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Editorial

Polls postmortems

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Tuesday 18th August, 2020

Critics of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe danced in the streets, the other day, when it was reported that he had finally decided to step down as the UNP leader. But their joy was short-lived; he announced that he would lead the party until his successor was anointed. Now, he says he will be the party leader until the next provincial council elections!

Giving reasons for the UNP’s defeat, Wickremesinghe has reportedly told a group of unsuccessful party candidates, at Sirikotha, that the UNP-led government had to work with a hostile President and face the fallout of the Easter Sunday carnage. Curiously, the Treasury bond scams are not among the reasons he has given for the UNP’s electoral disaster.

The UNP’s fate was sealed the day the bond scams came to light. Its attempts to cover them up only made matters worse. All those who were held responsible for those financial crimes have lost their seats.

The most opportune time for the UNP to face a general election came when it turned the tables on the 52-day government and recaptured power in Parliament in 2018. An abortive attempt by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa to dissolve Parliament, after failing to grab power, unified the UNP, as never before, with all its MPs and rank and file rallying behind Wickremesinghe, who was backed by even Sajith Premadasa. The UNP was revitalised in spite of its defeat at the local government polls a few months back. The SLPP and SLFP/UPFA leaders were reeling from their grand pratfall. Had the UNP caused Parliament to be dissolved at that time and faced a general election, it would not have had to face a disastrous split or the fallout of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, which ruined its chances of winning an election; it may not have been able to win, but its defeat would have been less humiliating.

Wickremesinghe has said that both the UNP and the SJB alienated the majority community. However, this is not solely due to ethno-religious factors. These two parties have not been fully backed by the minority communities either. Issues that led to their defeat are much broader. The TNA’s support base has also shrunk significantly with the SLFP, the EPDF and fringe groups eating into its vote bank. The SJB failed to gain the electoral boost it expected from the SLMC.

Theoretically, what has befallen the UNP, the SJB, the TNA, etc., can be explained in the light of the go-to poli-sci model, Overton window (OW), which basically refers to the range of ideas and policies that voters find acceptable; it transcends ethnic, religious and political boundaries. This window shifts and expands depending on issues and situations. What determines whether a political party will be able to secure enough popular support to win an election or not is its leader’s ability to figure out the OW and respond accordingly. The UPFA, during the second term of President Rajapaksa, failed to do so and faced an ignominious defeat, in 2015. At that time, public opinion was against attacks on democracy, nepotism, waste, corruption, cronyism and the like. But President Sirisena and the UNP-led government made a mockery of their commitment to the democratic ideals they had pledged to uphold, and the OW began to shift towards August 2015, as can be seen from the UNP-led alliance’s failure to secure a working majority in Parliament at the general election a few months after winning a presidential election. The bond scams, unfulfilled election pledges, threats to national security and the coronavirus pandemic upended the OW to the advantage of the SLPP.

The OW is bound to shift with the passage of time, and the anti-incumbency factor will bear on the current dispensation. The economy is in bad shape and most of the election pledges are likely to remain unfulfilled to the consternation of the public. Such an eventuality may provide the Opposition with a window of opportunity to better its electoral performance by the time the country goes to the polls again. This is apparently what Wickremesinghe is waiting for. He is a skilled political escapologist. Hope is said to spring eternal.

 

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Editorial

Shameless shirkers

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Saturday 26th September, 2020

Cynics pooh-poohed the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority’s boastful claim that Sri Lanka was the Wonder of Asia. But we are convinced of the veracity of that slogan. In fact, this country is not just the Wonder of Asia’; it is the Wonder of the World, for it survived the yahapalana government without becoming a hotbed of ISIS terrorism.

On seeing the shameful conduct of the former rulers and their erstwhile trusted lieutenants, blaming one another for their collective failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage, people must be feeling ashamed that they were once ruled by those imbeciles. Under the yahapalana government, national security became nobody’s business and the Defence Ministry a playpen of politicians and mandarins who knew next to nothing about defence; they even did not know what to do with vital intelligence.

Hemasiri Fernando would have us believe that during his tenure as the Defence Secretary, the then President Maithripala Sirisena purposely kept him out of the loop, and, therefore, he should not be held responsible for the circumstances that led to the Easter Sunday carnage. He thinks the blame for the terror strikes should be laid solely on his former boss, Sirisena.

Ex-IGP Pujith Jayasundera says former President Sirisena should take the full responsibility for the yahapalana lapses that enabled the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) terrorists to carry out the Easter Sunday carnage. He insists that he had written to all those below him, informing them of the intelligence warning of the impending attacks, and they should have taken action. He pretends that he did not have full control over the police, and Sirisena interfered with transfers. But as far as we can remember, he controlled the police with an iron fist, and there was no way anyone could bypass him or conceal anything from him. It may be recalled that he ensured that his sil campaign was a success, and went so far as to rough up an elevator operator at the Police Headquarters for not observing sil. It is not possible that anyone would have dared ruffle his feathers. The blame for his subordinates’ failure to take action on the warning should be apportioned to him.

Jayasundera has said his phone was tapped by the SIS, and he was under surveillance while he was the IGP. We thought the yahapalana government did not resort to such measures. No wonder the state intelligence agencies, stuck neck deep in political work, had little time to spy on terrorists and ensure public safety.

SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena claims that, as the State Intelligence Service Chief, he had conveyed the intelligence warning of the terror attacks to everyone in the Defence establishment except President Sirisena. Curiouser and curiouser! It has now been revealed he used to call President Sirisena almost daily.

The entire yahapalana government and the police top brass who stooped so low as to do dirty political work should be held responsible for having created conditions for the rise of Islamic extremism and terror. Their witch hunt against the military and intelligence personnel who had been instrumental in defeating LTTE terrorism brought about a situation where nobody in the intelligence community was willing to go beyond the call of duty to neutralise the NTJ. Time was when intelligence officers sprang into action, upon receiving information about possible terror attacks, and dealt with the terrorists without wasting time on writing memos. If those brave, efficient officers and men, who served the country faithfully, risking as they did life and limb, had not been arrested, harassed or hounded out of their jobs, following the 2015 regime change, Zahran would not have been able to explode even the Kanthankudy motorcycle bomb, which was a dry run of the Easter Sunday bombings.

The yahapalana shirkers responsible for their failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks are lucky that they are not living in a country like Saudi Arabia, where a Sri Lankan girl—Rizana Nafeek—who worked as a housemaid was beheaded, in 2013, for the death of a baby, in her care, due to her negligence. Their lapses led to more than 250 deaths.

 

 

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Editorial

What’s in a dress?

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Friday 25th September, 2020

National Congress MP A. L. M. Athaulla caused quite a stir in Parliament on Tuesday. In he walked wearing a dress, which became something like a red rag to a bull for some MPs, who protested, demanding that he be removed from the Chamber. One of his fellow Muslim MPs shouted from the Opposition benches that his dress looked like the national costume of Afghan males, and demanded that he leave the Chamber forthwith. Athaulla complied, but subsequently the Speaker allowed him to return to his seat after he had said he was wearing a jacket as it was too cold inside the Chamber.

If it is freezing inside the Chamber, then the air conditioners can be set at a higher temperature so that the MPs will feel comfortable, and the Parliament electricity bill can be reduced significantly. However, the MPs protest against Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire left us baffled. What’s in a dress? Do clothes make good MPs? Athaulla’s dress, in our book, was fine. In fact, he looked smart in it.

What matters in Parliament is not an MP’s attire as such but his or her conduct. Only the female MPs and some of their male counterparts act with decorum. Others are nattily dressed in the so-called kapati suit, which is de rigueur, but their conduct is no better than that of ruffians. We saw them in action during the failed constitutional coup in 2018. The Speaker had to be removed to safety when they ran amok, smashing furniture and throwing projectiles and chilli powder. Several MPs in the last Parliament admitted that they had taken money from Arjun Aloysius. According to MP Dayasiri Jayasekera, as many as 118 members of the last Parliament had received funds from Aloysius’ company, Perpetual Treasuries Ltd., which has become a metaphor for fraud owing to its involvement in the Treasury bond scams.

During heated arguments, allegations of drug dealing, etc., are traded liberally in Parliament. The Speaker has to close the public gallery for schoolchildren when MPs resort to fisticuffs and let out streams of raw filth. Among the derogatory terms they exchange freely are ‘gigolo’ and ‘procurer’. Worse, now, there is a murder convict in the House. (Luckily, he has not been made the Justice Minister!) Another MP is in remand prison over the killing of a former lawmaker. Some MPs have a history of backing terrorism.

Allegations of bribery and corruption are often traded across the floor of the House during debates. The new government accuses the Opposition of having within its ranks a bunch of crooks who helped themselves to public funds and were involved in corrupt deals while they were in power; the Opposition would have the public believe that the incumbent administration consists of dozens of rogues who amassed ill-gotten wealth and stashed it away overseas from 2005 to 2015. This being the situation, can anyone be faulted for concluding that our legislature is full of rogues? There are, of course, decent men and women in Parliament, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

The media reported a few years ago that several female members of the last Parliament suffered sexual harassment at the hands of some of their male counterparts. The then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya promised an inquiry, but no action was taken. One can only hope that those randy elements in the garb of MPs have not been re-elected. (Anyway, as people are said to be what they eat, food items known for boosting libido should not be served in the parliamentary canteen, as a precautionary measure, for the sake of the female MPs.)

Meanwhile, are the MPs who frowned on Athaulla’s ‘Afghan’ attire really proud of their Sri Lankan identity and passionate about safeguarding the dignity of Parliament? Computers used in Parliament have been sponsored by China. Only the first-timers in the current Parliament have not benefited from the generosity of China, which organises junkets for MPs (Provincial Councillors and local government members) from time to time. The MPs do not consider it infra dig to benefit from the Chinese largesse. Funds for the parliament information centre came from the US. Not even the MPs who claim to be opposed to the Millennium Challenge Corporation compact, which, they rightly say, is loaded in favour of America, protested against that US-funded project.

When a person does something extremely shameful, it is popularly asked in this country how he or she could walk on the road with clothes on—reddak endan pare behala yanne kohomoda? This is the question that should be posed to those who made an issue of Athaulla’s foreign-looking dress but do not protest against the misconduct of MPs and the shameful practices such as living high on the hog at the expense of the public and panhandling for foreign aid.

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Editorial

Puttalam land grab: Dig deep

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Thursday 24th September, 2020

An attempt is apparently being made to sweep the issue of land encroachment and forest clearing at Aruwakkalu under the rug. Encroachers cleared a vast extent of land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation, in Aruwakkalu, Puttalam, in a bid to sell it, early this month. The area affected by encroachment is a part of land encompassing about 4,500 acres leased by the state. The original lessee was Thawakkal and the second one Holcim. The responsibility for ensuring the safety of state property under threat lies with Siam City Cement (Lanka) Ltd. (SCCL), the current lessee.

On Tuesday, SCCL published a newspaper advertisement, claiming that at an ‘emergency meeting,’ presided over by Forest Conservation Minister C. B. Rathnayake, an ‘urgent course of action’ had been agreed upon by ‘all stakeholders’ to address an incident of encroachment and forest clearing in a long-term leased land belonging to the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation’. Were the environmental groups, that exposed the incident, present at that meeting? They are also stakeholders, aren’t they? The SCCL also listed some measures it had undertaken to adopt to prevent the encroachment of the state property. It has only made a virtue of necessity. Will it explain why it did not care to take such action earlier?

The Minister under whose purview the Cement Corporation land at issue comes is Wimal Weerawansa, who holds the Industries portfolio. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa goes all the way from Colombo to Deniyaya to inquire into complaints of threats to the Sinharaja rainforest, which is under Rathnayake’s ministry, and Rathnayake goes all the way from Colombo to Puttalam to inspect the Cement Corporation land, which is under Weerawansa’s ministry!

The Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation cannot chair a meeting to discuss a vital issue concerning a Cement Corporation property simply because there is a dry zone forest on it. No sooner had the incident of encroachment and forest clearing in Aruwakkalu been reported than Minister Weerawansa rushed a team of Cement Corporation officials there; they conducted an investigation and took up the issue with the police, the Divisional Secretary and the SCCL. In fact, the presence of any politician was not required there, at all, and the matter should have been left entirely to the senior officials representing the lessor (the Cement Corporation).

Grama Niladaris (GNs) are required to submit reports to Divisional Secretaries, every two weeks, and mention therein the instances of encroachment of state land, etc., if any. Land grabbing and forest clearing have gone on, for years, at Aruwakkalu, and why haven’t the GNs concerned reported such illegal activities to the District Secretaries or the police? GNs spring into action only when ordinary people happen to be on the wrong side of the law. Villagers are hauled up before courts for felling jak trees on their own properties, without permits, but organised racketeers are free to grab state lands, which they clear and sell with impunity.

Those who grabbed part of the Cement Corporation land at Aruwakkalu, cut down trees and set them on fire, have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes. They would not have been able to do so without help from the ruling party politicians in the area. The government must have them arrested and prosecuted under the Offences against Public Property Act without further delay. That is the only way it can prove that its politicians had no hand in the land racket. The police must be made to explain why they have failed to arrest the culprits.

Legal action must also be taken against the serious lapses on the part of the lessee, for they led to the encroachment of state land and forest clearing. The SCCL has said, in its advertisement, that on some previous occasions it had brought the issue of encroachment of the Cement Corporation land to the notice of ‘relevant authorities’, which it has not named. Can it prove that it reported land encroachment to the police or the Cement Corporation?

The lease agreement at issue has no termination clause, we are told. Such agreements are money-spinners for venal politicians and bureaucrats responsible for signing them. The Thawakkal deal was struck under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in the 1990s. (Most of the self-righteous SLPP heavyweights were powerful ministers in that administration.)

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