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Editorial

The upcoming election

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This is the last issue of our newspaper before the country goes to the polls on Aug. 5 to elect the 13th Parliament since 1947. Talk of ‘floating’ votes notwithstanding, most people have by now decided how they are going to vote or if they are going to vote at all. If various pre-poll analyses are correct, the out-turn at this election is likely to be lower than usual. Voter turnout at elections in this country is relatively high, much more so than even in most developed countries. As many as 83.72 percent of the electorate voted at last November’s presidential election, higher than the 77.66% at the preceding parliamentary election. But many observers expect that there will be much fewer people voting this time round, partly because of ongoing health issues and the lowkey campaigning it compelled. Also, given the presidential election result, some would regard the conclusion as foregone and not bother to vote.

We can all be thankful that violence this time round has been less than previously in recent years. That, unfortunately, is not due to fewer thugs and undesirables running for election or more efficient law enforcement. The ban, or rather the tighter controls, on the display of election propaganda material served the salutary purpose of both sparing the environment and eliminating the ‘war’ between rival poster-pasters as has been common at previous elections. Different figures have been published of how much the contenders have spent on their campaigns. However accurate or not they may be, there is no doubt that big bucks have been splurged as always. But our law as it stands does not require campaign contributions or identities of donors to be disclosed. This is a lacuna that needs addressing urgently. Many large contributors, inevitably big businessmen, regard contributions to political coffers as investments and expect a payback. Some of them also back both sides for insurance, but the public are not privy to who they are and how much they put into different war chests.

Undoubtedly most electors are not happy about the quality of the vast majority of those they send to parliament. But they have no option but to choose a political party or independent group as the case may be, and then cast three preference votes for individual candidates whose names are on the ballot paper. Despite widely prevalent public opinion, political parties have done precious little or nothing to run slates that include people of good repute and integrity and give the voter the opportunity of sending better MPs to parliament. The fact that the vast majority of members of the last parliament are seeking re-election, under the different party banners, speaks for itself. Only a handful of them have performed well and deserve re-election from whichever party they are running from. There are well known rogues and undesirables among the candidates although they might have not been convicted in any court of law. Party leaders cannot cling to the belief that all persons are deemed innocent until they are proved guilty and anoint rank bad people on their lists. Some of those running this time, in the glare of live television coverage, displayed rowdy behaviour in the parliament chamber itself not so long ago.

Successive elections in the recent past have become more and more expensive to the taxpayer who must pay the cost. He might rightly wonder about the cost-benefit ratio of such expenditure with presidential elections following local elections and parliamentary elections, with provincial council elections on the way. Special arrangements that Covid 90 has compelled would add billions to the final tab. But whether all this is going to be worth it is an open question. This election was twice postponed due to the health emergency confronting not only this country but also the whole world. It is well known that the incumbent government was anxious to have the election done and dusted while the UNP would have liked a further delay. This was in the hope that the two factions of the party would then have more space to overcome their differences and present a united front against the SLPP. But that was not to be. The Elections Commission declared that it would abide by the health guidelines laid by the competent authorities. These have been flagrantly violated by most of the contestants who paid only lip service to rules. Not even feeble enforcement efforts were attempted by the police who have long shown a marked reluctance to tangle with political VIPs.

Older readers will have nostalgic memories of the past when parliamentary elections saw high caliber people, many from the old left parties, elected to the legislature. Names that come to mind include N.M. Perera, Colvin. R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, S.A. Wickremasinghe and more recently Sarath Muttetuwegama. The right wing sent giants like D.S. Senanayake and his son, Dudley, SWRD Bandaranaike, JR Jayewardene and many more to parliament. There were no pensions and tax free car permits then. The allowances paid were modest at best even in those pre-inflation days. But the frontbenches on both sides of the old House of Representatives included greats who provided debates of a quality that would have been a pride of any legislature anywhere in the world. The rewards of sitting in parliament then were modest if at all and we did not have the professional politicians of today who have amassed crooked fortunes and got off Scott free.

Criticism abounds on the executive presidential system of J.R. Jayewardene that continues despite the promises of most of his successors who pledged to abolish it. They welshed on that one with one even doing away with the two-term limit via a constitutional amendment enabled by a two thirds majority granted not by the electors but by defectors. Hopefully the voters will do what is best for themselves and our country despite the limited choices come August 5. We will then, as the saying goes, get the government we deserve. That is a price of the democracy that we have long cherished.

 



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Editorial

Machiavellian duplicity

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Thursday 13th June, 2024

It appears that President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP/NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake are taking part in a promise-making competition, as it were, in the North and the East in a desperate bid to secure the support of the TNA and other Tamil political parties for their presidential election campaigns. They have been stumping those parts of the country aggressively during the past few weeks.

Besides offering to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution fully and enhance devolution, Wickremesinghe and Premadasa are providing material assistance to the public in the North and the East obviously with an eye to the upcoming presidential election. The President has been allocating public funds with a generous hand for developing the North and the East as if he were spending his own money for that purpose. Dissanayake has sought to trump his opponents’ bid to woo the TNA and others; in what could be considered a major about-turn on the part of the JVP, he has reportedly offered to go beyond the 13th Amendment in resolving ethnic issues in case of his victory in the upcoming presidential race. He has provided grist to his political opponents’ mill.

The TNA has been wise enough to urge the ‘promising’ presidential candidates from the South to sound the majority community out on their pledges. It has adopted a pragmatic approach; devolution is a contentious issue, and political solutions based thereon require the backing of the majority community to reach fruition. Southern politicians have earned notoriety for reneging on their election promises to all Sri Lankans, and it is only natural that nobody takes them seriously.

There has been a mixed reaction to Dissanayake’s U-turn on devolution. The JVP plunged the country into a protracted bloodbath in a bid to scuttle the Indo-Lanka Accord, the 13th Amendment, and the establishment of the Provincial Councils (PCs) in the late 1980s. It brutally gunned down those who tirelessly campaigned for evolving a political solution to the ethnic problem through devolution. They included Vijaya Kumaratunga and many other leftists. The sea change in the JVP’s policy has been welcomed by the proponents of devolution, as a positive change, but the JVP/NPP will have its work cut out to convince the public that it is not driven by Machiavellian duplicity.

Interestingly, in 2000, the UNP and the JVP jointly torpedoed President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s constitutional reforms Bill aimed at establishing regional councils besides restoring the parliamentary system of government. Kumaratunga said the UNP had pledged its support for the Bill. The Opposition MPs literally set the Bill on fire in the House, claiming that Kumaratunga had inserted some transitional provisions without their consent. If she had done so, they could have sorted out that issue through talks without burning the Bill. It was clear that they shot down her constitutional reform package for political expediency. Now, they are offering to devolve more powers!

It is a supreme irony that President Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake have, at discussions with the TNA, undertaken to hold the much-delayed PC polls. All of them were instrumental in postponing the PC elections in 2017. The UNP with Premadasa as its Deputy Leader at the time, the JVP and the TNA together passed an amendment to the PC Elections Act to put off the PC polls indefinitely. The PCs have been functioning without elected representatives for the last seven years or so. They are currently under Provincial Governors appointed by the President, who also controls the dissolved local government institutions through the Governors. Thus, he has all three tiers of government—Parliament, the PC and the local government authorities under him. He is running a one-man show. Shouldn’t the UNP, its offshoot, the SJB, the JVP and the TNA apologise to the people for what they have done to the PCs?

The JVP finds itself in a contradiction, a huge one at that. Having played a pivotal role in mobilising the masses to oust popularly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over his economic crimes, which sent the country reeling, the JVP, which has committed far worse crimes, such as countless murders and destruction of public assets worth billions of rupees, in the name of an ill-conceived mission to defeat Indian expansionism, abort the 13th Amendment and sabotage the PC system, is now asking the public to buy into its untested claims and elect its leader as the President! This, it is doing without ever so much as tendering an apology for its criminal past!

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Editorial

Playing ball, the govt’s way

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Wednesday 12th June, 2024

Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy is not solely economic or financial; it is multisectoral as evident from the steep decline in standards, inefficiency, corruption and even dysfunctionality affecting other spheres. It has not even spared men’s cricket, which is fast losing its status as the de facto national sport owing to the players’ consistently poor performance and public resentment towards the cricket administration, which has become a metaphor for corruption.

Unfortunately, the only thing dazzling about Sri Lankan cricketers these days is the on-field display of their elegant gold jewellery. Former World Cup winning captain Arjuna Ranatunga, who has famously said the rot in Sri Lanka’s cricket set in, the day cricketers started playing for money, stands vindicated.

Sports Minister Harin Fernando is drawing heavy flak for having issued a controversial gazette, seeking to enable the Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) President and Secretary to remain in their positions for eight years and thereafter serve as Executive Committee members. The SLPP-UNP government is currently in the extension mode, as it were. It has reportedly granted service extensions to some defence bigwigs and is all out to extend the term of the incumbent Attorney General. The UNP has not given up its efforts to extend President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s term by postponing the upcoming presidential election.

The SLC is running a parallel government to all intents and purposes. It has emerged so powerful that it can have any Sports Minister who refuses to toe its line sacked at will and a person of its choice appointed to that post. Fernando, who is known for his willingness to play ball with cricket panjandrums, got the Sports portfolio following the expulsion of Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe from the Cabinet for taking on corrupt cricket administrators, who have proved that they are above the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

The SLC is no respecter of anyone or any institution here; it is capable of having ICC bans slapped in retaliation when action is taken to rid it of corruption so that the President of Sri Lanka has to tug his forelock before the self-important ICC Chief in India and tender an apology.

Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella has said the Sports Minister Fernando’s gazette has violated a resolution Parliament passed unanimously in Nov., 2023, calling for the sacking of the incumbent office-bearers of Sri Lanka Cricket, but in vain. He has stressed the obvious. Now that Minister Fernando has flown in the face of that parliamentary resolution and thereby caused an affront to the national legislature, what action will Parliament take against him?

Will the Opposition move a no-faith motion against Minister Fernando? Such a move however could prove counterproductive in that the government has enough numbers in the House to scuttle it, and its defeat can be construed as parliamentary approval for Fernando’s gazette. But a no-confidence motion will help expose the MPs who connive with Minister Fernando and his SLC chums to undermine Parliament. An opportunity has presented itself for the government and Opposition MPs to shore up the image of Parliament as well as theirs by joining forces to foil Minister Fernando’s attempt to perpetuate the current cricket administrators’ grip on the SLC.

Kiriella has alleged that the gazette at issue will help the government secure funds for its election campaigns from those who benefit from corrupt cricket deals. That is the name of the game in
Sri Lankan politics. There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch. There are no ‘free’ gazettes either.

One wonders whether some Opposition members are among those who have benefited from the largesse of cricket bigwigs, for those otherwise cantankerous characters have chosen to remain silent on the controversial gazette.

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Editorial

Of that sinister plan

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Tuesday 11th June, 2024

Nothing is more disconcerting to an unpopular regime than the prospect of losing power. Hence the SLPP-UNP government’s desperate efforts to cling on to power by fair means or foul. The Opposition has let out howls of protests against a government move to extend the term of Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam, who is reaching the mandatory retirement age soon. No AG has ever been granted a service extension since Independence, we are told. It is only natural that all Opposition parties have torn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe, demanding that his plan to extend the AG’s term be abandoned forthwith. Their call has resonated with the public and must be heeded.

The unprecedented and unacceptable course of action President Wickremesinghe has resorted to is bound to be counterproductive in that it has come to be widely considered a foretaste of what is to come in case his efforts to win the next presidential election reach fruition.

The government stands accused of trying to subvert democracy to retain its hold on power. Is the service extension for the AG on the cards a part of its strategy to advance a hidden agenda?

It was with the connivance of the AG’s Department that the Yahapalana government postponed the Provincial Council (PC) elections indefinitely in 2017 by amending the PC Elections Act in the most despicable manner; it incorporated a slew of new sections into the amendment Bill at the committee stage, claiming that they had passed muster with the AG. We pointed out editorially that the AG was not infallible and nothing must be added to the Bill, solely on the basis of his advice, making it vastly different from the original version thereof, which had been gazetted and subjected to judicial review. Worryingly, that bad Bill was passed with the support of more than two-thirds of the members of Parliament representing all political parties. Old habits are said to die hard. UNP General Secretary Range Bandara has reiterated his call for a poll postponement purportedly on account of the ongoing economic recovery efforts.

The AG is vested with power to file nolle prosequis, stating his intent not to proceed with cases, as former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris has pointed out. Not that all AGs in Sri Lanka have been impartial and independent. Their subservience as well as partiality to the political authority has been public knowledge. But a service extension given to an AG at the behest of the President will lead to a far worse situation where the state prosecutor will be under obligation to the Head of State as never before, and it will be inimical to the integrity of not only the AG’s Department but also the legal process.

The reasons given by the government for the proposed service extension to AG Rajaratnam are ludicrous, to say the least. In fact, it amounts to an affront to the intelligence of the public for the government to claim that the term of the incumbent AG has to be extended in view of the ongoing probe into the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the X-Press Pearl issue and the IMF programme. This is an indictment of the AG’s Department personnel, particularly, the official who is eligible to succeed Rajaratnam. Is the government of the opinion that the AG’s Department is without any other official capable of handing the aforesaid matters?

The Opposition has claimed President Wickremesinghe is trying to have the AG’s term extended by the Constitutional Council (CC). Prof. Peiris has rightly pointed out that the CC’s mandate is limited to appointments to high posts, and the CC is not constitutionally empowered to handle service extensions. This argument is tenable, and it behoves the government to refrain from causing a further erosion of public faith in the CC, which has already been reduced to an appendage of the SLPP-UNP combine, as was seen in the despicable manner in which the appointment of the incumbent IGP was made. The government had better abandon its sinister plan.

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