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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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Editorial

Heed their voice

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Friday 27th January, 2023

A group of Central Bank (CB) employees, on Wednesday, joined other professionals in protesting against the recently-introduced steep tax hikes. As part of the ongoing Black Protest Week campaign conducted by a collective of professional associations, those workers put up black flags and stood up to the police, who tried to disrupt their demonstration. Some police officers tend to go out of their way to ingratiate themselves with their political masters, and run the risk of being hauled up before court for fundamental rights violations. Some CB workers were seen protesting in Colombo yesterday as well.

The irony of the CB workers’ protests may not have been lost on political observers. The CB is spearheading the government’s efforts to secure a bailout package from the IMF, which has prescribed the huge tax increases at issue. But the CB employees themselves are opposed to that measure, and with reason! How could the government expect other workers to accept its tax policy?

Why professionals are so incensed as to take to the streets against tax increases is understandable. They are not refusing to pay taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes must be paid, for the state needs money to meet its expenditure, but they must be reasonable, and taxpayers need an assurance that their money will not end up in the pockets of politicians or will be used to support the high life of the rulers and their cronies, in some other way. Soaring inflation has taken its toll on their earnings, and needless to say, tax increases have aggravated their financial woes as never before. They have to look after their families and repay loans. What infuriates them more than anything else is perhaps the fact that politicians live in the lap of luxury at their expense and waste colossal amounts of public money, the allocation of more than Rs. 200 million for the Independence Day celebrations to be held early next month being a case in point.

Worse, all executive level employees in this country have had to contend with multiple taxation. Their salaries are taxed; they are affected by the taxes imposed on the Employees’ Provident Fund. When they retire, their terminal benefits are taxed. They have to pay taxes on their interest income as well. Thus, they live to pay taxes, and politicians are living off them.

Another factor that has exasperated professionals is the cavalier attitude of some government politicians who seem to think those who draw higher salaries deserve to be exploited. A Cabinet minister has drawn heavy flak from trade unions for saying something to the effect that anyone who earns Rs. 100,000 or more is ‘not innocent’. Is it that one loses one’s innocence when one begins to earn more than Rs 100,000 after studying hard, acquiring academic and professional qualifications and gaining experience? It is only natural that workers become resentful when they see semi-literate politicians living like Citizen Kane while they and their family members are suffering.

It will be a huge mistake for the government to ignore the voice of the professionals on the warpath and resort to coercion in a bid to neutralise their protests. They are different from the Aragalaya activists, who were dependent mostly on their numerical strength to win their demands.

The Aragalaya protest movement disintegrated owing to crackdowns, and the government has since embarked on a witch-hunt against its leaders. Notorious drug kingpin, Kanjipani Imran, secured bail and fled the country, but student leader Wasantha Mudalige, who was involved in Aragalaya, has been arrested and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! The government will not be able to deal with the protesting professionals in a similar manner, for they possess trade union power, which they will not hesitate to use if push comes to shove.

It behoves the government to stop playing with fire and get the representatives of the warring professionals around the table without provoking them further. The sooner, the better!

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Editorial

Doublespeak and reverse speech

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Thursday 26th January, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government is in overdrive to delay the local government (LG) elections while pretending that it is ready to face them. Experience is said to be the best teacher, and the public, having been taken for many a ride, tends to believe the obverse of what the ruling party politicians say. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has asked the UNP, which he leads, to get ready for the LG polls, and the UNP has given a lot of publicity to his directive, the subliminal message being that the government is intent on holding the mini polls, but those who have some acquaintance with reverse speech will argue that the SLPP-UNP combine is trying to mask its intent to postpone the polls.

Not all members of the government are adept at subterfuge and doublespeak unlike their leaders; most of them are blunt about their efforts to make a case for postponing elections. State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya is prominent among them. Whenever he meets the press, he sounds like a broken record; he talks nineteen to the dozen about revenue shortfalls as if to have the public believe that the only way to overcome them is to postpone the LG polls and save the funds to be spent thereon! His latest claim is that during the current month there will be a shortfall of Rs. 10 billion in revenue from the Customs and the Excise Department. This particular figure is of interest; it is exactly the amount of money the LG elections are expected to cost! It is a pity that Secretary to the Finance Ministry, Mahinda Siriwardena, who was once widely considered an upright public official, has also blotted his copybook badly by becoming a ventriloquist’s dummy; when he speaks, one hears the voice of the Minister of Finance. One need not be surprised even if the government stoops so low as to create a fuel shortage and give the people a choice between petroleum imports and elections.

Meanwhile, the SLPP has reportedly launched its LG polls campaign from the precincts of Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kandy, where some of its leaders paid homage to the sacred tooth relic, the other day. That event could be considered an affront to the holy shrine, for the SLPP has become a metaphor for corruption and caused untold suffering to the public; its actions are antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha. Asked by a group of hectoring journalists to comment on the allegation that the government is trying to postpone the mini polls, SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa refused to be drawn in on the issue, claiming that he was not in the government. Paradoxically, his claim is true and false at the same time. It is true because he is not even a government MP. It is false because one does not have to be in a government to control it. That Basil is an eminence grise is public knowledge.

In the early 1920s, cynics used to say the Soviet Union did as the Communist Party said; the Communist Party did as its Central Committee said, and the party Central Committee did as Lenin said. Likewise, the incumbent government of Sri Lanka does as President Wickremesinghe says; Wickremesinghe does as the SLPP parliamentary group says, and the SLPP MPs do as Basil says.

In 1994, the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said the entire Northern Province would be handed over to Prabhakaran for ten years without elections if he eschewed violence. Prabhakaran rejected the offer out of hand. About three decades on, those who boast of having defeated Prabhakaran are apparently trying to rule the entire country at least for ten years without elections on the pretext that electoral contests are far too expensive to be held due to the economic meltdown, which they themselves have caused. If they succeed in having their own way, they will perpetuate the economic crisis so that they and their kith and kin could stay in power without elections indefinitely and continue to live the high life while the people are suffering; in other words, instead of being punished for their economic crimes including that of bankrupting the country, they will be rewarded! It is like a rapist being given the custody of his victims so that he can continue to abuse them! Nowhere else in the world is such a thing possible! One can understand why this unfortunate country has come to be dubbed ‘a land like no other’.

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Editorial

Election phobia

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Wednesday 25th January, 2023

The SLPP and the UNP are trying every trick in the book to postpone the local government (LG) elections for fear of losing them. Their leaders are ready to do everything in their power to derail the mini polls scheduled to be held on 09 March. It is against this backdrop that their alleged attempt to have the Election Commission (EC) reconstituted should be viewed. They are all out to get rid of the EC members, who have refused to pull political chestnuts out of the fire for them.

The SLPP-UNP administration has mastered the art of causing divisions among the members of independent institutions to advance its political agenda. It has already made the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka succumb to political pressure by making some of its members turn against its Chairman. Having tried to divide the EC without success, it is apparently trying to replace the current commissioners with some pliable characters who will do its bidding.

During the Yahapalana government, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had the Constitutional Council (CC) under his thumb. The less said about the Parliamentary Council that the Rajapaksas set up after abolishing the CC, the better. The CC became a rubber stamp for the UNP. Now that Wickremesinghe has become the President, it is feared that the same fate will befall the CC. One can only hope that the distinguished citizens who have been appointed to the CC will not sully their reputations by becoming putty in the hands of a bunch of failed politicians who are determined to cling on to power like limpets.

A government that fears elections is a danger to democracy, and all those who collaborate with it to delay the LG polls, deny the people an opportunity to vent their anger in a democratic manner and drive them to take to the streets will be held to account one day.

All those who cherish democracy must circle the wagons to frustrate the government’s sinister efforts to delay the LG elections on some pretext or another.

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Sirisena’s plea

Politicians in this country seem to think that they and their family members have a divine right to live off the public. Former President Maithripala Sirisena has said he does not have money to pay Rs. 100 million as compensation to the Easter Sunday terror victims as per a recent Supreme Court order, and unless he receives public help to raise funds, he will have to go to jail.

It is difficult to believe that a politician who has spent billions of rupees on election campaigns over the past several decades and enriched his kith and kin, known for their opulent and sybaritic lifestyles, cannot raise Rs. 100 million. But if Sirisena was telling the truth, then the right-thinking people would not give him a single red cent so that they could have the pleasure of seeing a former President doing time in a state pen!

Basil Rajapaksa got it right when he said, at a media briefing, a few moons ago, that the blame for what President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP government had done should be apportioned to the people who voted for them. It is from those who voted for him at the 2015 presidential election and caused national security to be neglected that Sirisena should seek assistance to raise Rs. 100 million. Arguably, those who enabled him to achieve his presidential dream are responsible for his lapses. The UNP, the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC, etc., threw their weight behind Sirisena in the presidential race, and they are therefore duty bound to ensure that Sirisena pays compensation to the Easter Sunday tragedy victims by helping him raise the necessary funds. The same goes for the political leaders who campaigned hard to make Sirisena the President and benefited from his elevation to the highest position in the country. They include President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Permadasa, Sarath Fonseka, TNA leader R. Sampanthan, and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem. Besides, countless civil society activists backed Sirisena’s presidential bid, and they, too, ought to help him pay compensation to the victims of the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings.

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