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The upcoming election



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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Mahinda’s comeback



Monday 10th August, 2020

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister again, yesterday. Mahinda’s dramatic comeback, five years after his downfall, reminds us of the Oscar-winning, Hollywood super flick, The Revenant. In January 2015, he was left for politically dead upon being beaten by a dark horse in the presidential race. His rivals celebrated his defenestration, as it were, bragging that they had hung (not hanged) him on a window of his Tangalle residence, where he climbed to a windowsill to address a crowd of supporters after his defeat. Many of his trusted lieutenants deserted him and joined the yahapalana government for political expediency and/or for fear of being arrested for their past misdeeds. Mahinda was determined to make a comeback.

Mahinda’s political journey full of twists and turns and trials and tribulations has been a fascinating one. He first became an MP in 1970 and lost his seat in 1977. He re-entered Parliament in 1989 and went on to become the Opposition Leader in 2001 and Prime Minister in 2004 before being elected the President in 2005. After his defeat in 2015, he became an MP again and subsequently the Opposition Leader and the Prime Minister in quick succession.

The 19th Amendment was introduced to curtail the executive powers of President Maithripala Sirisena and strengthen the position of the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It has, in fact, put the Executive President in a constitutional straitjacket; he cannot even hold a ministerial post despite being the head of the Cabinet and the government. Ironically, Wickremesinghe, who became the de facto head of state through constitutional manipulations, has lost his parliamentary seat, and PM Rajapaksa, whom the architects of the 19th Amendment sought to banish from politics by introducing a presidential term limit, is today more powerful than the President to all intents and purposes.

Having defeated Mahinda in the presidential race with the help of the UNP, President Sirisena queered the pitch for him when he tried to enter Parliament as the Prime Minister in 2015. Sirisena also prevented Mahinda from becoming the Opposition Leader, initially. The former, however, began playing his cards well after mid-2018; he pulled out of the UNP-led government and sided with Mahinda. Today, Sirisena is under Mahinda again!

What really worked for the SLPP was the Mahinda-Gotabaya combination. They, however, would not have been able to turn the tables on their political opponents without the backing of their young brother Basil, who was instrumental in founding the SLPP, of which he is the chief strategist.

It was the Treasury bond scams in 2015 and 2016 that sealed the fate of the UNP-led yahapalana government and made Mahinda’s rise in politics easy. The Committee on Public Enterprises, headed by JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti went out of its way to omit the name of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from its report, and the presidential bond probe commission did likewise. But we argued, in this space, that the case against those responsible for the biggest ever financial crime in the country would be heard in the people’s court, and the public would punish the perpetrators. Most of those who tried to cover up the bond scams and defended former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran have been rejected by the people at the recently-concluded general election. Ranil, Ravi Karunanayake, Ajith P. Perera, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Sujeewa Senasinghe are among them. The JVP, which was seen to be cohabiting with the UNP, has lost three out of its six seats in the last Parliament.

It is being argued in some quarters that the UNP’s split made the general election a walk in the park for the SLPP. But one may argue that if Sajith Premadasa and his followers had contested on the UNP ticket under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, they would not have been able to obtain 55 seats; the Sajith faction managed to secure those seats because it had left the UNP, which is having the millstone of bond scams around its neck. The Easter Sunday carnage came as a double whammy for the UNP. President Sirisena was also blamed for neglecting national security and ignoring intelligence warnings of the terror attacks, but he avoided defeat by throwing in his lot with the SLPP.

The new government is not without contradictions. Gotabaya does not suffer fools gladly; Mahinda does. The former stands for a radical change, but most members of the SLPP parliamentary group headed by the PM do not. Those who ruined the previous Rajapaksa government have crawled out of the woodwork. Above all, coalition politics are always problematic. This time around, the Rajapaksa government will not be able to give ministerial posts to all ambitious elements within its ranks to appease them.

Had any other party captured power in Parliament, we would have had the President and the Prime Minister fighting and conspiring to bring down each other. A similar situation would have arisen even if anyone other than a member of the Rajapaksa family had become the Prime Minister from the SLPP. One can only hope that the two brothers will cooperate without succumbing to pressure from the competing power centres within the government camp.


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Absolute Power



John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, a British historian of the late 19th and early 20th century famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…” Absolute power is what the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of the Rajapaksas won last Wednesday and the biggest challenge for President Gotabaya and brother Mahinda, who will continue as prime minister, is to ensure that Acton’s words do not come true in Sri Lanka. Theirs was a stunning victory belying even the wildest expectations of their most optimistic supporters. Conventional wisdom that nobody can obtain a two thirds majority under proportional representation, as JR Jayewardene intended, went with the wind with the SLPP and its allies tantalizingly close to that mark. One hundred and forty five was the official tally, seats won in the electorates plus the national least places – just five short of the magic number. But one must add Douglas Devananda’s two seats in the north to that total, as he is very much a part of the SLPP, having served even in the caretaker cabinet, and the single seat the SLFP won. Even former President Sirisena chose to run under the purple banner as did many other blues who knew the coming colour. No doubt the SLFP will be offered to the Rajapaksas and the UNP will strive to re-unite.

Who would believe that the greens would fail to get even a single MP elected? Most expected the Sajith Premadasa faction, which is also UNP, to do better than Ranil’s team notwithstanding the possession of Siri Kotha and the recent court judgment. Both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa must take the blame for the debacle they have suffered. It is not rocket science that united you stand and divided you fall. That is what has happened to both sides of the UNP. Ranil loyalists say Sajith was too greedy, having been anointed as the presidential candidate last November and been appointed the chairman of the Nomination Board.. He demanded the party leadership as well although his Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) had the UNP’s imprimatur. Premadasa chose not to remember that he had agreed to let Wickremesinghe lead the party till 2025. But Ranil also was greedy, having attained the party leadership by “fortuitous circumstances” (we borrow the words from W. Dahanayaka who used them when he succeeded SWRD Bandaranaike as prime minister) and continued for 27 long years through thick and thin.

He became prime minister and party leader following the assassinations of both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. two UNP stars of the JR era, eclipsed by Ranasinghe Premadasa who first became prime minister and then president. Wickremesinghe had four innings at the prime ministerial crease, though he didn’t serve a full term on any these occasions. He was unlucky to have lost the presidency to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 as the LTTE closed entry to the polling stations at that election and prevented voters living in areas they controlled from exercising their franchise. These were votes that Ranil would have polled. But that was not to be. He must also be given credit for subordinating his own interests in 2015 and throwing the UNP’s weight behind Maithripala Sirisena who the combined opposition fielded against Mahinda Rajapaksa as the common candidate. Siresena could and would not have won that election without UNP backing. Thereafter Wicremesinghe, whatever his own ambitions, conceded his party’s presidential ticket to Premadasa last November.

What the UNP would do with the solitary National List seat it has won has not been decided at the time of writing. A wag remarked that Wickremesinghe would appoint another one of those committees he’s famous for to decide who should take that place! A correspondent, in a letter we publish today quotes Mangala Samaraweera saying that Ranil was the best president we never had. Karu Jauyasuriya was also described as the best leader the UNP never had. That was Ranil’s doing. Despite his admiriation of Wickremesinghe, Samaraweera, notwithstanding his subsequent backdown, threw in his lot with Premadasa as did the vast majority of the UNP’s 106 MPs in the last Parliament. They eloquently expressed the overwhelming majority view within the party of who the better leader would be – at least to win the election. But Wickremesinghe chose not to listen. That he lost even his own seat at Colombo Central, one of the UNP’s strongest bastions, was the result.

What now? The leaders of the two main parties, the SLPP and both factions of the UNP, failed the people massively by nominating the vast majority of those who sat in the last Parliament for re-election. Most of them, certainly from the Pohottuwa, have been re-elected despite the questionable reputations of many. This is the nature of politics – especially landslides when herd instincts takeover. Will the Rajapaksas, faced with the stiffest possible economic challenge in the wake of the Covid pandemic and its aftermath, be willing to take the impossibly hard decisions that the situation demands? There is a strong conviction within knowledgeable circles that big business firmly believes that President Gotabaya is the country’s only hope. He has demonstrated ability to deliver not only as Defence Secretary during the war, but also as Secretary for Urban Development thereafter. There is optimism that he would do what is right leaving the politics to brothers Mahinda and Basil.

Constitutional change, or at least amendment by repealing 19A, was spoken of from most SLPP platforms during this campaign and the one before which propelled GR into office. This was despite a severely adverse minority vote. But the majority community ensured his comfortable election althopugh it did give the victory a racial tinge. Hopefully the baby will not be thrown with the bathwater and the two-term limit, the Constitutional Council, Right to Information, and the Independent Commissions will, with appropriate changes, remain in the statute. After all the Elections Commission ran a fine election, in the teeth of many difficulties, for which it must be congratulated. So also the different political parties and their hot blooded supporters for keeping this election violence free.


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The Gota wave



Saturday 8th August, 2020

It may be quite a while before the Opposition parties figure out what hit them on Wednesday. They are reeling from concussion. The SLPP has secured a steamroller majority in Parliament and needs only a single crossover from the Opposition benches to have two-thirds of MPs on its side; it has 145 seats, and its allies which contested separately in some areas have four seats among them. Time was when it was thought that stable governments were not within the realm of possibility under the Proportional Representation (PR) system. The SLPP leaders have given the lie to this claim.

The SJB came a distant second in Wednesday’s race. In the run-up to the polls, it made numerous promises and even undertook to give as much as Rs. 20,000 each to the needy families a month, but the people voted for the SLPP overwhelmingly. However, the fact remains that winning 55 seats is no mean achievement for a newly formed party.

The UNP underestimated the SJB, which it considered only a minor irritant and expected the ‘sleeping Elephant’ to wake up and fight back. Sun Tzu has said in his Art of War, “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This is exactly what has happened to the Jumbo party, which is now like a wild elephant hit by a train. For the first time in the history of the Grand Old party, it has been left without a single elected MP.

The SLFP has had to ride on the SLPP’s coattails. It could win only one seat under its own steam. It has become a political cripple owing to its disastrous political marriage with the UNP. The yahapalana cohabitation has ruined both the UNP and the SLFP.

The TNA won 22 seats in Parliament, in 2004, with the help of the LTTE, but that number dropped to 16 at the 2015 general election. It lost six seats at Wednesday’s polls; this is a 37.5% drop in the number of its seats. It now has only 10 seats. The EPDP, the SLFP, the SLMC, the TMVP and the SLPP have eaten into its vote base in the North and the East. The TNA is losing its appeal to the public if the erosion of its vote bank is anything to go by.

The JVP’s support base is shrinking. It had six seats in the last Parliament but could retain only three of them on Wednesday. It exploited issues such as the inequitable distribution of national wealth to fuel its terror campaign in the late 1980s. It coined the catchy slogan, kolobata kiri gamata kekiri, (‘milk for Colombo and melon for the village’) to highlight the glaring urban bias in development initiatives and the allocation of state resources. Thirty years on, it has come to be dependent on Colombo and an adjoining urban centre to secure representation in Parliament! On Wednesday, it lost badly in the areas that constituted the heartland of its militancy such as Matara, Galle, Hambantota and Moneragala. The present-day JVP leaders have lost their hold on what may be called the Wijeweera belt, which stretches along the southern littoral.

President Rajapaksa, who leads a socio-political movement that seeks a radical change in national politics, is keen to accomplish his mission, but the SLPP parliamentary group consists of a bunch of politicians determined to restore the status quo ante. Group dynamics of the new government might result in friction, if not conflict, between the discordant sections within the SLPP. The numerical strength of a government does not necessarily translate into its stability, as we saw in the late 2014, when a seemingly monolithic Rajapaksa government with a two-thirds majority in Parliament disintegrated.

People have reposed their trust in the SLPP again by giving it a fresh mandate to rebuild the economy, safeguard national security and usher in development. This is a tall order, given the global health emergency and the sorry state of the national economy. Whether the SLPP leaders will learn from their past mistakes, which are legion, act wisely and manage their electoral fortunes properly, while living up to people’s expectations, or squander them big time, as they did from 2010 to 2015, remains to be seen.


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