Duminda, Ranil and Basil
Three important happenings last week further bedeviled the country’s already vapid governance and political mess. First there was UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s return to Parliament nearly a year after the last election to take its single National List seat after months of foot-dragging, waffling and, indeed, prevarication. Then there was dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa’s return home (or second home?) after an absence of over a month in the USA on “personal business.” Finally there was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s stunning Poson pardon of ex-MP Duminda Silva serving a life-term in prison following conviction for the murder of also ex-MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra.
There is no escaping the reality that the country is in one helluva mess. After an initial success several months ago in controlling the spread of the Covid pandemic, the vaccination process is not where it should be. Political interference in organizing preferential treatment for friends, relations and supporters created both rage and unhappiness widely displayed on television screens. A large number of vulnerable persons who received a first shot of AstraZenecca vaccine have been left high and dry not knowing when the second jab would be possible. A glimmer of light appeared at the end of the tunnel last week with reports of a delivery of a new stock from the Serum Institute of India in the short term. But there was no word about how it would be distributed.
As of now, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appears to be ironclad in not wavering on his decision on banning inorganic fertilizer imports. This despite an avalanche of scientific opinion widely publicized. At least one major television channel is campaigning vigorously against the decision with daily bulletins of angry farmer protests countrywide. Claims that there are sufficient fertilizer stocks for the next season have been roundly debunked by protesters. If true, the government is hopeless impotent to root out hoarded stocks of profiteering hoarders. A segment of the electorate that strongly supported the president and the SLPP at recent elections have clearly been alienated. All this on top of the pandemic challenges, periodic lock downs and resultant bedlam, rightly or wrongly fathered on the government, is not helping the rulers who are at a zenith of unpopularity less than a year after their election by a popular mandate.
We have in a previous comment in this space speculated on the possibility of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe awaiting a nekatha to return to Parliament and resume a presence in the legislature that continued for 43 years until interrupted by his and his party’s stunning defeat last year. The single National List seat the UNP could salvage for itself after being reduced to zero was left unclaimed for about a year. First Wickremesinghe said he will not take the seat. Perhaps he remembered his party’s declaration that it will not admit defeated candidates to the legislature through the back door. Then other names were thrown up as possibilities for the vacancy. Eventually the people were told that Wickremesinghe was under pressure to accept the vacancy and was the unanimous choice of the UNP’s working committee.
Now Ranil is back in the House occupying an opposition frontbench seat; and, clad in his immaculate western suit, has made his first speech in Sinhala, generally not the language of his choice when he has to perform at his best. Before he took his oath last week, the four times prime minister and longtime opposition leader exposed himself to a no-holds-barred television interview where, even the ranks of Tuscany must admit, he acquitted himself reasonably well facing a volley of googlies bowled at him. Spurning rhetoric and wild swings at real and perceived enemies, he kept his cool and emerged unscathed if not victorious. But suspicions remain that he is open to playing footsie with the Prime Minister Rajapaksa, something he has been accused of doing before. With his long experience as prime minister and opposition leader and a very long stint as leader of the UNP, it is suggested that he can give good advice to the government.
Whether the president and the government are open to such advice is an open question. In his first intervention in Parliament following his swearing, Wickremesinghe while not adopting a belligerent tone, faulted the government for its lack of a plan in the current crisis situation, militarization of civil services including the response to the Covid pandemic, rapidly depleting foreign reserves and granting tax relief to “big people” while imposing hunger on “small people.” He sought a parliamentary debate to discuss the transfer of parliamentary power to the military, urging cabinet leadership in meeting the daunting challenges confronting the country.
There is widespread speculation as this is being written that Basil Rajapaksa will return to Parliament via the creation of a National List vacancy and assume an important ministry dealing with economic affairs. The finance ministry, currently held by the prime minister, has also been mentioned in this connection. Whether this will or will not happen remains to be seen. Nevertheless it must be said that most people believed the 20th Amendment provision enabling dual citizen to enter Parliament was intended for Basil. No hasty appointment, however, was made. He did not run at the last election due to the 19th Amendment prohibition and his unwillingness to renounce his American citizenship unlike brother Gotabaya. His admirers, admitting that the people are shouldering unbearable burdens, openly promise that Basil will wave a magic wand. Will a fuel price reduction be the first of these concessions?
Tissue of lies and other issues
Monday 27th March, 2023
There is no bigger lie than the oft-repeated claim in some quarters that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution has helped strengthen democracy by ridding vital state institutions of dirty politics. Perhaps, the doormat at the entrance to the President’s Office receives better treatment than the supposedly independent Election Commission (EC), which suffers many indignities at the hands of some government politicians.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was economical with the truth, which he also stretched and bent, in Parliament on Friday, when the Opposition questioned him on the postponement of the local government (LG) elections. The PM, who is also the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, said he would meet the members of the EC for a discussion on poll-related issues soon. There is nothing to be discussed about elections! The government should either allocate funds for the LG polls or officially inform the public that it is scared of facing an electoral contest and therefore cannot hold the mini polls. Its refusal to release funds for elections on some flimsy grounds has only eroded public confidence in the electoral process, and given a turbo boost to anti-politics, which is manifestly on the rise and rapidly eating into the vitals of the state.
It is a pity that PM Gunawardena, who gained national prominence by standing up to a dictatorial UNP government under President J. R. Jayewardene, taking up the cudgels for the people’s franchise and winning the Maharagama by-election, in 1983, against tremendous odds, is now backing those who are all out to put off elections. President Jayewardene scrapped the 1982 general election for fear of losing his five-sixths majority in Parliament, and held a heavily-rigged referendum instead, undertaking to hold by-elections in the electorates where the UNP would lose. He had to hold 18 such by-elections, four of which were won by the Opposition despite large-scale rigging and violence unleashed by the UNP. Anil Moonesinghe, Richard Pathirana and Amarasiri Dodangoda won the Matugama, Akmeemana and Baddegama electorates, respectively. Forty years on, Gunawardena and the late Pathirana’s son, Ramesh, are backing Jayewardene’s nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is putting off elections!
Unfortunately, it is Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardena who has had to take all the flak for not making funds available to the EC. He has become a soft target that everybody who lacks the courage to take on President Wickremesinghe turns on. Government Printer, Gangani Liyanage, is also in a similar predicament. Siriwardena allocated funds for the EC, albeit in dribs and drabs, before being asked by the Cabinet and the President in no uncertain terms to stop doing so. The government has pinioned him to the wall, and the Opposition worthies are punching him, and not those who deserve their blows. Let those heroes be urged to pluck up the courage to attack the President instead of turning on the public officials whom the government has put in the straitjacket of zero-based budgeting. These mandarins find themselves in an unenviable position; the government is preventing them from carrying out their duties and functions according to their conscience, and the Opposition is bashing them.
The SLPP MPs keep saying that they want the LG elections held. It is they who postponed the mini polls first, in 2022. However, if these politicians who are as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks are being truthful for once, then it will be seen that all members of Parliament, save the single UNP member and perhaps several others who have pledged their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, are against the postponement of elections, and, worse, the President is refusing to allocate funds for the LG polls against the will of the vast majority of MPs! Parliament controls public finance, and therefore it must be allowed to decide whether to allocate funds for elections. Let a resolution be presented to Parliament to that effect and a vote taken thereon urgently.
Minister Kanchana Wijesekera informed Parliament, on Thursday (23), that President Wickremesinghe had asked for a division by name on the government’s agreement with the IMF so that the public would know who was supportive of the IMF programme and who was not. The same modus operandi could be adopted, if a vote is taken anent the LG polls, so that the public will know who actually wants the elections put off. This is the most democratic way of deciding whether to hold the LG polls or postpone them.
North Korea is reported to have recently tested a secret weapon capable of causing tsunamis. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime, which often warns that Sri Lanka might end up being a country like the hermit kingdom unless its economic programme is followed, has resorted to an ill-advised course of action that is fraught with the danger of triggering a tsunami of public anger. Its members have apparently forgotten the firenado, as it were, which hit them in May 2022.
More heavy lifting to be done
As President Ranil Wickremesinghe tirelessly stressed, the signing off on the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) with the International Monetary Fund marks a new beginning. “Forget the past and the old games,” he has said seeking the cooperation of both the opposition and the media for a great leap forward. He has made the point that the IMF arrangement of USD 2.9 billion opens the doors for further credit adding up to USD 7 billion from elsewhere. When he met editors and other media heads on Thursday he said we have to continue negotiations with bilateral and multi-lateral lenders as well as private creditors which he admitted would be the most difficult.
The bad news when this was being written on Friday was that unless there is a dramatic change of heart on the part of the executive, the likelihood of the scheduled local government elections in the foreseeable future appears more than remote. There are, of course, a clutch of cases before the courts at present and which way the determinations will go is not clear right now; also in which direction the dice will roll once the courts rule. But it is patently clear that both the president and the government want these elections as much as they want a hole in the head.
There is no need to labour the reason why the incumbent establishment does not want local elections at the present moment. This, notwithstanding SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s mealy-mouthed protestations that his party does not wish these elections put off. The electorate is very well aware that these elections cannot mean a change of government. Wickremesinghe is safely ensconced on his presidential throne until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term runs out in November 2024. Wickremesinghe is constitutionally empowered to dissolve parliament whenever he wishes from now until then. That’s the whip-hand he holds over his SLPP backers who made him president. It will safely ensure that they will not rock the boat during his tenure.
Just as much as the president and his government do not want any election in the short term, the opposition parties are literally panting that these be held soonest for reasons that are all too obvious. The last time the country elected local bodies was in February 2018 and the Rajapaksa party was the comfortable winner. The credit for this within the SLPP was widely apportioned to Basil Rajapaksa, its national organizer. That election victory heralded the coming of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government the following August. This is why the opposition, principally Sajith Premadasa’s SJB and the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), is striving might and main to have this election one way or another. The present signal is that they will not succeed in this endeavour. But as in cricket, there is no certainty in the outcome.
Though the president requested that the old games must not be played any longer, his supporters don’t practice what he preaches. There was a vulgar display of firecracker lighting, in true Sri Lankan style, greeting the announcement that the IMF deal was through. Everybody and his brother well know that this polluting lighting of strings of firecrackers greeting election results, politicians arriving at meetings and other similar events are funded by the politicians themselves. Some ghouls even lit crackers when President Premadasa was assassinated. We don’t know whether last week’s cracker lighting was a command performance or of old habits persisting. Whatever it was, it was unseemly.
The mere fact the IMF deal is through does not mean that the country is going to emerge from the economic morass in which it is mired. A great deal of heavy lifting remains to be done. The initial benefits cannot be more than a trickle. Possibly the June negotiations down the road may be an opportunity to offer some tax relief to professionals loudly protesting that the new rates are totally unrealistic. We run a letter from a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue in this issue who says that in his view, the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is between six and 36% but with the exemption threshold.
He rightly says that given today’s hyper-inflation. high cost of electricity, water and essential food, the Rs. 1.2 million exemption threshold is far too low. He believes that if this is raised to at least Rs. 1.8 million a year, it may be possible to win the unions over and reduce the tax burden on high income professionals. He has said this should not impact on the IMF agreements and the time has come for a compromise between the government and protesters. Clearly the now retired writer will not have access to actual numbers. But given his long service in the tax department, he would have an instinct for these matters.
It is also pertinent to say here that it is time the government makes a statement about the safety of the country’s banking sector. There are many worries on this score particularly after what happened recently in the U.S. and in Switzerland. It is well known that our state banks have been captive lenders to insolvent state-owned enterprises with such loans underwritten by the government. The fact that the IMF deal was successfully concluded, no doubt, is a reassuring factor about the stability of our commercial banking system. Nevertheless, a statement from the government will reassure constituents.
Political pole dancing
Saturday 25th March, 2023
There is no such thing as national interest in Sri Lankan politics, as is public knowledge. What looks like it is only self-interest in disguise. One often has politicians in this country saying they are promoting national interest, but what they are actually doing is pursuing self-interest. It is against this backdrop that former President Maithripala Sirisena’s claim that his love for the country has driven him to call for a national government to tackle the current economic crisis should be viewed.
Sirisena is full of praise for President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government for having secured an IMF loan, and insists that there is nothing wrong with the conditions on which the extended fund facility has been made available! Sirisena was one of the bitterest critics of the incumbent dispensation, and there was bad blood between him and Wickremesinghe, but he is now backing them to the hilt. What has made him do an about-turn?
Sirisena has chosen to perform political pole dancing, as it were, to humour the government leaders since last January, when the Supreme Court (SC), which heard a fundamental rights violation petition against him and several others, ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million by way of compensation for his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage in 2019. The SC order prompted those who are seeking justice for the victims of terrorist bombings to renew their demand that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena, as recommended by the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror strikes. Sirisena is now at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who alone can prevent the Attorney General’s Department from taking criminal action against anyone.
During the final stages of the Yahapalana government, Sirisena wronged Wickremesinghe, having secured the coveted presidency with the latter’s help in 2015. He stooped so low as to join forces with the Rajapaksas in a bid to sack the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe although he had made a solemn pledge to throw them behind bars for what they had done during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. In an unexpected turn of events, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are now savouring power together; Sirisena is seeking a political menage a trois in a bid to save his skin more than anything else.
Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has no need for him. It knows that he is only trying to make a virtue of necessity, for most of the SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) numbering 14 have already crossed over! But Sirisena is not likely to abandon his efforts to make himself attractive to the government, given his desperation to avoid criminal action over the Easter Sunday bombings.
If Sirisena’s worst fear comes to pass, he will find himself in jail, and his political career will come to an end in such an eventuality. So, he is doing his darnedest to be in the good books of President Wickremesinghe and the government and will not hesitate to subjugate the policies of the SLFP to his self-interest.
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