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Editorial

The coming colour

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Though Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have resigned in that order, the Rajapaksa clan on the back of which much of Sri Lanka’s present woes are laid, remains alive and kicking and is very much a part of the country’s political equation. When then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed his first cabinet following GR’s stunning elevation of a one man show as the head of his government, there were no Rajapaksas in the new line up with several old faces dropped. But there was a reappearance of Shasheendra Rajapaksa among the recently appointed state ministers. Now there’s been a public statement by an SLPP grandee that heir apparent Namal baby is suitable for reappointment to the cabinet. There have also been calls for previous ministers to be taken back to the fold. With at least a semblance of normality restored on the fuel and gas front, those out in the cold seem to believe that the time is right to get back to business.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe is all too aware of the national mood and the near unanimous public opinion on the Rajapaksas and the jumbo cabinets we have known too often in our contemporary political history. But these are realities he must live with. Gotabaya is back in the country although it wasn’t that long ago that Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t think the time was right for GR’s return. Though Basil is out of the country for a few months, it is very well known that he continues to pull many of the SLPP’s strings. Mahinda shows up in parliament now and then although he seldom speaks on the public domain. And Namal is knocking at the door.

Though Wickremesinghe very much desires to show the country that he’s running a tight ship at minimum cost to the taxpayer, until the time comes after February 2023 when he is empowered to dissolve parliament, he is the prisoner of the SLPP. It is that party which elected him to office and the Rajapaksas are very much in control there. It is all too clear that he must do what the discredited Rajapaksa party wants him to do at this point of time. Having dragged his feet a little bit about the appointment of the state ministers, he succumbed a few days ago and appointed as many as 38 of them. No effort whatever has been made to justify such appointments. What has only been attempted up to now is to say that they will draw no salary outside their parliamentary emoluments.

Egg has been publicly rubbed on the collective face of the government both by mainstream and social media demonstrating that the difference of a few thousand rupees in salaries drawn is irrelevant compared to the cost of taxpayer paid perks and privileges they will enjoy. Now the president is on the verge of appointing new ministers to the present 20-member cabinet and this is likely to be completed in the short term. The constitution permits the appointment of 30 ministers, which can go up if we have a national government, and fishing expeditions by aspirants are already visible. It has also been said in public that the previous ministers, many of them anathema to the people, must be reappointed. We need not labour the fact that already there are bad hats in office.

Not very long ago we saw former Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, the public face of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s calamitous ban on chemical fertilizers, saying in parliament that he was not responsible for the ban. He said that fertilizer under his ministry was the subject of a state minister (Shasheendra Rajapaksa now back in office as State Minister of Irrigation). He even claimed that he had canvassed the ban with then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The whole country was privy to Aluthgamage’s passionate defence of the ban at that time and saw countless effigies on the minister torched by angry farmers. Yet he has the brass to attempt to distance himself from that action in which he fully participated, in what seems very much like an attempt to return to cabinet office.

President Wickremesinghe has made little headway in his attempt to form a National Government or Government of National Unity. There seems to be few buyers at political party level but individual defections for consideration of office is very much a part of this country’s political history. Already two Samagi Jana Balavegaya MPs, Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara are in the cabinet. So also seniors of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) like Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. There are many more SLFPers who are state ministers and of the 14 SLFP MPs elected to the sitting parliament only five remain loyal to party leader Maithripala Sirisena. While some parties have begun domestic inquiries against rebels, few expect them to lose their seats in terms of existing anti-defection laws.

We will know very shortly what the new cabinet will look like and what the 2023 budget will bring for the country. It has already been made clear that the wealthy will have to suffer a major tax blow. Our contemporary history amply demonstrates that the tax administration is very good at squeezing already squeezed lemons and more of that will shortly be in evidence in the context of the prevailing massive tax evasion. That, together with the lack of equity which is a basic principle of taxation, is a long evident fact of life in this so-called democratic socialist republic ours.



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Editorial

Blind faith in seers

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Thursday 11th April, 2024

Astrologers were clashing over the traditional New Year auspicious times or nekath, at the time of writing. Some of them are of the view that the nekath prepared by what is described as the State Astrologers’ Committee of the Department of Cultural Affairs will have malefic effects on the country. However, Minister of Buddha Sasana, and Religious and Cultural Affairs Vudura Wickremanayake has ceremonially handed over the nekath seettuwa or the table of auspicious time to President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Everything is done in an astrologically-prescribed manner in this country. In fact, astrologers are the real eminences grises; they have politicians, including government leaders, eating out of their hand. It is they who decide when elections should be held, the only exception being the presidential polls during the tenure of a President elected by Parliament. There have been instances where they had Presidents advance presidential elections. Most citizens are also believers in astrology, which influences their lives from the cradle to the grave. If it is true that benefits accrue from auspicious times to those who observe them, how can one explain Sri Lanka’s current predicament? Why has the country had to beg for dollars and plead with its creditors to reschedule its debts in spite of following astrological guidelines to the letter?

There is no way Sri Lanka can come out of the current economic crisis without enhancing national productivity, which is the be-all and end-all of economic progress, and this is a task that requires hard work, longer working hours, and, above all, a radical attitudinal change. Everyone has to move out of his or her comfort zone and work harder if he or she is to help the country achieve economic progress. A prerequisite for realising this ambitious goal is to stop blaming others and planets and stars, and act responsibly while seeking guidance from real experts, and not self-proclaimed seers who are a dime a dozen.

The rice trick

Sri Lankan politicians do a Santa during election years. They throw public funds around generously as if they were spending their own money. They have mastered the art of bribing Citizen Perera with his own money and cheating him out of his vote. This has been going on for more than seven decades.

The SLPP-UNP government has allocated funds with a generous hand for poor relief in this election year. It has undertaken to distribute free rice among the needy families during the current festive season.

The rice trick has worked since Independence. In 1953, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had to resign amidst a mass uprising triggered by an increase in the price of a measure of rice, among other things. His successor, Sir John Kotelawala, had to restore the rice subsidy partially to bring the situation under control. Sirimavo Bandaranaike also played the rice trick to win elections. She promised what has come to be dubbed ‘rice from the moon’; she promised that rice would be made available even if it had to be brought from the moon, but later she imposed restrictions on the consumption and transport of rice.

In the run-up to the 1977 general election, J. R. Jayewardene promised eight pounds of cereal or eta raththal atak per week to alleviate poverty under a UNP government. His pledges were like pie crust made to be broken, and the people got nothing by way of free cereal. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga undertook to lower the bread prices, and did not care to make good on her promise. President Mahinda Rajapaksa turned Temple Trees into a dansela of sorts by giving away food, especially on days of religious significance. His gastronomic bribes yielded the desired results, and he managed to win elections until his overconfidence overtook him.

The incumbent government, which has ruined the economy and inflicted unprecedented suffering on the public, is playing the rice trick in a bid to assuage public anger ahead of elections. But the poor do not live by rice alone, and they eat rice throughout the year, and not just during festive seasons. The vast majority of people who are struggling to dull the pangs of hunger will not get free rice even as a temporary measure. There’s the rub for the government.

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Editorial

Blues red in tooth and claw

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Wednesday 10th April, 2024

The latest internecine battle of the Blues, as it were, at Darley Road, has taken a dramatic turn. The anti-Sirisena faction of the SLFP held a politburo meeting, on Monday, and made some key appointments. They met at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute because the SLFP headquarters at Darley Road, Colombo 10 remained closed. Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is leading the battle against former President Maithripala Sirisena, was present there, as an ‘observer’, enjoying the drama directed by her.

The SLFP politburo members who were present at Monday’s meeting appointed Senior Vice President of the SLFP, Nimal Siripala de Silva, as the party’s Acting Chairman. That is the way, they seem to think, they can save the SLFP from Sirisena, but what they have chosen to do is like handing over a lamb to a tiger to save it from a wolf!

The Sirisena faction insists that Monday’s meeting convened by Senior Vice President de Silva was illegal. It maintains that the party Constitution does not provide for such gatherings and appointments. The SLFP is likely to be embroiled in another legal battle in this election year, when it has to remain maniacally focussed on strategising for the upcoming polls.

When SLFP National Organiser, Duminda Dissanayake, was asked in a television interview on Monday night whether he thought it was proper to have convened a politburo meeting without the party Chairman, he answered in the affirmative. He argued that circumstances had warranted such action; he asked rhetorically what the party was supposed to do in the event of the demise of its Chairman. But the SLFP Chairman is alive and still going strong despite an interim injunction barring him from functioning in that position temporarily. Have his rivals left him for politically dead?

The SLFP chairmanship is a straw Sirisena is clutching at to remain relevant in national politics, and he is not likely to let go of it without a fight. Yesterday, his loyalists went to the SLFP headquarters, and made a futile attempt to have the police open its main gate, which has remained locked for several days. They returned tit for tat; they padlocked the gate before leaving the place.

Now, neither faction of the SLFP can enter the party headquarters unless an amicable settlement is reached or the gate is forced open. Thus, the SLFP has shot itself in the foot while the SJB, the UNP and the JVP-led NPP are busy with their presidential election campaigns.

Those who claim to be on a mission to save the SLFP from each other have become its worst enemies; they are trying to settle personal scores and further self-interest at the expense of it. They are red in tooth and claw, and it will be a miracle if the SLFP succeeds in turning itself around in the foreseeable future.

Sirisena has flown to Bangkok, of all places, while the battle for the SLFP leadership is raging. Sri Lankan politicians’ wanderlust is notoriously insatiable. Not even devastating terror attacks prevented some Presidents from going on foreign junkets during the war. In 2019, Sirisena, who was the then President, Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief, was overseas at the time of the Easter Sunday terror strikes although the defence authorities had been warned of the impending terrorist attacks. Old habits are said to die hard.

Chandrika has said she came under pressure from those who detested the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to run for President, again, in 2015, but she had Sirisena fielded as the presidential candidate instead; she now regrets having done so. Thankfully, she did not contest, but unfortunately Sirisena did. A third term for President Rajapaksa would have been equally disastrous. Chandrika will have her work cut out to convince the public that she is not making a fatal mistake again by siding with another bunch of failed politicians bent on grabbing the reins of the SLFP.

It looks as if the SLFP had to be saved from its self-proclaimed saviours.

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Editorial

Presidential race and horse-trading

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Tuesday 9th April, 2024

Former local government members of the SLPP have decided to back Ranil Wickremesinghe in the upcoming presidential election, according to media reports. These politicians have remained loyal to the Rajapaksa family through thick and thin, and their support is the be-all and end-all of the SLPP’s political survival. They would not have pledged their support for Wickremesinghe without Basil Rajapaksa’s blessings.

What one gathers from the decision of the ex-local councillors of the SLPP to throw in their lot with Wickremesinghe is that the SLPP will not field a presidential candidate. Some of these politicians are likely to join the UNP. The SLPP, which scored three stunning electoral victories consecutively in 2018, 2019 and 2020 has ruined things for itself in such a way that it cannot even contest an election at present!

The SLPP, which came into being as a party of the Rajapaksas by the Rajapaksas for the Rajapaksas, is now in total disarray. Basil, came back from the US last month in a bid to sort it out, but it is like ‘a bunch of areca nuts dashed on the ground’, as a local saying goes. About two dozen SLPP MPs, including dissidents, and countless SLPP supporters, have switched their allegiance to the UNP and the SJB. The Rajapaksas have lost control of a sizeable section of the remaining SLPP Parliamentary group. Otherwise, they would have caused a general election to precede the next presidential election, by having a parliamentary resolution passed to compel President Ranil Wickremesinghe to dissolve Parliament forthwith. The SLPP is desperate to face a general election first and try to retain as many parliamentary seats as possible before its electoral weakness is exposed in the next presidential election.

The former local councillors of the SLPP may be able to deliver some votes to the presidential candidate of their choice, but their support could prove counterproductive in that they are considered the shock troops of the Rajapaksas. They were the ones who carried out an unprovoked, savage attack on the Aragalaya protesters at Galle Face on 09 May, 2022, triggering a tsunami of retaliatory violence, which marked the beginning of the end of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. The public detests such corrupt, violent elements, and that is why the government has postponed local government polls. The support of such characters is likely to be the kiss of death for Wickremesinghe. But the UNP is still lying supine and most of its seniors are political liabilities and therefore Wickremesinghe, who is desperate for support in the presidential race, would not mind being ‘kissed’ by anyone.

There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch, and the SLPP’s local government politicians would not have offered to support Wickremesinghe in the presidential race for nothing. The Rajapaksas are notorious for demanding ‘something’ for doing anything. So, what will the SLPP expect in return for backing Wickremesinghe? Will it be a general election to be held on the same day as the next presidential contest, or the post of premiership for a member of the Rajapaska family in the event of Wickremesinghe securing the presidency and steering a coalition led by the UNP to victory at the next parliamentary election? Whatever the conditions for the SLPP’s support for Wickremesinghe may be, with the likes of SLPP leaders as allies, Wickremesinghe needs no enemies.

If the SLPP skips the next presidential election and backs Wickremesinghe, it will take many years to regain lost ground, much less groom a member of the Rajapaksa family for a presidential contest again. Its support base will also suffer a severe erosion. Some SLPP MPs loyal to the Rajapaksa family have embarked on a campaign to promote Namal Rajapaksa as the next leader of their party. But he will have to wait for years, if not decades, until the people have forgotten what the Rajapaksas have done to the country, to make a comeback like ‘Bongbong’ Marcos of the Philippines.

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