Saturday 24th October, 2020
The SLPP government had us believe that the biggest obstacle in its path, preventing the full implementation of its election manifesto, was the 19th Amendment (19A), which it has now abolished. The 20th Amendment (20A), which was passed in Parliament with 156 votes, on Thursday, has restored the executive powers of the President fully, and, now, the SLPP will have to fulfil its election pledges without trotting out excuses.
The House was reeking of hypocrisy during the two-day debate on 20A. Members of the SJB, an offshoot of the UNP, which created the executive presidency and benefited from it for 17 years, were opposing that institution. The government members, who had opposed the executive presidency, tooth and nail, calling it a curse, under the JRJ and Premadasa governments, went all out to restore its powers that 19A had removed. The curse has now become a blessing for them! Former President Maithripala Sirisena found it too embarrassing to vote for 20A and, therefore, kept away. If there is anything predictable about Sirisena, it is his unpredictability. The northern politicians who unflinchingly offered their services as bootlickers to Prabhakaran and declared him as the sole representatives of the Tamil people although he did not have representation even in a local government body waxed eloquent on the virtues of democracy. They made 20A out to be a bigger threat to democracy than terrorism!
The SLPP dissenters, as we argued in a previous column, adopted the same ruse as the accomplices of pickpockets. When pickpockets get into trouble their friends come posing as irate members of the public, beat them and take them away before the arrival of the police. The SLPP MPs, who voiced dissent over 20A, joined ayes, during the vote, as expected. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa provided them with an excuse for their U-turn; he promised to have a new Constitution framed, claiming that 20A was only a stop-gap measure.
The promulgation of a new Constitution does not seem to have a snowball’s chance in hell. The government is sure to baulk at the issue of devolution of power. The nationalistic forces that propelled it to power are opposed to the 13th Amendment (13A), which they want abolished. They point out that the country has done without the Provincial Councils (PCs) for the last couple of years and saved billions of rupees. The TNA and others of its ilk are demanding more devolution, and India keeps the government reminded of the promised 13 Plus (meaning devolution going beyond what has been granted by 13A).
If the government really wants to introduce a new Constitution, it will have to scrap 13A or retain it, endorsing it in the process, or fulfil its 13 Plus promise to India. Most of all, it will have to address issues concerning land and police powers, which the TNA, etc., want the provinces to exercise. Beset with a host of seemingly intractable problems such as a national health crisis, an ailing economy, diminishing foreign reserves, balance of payment woes, debt servicing and human rights issues in Geneva, the government will not need another mega issue to contend with on the political front.
The SJB suffered a major blow on Thursday. Eight of its MPs including Diana Gamage, former General Secretary of the Ape Jathika Peramuna, which was renamed and registered as the SJB, under controversial circumstances, voted with the government. Something similar happened to the Opposition after the UPFA’s victory in 2010. The Rajapaksa government with 144 seats in Parliament secured the passage of the 18th Amendment with a two-thirds majority thanks to some Opposition MPs of easy virtue. The UNP, which won 60 seats at the 2010 general election, was left with only 44 owing to crossovers. A cocky Rajapaksa government considered itself invincible, but its Titanic moment came in January 2015. This is something that the present-day rulers, who were in power during that period, should bear in mind. They do not seem to learn from their mistakes.
Acid test for JVP
Wednesday 21st February, 2024
Sri Lanka and India are planning to conclude the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) soon, according to media reports. The news about attempts being made to sign the controversial agreement expeditiously could not have come at a worse time for the JVP, which is mending fences with New Delhi and crowing about its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent India visit.
ETCA had to be shelved previously owing to vehement protests from Sri Lankan professional associations, civil society groups and political parties. Prominent among them was the JVP, which demonised ETCA, claiming that, if implemented, it would sound the death knell for Sri Lanka’s IT industry, etc.
There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and an all-expenses-paid junket is more so. One may argue that the invitation New Delhi extended to the JVP-led NPP, making the latter feel important, was aimed at furthering India’s economic interests more than anything else, given the JVP’s considerable trade union strength in the key sectors Indian ventures already have a presence in or are eyeing, such as ports, airports, power, energy and telecommunication and dairy farming. By smoothing over differences with the JVP, India has apparently sought to neutralise trade union resistance to the big fire sale the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is holding to dispose of Sri Lanka’s state assets that Indian business magnates, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Rockefeller, Gautam Adani, have evinced a keen interest in acquiring.
Big powers have weaponised trade and commerce to further their expansionist interests. They also use chequebook diplomacy for that purpose. The JVP is trying to obfuscate the issue of its past terror campaign against what it termed Indian expansionism. Its current leaders have claimed no knowledge of their party’s initiating lecture on Indian expansionism! But in the late 1980s, the JVP brutally murdered quite a few traders for selling ‘Bombay’ onions in defiance of its blanket ban on goods imported from India so much so that the then Trade Minister Lalith Athulathmudali was compelled to rename Bombay onions ‘Lanka loku loonu’ (‘Lanka big onions’) to save lives. One may argue that those unfortunate incidents happened several decades ago, and the world has since changed. But the JVP’s opposition to ETCA cannot be dismissed as history.
Making a fiery speech at a seminar, ‘Trading, Sacrifice and ETCA’, in Colombo, on 20 Sept., 2016, JVP Leader Dissanayake said ETCA would pave the way for an influx of low-grade IT professional from India, causing the Sri Lankan youth to lose employment opportunities. He warned that if ETCA was signed, the future of the Sri Lankan youth would be in jeopardy. The JVP had launched a struggle to defeat the Yahapalana government’s efforts to sign ETCA, he said, vowing to go all out to achieve that goal.
The JVP claims to have a considerable following among the Sri Lankan youth, many of whom are employed in the IT sector, and therefore it will have to reveal its position on ETCA, which it considers a danger to Sri Lanka’s IT industry as well as other vital sectors.
What has become of the JVP’s struggle against ETCA? It will be interesting to see the JVP’s reaction to the signing of ETCA on the cards. Will the JVP leaders go all out to scuttle it in keeping with their pledge to do so, or will they choose to soft-pedal the issue lest they should antagonise India, which they are ingratiating themselves with? The possibility of the JVP putting up some resistance to ETCA half-heartedly and allowing the government to go ahead with the signing of the controversial agreement, cannot be ruled out.
Throttling democracy, the govt. way
Tuesday 20th February, 2024
The leaders of the SLPP-UNP government, troubled by the prospect of having to face elections, must be having sleepless nights. They are believed to be busy devising ways and means of putting off the presidential contest due in eight months or so. The President’s Office has however said the next presidential election will be held on schedule. The promises of governments in trouble are like pie crust; they are made to be broken.
Speculation is rampant in political circles that the government is planning to postpone the next presidential election on the pretext of abolishing the executive presidency. But there is no way the SLPP-UNP combine can muster a two-thirds majority for a bill seeking to scrap the executive presidency and have it approved by the people at a referendum. Is it planning to strangle elections financially, again? It stands accused of trying to halve the fund allocations for the presidential and parliamentary elections.
A statement issued by the Media Ministry, announcing the Cabinet decisions made on 05 Feb., 2024, said inter alia: “The Cabinet of Ministers considered that an allocation of Rs 10 billion has been made by the budget estimate for the year 2024, within the financial stamina of the government and those provisions have to be managed for covering the expenditure of the presidential election and general election (emphasis added).”
Executive Director of the Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies Manjula Gajanayake has pointed out that the Cabinet has halved the amount of funds needed for the presidential and parliamentary elections. We have quoted Commissioner General of Elections Saman Sri Ratnayake as saying that the Election Commission needs Rs. 10 billion for the next presidential election, and Rs. 11 billion for the parliamentary polls due next year, and the two estimates were submitted to the government in August/September 2023.
The government has either revealed its hand unwittingly by making public the above-mentioned Cabinet decision or sent a trial balloon to gauge the reaction of the Opposition and the public to its move. Curiously, the Opposition has not taken up the issue.
The ministerial decision at issue could be considered an instance of the Cabinet overriding Parliament, which controls public finance. Gajanayake has rightly said President Ranil Wickremesinghe is using the Cabinet as a cat’s paw to postpone elections.
President Wickremesinghe has proved that he is no respecter of the separation of powers; he usurps the powers of Parliament, where he even tells the Opposition members to shut up. Checks and balances are the bulwark against the emergence of dictatorships. An unmistakable sign of a judiciary buckling under executive pressure, in any country, is the inexplicable postponement of judgements that are not favourable to those who are close to the powers that be.
Is it that the absence of stiff resistance to its refusal to allocate funds for the local government elections, in 2022, has emboldened the government to adopt the same modus operandi to put off other elections as well?
The government is keen to curtail its expenditure only when funds are required for elections! It is quite liberal with people’s money where its leaders’ spendthrift ways are concerned. The Treasury makes colossal amounts of funds readily available for the government politicians’ foreign junkets, perks, and state ceremonies, which are an utter waste of money.
Let the government be warned that by suppressing democracy, it is giving a big fillip to ultra-radical political forces with extra-parliamentary agendas, thriving on public resentment. It created conditions for Aragalaya, which was hijacked by extremists masquerading as saviours to compass their sinister ends; they almost succeeded in decapitating parliamentary democracy.
Unless the government mends its ways and stops throttling democracy, it will have a bigger uprising than Aragalaya to contend with sooner than expected. Public anger is reaching the tipping point, and it has to be defused through elections if disaster is to be averted.
Monday 19th February, 2024
There are signs of the SLPP-UNP government shifting its focus from its economic recovery efforts to populist politics. The ruling party politicians are using public assets to bribe electors in a bid to recover lost ground on the political front. They are in overdrive, distributing state land among farmers and spending taxpayers’ money generously on poor relief. However, there is no guarantee that the government will stop trifling with the people’s franchise and hold elections.
The next presidential election is about eight months away, according to the Constitution. However, fear has been expressed in some quarters that the government will do its damnedest to put off the presidential contest.
There is no constitutional provision for postponing a presidential election, but anything is possible in this land like no other. The Provincial Council and Local Government polls have been made to disappear; the very politicians who bankrupted the economy have undertaken to revive it. This is like the custody of a rape victim being awarded to the rapist himself!
Interestingly, some political leaders have already declared themselves the winners in the presidential race to be held! They are behaving as if they were capable of time travel. One of them is peddling an absurd argument that his recent visit to a neighbouring country, as a state guest, is proof that foreign powers are of the opinion that he will be the next President! He is insulting the intelligence of the leaders of the foreign government concerned, for only those sans any knowledge of psephology will make such a conclusion so early, and act thereon in making foreign policy decisions.
Sri Lanka has never been short of bogus messiahs either in politics or in other fields. The economic crisis has apparently swollen their ranks. Nothing describes the gullibility of Sri Lankans better than an aphorism attributed to American showman, P. T. Barnum — “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
It may be recalled that tens of thousands of people flocked to a village in Kegalle, in 2020, to buy a herbal syrup (Dhammika peniya) that a shaman touted as a cure for Covid-19. Some eccentric characters claim to have attained Enlightenment, and disappear after collecting colossal amounts of funds from their followers. There have been instances where some self-proclaimed messiahs found themselves up a creek.
A person who went about in a limousine, recently, claiming to be Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, and offering to guide the public along the path to liberation, has been ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment after being arrested and produced before court. But politicians hoodwink the public similarly with impunity although they too should be dealt with by the men in white coats. They include the person who pretended to be a saviour and promised the so-called Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, took more than six million people including the members of the Maha Sangha for a ride, achieved his presidential dream and then plunged the entire country into depths of despair.
Let the self-styled messiahs of both the government and the Opposition be urged to stop trying to realise their presidential dream at the expense of the efforts to straighten up the economy. They ought to intensify their focus on how to clean up the economic mess of their own making, and work out a national strategy with the help of all stakeholders to extricate the country from the debt trap so that whoever becomes the next President, it will be possible to put the economy on an even keel. Likewise, the onus is on the public to act wisely without falling for the wiles of the bogus messiahs lest they should ruin the future of their children.
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