Editorial/Opinion

2020 general election: Securing a two-thirds or not, is the question

Black Box by Capt Vasabha

Less than three weeks before the long-awaited parliamentary election, the country has been rocked with another surge in Covid-19 patients, the looming spectre of another postponement, and scenes of public unrest, as internecine warfare engulfs the governing party alliance.

All set for polls

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has assured that the general election will not be postponed for any reason.

Former parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa said there is no reason for the general election to be postponed.

However, the major election rallies of the SLPP scheduled for 13, 14, and 15 July were postponed.

A statement from the SLPP revealed that these rallies were to be attended by the Leader of the SLPP, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Further, it added the decision to indefinitely postpone the major election rallies were made by the Founder of the SLPP and its National Organiser, Basil Rajapaksa.

In addition, all candidates from the SLPP have been requested to limit their election gatherings and pocket meetings and to strictly comply with the guidelines given by the health officials if there is a need to have any meetings.

“It is the main objective of the Opposition, which is the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), to postpone the election. There is no reason for it to be postponed,” he said.

Rajapaksa further said that as a responsible party, candidates must know to conduct election campaigns in a way that does not affect its supporters, the public, or the nation.

Meanwhile, former Parliamentarian Johnston Fernando said they hope to save the people and the nation, and for the virus to be eradicated world over.

“We do not think like Sajith Premadasa. He is attempting to postpone the election through any means. This is his only intention. These are the intentions of Naveen Dissanayake and Ranil Wickremesinghe as well. The main reason for this is that their party is divided and is set to face a significant loss. The only way to rectify this situation is to postpone the election. How can we delay the election? Even if people die, the UNP’s only focus is to delay the election,” he said.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister and Leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe has called for the postponement of the election.

Wickremesinghe had called for the election to be postponed due to the second outbreak of the coronavirus in the country.

He called on the Election Commission (EC) to announce the postponement of the election now and not wait until the last moment as candidates have already spent funds for their respective election campaigns.

The former Prime Minister also warned that it is vital to take necessary measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, as a second wave will kill the economy.

Prime ministerial candidate of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Sajith Premadasa too called on the Government to postpone the election.

He pointed out that the details of the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak are issued only by the Government. Many doubts have been raised on the truth of the information revealed with regard to the outbreak, he said.

Sajith Premadasa added that the Government had accepted that the second wave of the coronavirus had begun, adding that his party had informed the EC, without striking any deals, that the current situation was not suitable to hold an election.

Shop and talk

Taking a break from the usual political campaigning, Wickremesinghe last Saturday (11) made an impromptu visit to One Galle Face shopping mall in Colombo to observe the current situation faced by businesses due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The UNP Leader visited the store owners, and observed the fact that crowds are no longer coming to the mall.

The shop workers were seen explaining the issues they are facing.

Wickremesinghe that day had informed his campaign members that there was a need to think differently and look at new ways to go among the people, moving aside from the usual election meetings.

The next thing Wickremesinghe’s campaign team had to think of was where best the UNP Leader could venture to meet with people while taking a break from the monotonous campaign meetings.

UNP manifesto

This election has also seen a difference from the usual election campaigns – that is the lack of election manifestos that are usually released by political parties contesting the respective election. These documents often outline the policies of the political party that would be implemented if voted into power.

However, since of late, these policy documents have been transformed into somewhat populist documents depicting a Christmas wish list with most of the proposals/pledges being difficult to implement.

At the outset of the election campaigns, there was some focus on the manifestos the governing SLPP, UNP, and the new kid on the block, SJB, would present to the people.

With only a few weeks to go for the election, policy documents in the form of manifestos have not made an appearance, until last week.

The UNP last Thursday (16) unveiled its election manifesto focused on reviving the economy as well as overcoming the challenges posed by the global Covid-19 pandemic.

UNP Leader Wickremesinghe launched the manifesto digitally at the party headquarters, Sirikotha on Thursday evening in the presence of several party stalwarts and candidates.

Speaking at the launch, Wickremesinghe had said the manifesto is focused on rebuilding the economy which has been severely affected by the coronavirus.

“No country has left the United Nations and we will continue with this policy in the future. During the UNP-led Governments of 2001-2004 and 2015-2019, we have maintained friendly, high-level diplomatic ties with all countries. Among our close allies are India, China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, US, Canada, the UK and the European Union (EU), Russia, the Middle East, countries in SAARC, BIMSTEC, and ASEAN as well as Kenya and South Africa,” the UNP manifesto stated with regard to international relations.

The UNP Leader had said the party will be able to secure funds amounting to $ 6 billion from international lending agencies to stabilise the economy.

Wickremesinghe had said that under a UNP Government, concessions will be offered to electricity and water consumers and the business community while unemployment will be addressed.

He also said that Sri Lanka will seek foreign financial assistance to boost the economy.

Wickremesinghe said three-wheeler operators will also be protected from leasing companies.

He also said that steps will be taken to protect democracy and not weaken the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

The party’s plan focuses on strengthening international alliances with the island’s traditional allies to resolve the looming economic crisis, and an ambitious proposal to place the defeat of Covid-19 front and centre of its agenda. They are calling for PCR testing of suspected patients to double to 5,000 a day and to provide 10,000 ventilators to hospitals while ramping up the number of ICU beds available to treat a sudden surge in symptomatic patients.

The President too, has called for an increase in testing, which is essential to understand the true rate of prevalence of Covid-19 in Sri Lanka. So far, only 130,000 people, or 0.6% (six out of every 1,000 people) in Sri Lanka have been tested for the virus, which is why frequently, seemingly random tests lead to the sudden detection of blowout clusters such as at the Kandakadu Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre or the Welisara Navy Camp, according to epidemiologists.

Manifesto in brief

Among other promises were providing a relief on electricity and water bills as well as reinstating public sector allowances and pension payments that have been suspended by the current Government.

He said the party hopes to provide a Rs. 10,000 monthly allowance to around one million who have lost their jobs.

“Following the collapse of the economy, the Government did not provide relief to the public. The Government has clearly failed to curb the spread of coronavirus. The country cannot go forward without controlling the virus,” Wickremesinghe said.

The party has also promised to install 2,000 ventilators to fight Covid-19.

The UNP manifesto would focus on a few salient issues as a solution to reviving the economy that is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic at both national and global levels.

Their foremost concern is to ensure the country is not hit by a second wave of pandemic. Below are excerpts of the UNP general election manifesto.

Winning the support of the international community

Ensuring the democratic freedoms enjoyed by our citizens are protected and promoted

Ensuring the future generations are empowered with knowledge and skills of the 21st Century

Building a united, likeminded, and peaceful nation in order to preserve the Sri Lankan identity. The need of the hour is a country that has discarded the divisions of the past

Immediately provide relief to the people by improving their financial situation and safeguarding jobs and income. Helping the self-employed and providing relief to the unemployed

Given that the crisis of unemployment in Sri Lanka will increase by over a million, the party is also to look at the welfare of the unemployed, while simultaneously creating new employment and revenue generation opportunities.

The party promises to pay an allowance of Rs. 10,000 a month for the recently unemployed including people returning from overseas employment

Restoring the remuneration allowances of government employees

A moratorium on Enterprise Sri Lanka loans below Rs. 50 million

A payment of Rs. 10,000 to families affected by a lockdown

Protecting Sri Lankan enterprises, both big and small, by establishing an Enterprise Finance Fund consisting of:

(i) Business Support Scheme

(ii) SME Support Scheme

(iii) Export Support Scheme

Utilising financing from:

(i) The IFC private sector financing facilities including the Global Trade Liquidity Programme and the Critical Finance Programme

(ii) ADB $ 20 billion Covid-19 response and other similar schemes together with the Government Business Support Scheme to assist the private sector

Micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) as well as the self-employed segment in the country will be empowered through these funds and related plans. These enterprises will be provided with valid, long-term state bonds to allow them to obtain the required financial assistance.

Private sector employees making payment to their workers will be eligible for support

Export enterprises will be supported

There will also be a special package to regain overseas markets, including:

(a) Assistance to meet the new conditions specified in the buyers’ contracts

(b) Grants for finding new markets. A package for tourism sector hotels, homestays, restaurants, and the self-employed. This will include loan relief grants to re-enter tourist markets and offer packages. Re-training and upgrading staff in the tourist sector

Provide financial assistance to the youth to help develop their entrepreneurial skills, providing them with greater opportunities to enter a sustainable workforce

Offer concessionary loans to three-wheel vehicle owners, allowing them to purchase motor vehicles

A package for leasing companies in lieu of payment for three-wheeler owners

New laws will be introduced to help protect businesses from bankruptcy due to lockdown caused by Covid-19

Safety net for banks with refinancing and similar schemes

Laws will be introduced, making it mandatory for leasing companies to prepare their agreements in either Sinhala or Tamil languages

Liquidity and currency circulation in the local economy will be expanded by the payment of arrears and unpaid bills of contractors and service providers to the Government

The UNP promises to continue to make the national economy internationally competitive. Therefore, it will activate their plans to strategically develop the country’s enterprises, industries, and products to global standards.

Hit on Deshapriya

The usual scandal looked forward to during election periods was briefly witnessed early last week, which saw EC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya in the middle of controversy when UNP Colombo District candidate Oshala Herath exposed, through a social media outlet, an alleged move on the part of the Polls Chief to support the registration process of the UNP breakaway faction, the SJB.

The exposé published on Colombo Telegraph had also exposed conversations between Herath and Deshapriya, which the former had surreptitiously recorded. Herath seemed to imply that the recordings showed Deshapriya acting in a biased manner towards the SJB. However, The Black Box listened to the four recordings and found no evidence of the EC Chairman admitting to or revealing evidence of any wrongdoing.

Had the UNP sanctioned Herath’s manoeuvre, it would have joined the likes of the SLPP in attacking the EC and casting doubts on its independence.

UNP moves away

However, the UNP leadership decided to distance itself from the controversy stirred by one of their Colombo District candidates.

Apparently, the party leadership did not approve of the manner in which Herath had gotten around to gathering details for his revelation, as it had echoes of the leaked telephone conversations of former MP and now SJB candidate Ranjan Ramanayake, which caused significant damage to the party in January this year.

It is learnt that the party hierarchy had decided not to follow through with Herath’s scandal, given the “unethical” manner in which he had gathered information.

“It is clear that the EC Chairman had been somewhat deceived when gathering the information. It is not proper to initiate a discussion on a friendly basis and record conversations without the other person’s knowledge,” a senior UNP official said.

SLFP-SLPP clash

The Sri Lanka Freedom Podujana Alliance (SLFPA) formed between the SLPP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to contest for the upcoming general election in hopes of garnering the majority votes, seems to be cracking under the pressure, as the race for preferential votes is creating a division among the alliance candidates.

The SLFP on Tuesday (14) called a special press briefing presided by the party’s lawyers, where they extensively discussed the potential threats casted towards the alliance by external forces.

It explained that it was the political differences of certain members that prompted the SLFP to field their candidates under the SLFP banner in the Jaffna, Kalutara, and Nuwara Eliya Districts.

However, in the rest of the electoral districts, the SLFP candidates will be contesting under the SLPP banner, honouring the terms of the alliance.

“Lately, our candidates are being targeted by the members of the SLPP on their political stages where they are urging the public to not vote for candidates contesting from the SLFP under the SLPP banner. In the most recent incident, Prasanna Ranatunga, the candidate from the Gampaha District, publicly said that people should not vote in candidates from (the) SLFP and not cast their vote for Maithripala Sirisena – the former President who is contesting from the Polonnaruwa District,” SLFP Acting Chairman Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa noted.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara on Monday (13) had written to the EC indicating that the incident was against the code of conduct for contesting political parties, independent groups, and candidates of the election that was stipulated and published by the EC as per the Gazette Extraordinary No. 2178/25 on 3 June 2020.

Under Clause G: Other Important Matters of the Gazette, point number 10 states: “Refrain from making use of the print or electronic media during the period of the election to make false and unsubstantiated allegations about rival parties and their activities and denying the aggrieved parties of the right to reply.”

“We believe that Prasanna Ranatunga’s statement has deeply affected the alliance that the SLFP and SLPP have at the moment and has relegated the image of the SLFP candidates contesting under the SLPP banner. We have requested the EC Commissioner (Chairman) to look into this matter and advise TV stations to halt the broadcasting of such statements that are made not only by SLPP candidates, but also other party candidates,” the letter further indicated.

Meanwhile, former MP Namal Rajapaksa made a public statement last week that SLPP Leader, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will not return to the SLFP.

Namal has made this comment in response to certain claims made by several SLFP candidates that Premier Rajapaksa will be made the Leader of the SLFP after next month’s general election.

Namal has gone on to say that the Prime Minister has ensured that the SLPP is the strongest political force in the country.

“We did not come out with the intension of returning,” Namal had said, thereby dismissing any suspicion of Rajapaksa replacing Maithripala Sirisena as the SLFP Leader.

It was senior SLFPer Minister Mahinda Amaraweera who had said that Prime Minister Rajapaksa could return to the SLFP and become the Party Leader once again after the general election.

Only one leader

However, several senior SLFPers responded to the claim, saying that the SLFP did not have room for another leader as former President Maithripala Sirisena holds the position.

“Former President Maithripala Sirisena is our Party Leader. Therefore, there is no possibility of having another leader in the party,” SLFP General Secretary Jayasekara said.

“You will have to ask him (Amaraweera) about what he meant when he made that statement,” Jayasekara said when queried about the reason Minister Amaraweera had made such remarks.

Prez. intervenes

The in-house battles within the SLFPA camp have now posed a great headache to the seniors. The continuous squabbling and verbal clashes between members of the SLPP and the SLFP in many parts of the country, especially in the Gampaha, Polonnaruwa, and Matara Districts has caused much concern.

The extent of the concern was viewed last week when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to finally intervene to ensure that discipline is maintained within the SLPP and the party’s focus would be on winning the election as a united front rather than a fractioned one.

The President had heavily criticised the ongoing internal clashes between SLPP and SLFP candidates at the weekly meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers.

President Rajapaksa had said that the mudslinging between candidates of both parties immensely damages the SLPP election campaign and those engaged in vituperative politics have to stop it forthwith.

Meanwhile, Minister Amaraweera had said voters are intelligent enough to take independent decisions to use their franchise, and they would not vote for or against any candidate only because some demand to do so.

“They are not ready to vote or not to vote on the advice of another candidate,” he had said, adding the people have great confidence in the Government.

The President had noted that the people would therefore vote based on the trust reposed on the two leaders.

Meanwhile, former Parliamentarian Susil Premajayantha, addressing a news conference at the SLPP headquarters last week, had said the SLPP had worked with a plan to win sufficient seats at the election. Therefore, they would not need to form a national government to find sufficient seats to pass expected constitutional changes.

“The SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa has a plan to get a two-thirds majority. We are executing that plan at the moment and expecting to win those seats comfortably,” he had said, adding that the SLPP is strong enough to get a two-thirds majority and make necessary amendments to the Constitution – which he insisted will benefit the masses and not create a concentration of power among a few people.

He had further noted that the SLPP would address the shortcomings of the existing Constitution to ensure smooth function of the State.

Signs of unrest

Public sentiment has been drawn to the death of a fisherman in police custody on 10 July at a police checkpoint in Angulana.

Locals in Angulana have been uneasy ever since the event. As of Friday (17), 14 residents including nine women had been arrested for pelting the Angulana Police Station with stones, injuring at least eight police officers.

Police had to fire tear gas to disperse the protestors.

The event is reminiscent of the August 2009 double murder of two young men by the Angulana Police, which resulted in similar protests and backlash following a police cover-up of the killings, resulting in a subsequent CID investigation by sleuth Shani Abeysekara, which led to the conviction and death sentence for four police officers including station OIC T.V. Newton, for carrying out the abduction and murder.

In the more recent case, Police say that the fisherman was killed at the checkpoint following attempts to attack the policemen at the checkpoint and obstruct them from carrying out their duties. However, three police officers involved in the incident have been interdicted on the orders of the Acting IGP.

Countdown

With the general election fast approaching, the electorate will soon have its own chance to weigh in on which party or set of parties it trusts to navigate the country through this crisis.

With the governing SLPP setting its sights on a two-thirds majority, and most of the Opposition parties seeming content with merely preventing this goal from being achieved, in many ways, the result may already have been written.