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Editorial

Of that crab dance

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Thursday 20th Octber, 2022

The government has scored another victory. In what may be called a show of strength, it steamrollered the controversial Petroleum Products (Special Provisions) Amendment Bill through Parliament on Tuesday (18) amidst protests by the Opposition and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) trade unions. But it is bound to baulk at taking up the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution Bill for debate.

Many a government politician who headed for the hills at the height of Aragalaya is now back in the saddle. All the burning issues that led to the emergence of mass protests a few moons ago remain unsolved. Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit the presidency; Mahinda resigned as Prime Minister; Basil left Parliament, and Namal and Chamal have ceased to be ministers. But the Rajapaksas continue to call the shots in the government. They know more than one way to shoe a horse, and have outfoxed their rivals.

The country has reverted to the status quo ante. The need for a clean break with the present regime for the country to achieve political stability and economic recovery cannot be overemphasised. The Opposition is not strong enough to lead a countervailing force against the government, which is bulldozing its way through. Attempts by university students and others to mobilise the people against the government have not reached fruition.

We quoted JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, yesterday, as having said that Aragalaya had failed for want of proper leadership. But the JVP and its offshoot, the Frontline Socialist Party, hijacked it to compass their political ends, causing it to lose its appeal to the youth who are averse to partisan politics. Some of the key Aragalaya activists have also failed to live up to the expectations of the people; they have joined political parties!

Politicians are accused of corruption, abuse of power, lack of transparency and accountability, etc. It is the popular belief that they are beyond redemption that led to an unprecedented confluence of disparate forces under the Aragalaya banner with the resentful public rallying around them, and calling for the ouster of all 225 MPs. What we witnessed was a groundswell of anti-politics, which has gained currency across the globe. But the question is whether the self-proclaimed leaders of Aragalaya are different from the politicians they condemn so vehemently. Some of them also exuded arrogance, intimidated their rivals, resorted to retaliatory violence, and did not handle funds in a transparent manner. How they would have dealt with dissenters if they had succeeded in capturing state power is anybody’s guess.

Anti-politics is jet fuel for mass protests and fraught with the danger of leading to anarchy or ochlocracy, as was evident from an attempt by protesters, in July, to march on Parliament. Thankfully, their plan went pear-shaped and a bloodbath was averted.

Aragalaya, which came into being as a leaderless socio-political movement with a broad agenda ended up being a vehicle for some political parties, and the extra-parliamentary Opposition with anarchical tendencies. It would not have become a single-issue political campaign and collapsed if a robust social movement had developed to underpin it. Social reforms are a prerequisite for the success of any campaign to cleanse politics. They must go hand in hand. Unfortunately, even those who are capable of social mobilisation and bringing about a radical change in people’s thinking have chosen to wallow in divisive politics.

Government leaders seem to think trouble is over because Aragalaya has fizzled out, and a witch-hunt is underway for its self-proclaimed leaders. What they are currently enjoying may be considered an interval in hell. The politico-economic factors that led to the political upheavals that caused the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have not gone away. The next uprising is only a matter of time. The government is behaving like the proverbial crab that danced in a pot of water, oblivious to the fire underneath.



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Editorial

Towards ‘No-Election Commission’?

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Tuesday 6th December, 2022

NPP MP and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has fulminated against the Election Commission (EC), and with reason. Speaking in Parliament, he has demanded to know why the EC ever asked for an opinion from the Attorney General anent the Local Government (LG) elections instead of exercising its powers to initiate the process of conducting the much-delayed polls. He sought to cast a doubt on the impartiality of the EC, and took a swipe at its Chairman Nimal Punchihewa.

Some independent legal experts maintain that the EC is now constitutionally empowered to hold the LG elections. The PAFFREL (People’s Action for Free and Fair elections) has reportedly written to EC Chairman, urging him to announce the date of the LG elections without further delay as there is no legal barrier for him and his outfit to do so. The EC has chosen to remain silent, but its silence will not do.

There is a misconception that all it takes to ensure the independence of key public institutions is to put in place constitutional mechanisms to depoliticise them. Hence, the creation of the Constitutional Council (CC) and the Independent Commissions (ICs) has been acclaimed as a surefire way of strengthening the state institutions. The 21st Amendment has restored the CC, which is believed to have strengthened the ICs, scilicet (a) the Election Commission (b) The Public Service Commission (c) the National Police Commission (d) the Audit Service Commission (e) the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (f) the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (g) the Finance Commission (h) the Delimitation Commission, and (i) the National Procurement Commission.

Essential as such legal mechanisms may be, the CC and the ICs will become ineffective again if their heads and members stoop so low as to pander to the whims and fancies of the political authority, the way some of their predecessors did during the Yahapalana government. Under that regime, the CC became a mere rubber stamp for the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had most of its members on a string. Constitutional provisions cannot make the spineless stand upright.

National Police Commission (NPC) Chairman Chandra Fernando’s presence at a recent ceremony at the BIA, where former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was given a rousing welcome by his hangers-on, has called the independence of the NPC into question. Fernando has claimed that he happened to be at the BIA over some other matter and his meeting with Basil was not preplanned. But he should have known better than to be present at a political event.

It is unfortunate that the EC has got embroiled in a controversy, especially at this juncture. There has been a severe erosion of public trust in the electoral system, and anti-politics is manifestly on the rise, eating into the vitals of all public institutions. The task before the CC and the ICs is to restore public faith in the democratic process and arrest what is widely thought to be the country’s slide into anarchy.

Who guards the guards, or quis custodiet ipsos custodes? This is the question the denunciation by the Opposition of the EC has prompted us to ask.

If the EC baulks at exercising its powers to safeguard the people’s franchise, it will forfeit its raison d’etre and be dubbed ‘No-Election Commission’. One can only hope that the EC will try to prove its critics wrong by plucking up the courage to grasp the nettle so that the people will have the pleasure of letting the government have a mega electoral shock, which it richly deserves.

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Editorial

The holy and the unholy

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Monday 5th December, 2022

The holier-than-thou frontbenchers of both sides of Parliament have been displaying their knowledge of Buddhism, of late, by quoting extensively from the Sutta Pitaka, the way drunkards use lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination. A discussion on Dhamma in Parliament is like a conference on animal rights at an abattoir, or a talk on chastity in a bordello. Our honourable representatives who are overflowing with religiosity, and moralising, ought to heed some home truths three prominent Buddhist monks have, over the weekend, told about the sorry state of affairs in the country and the politicians responsible for it.

Ven. Kumbalgamuwe Saranapala Thera of the Mutiyangane Raja Maha Viharaya, Badulla, has treated a group of dissident SLPP MPs to a brief lecture on the country’s predicament and what the people think of politicians. There have been media reports that many poor schoolchildren who skip meals faint at school assemblies. The government has sought to downplay the gravity of the situation and, true to form, torn into the media and international organisations for ‘blowing the issue out of proportion’. Saranapala Thera has highlighted the increase in malnutrition among children, and revealed that about 60 students of his temple’s Sunday Dhamma School faint every week due to hunger. He has told the SLPP dissidents that the people are fed up with politicians.

Saranapala Thera has struck a responsive chord with the public suffering in silence. There is a resurgence of anti-politics, which has been defined as the rejection of practices and attitudes associated with traditional politics; it causes public disengagement from mainstream politics. When this happens, people tend to resort to extra-parliamentary methods to articulate their grievances and bring about political changes. The Galle Face protest movement could be considered a manifestation of anti-politics, which is jet fuel for anarchic protests. It is only wishful thinking that the government will be able to quell a wave of protests fuelled by anti-politics with the help of the police and the military!

Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera has said, over the weekend, that all adult Sri Lankans should tender an apology to the youth and children for having bankrupted the country and ruined the latter’s future. One cannot but agree with him on this score. The blame for what has befallen the country should be apportioned to the elected as well as the electors including Buddhist monks, most of whom are supporters of various political parties responsible for abuse of power, attacks on democracy, bribery, corruption and the theft of public funds. A mere apology to young Sri Lankans will not do. It is incumbent upon the irresponsible adults to clean up the mess they have created. They must sink their political differences and unite to make a concerted effort to get rid of the failed leaders clinging on to power like limpets. That will be half the battle in straightening up the economy and ensuring a better future for the youth and children.

Ven. Ulapane Sumangala Thera, who represents an association that fights for schoolteachers’ rights, has torn into the government for trying to divest profit-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance. How does the government propose to meet the revenue shortfall the proposed divestiture of such cash cows will bring about? Will it jack up taxes and tariffs further? Sumangala Thera has rightly likened the government to a drug addict, who is desperate for money and therefore sells anything that he can lay his hands on.

This is an apt description of the cash-strapped regime, which is bent on selling state assets to overcome its current pecuniary woes while its leaders are enjoying high life. Drug addicts do not spare even their own parents. The day may not be far off when we can liken the government to a drug dealer; it is planning to take to drug dealing in all but name. Budget 2023 has proposed the appointment of a committee to explore the possibility of cultivating cannabis, of all things, to earn forex.The country will benefit tremendously if the failed political leaders stop sermonising and listen to what religious leaders preach and mend their ways.

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Editorial

The parliamentary president

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Rajan Philips who brightens this page with his incisive and perceptive commentary has today called President Ranil Wickremesinghe a “parliamentary president.” RW, particularly during the ongoing budget debate, has indeed demonstrated this description to be most appropriate. He is a frequent presence in the parliamentary chamber, more so than any of his predecessors. As far as the budget debate goes, the fact that he wears the finance minister’s hat as did two other presidents, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, makes his presence in the House at this time most welcome. Who else but the finance minister should be present in the House during the budget debate? Basil Rajapaksa’s short tenure at the Treasury set a rank bad example in this regard.

Wickremesinghe, of course, like his uncle JR Jayewardene who created the executive presidency and was the first to wear the twin hats of head of government and head of state, is very much a parliamentary animal. Having had a long innings at the legislature including multiple terms as prime minister since 1977 until his ignominious exit from parliament in August 2020, he welcomes the hurly burly of its chamber without standing aloof in his presidential ivory tower. But JRJ as president or any other was never as frequently present in the parliament chamber as nephew Ranil. JRJ didn’t have to, having never presented a budget during his presidency.

Having long served as finance minister under the old Westminster order, Jayewardene saw no need to cling on to that portfolio, being content to hold the defence ministry, probably a necessity, and a few others largely for convenience. While we do not advocate presidents doubling as finance ministers, we do freely agree that it may be or is a necessity this time round given the unprecedented economic catastrophe the Rajapaksas have plunged our country into. RW, after all, wrote and presented this budget and who better than he to pilot it through the House? Thus his willingness to intervene in the debate is a welcome tradition although whether it will continue in the future remains to be seen.

His recent appearances in the legislature clearly demonstrates his enjoyment of being in the thick of things. Parliamentary watchers would not have missed his entry into the chamber to respond instantly to something he heard being said when he was in his office in the parliament building while the House was in session. We suspect he listens to the budget debate in situ as it were. So much to the good. Of course, as mentioned by our columnist Rajan Philips, it would have been appropriate if he had been more forthcoming in areas on which the people are thirsting for information. These include when the IMF bailout can be expected. There has been speculation that the earliest will be March next year though it had been optimistically forecast earlier that it might be by end December.

Wide open questions on the possibility of debt restructuring also remain. Are electricity consumers, both domestic and industrial, due for a double whammy with a further tariff increase in the short term? Although the petrol and gas queues are gone, there are eerie reports that timely coal procurement for the Norochcholai power plant is not assured. And there is scant comfort about the availability of dollars to keep the filling stations pumping even in the short and medium term. There are also compelling questions on how corruption is being dealt with. Given the surrounding context, the president has made a rank bad nomination to the Constitutional Council whether by choice or compulsion we do not know. Questions abound on whether this is the result of the president being a captive of his pohottuwa constituency. Nobody can be happy about that. RW may well feel that these are questions that can be dealt with by the concerned ministers at the ongoing committee stage of the budget debate. But given that he’s both the president and the finance minister, the people would have expected the big man himself to shed more light on these burning questions.

Sadly the news broke only on Friday that former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena had spent hundreds of millions of tax rupees maintaining staggering numbers of personal staff. The information, previously withheld by the presidential secretariat, was made public thanks to an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) had asked the questions and appealed the non-disclosure. The Daily Mirror reported on Friday that the two former presidents had together guzzled Rs. 1.48 billion on this account – Sirisena beating his predecessor with an expenditure of Rs. 850 million on his staff against MR’s Rs. 630 million. Whether these two former presidents will explain themselves either on the budget debate platform or elsewhere remains to be seen. We are sorry that this news did not break in time for the discussions on the president’s vote in the House. That would have been an opportunity for a searching probe and perhaps responses from those named and shamed.

James Carville, a strategist in President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against incumbent George H. W. Bush coined the catchphrase “It’s the economy, stupid” which resounded through Clinton’s successful campaign. Here in Sri Lanka right now what matters most is the economy and not enough focus on that has been seen thus far in the budget debate. Hopefully there will be a course correction in the remaining days.

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