The funny side of the fuel price hike
The post-announcement drama that followed the fuel price increase announcement would have been funny but for its ripple effect on the poor and not-so-poor. The rich and the well-to-do are one cup of tea; and the rest of the population another. The three-wheeler operator, whether he hires his own vehicle or that belonging to a mudalali, can and will increase his rate, but at the price of the number of hires he gets per day. A bus fare increase must follow, although how high that would be has not yet been worked out or announced. The haulage cost of essentials must rise and this will have a pervasive effect across the gamut of goods and services; and they will all come home to roost on the consumer. No wonder then that what many economists call a long delayed but essential measure has kicked up as much dust as it has and the government is already bleeding.
That’s one side of the coin. The other was the stunning statement of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, harshly condemning the price increase and demanding the resignation of Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. Journalists cutting their teeth in the trade (they prefer it to be called a profession) are taught that in writing a news story, unlike in sex, the climax comes first. Kariyawasam’s statement was near enough to Gammanpila’s announcement for the script to conform to the pyramidal structure of a news story. There the least important or interesting material or information comes at the tail with the juicy stuff at the top. That makes it easier for the sub-editor to trim the ‘copy’ to fit into the available space; or for that matter for the reader not to wade through a long article. Kariyawasam, who is often presented in the media as an attorney-at-law, cannot be so naive as to believe that Gammanpila announced his own decision a few days ago. Obviously something this important has to have the concurrence of the president, prime minister and the hierarchy of the government. In this instance it was approved by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Cost of Living, headed by the president and including the prime minister.
But Kariyawasam ignored all that and demanded Gammanpila’s resignation. The latter who seized the opportunity to earn himself some brownie points said he volunteered to be the bearer of the bad news to spare the president and prime minister of the resulting flak. He also had the temerity to ask “Who is Sagara Kariyawasam?” JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, gave him the answer. “He is the person who signed your nomination papers,” he replied. All that apart, Kariyawasam like Gammanpila, would not have fired the missile (or missive), ironically bearing the PM’s photograph on the letterhead, on his own volition. He was obviously instructed to do what he did by somebody powerful – very powerful. It has been widely suggested that this was dual citizen Basil Rajapaksa now sojourning in the USA, his first (or second?) home. He’s been away now for several weeks and no date of return has yet been mentioned although as head of a very powerful Task Force, his presence in the country is important.
There have been some feeble responses to this allegation. One of these was the assertion that if Basil, a powerful member of the Royal Family, wished to make his point, he could easily have spoken to either of his brothers, the president or the prime minister or even nephew, Namal. Instead why did he choose Kariyawasam to fire off a controversial statement if he indeed did so? The latter, of course, has a National List seat in Parliament together with a lifetime pension (for himself and his widow), courtesy of the taxpayer. For this he has to thank a powerful patron. This, some have it, is Basil Rajapaksa. But that, of course, remains an unproven and probably never to be proven allegation. It was Basil after all, who created the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), aka Pohottuwa, which leads the ruling coalition. Thus, apart from his position as an immediate family member of the leaders of the ‘Double Paksa’ government, as our regular columnist, Kumar David, delights in calling the ruling Establishment, he is much more. He created the party that won the last election and is its National Organizer. His influence then on cabinet making and National List choices would have been pervasive.
It is also pertinent to ask why the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) chose to bring a vote of no confidence against Gammanpila rather than against the government. The Sajith Premadasa party, obviously knows as well as everyone else that the fuel price increase was a government decision rather than one unilaterally made by the energy minister. Why then is it training its guns at the loquacious Gammanpila rather than the government itself? We are told that it’s all a matter of strategy debated in the inner councils of the major opposition party. The thinking is that if a no confidence motion was moved against the government, all its components will unitedly fight it. But if it is aimed at Gammanpila, there will be those deeply embarrassed about the price increases and its effect on their constituents who may be tempted to break ranks. Sagara Kariyawasam, for instance, will find it difficult to express confidence in Gammanpila. But he has an easy way out. He can be absent at voting time like so many have done before. Hopefully, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have taken his National List seat before the forthcoming debate. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say.
Tissue of lies and other issues
Monday 27th March, 2023
There is no bigger lie than the oft-repeated claim in some quarters that the 21st Amendment to the Constitution has helped strengthen democracy by ridding vital state institutions of dirty politics. Perhaps, the doormat at the entrance to the President’s Office receives better treatment than the supposedly independent Election Commission (EC), which suffers many indignities at the hands of some government politicians.
Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was economical with the truth, which he also stretched and bent, in Parliament on Friday, when the Opposition questioned him on the postponement of the local government (LG) elections. The PM, who is also the Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, said he would meet the members of the EC for a discussion on poll-related issues soon. There is nothing to be discussed about elections! The government should either allocate funds for the LG polls or officially inform the public that it is scared of facing an electoral contest and therefore cannot hold the mini polls. Its refusal to release funds for elections on some flimsy grounds has only eroded public confidence in the electoral process, and given a turbo boost to anti-politics, which is manifestly on the rise and rapidly eating into the vitals of the state.
It is a pity that PM Gunawardena, who gained national prominence by standing up to a dictatorial UNP government under President J. R. Jayewardene, taking up the cudgels for the people’s franchise and winning the Maharagama by-election, in 1983, against tremendous odds, is now backing those who are all out to put off elections. President Jayewardene scrapped the 1982 general election for fear of losing his five-sixths majority in Parliament, and held a heavily-rigged referendum instead, undertaking to hold by-elections in the electorates where the UNP would lose. He had to hold 18 such by-elections, four of which were won by the Opposition despite large-scale rigging and violence unleashed by the UNP. Anil Moonesinghe, Richard Pathirana and Amarasiri Dodangoda won the Matugama, Akmeemana and Baddegama electorates, respectively. Forty years on, Gunawardena and the late Pathirana’s son, Ramesh, are backing Jayewardene’s nephew, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is putting off elections!
Unfortunately, it is Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardena who has had to take all the flak for not making funds available to the EC. He has become a soft target that everybody who lacks the courage to take on President Wickremesinghe turns on. Government Printer, Gangani Liyanage, is also in a similar predicament. Siriwardena allocated funds for the EC, albeit in dribs and drabs, before being asked by the Cabinet and the President in no uncertain terms to stop doing so. The government has pinioned him to the wall, and the Opposition worthies are punching him, and not those who deserve their blows. Let those heroes be urged to pluck up the courage to attack the President instead of turning on the public officials whom the government has put in the straitjacket of zero-based budgeting. These mandarins find themselves in an unenviable position; the government is preventing them from carrying out their duties and functions according to their conscience, and the Opposition is bashing them.
The SLPP MPs keep saying that they want the LG elections held. It is they who postponed the mini polls first, in 2022. However, if these politicians who are as crooked as a barrel of fish hooks are being truthful for once, then it will be seen that all members of Parliament, save the single UNP member and perhaps several others who have pledged their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe, are against the postponement of elections, and, worse, the President is refusing to allocate funds for the LG polls against the will of the vast majority of MPs! Parliament controls public finance, and therefore it must be allowed to decide whether to allocate funds for elections. Let a resolution be presented to Parliament to that effect and a vote taken thereon urgently.
Minister Kanchana Wijesekera informed Parliament, on Thursday (23), that President Wickremesinghe had asked for a division by name on the government’s agreement with the IMF so that the public would know who was supportive of the IMF programme and who was not. The same modus operandi could be adopted, if a vote is taken anent the LG polls, so that the public will know who actually wants the elections put off. This is the most democratic way of deciding whether to hold the LG polls or postpone them.
North Korea is reported to have recently tested a secret weapon capable of causing tsunamis. The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime, which often warns that Sri Lanka might end up being a country like the hermit kingdom unless its economic programme is followed, has resorted to an ill-advised course of action that is fraught with the danger of triggering a tsunami of public anger. Its members have apparently forgotten the firenado, as it were, which hit them in May 2022.
More heavy lifting to be done
As President Ranil Wickremesinghe tirelessly stressed, the signing off on the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) with the International Monetary Fund marks a new beginning. “Forget the past and the old games,” he has said seeking the cooperation of both the opposition and the media for a great leap forward. He has made the point that the IMF arrangement of USD 2.9 billion opens the doors for further credit adding up to USD 7 billion from elsewhere. When he met editors and other media heads on Thursday he said we have to continue negotiations with bilateral and multi-lateral lenders as well as private creditors which he admitted would be the most difficult.
The bad news when this was being written on Friday was that unless there is a dramatic change of heart on the part of the executive, the likelihood of the scheduled local government elections in the foreseeable future appears more than remote. There are, of course, a clutch of cases before the courts at present and which way the determinations will go is not clear right now; also in which direction the dice will roll once the courts rule. But it is patently clear that both the president and the government want these elections as much as they want a hole in the head.
There is no need to labour the reason why the incumbent establishment does not want local elections at the present moment. This, notwithstanding SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam’s mealy-mouthed protestations that his party does not wish these elections put off. The electorate is very well aware that these elections cannot mean a change of government. Wickremesinghe is safely ensconced on his presidential throne until Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term runs out in November 2024. Wickremesinghe is constitutionally empowered to dissolve parliament whenever he wishes from now until then. That’s the whip-hand he holds over his SLPP backers who made him president. It will safely ensure that they will not rock the boat during his tenure.
Just as much as the president and his government do not want any election in the short term, the opposition parties are literally panting that these be held soonest for reasons that are all too obvious. The last time the country elected local bodies was in February 2018 and the Rajapaksa party was the comfortable winner. The credit for this within the SLPP was widely apportioned to Basil Rajapaksa, its national organizer. That election victory heralded the coming of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa government the following August. This is why the opposition, principally Sajith Premadasa’s SJB and the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), is striving might and main to have this election one way or another. The present signal is that they will not succeed in this endeavour. But as in cricket, there is no certainty in the outcome.
Though the president requested that the old games must not be played any longer, his supporters don’t practice what he preaches. There was a vulgar display of firecracker lighting, in true Sri Lankan style, greeting the announcement that the IMF deal was through. Everybody and his brother well know that this polluting lighting of strings of firecrackers greeting election results, politicians arriving at meetings and other similar events are funded by the politicians themselves. Some ghouls even lit crackers when President Premadasa was assassinated. We don’t know whether last week’s cracker lighting was a command performance or of old habits persisting. Whatever it was, it was unseemly.
The mere fact the IMF deal is through does not mean that the country is going to emerge from the economic morass in which it is mired. A great deal of heavy lifting remains to be done. The initial benefits cannot be more than a trickle. Possibly the June negotiations down the road may be an opportunity to offer some tax relief to professionals loudly protesting that the new rates are totally unrealistic. We run a letter from a retired Commissioner General of Inland Revenue in this issue who says that in his view, the problem is not with the rate of taxation which is between six and 36% but with the exemption threshold.
He rightly says that given today’s hyper-inflation. high cost of electricity, water and essential food, the Rs. 1.2 million exemption threshold is far too low. He believes that if this is raised to at least Rs. 1.8 million a year, it may be possible to win the unions over and reduce the tax burden on high income professionals. He has said this should not impact on the IMF agreements and the time has come for a compromise between the government and protesters. Clearly the now retired writer will not have access to actual numbers. But given his long service in the tax department, he would have an instinct for these matters.
It is also pertinent to say here that it is time the government makes a statement about the safety of the country’s banking sector. There are many worries on this score particularly after what happened recently in the U.S. and in Switzerland. It is well known that our state banks have been captive lenders to insolvent state-owned enterprises with such loans underwritten by the government. The fact that the IMF deal was successfully concluded, no doubt, is a reassuring factor about the stability of our commercial banking system. Nevertheless, a statement from the government will reassure constituents.
Political pole dancing
Saturday 25th March, 2023
There is no such thing as national interest in Sri Lankan politics, as is public knowledge. What looks like it is only self-interest in disguise. One often has politicians in this country saying they are promoting national interest, but what they are actually doing is pursuing self-interest. It is against this backdrop that former President Maithripala Sirisena’s claim that his love for the country has driven him to call for a national government to tackle the current economic crisis should be viewed.
Sirisena is full of praise for President Ranil Wickremesinghe and the government for having secured an IMF loan, and insists that there is nothing wrong with the conditions on which the extended fund facility has been made available! Sirisena was one of the bitterest critics of the incumbent dispensation, and there was bad blood between him and Wickremesinghe, but he is now backing them to the hilt. What has made him do an about-turn?
Sirisena has chosen to perform political pole dancing, as it were, to humour the government leaders since last January, when the Supreme Court (SC), which heard a fundamental rights violation petition against him and several others, ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million by way of compensation for his failure to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage in 2019. The SC order prompted those who are seeking justice for the victims of terrorist bombings to renew their demand that criminal proceedings be instituted against Sirisena, as recommended by the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror strikes. Sirisena is now at the mercy of President Wickremesinghe, who alone can prevent the Attorney General’s Department from taking criminal action against anyone.
During the final stages of the Yahapalana government, Sirisena wronged Wickremesinghe, having secured the coveted presidency with the latter’s help in 2015. He stooped so low as to join forces with the Rajapaksas in a bid to sack the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe although he had made a solemn pledge to throw them behind bars for what they had done during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. In an unexpected turn of events, Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas are now savouring power together; Sirisena is seeking a political menage a trois in a bid to save his skin more than anything else.
Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government has no need for him. It knows that he is only trying to make a virtue of necessity, for most of the SLFP MPs (elected from the SLPP) numbering 14 have already crossed over! But Sirisena is not likely to abandon his efforts to make himself attractive to the government, given his desperation to avoid criminal action over the Easter Sunday bombings.
If Sirisena’s worst fear comes to pass, he will find himself in jail, and his political career will come to an end in such an eventuality. So, he is doing his darnedest to be in the good books of President Wickremesinghe and the government and will not hesitate to subjugate the policies of the SLFP to his self-interest.
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