Caretaker Cabinet concludes duties; final push for polls begins

Black Box by Capt Vasabha 

With a little over a week to go for the 2020 general election, all political parties are now gearing to make its last push for the polls with full force.

The caretaker Government led by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa last week held its last cabinet meeting before the general election. The next cabinet meeting will be held once the new government is formed and the ninth parliament holds its ceremonial opening.

Until then, it is now officially the last stages of the general election campaign and the main contenders, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), United National Party (UNP), and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are all moving forward despite several visible issues ranging from intra-party conflicts to the return of the leadership crisis.

Leadership issue returns

It is evident that when referring to a leadership crisis, there could only be one political party facing the issue – the UNP. The split of the majority of UNP MPs into the SJB just prior to the election campaign is widely attributed to the loss of confidence by most of the party’s parliamentarians in the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, with many assuming that those who remained had confidence in their leader.

During the election campaign period, however, there have been signs that many of those who remained may not have done so out of loyalty to Wickremesinghe, but instead with aspirations of replacing him in what remains of the UNP.

The issue of the UNP leadership and its future has figured twice since in the public domain. First, when former Minister and UNP Colombo District candidate Ravi Karunanayake made a public statement that he was eligible to hold the party’s top slot, making clear his aspiration to replace Wickremesinghe.

However, the most recent statement was made by UNP National Organiser, trade union head, and Nuwara Eliya District Leader Navin Dissanayake.

He had made a public statement that the leadership of the UNP, which had remained unchanged for 26 years, needed to be changed and that he had the required qualifications to become the leader of the party.

Addressing a political meeting in Dimbula, Pathana, Hatton he had said: “I am a straightforward politician. I am one of the seniors in the party; I think I can be its leader. I will become the party leader and if I reach the top post of this country, the President or the Prime Minister, I will first work for the people of Nuwara Eliya.

“I have been in politics for 20 years. I am at the second or third position in the UNP and I want to become the number one.

“I have introduced young leaders to the party. They will take the party forward.

“The United National Party is the oldest political party in the country and a large number of national leaders have emerged from this party.

“It was the UNP that worked for this country. However, everyone knows the UNP is divided today.

“The leadership of the UNP should change. The same person who has been leader for 26 years cannot continue to be the leader of the party,” he had concluded.

Dissanayake had later alleged that a leadership struggle had erupted between SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa and SJB candidate Patali Champika Ranawaka.

Addressing a meeting at Thispane in Kotmale, Dissanayake lashed out at Ranawaka, charging that he was planning to buy over elected MPs to his side and he was eyeing to contest the next presidential election.

The UNP National Organiser branded the SJB as “a rented political party” formed with the sole purpose of dividing the UNP.

“The ‘telephone’ is not the UNP. The UNP is the ‘elephant’; ‘green’ is our traditional colour. The SJB is a rented political party formed to divide the UNP. It is a political party without any policy, future, or second level leadership,” he had added.

In the eyes of many voters, the campaigns of the UNP and SJB have both focused not on the shortcomings of the Government, but on which party is the legitimate heir to the UNP of yesterday. While it is no secret that Premadasa’s popularity has waned in private among SJB seniors, the public attacks on the UNP Leader by Karunanayake and Dissanayake may leave voters wondering why they should elect a candidate in Wickremesinghe, who does not even have the confidence of his remaining party seniors.

UNP defeats SJB

Meanwhile, the UNP managed to enjoy a one-up against the SJB last week when an appeal filed by SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara challenging the Colombo District Court’s order relating to the UNP’s decision to suspend the party membership of 99 SJB members, was dismissed with costs by the Colombo Civil Appellate High Court.

The court has also ordered the appellant-petitioner Madduma Bandara to pay a sum of Rs. 25,000 to the UNP as legal costs.

The Colombo District Court on 22 June had refused to issue an enjoining order against the UNP office bearers since the complainant had failed to disclose true facts relating to the expulsion.

Madduma Bandara had afterwards filed an appeal at the Civil Appellate High Court in Colombo, challenging the District Court’s order which refused to issue an enjoining order preventing the UNP Working Committee’s decision to suspend the UNP party membership of 99 SJB candidates.

SJB manifesto

The SJB last Monday (20) launched its manifesto for the 2020 general election.

The party had expressed commitment to establishing a people-oriented system of governance in their election manifesto that also included focus on national security, a special task force to attract investment, eschewing unsolicited proposals, and maintaining a unitary state.

Premadasa, addressing the gathering at the launch, had said the aim of the SJB was to bring consistency and a people-oriented approach to governance.

The SJB manifesto had reportedly identified job security, support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and restarting tourism as key factors in the post-Covid-19 period.

“Our main aim is efficiency in governance and to do away with wastage. We must provide for the people and be geared to support them. The difference between our manifesto and what you have seen by other political parties in the past is that we have given timelines to reach targets,” Premadasa had said.

He had also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had caused significant impact to the economy and the Government had failed to manage the public health crisis effectively.

“There has to be a strategic plan to tackle international and domestic challenges,” Premadasa had said.

According to reports, the SJB manifesto also proposes a new political economy, which the party claims will be drafted on policies formulated by them following consultations with economists, professionals, the private sector, and the public.

The SJB had stated that it supported a unitary state where the territorial integrity of the country and sovereignty is secured, while carrying out devolution of power within the state.

“We propose a unitary Sri Lanka, a country with the 13th Amendment, not 13 plus or 13 minus,” Premadasa had said, pointing out that leaders before had used the “plus” and “minus” selectively to their benefit when talking to diplomats and the public, but had never implemented clear policies.

The manifesto calls for de-politicisation of the military and Police and to modernise them with technology to counter modern and emerging threats while maintaining a strong focus on counter-radicalisation and terrorism.

The SJB manifesto has proposed a Post-Covid Investment and Development Fund (PCIADF) to revitalise a weakened economy, and investment task force (ITF) to attract new investments to the country, if elected.

It has also proposed the providing of free visa and PCR testing to encourage tourists to visit the island.

According to the SJB, a code of ethics for politicians must be put in place while strengthening independent institutions established to combat corruption, uphold human rights, and manage the judiciary and law enforcement in the country.

Interestingly, the UNP had also proposed similar action in their manifesto launched last week.

The SJB manifesto has proposed to do away with using “unsolicited proposals” in major infrastructure projects and calls for more transparency and competitive bidding to obtain the best outcomes for the taxpayer.

The policy document had also called for the immediate and safe repatriation of Sri Lankan migrant workers and a Rs. 20,000 monthly stipend to be issued to families affected by the Covid-19 crisis.

However, like the UNP and other parties, the SJB manifesto had also failed to indicate the source of necessary funds to carry out the promised relief, given the state’s precarious fiscal position.

The policy document promises to expand support and modernise the provincial secretariats, through which a prospective SJB government plans to broaden the range of public services offered and decentralise some key government services which are currently only in Colombo.

The SJB has promised to roll out more public sector pay increments and incentives for executive grade employees, and update the existing healthcare system and strengthen preventive medicine and treatment in all hospitals.

The SJB has also proposed a national nutrition programme, which was in Premadasa’s presidential manifesto as well.

Premadasa had reiterated his commitment to foster national unity and had called for correcting narratives on nationalism and creating a stable environment where all communities and religions can co-exist in harmony and dignity.

The manifesto had further called for public action to eradicate racism, intolerance, and extremism.

In a similar vein to the UNP, the SJB had pledged to protect the rule of law and democratic institutions and to protect as well as empower the independent institutions created by the 19th Amendment.

The SJB had also called for the eradication of political interference in the judiciary and the Police but did not specify how a prospective SJB government would set about the task.

The party had proposed to complete the Kadawatha-Dambulla and Pothuhera-Galagedara sections of the highway within three years, if elected to office.

In-house battles intensify

On the other side of the divide, tensions arose at an SLPP meeting in Sewanagala on Sunday (19), after a monk vented his anger against politicians for failing to resolve the people’s problems.

The rally had been organised by SLPP Monaragala District Leader Shashindra Rajapaksa and the party’s Wellawaya Electorate Organiser Wimal Galagamaarachchi.

“…if we allow them to act on this platform again, they will understand the people of Wellassa,” the Chief Priest at a temple in the area, Ven. Mahasenagama Nandasara Thera, said.

The area has witnessed a multitude of problems ranging from unemployment, suicides, and other social problems.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who attended the meeting, sought to de-escalate the tensions and urged the people to avoid conducting themselves in a manner that causes rifts within the party.

“It is sufficient for you to remember the number of the candidate whom you want to vote for,” Rajapaksa told party supporters.

He pledged that the provincial council elections will be held if his camp is elected to power at the 5 August parliamentary election.

It is in this backdrop that SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris told the media that the party would focus on setting up a self-critical government after next month’s general election.

Prof. Peiris had opined that despite seeking a two-thirds majority at the general election, the SLPP would attempt to foster a balance of power in the House by being a self-reflective party that would work with the Opposition to improve accountability through the vibrant function of parliamentary bodies such as the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE).

Prof. Peiris had said last Monday (20) at a news conference, that the SLPP would take necessary measures to protect democratic objectives through strengthening parliamentary committee systems and create a culture of “self- criticism” within the Government.

“The Opposition’s objective is not to win the election. They have already acknowledged that the election will be won by us. In that situation the Opposition will be weak. Therefore, the functions and responsibilities attributed to the Opposition cannot be carried out by a weak Opposition. This enhances the duties of the government in power. They will have to be self-critical and the government will have to discharge some of the duties of the Opposition,” he had been quoted as saying at the news conference.

Nominations and donkeys

Meanwhile, a statement made by actress turned politician and SLPP Badulla District candidate Oshadi Hewamadduma on the candidates fielded by the SLPP through its lists for the upcoming general election drew sharp ire from SLPP theoretician and political godfather Basil Rajapaksa.

In a rare public display, Basil Rajapaksa decided to make his displeasure known in public by referring to the matter during a public meeting.

He told a public gathering last week that one of the party’s female candidates had sent him a message saying that there were “horses and donkeys” fielded in the SLPP candidates lists.

“She sent the message and asked what I thought about it. She wanted to know what I had to say to the comment,” he told the gathering.

The SLPP senior then went on to say that his response was: “There are no horses or donkeys in the SLPP lists, but there would have been a donkey in the nominations board to have given nominations to someone like her.”

Mervyn dashes coconuts

Mervyn Silva, who is contesting from the UNP in the Anuradhapura District, was last week seen on social media dashing coconuts.

The notorious politician last week made his way to the Kathiresan Kovil in Anuradhapura, seeking divine intervention to punish those whom he accused of trying to destroy the country’s culture and heritage.

Handing over his offerings to the priest at the kovil, he wanted to pray for divine intervention to punish the perpetrators.

“I don’t want anything and don’t pray for me. Please pray and seek God’s intervention to punish these perpetrators,” Silva said.

After offering prayers, Silva and a group of his supports dashed coconuts outside the kovil.

Be that as it may, the incident Silva was referring to was the controversial demolition of a historically important building in Kurunegala. The issue has become yet another intraparty conflict within the SLPP and has now become the centre of a police probe and judicial intervention.

Wimal-Udaya unison

The National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (HU) led by former MP Udaya Gammanpila last week signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) based on five clauses.

The five clauses include national security, the strengthening of a national economy, and ensuring that the aspirations of the 6.9 million persons who voted for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential election are met.

The MoU was signed at Weerawanasa’s political office located in Battaramulla.

The agreement between the two parties also state that united action would be taken against Wahhabist extremists and that they would not be a part of any government that agrees to support such Wahhabist elements.

The MoU also noted that all action would be taken to ensure the sovereignty of the country and to fight against any form of US and western expansionism and global separatism.

Another pledge was that, if the SLPP faction wins the election, a system would be re-established to revive the uniqueness of Sri Lanka and to create a better future for this country.

“When we were in the Opposition, we made numerous promises to the people of this country,” Gammanpila said. “This agreement is proof of our promise.”

TNA pushes for solutions

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in its election manifesto, strongly advocated for a constitutional arrangement on the model of federalism to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils and other Tamil-speaking inhabitants of the North and East and reiterated that this can be achieved within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka through a process of non-violent and peaceful negotiations.

The TNA, the alliance led by the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), launched its manifesto for the 2020 parliamentary election at the ITAK headquarters in Jaffna last Saturday (18).

“The principles and specific constitutional provisions that the TNA considers to be paramount to the resolution of the national question relate mainly to the sharing of the powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the peoples who inhabit this island,” the manifesto said.

The TNA said that its demands for power-sharing arrangements are based upon several principles, which are fundamental to achieving genuine reconciliation, lasting peace, and development for all the people of Sri Lanka.

The manifesto stated power-sharing arrangements must continue to be established as they existed earlier in a unit of merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a federal structure, in a manner that does not inflict any disadvantage on any people.

The TNA said that the Tamil people are entitled to the right to self-determination in keeping with the United Nations (UN) International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, both of which Sri Lanka has accepted and acceded to.

“Devolution of power on the basis of shared sovereignty shall be over land, law and order, enforcement of the law so as to ensure the safety and security of the Tamil people, socioeconomic development including inter alia health, education, higher and vocational education, agriculture, fisheries, industries, livestock development, cultural affairs, mustering of resources both domestic and foreign, and fiscal powers,” it said.

The manifesto also emphasised that the contiguous preponderantly Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern Provinces are the historical habitation areas of the Tamil people and the Tamil-speaking peoples and the Tamils are a distinct people with their own culture, civilisation, language, and heritage and since time immemorial, have inhabited this island together with the Sinhalese people and others.

The party reiterated all these can be enacted and implemented within the framework of a united and undivided Sri Lanka through a process of non-violent and peaceful negotiations.

The TNA said all Tamil-speaking Muslim historical inhabitants shall be entitled to be beneficiaries of all power-sharing arrangements in the North and East.

The TNA manifesto also referred to the militarisation of the North and East and said it firmly believes that in a democracy, the military’s role is one that is clearly delineated and should be subject to civilian authority and oversight.

“The TNA will continue to challenge the rapid remilitarisation of democratic space and institutions and call for demilitarisation by using multiple means, including through parliamentary processes, international advocacy, and supporting those whose civic rights are being curbed or violated due to militarisation,” it said.

The TNA also said it will continue to advocate for an independent international mechanism for justice and accountability as their efforts made in good faith to seek justice within Sri Lanka have not borne success.

The TNA manifesto also refers to attempts to curb civil liberties and the surveillance, harassment, and intimidation to which civil society organisations, activists, and journalists in the region have been subjected.

“The TNA will challenge these repressive measures, through parliamentary processes, legal interventions, and international advocacy,” it said. The manifesto also addresses several other issues such as reparations, memorialisation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and political prisoners, socioeconomic security, the rights of the displaced people, rebuilding the lives of former combatants, and the role of the international community.

T-minus 10

With just 10 days to go before the parliamentary election, the battle lines are clearly drawn. Unlike any previous general election, the public’s attention this time has been drawn not just to speeches from one party criticising another, but to members of a party criticising each other, threatening their internal vote bases. Whether this dynamic will shift the ground and make the election more than a referendum on the government, into a choice between function and dysfunction, remains for the voters to decide.