The President and his government has swallowed some nasty stuff of their own making and finally backpedaled on what was proclaimed as an ironclad ban on the import of inorganic fertilizer. The prohibition was announced on April 26 and rescinded seven months later on Nov. 24 this year; but not without tremendous pressure by the scientific/expert lobby and widespread farmer protests. The scientists were given a platform mainly by the print media and they argued their case cogently unlike those who backed the ban. The farmer protests were both angry and near desperate and had extensive television coverage, certainly from one television station. There was no doubt that scientists and people who knew what they were talking about presented a castiron case. Some agriculture bureaucrats quit their jobs in disgust. An agriculture professor from Peradeniya, who held office in various expert committees in the agriculture ministry was sacked, or that was how his removal was described. This academic who was part of the President Gotabaya-led delegation to the recent Glasgow Climate Change COP 26 summit – after his sacking perhaps because he was already in the UK at the time of the announcement – insisted he was not an employee of the agriculture ministry to be sacked from any of its agencies.
Be that as it may, most Lankans will wonder why the president stood tenaciously by the ban, reportedly recommended by Viyathmaga and Eliya, which worked hard for his election when the anger it provoked and the dangers it posed were plainly visible. Given the massive support the Rajapaksa ticket commanded in the rural hinterland, demonstrated most recently at the presidential election of November 2019 and the parliamentary election that followed, why the president did not relent sooner than later is inexplicable. Although that has now happened after months of agitation, it was predictably done in a manner to save what face was possible. No doubt Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who had to eventually announce the policy reversal, took most of the flak. This though it is common knowledge that it was the president who was pushing the policy and the minister was no more than a loyal acolyte. But it has been remarked upon that demonstrators far preferred to burn effigies of Aluthgamage, who was the easier target, rather than those of the president and the prime minister although that too happened. Was there an element of funk to take on the bigger fish, at least as far as the president was concerned?
Most proponents of re-looking at the blanket prohibition were not opposed to a ‘green’ policy. Rather, they favored going slow on implementation, urging a step-by-step approach over a period of time. This after careful consideration of all factors involved rather than gut reaction. They stressed the blunder of attempting almost overnight imposition. Prime Minister Modi in India took longer than us to back out of his farm laws despite massive resistance. Here as well as there, there was no doubt about a presence of more than an element of political backing for and orchestration of the protests. But the responsible authorities, instead of clinging to an ironclad approach, should have paid due consideration to at least the physical evidence of the effects of blanket bans on both inorganic fertilizer and weedicides and pesticides. There’s no denying that the latter, apart from bad weather, played a part in the fall of vegetable production and consequent sky high prices. The government did itself no credit by attributing motives to opponents of the chemical fertilizer ban. It was alleged that one of them represented interests of fertilizer importers by sitting on the board of an importing company. True, but with the permission of the University employing him. It was also widely hinted that others were in the pay of such companies.
There is also the matter of the widely prevalent trust deficit between the people and the political establishment governing them. Sad but true, most people do not trust politicians regarding them to be corrupt, self-serving and taking decisions in their own personal and political interests disregarding vital national imperatives. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, most recently by the president himself, that the voters as we have often seen, re-elect those they have outright rejected. Then again the question of subsidies arise. The president is on firm record saying that the import of chemical fertilizer will be a private sector monopoly. The government has washed its hands of the business. But he has not explained how privately imported fertilizer is permissible on environmental considerations if government imports are not. He has also made clear there will be no subsidies for chemical fertilizers. The prices of these have hit record highs in the third quarter of 2021 and continued rising in November reaching levels unseen since the global financial crisis.
Our farmers have long enjoyed fertilizer subsidies and would clearly be unable to afford unsubsidized chemical fertilizers. Mr. Sajith Premadasa has made this point already after the government announcement on the import ban being lifted punching in the fact that the present rulers promised not subsidized but free fertilizer pre-election! Apart from the tilt towards organic fertilizers, government will not be able to afford many subsidies in the context of the present economic/forex picture. So there will be no return to square one. Regular columnist Rajan Philips has on this page said that the beginning of the end of the regime has begun but no there does not seem to be a new beginning for the country even if there is a change of government after elections. That seems to be a reasonable conclusion in the current context.
Cricket, popular will and franchise
Thursday 30th November, 2023
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, speaking in Parliament on Tuesday, launched a broadside against President Ranil Wickremesinghe for sacking Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, who has taken on the Cricket Mafia. He said it was the first time a President without a popular mandate had stripped a popularly-elected MP of his ministerial positions. Some other Opposition MPs also inveighed against President Wickremesinghe and highlighted the fact that he had lost his seat at the last parliamentary election but entered Parliament as an appointed MP and secured the presidency with the help of 134 MPs.
Ironically, Wickremesinghe’s fortuitous ascent to the presidency happened because none of the popularly-elected MPs whom President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested to accept the premiership had the courage to take up the challenge. They shied away from accepting that post, citing various excuses and bellowing rhetoric. It so happened that the historic task fell upon Wickremesinghe, who squared up to the unprecedented politico-economic chaos. He arrested the country’s slide into anarchy by preventing mobs from marching on Parliament and made unpopular yet crucial decisions to stabilise the economy.
The fact that the country came to be dependent on an appointed MP to regain political and economic stability, and he has, with the help of others, achieved some positive results is an indictment of the self-important elected MPs.
One cannot but agree with the Opposition MPs that ideally defeated candidates must not be brought into Parliament via the National List (NL), and only those presented as NL candidates to the public prior to a general election should be appointed as MPs. However, the practice of bringing unsuccessful candidates into Parliament as NL MPs is constitutional though it undermines the popular will in that the persons whom electors deem unfit to represent them become MPs. Article 99A of the Constitution provides for such appointments. Almost all political parties have made use of this constitutional provision to appoint unsuccessful candidates as MPs.
Now that the Opposition has made an issue of defeated candidates entering Parliament via the NL, will it take action to have the Constitution amended to put an end to that practice?
There is however a far more serious issue that all political parties have chosen to ignore. The Parliamentary Elections Act No 1 of 1981, as amended in 1988, enables the leaders of political parties to circumvent Article 99A of the Constitution and appoint virtually anyone of their choice to Parliament by engineering an NL vacancy. Although the Constitution limits NL appointments to the ‘persons whose names are included in the list submitted to the Commissioner of Elections … or in any nomination paper submitted in respect of any electoral district by such party or group at that election’, Section 64 (5) of the Parliament Elections Act provides for the appointment of ‘any member’ of a political party to fill an NL vacancy. This provision is inconsistent with Article 99A and Article 101(H) of the Constitution, according to legal experts. Worse, it is believed that Section 64 (5), introduced in 1988 as an urgent Bill, was surreptitiously altered after its ratification to provide for the appointment of ‘any member’ of a political party as an NL MP.
Thus, it is possible for anyone to become an MP, without contesting a general election or being an NL nominee, with the help of a political party entitled to NL slots, become the Prime Minister and even secure the presidency in case of the elected President ceasing to hold office. This path, which could be likened to a smuggling tunnel, has to be closed. Both the Constitution and the Parliamentary Elections Act will have to be amended to ensure that only those who successfully contest parliamentary elections and the National List nominees enter Parliament. Will the Opposition MPs who claim to be so concerned about the will of the people press for these vital amendments? Having talked the talk, they should walk the walk.
Games kleptocrats play
Wednesday 29th November, 2023
The SLPP-UNP government finds itself in the same predicament as the proverbial cat that defecated on a rock and struggled to cover the stinking mess. Having sacked Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe for taking on Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) officials and ruffling the feathers of some members of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s kitchen Cabinet in the process, the SLPP-UNP combine is trying to justify its action to protect the corrupt responsible for ruining cricket in this country. Government propagandists are doing their darnedest to dupe the public into believing that Ranasinghe was sacked because he had violated collective responsibility.
The government has granted the beleaguered cricket administrators’ wish by sacking Ranasinghe and appointing Harin Fernando as the Sports Minister. Now that it has demonstrated it has no qualms about shielding the corrupt and defenestrating the campaigners for transparency, integrity and accountability, the newly-passed Anti-Corruption Act might as well be relegated to the wastepaper basket. There is nothing stupider than to expect a government that does not even allow a sports governing body to be cleansed to resist the lure of filthy lucre and go all out to rid the country of corruption.
The IMF, which has tied transparency, integrity and accountability to its bailout packages as conditions ought to take cognisance of the unspeakable manner in which the government of Sri Lanka is protecting the interests of the corrupt responsible for ruining cricket.
It may be recalled that in 2012, some crooks in the cricket administration sought to safeguard their interests vis-à-vis a move to oust them as part of a campaign to cleanse SLC; they urged the ICC to impose a ban on SLC so that they could use it as a bludgeon against the government, but the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa summoned the SLC officials concerned and warned them against having SLC banned; they fell in line and stepped down. But President Wickremesinghe waited until the ICC suspended the SLC to use the suspension to pressure Sports Minister Ranasinghe to dissolve the newly-appointed cricket interim committee.
The unfolding drama in Parliament reminds us of what the current strange bedfellows used to say about one another before joining forces to safeguard their own interests. One may recall that during the Yahapalana regime, the Joint Opposition (JO) consisting of the dissident UPFA MPs opposed to the UNP-SLFP unity government, and their UNP counterparts staged two dramas in Parliament.
During a stormy parliamentary session, the UNP MPs burst into a noisy protest with the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself asking, “Kauda hora (who is the thief)?” and others chanting in chorus, “Mahinda hora (Mahinda is the thief)”. Not to be outdone, the JO members invaded the Well of the House, with one of them asking, “Kauda hora?”, and the other Rajapaksa loyalists shouting, “Ranil hora.” (Videos of these protests are available in the digital realm.) Today, Ranil and Mahinda are savouring power, together! Interestingly, Mahinda yesterday blamed the Yahapalana government for the current economic crisis, according to a news item in today’s edition of this newspaper.
Kleptocracy is not of recent origin in this country, which has been plagued by it for decades. Last year, the people took to the streets, asking for a system change, but the SLPP-UNP combine has succeeded in hoodwinking them and perpetuating the corrupt system, which is geared to serve the interests of crooks. There is no future for a nation in the grip of a kleptocracy.
It is incumbent upon all Sri Lankans who cherish democracy and good governance and are concerned about the future of their children, most of whom the corrupt in the garb of people’s representatives are driving out of the country, to summon the courage to stand up and be counted.
Those who intrepidly stick their necks out, as Ranasinghe has done, by taking on the politically-backed crooks, must be protected at any cost.
Under the shadow of dictatorship
Tuesday 28th November, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s plan to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to probe the affairs of the Constitutional Council (CC) has run into stiff resistance from all those who cherish democracy and are concerned about the future of this country. Speaking in Parliament, last week, the President lambasted the CC for impeding the process of making appointments to high posts including those of the IGP and judges. He went so far as to accuse some CC members of sabotage while claiming that the CC was part of the executive.
President Wickremesinghe is obviously trying to intimidate the CC into toeing his line. He expects it to endorse all his decisions blindly. As the Prime Minister of the Yahapalana government, he reduced the CC to a mere appendage of the UNP. Old habits are said to die hard.
President Wickremesinghe has overstepped his executive limits and made a mockery of his commitment to upholding the separation of powers. He has the SLPP parliamentary group on a string, lords it over the legislature and even tells the Opposition MPs to shut up during parliamentary sessions! A timid Parliament, which cannot ever so much as tame a bunch of arrogant cricket administrators, yields to his dictates. Even judicial independence is under threat. Government MPs try to summon judges before the parliamentary Committee on Privileges and Ethics for giving rulings that are not to the liking of the Executive.
The CC is not there to humour the President or any other government leader for that matter. It was created to prevent the Executive from making appointments to high posts arbitrarily and ensure, among other things, the independence of vital state institutions. It cannot be expected to rubber-stamp the President’s decisions and facilitate the ascent of misfits with political connections to top positions in the state service. As Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa told President Wickremesinghe in Parliament, the other day, the latter should not expect the CC to be as subservient as the UNP Working Committee.
President Wickremesinghe has the legislature, the Attorney General, the Cabinet and the public service under his thumb and is trying to manipulate the CC and the Election Commission (EC). He also makes decisions on matters that are before courts in what may be considered a bid to influence the judiciary. He has said the Local Government (LG) elections, which he prevented the EC from conducting by refusing to release funds, will not be held until 2025. It is the EC that should decide on such matters and the President must not usurp the powers of that institution to compass his political ends. Above all, the postponement of the LG polls is a matter pending before court.
What we are witnessing are the unmistakable signs of the country heading for a dictatorship.
Victory for the corrupt
President Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday sacked Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, derailing the latter’s campaign against corruption in cricket. The removal of Ranasinghe from the Cabinet must have gladdened the hearts of the crooks whom he courageously took on in a bid to save cricket from their clutches.
Now, a stooge will be handpicked as Ranasinghe’s successor and made to further the interests of the Cricket Mafia. The corrupt always have the last laugh in this country.
The Auditor General has, in one of his reports, revealed serious financial irregularities in the cricket administration, and it was based on those revelations that Ranasinghe, in his capacity as the Sports Minister, sacked the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) office-bearers and appointed an interim committee. The fate that has befallen him reminds us of the judgements of legendary King Kekille, who always punished the innocent parties in cases heard before him and set the wrongdoers free.
Ranasinghe deserves praise for his efforts to cleanse SLC, and he can rest assured that all cricket lovers are on his side. President Wickremesinghe is doing more of what brought about the downfall of the Yahapalana government, which also protected the corrupt unflinchingly.
The SLPP-UNP regime has demonstrated once again that it is a government of the corrupt by the corrupt for the corrupt.
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