the MPs of the Government benches to thank them profusely for having voted for him.

He also did likewise to MPs who visited him at the PM’s Office in the Parliament Complex. He then informed the security top brass that he needs to personally convey his appreciation to the security forces personnel who had protected the State buildings such as the Parliament Complex during the past few weeks and ensured security in the country.

He then alighted from his official vehicle at three different points and spoke to security forces personnel and conveyed to them his personal appreciation for the services rendered by them towards the nation. In the evening he visited the Gangarama Temple at Hunupitiya and received the blessings of the Buddhist Clergy there. Finally, on Friday (22), the new PM and the Cabinet were sworn in before the President at the PM’s Office.

Classmates

Long-time friend and classmate Dinesh Gunewardena, who is the Leader of the House, was appointed as the 28th Prime Minister of the country (when taking 52-day PM Mahinda Rajapaksa into account) 

Swearing in ceremony of the new Cabinet of Ministers took place under the patronage of President Ranil Wickremesinghe Friday afternoon at Prime Minister’s office in Flower Road.

At least four SLPP MPs and one from the SJB had approached Wickremesinghe seeking to be appointed as the Prime Minister. However, Leader of the House, Dinesh Gunawardena was to be appointed as the new Prime Minister all along.

This, meanwhile, is a temporary measure until an all-party Cabinet is appointed, sources said.

Meanwhile, President Wickremesinghe has informed Party Leaders that he intends to prorogue Parliament for 24 hours for a “fresh ceremonial start.”

MP Mano Ganesan tweeted saying that the new President also informed his intention to bring the 19A in the original form, as soon as possible and would provide the Viharamahadevi Park, Town Hall grand area for the people to continue the protest.

India denies

The Indian High Commission in Colombo said media reports about India attempting to influence political leaders in Sri Lanka on parliamentary vote, to appoint a new President, are “baseless” and “purely speculative”.

In a statement, the High Commission categorically denied the media reports, which it termed “completely false”.

They are clearly figments of someone’s imagination, the statement read further.

Further, the High Commission reiterated India’s support for the realisation of aspirations of Sri Lankans, in accordance with democratic means and values, established institutions as well as constitutional provisions.

India does not interfere in the internal affairs and democratic processes of another country, the High Commission stressed further.

The statement comes hours after India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said Sri Lanka is facing “a very serious crisis” that makes India naturally worried. He made the remark during an all-party meeting held in Delhi on the unfolding situation in the island nation and dismissed suggestions about such a situation arising in India.

According to Indian media, Jaishankar and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi were among the senior members of the government at the briefing, which was also attended by opposition leaders such as – Congress leaders P. Chidambaram and Manickam Tagore, NCP’s Sharad Pawar and T.R. Baalu and M.M .Abdulla of the DMK.

“The reason we took the initiative to request you all to join an all-party meeting was…this is a very serious crisis and what we are seeing in Sri Lanka is in many ways an unprecedented situation,” Jaishankar, who made the initial remarks, said, adding, “It is a matter which pertains to a very close neighbour and given the near proximity, we naturally worry about the consequences, the spill-over it has for us.”

The government said there are “very strong” lessons of fiscal prudence, responsible governance and not having “a culture of freebies” to be drawn from it. “The ball is in the court of Sri Lanka and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and they are holding discussions. They need an agreement, and then we (India) will see what supportive role we can play,” Jaishankar said after the meeting.

Jaishankar also said there have seen some “misinformed comparisons” in the context of crisis-hit Sri Lanka wherein some people have asked whether “such a situation can happen in India”.

Two presentations were made at the meeting — one by Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra on the Sri Lankan crisis and its political implications and another by Economic Affairs Secretary Ajay Seth on the fiscal health of all the Indian States.

“We do not think that a Sri Lanka-like situation can arise in India. But there was logic to what we were trying to do. We were trying to highlight the importance of fiscal prudence. So, it was not that we highlighted one or two States, we had almost every State. There was no political intent in this,” Jaishankar said about the presentation on the states’ fiscal health.

“It was a data-based presentation of a comparative situation in India so that every political party and leader leaves with a good and clear message,” he said. Jaishankar concluded the meeting emphasising on the lessons that need to be drawn from the Sri Lankan crisis and said the big lessons to be learnt from it are fiscal prudence and good governance.

“Fortunately, in the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we have both in ample amounts,” he said.

When reporters asked him about the lessons that are to be learnt from the neighbouring country, he said, “Lessons of Sri Lanka are very very strong. They are of fiscal prudence, responsible governance and that there should not be a culture of freebies.” “The reason we took the initiative to request you all to join an all-party meeting was…this is a very serious crisis and what we are seeing in Sri Lanka is in many ways an unprecedented situation,” Jaishankar said.

“It is a matter which pertains to a very close neighbour and given the near proximity, we naturally worry about the consequences, the spill over it has for us,” he added.

He said the leaders were also informed that the support that India has extended to Sri Lanka since January amounts to USD 3.8 billion. “No country has given this level of support to Sri Lanka and the initiative that we are taking to help them facilitate their engagement with others such as the IMF,” he said.

“So what we have done is we have asked the finance ministry to make a presentation and brought out a State-wise revenue-to-expenses comparison…unpaid dues of discoms,” he said.

Others who attended the meeting were: AIADMK’s M. Thambidurai, Saugata Ray from TMC, Farooq Abdullah from National Conference), AAP’s Sanjay Singh, TRS leader Keshava Rao, BSP’s Ritesh Pandey, Vijayasai Reddy from YSR Congress and MDMK’s Vaiko.