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13A takes centre stage, as Government moots PC elections

a year ago

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  • Uncertainty on election system sends politicos into frenzy
  • SLPP divided on ditching 13A or caving to Indian pressure
  • Govt. seeks to host 2026 Commonwealth Games in Sri Lanka
  • President orders cabinet austerity, relief for the masses
  • Romesh de Silva’s new constitution draft expected by year end
The Government, it seems, has now opened a Pandora’s Box with the announcement of plans to hold the delayed provincial council (PC) elections, which would be held under a new electoral system. The announcements created chaos, with members in the governing alliance as well as Opposition trying to fathom the system under which the PC elections would be held. Amidst this, the nationalist movements once again raised objections to the holding of PC elections, claiming the Government should instead focus on introducing a new constitution, as promised by the ruling coalition in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election. Minister Wimal Weerawansa had once again criticised the actions of the Government, asserting that a broad discussion on issues would have resulted in better outcomes. Amidst talk of elections, Sri Lanka, within the first two days of last week, witnessed price hikes for several essential commodities, which had led to anger among the masses, as the public was still struggling to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic resulted in many people’s livelihoods coming to a standstill, while many others suffer from stagnant or deteriorating income levels that do not commensurate with monthly expenditure. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power (NPP) parliamentarian Vijitha Herath last week stated that people were suffering unbearably in a backdrop where the Government was permitting price hikes. Addressing the media, he noted that the current situation was where there was no ruler or government in the country, where the rice mill owners and various companies were fixing prices. He further observed that the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) had printed nearly Rs. 2 trillion, adding that due to this, the prices of goods in the country were increasing rapidly but salaries and household income had not increased. “At this juncture, the price controls on gas, milk powder, flour, and cement were removed. This is not an issue related to dollars. If the issue was the dollar, there would be no need to deregulate rice prices,” he claimed. It would not be long before people start taking to the streets demanding an increase in salaries, he warned. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka reportedly expressed interest in hosting the 2026 Commonwealth Games, BBC reported. According to BBC, Australia, Canada, India, and Sri Lanka had all expressed interest in staging the 2026 Games, but no host had been confirmed. However, such lofty goals were far from the minds of the Government when the Cabinet of Ministers convened last Monday (11). At the meeting, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa instructed his Cabinet, for the second week in a row, to cut down on all state expenses, particularly highlighting the running costs of unnecessary fleets of vehicles being used by the ministries. The move came as the Government felt the heat over the soaring cost of basic items. The high prices of basic goods came up for discussion in depth. President Rajapaksa instructed the ministers to cut down on all state expenses so as to ease the public burden, as the public bore the brunt of the high cost of living. The President further cautioned Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila against fuel price hikes, saying that he would not permit a price hike despite the rising world oil prices, and requested the Minister to seek an alternative way to overcome the crisis. It is in such a backdrop that Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal last Thursday (14) reiterated that Sri Lanka did not need to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for economic support. Cabraal told Bloomberg that Sri Lanka was comfortably able to meet its repayments and therefore did not need to go to the IMF. The Governor noted that there were several foreign inflows including government-to-government agreements that were expected to come in to help Sri Lanka’s economic conditions. Cabraal added that Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was also expected to be revived by this December. The Monetary Board had decided to maintain the Standing Deposit Facility Rate and the Standing Lending Facility Rate of the CBSL at the current levels of 5% and 6%, respectively. Meanwhile, the IMF lowered its growth outlook for Sri Lanka, alongside the rest of the world’s, on the risks stemming from the prolonged virus that gave rise to supply chain disruptions and higher price pressures, which made global recovery a difficult and an uneven affair. In its latest World Economic Outlook report released last Tuesday (12), the multilateral lender lowered Sri Lanka’s growth outlook to 3.6% in 2021, from its July forecast of 4%, as the outlook for the low-income and developing countries took a turn for the worst due to the pandemic and its related ramifications on employment, access to commodities, and rising consumer prices, making policy choices tougher than ever. Clash over fuel Fuel prices will have to be increased if the Ministry of Finance does not provide relief or a price concession, warned Minister of Energy Gammanpila, just two days after he was told unequivocally by the President that an increase was off the table. He made this statement during a media briefing which was held in Colombo last Wednesday (13). Gammanpila said that Lanka Indian Oil Company (IOC) had requested to increase the price of a litre of petrol by Rs. 15 and a litre of diesel by Rs. 25, and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had also requested an increase in prices. Gammanpila said the requests were being considered and a final decision was yet to be made. The Minister continued to push for a fuel price revision claiming that the Government would otherwise have to consider more subsidies to ensure a steady flow of fuel to the market. Sri Lanka’s fuel suppliers were under much pressure earlier due to the foreign reserves crisis faced by the country. Now, with global prices rising, local fuel suppliers continue to feel the heat. Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa, meanwhile, had said that increasing fuel prices in the local market would create further difficulties for the masses. He had told the Cabinet that the Ministries of Finance and Energy will discuss the matter and explore alternatives. Limelight on PC polls Minister Basil Rajapaksa is also pushing for the delayed PC elections to be held. He had pointed out that many issues had arisen due to the PCs being defunct for the past few years. “Numerous problems have arisen due to the inactivity of the PCs for the last three years. It is not acceptable for one person to control the PCs. Currently, the local government bodies and Parliament are in an active state, while the PCs remain inactive. The PC elections must be held soon,” stated Rajapaksa. He made these observations during the recent meeting of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on electoral reforms. Basil had explained that it was important to have public representation at the provincial level, as the state officials alone would not be able to address the needs of the public. Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa assured last Sunday (10) that steps would be taken to introduce a new constitution and a new electoral system as promised to the people. “The new constitution that I promised back then will be introduced within the next year. I will also introduce the new electoral system that the public expects within the same year,” he said. During his election campaign, the President pledged to replace the 1978 Constitution with a new one. The President repeated these assurances at a ceremony held at the Gajaba Regiment Headquarters in Saliyapura, Anuradhapura last Sunday to mark the 72nd anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army. He urged all Sri Lankans to extend their support to move the country forward under the notion of “one country, one law”, without corruption. A nine-member expert committee, led by Romesh de Silva PC, was appointed in September 2020 to draft a new constitution. While an initial draft of the committee’s recommendations was being reviewed by the Legal Draftsman’s Department, the committee was given a three-month extension on its deadline to submit its final draft to the President, leaving it time until December to complete its duties. Several members of the Government, including some senior politicians, had called for the abolition of the PC system and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The call for the removal of the legislation prompted Indian authorities to reaffirm their stance that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should remain and also be implemented in full. Also, the PSC on electoral reforms was appointed in May 2021, chaired by Minister of Education Dinesh Gunawardena and comprising 14 MPs, and two more MPs were added to the committee on 23 September, bringing the total membership up to 16. Nimal Siripala de Silva, Prof. G.L. Peiris, Basil Rajapaksa, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Douglas Devananda, Wimal Weerawansa, Ali Sabry, Jeevan Thondaman, Anura Dissanayake, Kabir Hashim, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Mano Ganesan, M.A. Sumanthiran, Madhura Vithanage, Sagara Kariyawasam, and Rauff Hakeem are the other members of this Select Committee. Many Opposition parties had testified before the committee and had urged for the retention of the proportional representation system. The need for more female representation in the national lists of parties was also raised by MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya. Refuting claims that the PC elections were being looked at because of pressure from India, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. Peiris, during a recent media briefing, had detailed reasons as to why a new bill must be passed in Parliament for the PC elections to be held. “There was no undue pressure exerted on the Sri Lankan Government with regard to the 13th Amendment or the oil tanks in Trincomalee. It is the Parliament of Sri Lanka that decides on how and when the elections of this country will be held. A date has not been decided yet. The Government accepts the responsibility of bringing an Act in Parliament, passing it, and then holding the PC elections,” Prof. Peiris had stated. Meanwhile, a statement was released earlier by the Indian High Commission following the Indian Foreign Secretary’s tour of Sri Lanka, stating that the provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution should be implemented. It added that India was of the stance that steps must be taken to hold the PC elections to ensure that devolution of power under the 13th Amendment is given meaning. During his meetings in Colombo, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla had reiterated India’s position on the complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment, including the devolution of powers and holding the PC elections at the earliest. “During his meeting with the President on 5 October 2021, the Foreign Secretary underscored the importance India attaches to expeditiously taking forward mutually beneficial projects, including proposals to enhance air and sea connectivity between India and Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary thanked the President for his guidance and close co-operation in the defence and security sphere. Furthermore, he reiterated India’s position on the complete implementation of the provisions under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, including devolution of powers and the holding of provincial council elections at the earliest,” the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka said in a statement. Meanwhile, the central government of India is facing continuous pressure from South Indian politicians calling for the implementation of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) parliamentary party Leader T.R. Baalu had on 31 December 2020 sought Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention to stop the abolition of PCs in Sri Lanka, claiming that it would destroy the self-respect of the Tamils in the country, Indian media reports stated. “The Prime Minister should warn that the move would affect the relationship between India and Sri Lanka. The abolition is part of the Sri Lankan Government’s attempt to make Tamils a secondary citizen,” he had reportedly said in a statement. “(The) abolition of provincial councils is against the 13th Amendment enacted based on the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. It is shocking that the External Affairs Ministry and the National Security Advisor remain silent when an agreement signed with India is subjected to question,” he had stated. In April this year, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK)’s Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) M. Thambi Durai raised the issue of Sri Lanka and the delayed polls. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, in response to the concerns, had stated that India supports the call of the international community for the Sri Lankan Government to fulfil its commitments on devolution of political authority, including through the early holding of elections to PCs. However, the PSC on electoral reforms is to meet again this Friday (22). New bill Leader of the House Minister Gunawardena had informed the PSC on electoral reforms that although it was necessary to hold elections to the PCs, which had been functioning without people’s representatives for a long time, there was a legal impediment. He had noted that the elections cannot be held even under the earlier system without passing a new bill in Parliament. Various members of the committee had previously stated at the committee meetings that the PC elections should be held expeditiously, and they had reiterated their views yet again at the last PSC meeting. Gunawardena, while presenting the Attorney General’s view, had stated that the function of the PSC was to make recommendations and not to make laws. “Legislation is a function of Parliament and the existing Government. The Attorney General has informed this committee that although the existing Act on provincial council elections is repealed, PC elections cannot be held by any means without the enactment of a new Act,” Gunawardena had noted. The members of the expert committee were called to the meeting for the analysis of the proposals submitted to the PSC. There had been differing views on changes in the local government, provincial councils, and parliamentary electoral systems among those present. Meanwhile, members of the expert committee who were unable to attend the meeting are to be given an opportunity to make submissions before the PSC on another day. However, minor parties had expressed concerns over the proposed new electoral process. Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) Leader MP Mano Ganesan maintained that Parliament and PCs do not need the mixed system to elect members to represent local electorates. However, Ganesan noted that there was a need for members representing local wards at local government elections. The TPA also noted that the Government had come under local and foreign pressure to hold PC elections, resulting in the decision to hold the same under the proportional representation system. “If the elections are to be held in a mixed system, the demarcation of boundaries has to be redefined. This is a long-term process,” Ganesan had explained in a statement. According to the TPA Leader, the Government and Opposition had agreed to hold the election on the proportional representation system, but it was a temporary agreement to prevent the delay of holding elections. Opposition to 13A As discussions to hold the PC elections are underway, governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Anupa Pasqual had said that a Provincial Councils Act would only make way for separatism. “The Provincial Councils Act paves the way for separatism. That must be amended in a manner that does not affect the sovereignty of our country, or it must be abolished. Foreign countries can propose for us to implement the 13th Amendment, but our leader does not bow down to anyone when making decisions,” he had said at a press conference last Sunday. Several leaders of the Maha Sangha earlier this year pointed out that the PCs were moving towards a “natural death” and need not be kept on life support. In January this year, a letter signed by Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera, Ven. Keppeitiyagoda Sirinmala Thera, Ven. Kamburugamuwa Vajira Thera, Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, Ven. Elle Gunawansa Thera, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, Ven. Induragare Dhammarathana Thera, Ven. Malwane Chandarathana Thera, Ven. Kapugollewe Anandakiththi Thera, Ven. Abhayatissa Thera, Ven. Iththademaliye Indrasara Thera, and Ven. Maduruoya Dhammissara Thera was handed over to the President against the holding of PC elections. The Thero had requested the President not to destroy the ongoing process to formulate a new constitution by holding PC elections. The letter had noted four points: (1) The ability to carry out provincial administrative work without a provincial council, (2) provincial councils have become a tool to achieve political and ulterior motives, (3) provincial councils are a white elephant, and (4) provincial councils will pose an obstacle to the process to formulate a new constitution. Therefore, the Government’s move to push for the holding of PC elections would result in the nationalist forces raising objections over the move and pushing the Government to instead present a new constitution without the provisions of the 13th Amendment. Briefing diplomats Meanwhile, Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. Peiris last Wednesday (13) engaged in a discussion with envoys of foreign diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka, where he briefed the diplomatic community based in Colombo on the stand taken on the human rights issue. During the meeting, Prof. Peiris had stressed on the importance of the European Union’s (EU) Generalised Scheme of Preferences-Plus (GSP+) trade concession to the Sri Lankan economy. According to a Foreign Ministry press release, Prof. Peiris had said that he was satisfied with the discussions that were held with the delegation of the EU GSP+ Monitoring Mission. He had added that the continuation of the GSP+ is vital for the Sri Lankan economy, not only in the apparel sector, but also in other areas of bilateral trade. The European Parliament, earlier this year, called on the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979, as amended, and the European Commission to consider the temporary withdrawal of the GSP+ from Sri Lanka if it is not done. The EU GSP+ Monitoring Mission visited Sri Lanka during the first week of October and met with a number of officials and organisations, both within and outside the Government, in this regard. The GSP+ gives Sri Lanka preferential access to markets in the EU. However, the facility was withdrawn in 2010 after the EU identified three major shortcomings with respect to United Nations human rights conventions (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child) related to the scheme of the GSP+, which is not only a special incentive agreement for sustainable development but also for good governance. The facility was re-assigned to Sri Lanka in 2017 following the improvement of conditions in Sri Lanka and the then Government’s undertaking to implement the relevant international treaties. Minister Prof. Peiris had also briefed the diplomatic community on his recent overseas engagements, including at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva and during his visit to New York, accompanying the President when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). At the UNGA, Sri Lanka stood in solidarity with global efforts to address pressing issues which required a collective approach from all countries, big and small. The Minister had also recalled his statement to the 48th Session of the UNHRC following the presentation of the oral update on Sri Lanka by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, where he outlined Sri Lanka’s ongoing co-operation with the Council as well as the progress made on reconciliation and human rights through domestic institutions. Further updating the diplomatic community in this regard, Prof. Peiris had stated that Sri Lanka is open in acknowledging the challenges faced and will engage in candid discussions in this regard, both domestically with representatives of civil society as well as with international partners including the UN. However, the Foreign Minister had noted that Sri Lanka rejected the establishment of an external mechanism when domestic processes were ongoing. The Minister had also shared information relating to progress on the process of constitutional reform and the PC elections. Non-aligned policy Meanwhile, State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya had stated that Sri Lanka reiterates its firm commitment to the principles and goals of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and pledged support for its noble endeavours to secure the relevance of the Movement for its member states, especially in the current international circumstances. He had made this observation when he represented Sri Lanka at the Commemorative High-Level Meeting on the occasion of the NAM’s 60th anniversary. The State Minister had further noted that it is increasingly becoming clear to all nations of the world that many issues, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, global food security, the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the need for transition to clean energy, need co-operation at multilateral fora such as the NAM. Balasuriya had also called for enhanced co-operation between developing countries in the NAM, which is critical to achieving common objectives, adding that Sri Lanka is unwaveringly committed to strengthening international co-operation to prevent and combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. SL mentioned at UNGA Sri Lanka last week figured in a statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to the UNGA. The High Commissioner had referred to Sri Lanka while updating the General Assembly on the UNHRC’s work. Bachelet had briefed the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural) of the UNGA last Wednesday, during which delegates raised questions about protections for children, older adults, and those living in poverty in a series of interactive dialogues. Bachelet had mentioned her Office’s activities related to transitional justice, including for enforced disappearances and missing persons in Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Lebanon, as well as in the creation of truth commissions in the Central African Republic, Colombia, Mali, and Gambia. She had further noted that her office had advocated for transitional justice processes on missing persons and enforced disappearances in Lebanon, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. “Pursuant to resolutions of the Human Rights Council, OHCHR initiated an examination of the human rights situation in Belarus and an accountability-related mandate with respect to Sri Lanka (see Council Resolutions 46/20 and 46/1, respectively) and continued implementing an evolving mandate on the promotion of accountability regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” UN Human Rights High Commissioner had stated in her report to the UNGA. According to Bachelet, the High Commissioner’s Office contributed to the strengthening of the implementation of the human rights due diligence policy on UN support to non-UN security forces in mission and non-mission settings, providing technical assistance, including in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Libya, Malawi, Mali, the Maldives, Mauritania, Montenegro, the Niger, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, as well as in Kosovo.