Focus/Spotlight

SLPP torn on whether Basil is a panacea or Pandora’s box 

  • a family meets at GR’s residence to resolve crisis over portfolio

  • Yesterday’s meeting concludes without final decision on Basil’s position

  • Basil seeks portfolio with powerful institutions from several ministries

  • MR not ready to yield Finance Ministry and several institutions to Basil

  • Campaign by Basil loyalists undermines work of President, PM, and Government

  • Government rushes to address EU concerns, but says unconnected to GSP+ facility

 

While reports have been published in various media that Basil is expected to be sworn in as a parliamentarian on Thursday (8), Basil loyalists in the SLPP are engaged in an aggressive campaign promoting Basil as the nation’s saviour, undermining the work carried out by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Rajapaksa, and the Cabinet of Ministers during one of the most challenging times the country has witnessed. 

However, it is reliably learnt that Basil’s return to Parliament this week hangs in the balance with a final decision on the exact date of his return yet to be finalised given the prevailing chaos over his portfolio. Basil has clearly stated that he would only enter Parliament if he is to receive the portfolio of his choice – finance – or a powerful ministry of the Government.

However, even by last night, there was no confirmation on Basil’s portfolio.

Premier Rajapaksa last week noted that despite dates of Basil’s return to Parliament being touted by certain individuals, there were several decisions to be made prior to deciding when Basil would be sworn in.  

It is learnt that Basil, supported by a group of his loyalists in government, are demanding their proverbial pound of flesh to secure his position in the Government. Last-minute discussions and negotiations are presently ongoing to reach a final decision on Basil’s position. 

Basil has communicated to the President and Prime Minister a list of institutions required to be assigned to his portfolio, it is reliably learnt.

Despite initial reports in several media that the Prime Minister was planning on resigning as Finance Minister to make way for Basil to take over the portfolio after his return to Parliament, it is now learnt that the Premier would retain the portfolio while some institutions under the purview of the Finance Ministry would be allocated to a new portfolio that would be assigned to Basil.

Given the meetings and work carried out by the Prime Minister during the past few weeks in his capacity as Finance Minister, it is evident that he does not have any intention of resigning from the portfolio.

However, according to Basil loyalists, even if the finance portfolio is retained by the Prime Minister, most of the key institutions under the Ministry would be re-allocated to the new ministry. 

Nevertheless, a final decision has not yet been reached on the matter, as the Prime Minister is being pressured by his loyalists not to give in to the pressures of Basil loyalists. 

Among the institutions requested by Basil to be vested under his purview are the Board of Investment (BOI), Colombo Port City, and Export Development Board (EDB), among others. While the BOI and Colombo Port City are currently held by members of the Rajapaksa family, the EDB is currently vested under the Trade Ministry, held by Minister Bandula Gunawardana.

Seeing Basil’s wish list and the inclusion of the EDB, Prime Minister Rajapaksa had telephoned his brother Basil and expressed concerns over assigning the EDB to him. The Premier had explained that many members of the Government as well as certain sections of the public have already been critical of the powers wielded by the Rajapaksa family within the Government by holding a majority of the key state institutions. The Prime Minister had said that removing the EDB from Gunawardana and allocating it to Basil would add to the mounting criticism that members of the Rajapaksa family were trying to control the entire state machinery.

Proposing a solution to Basil’s request, Premier Rajapaksa had proposed to Basil that whatever institutions he requires to be assigned under his ministry be those taken from within the portfolios held by members of the Rajapaksa family.

However, it is reliably learnt that the Prime Minister had refused to give away several institutions under his purview to Basil’s new ministry. 

It is in this backdrop that Rajapaksa family members in government scheduled a lunch meeting at President Rajapaksa’s Mirihana residence on Saturday (3). 

 

Stalemate 

The meeting yesterday was to be attended by the President, Prime Minister, Ministers Chamal Rajapaksa, and Namal Rajapaksa as well as Basil. 

However, State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa and MP Nirpuna Ranwaka had also attended the lunch meeting.

Basil had attended the meeting after concluding his self quarantine period at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, it is learnt.

The main objective of the meeting was to clear out the issues over the institutions to be vested under Basil’s new ministry in a manner that would not undermine any member of the Government, including the President and Prime Minister. 

Basil was the first to arrive at the President’s Mirihana residence. 

Until the rest of the family members arrived, both the President and Basil had discussed the latter’s impending return to parliamentary politics and how the campaign would be carried out. 

The decisive discussion had commenced once the rest of the members who were to attend the meeting arrived at the venue. 

The discussion, it is learnt, had focused on which member of the SLPP National List would resign to make way for Basil and the portfolio that would be assigned to Basil. 

Basil has clearly informed the rest of the members at the meeting that he would not enter Parliament without receiving a powerful cabinet portfolio where he could deliver what he has promised to the people.

Concerns have then been raised over the negative image of the Prime Minister if he were to hand over the finance portfolio at the present time to Basil.

After hours of discussion, the meeting had concluded without a final decision being reached on the portfolio that would be assigned to Basil. Thereby, Basil’s entry to Parliament is for the time being in the balance.

Nevertheless, the Rajapaksa brothers have agreed to meet again soon to resolve the current stalemate.

However, it is evident that the Rajapaksa family members are currently looking at the line of succession.

According to a Basil loyalist, it is Basil who will be the party’s candidate at the next presidential election in 2024. While Namal was being poised as the next successor, with the President appointing him to several key presidential task forces and also assigning key state institutions under his (the President’s) purview and the Viyathmaga movement, it is now learnt that Namal’s succession is likely to be delayed, as Basil would most likely be the next candidate. This, according to Basil loyalists, will give Namal more time to build himself as an experienced politician.

It is also learnt that a discussion between the Rajapaksa brothers, initiated by the eldest brother, Chamal, was recently held at the President’s residence in Mirihana prior to Basil’s return to the country from the US on 24 June. The meeting was attended by President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Rajapaksa, and Minister Rajapaksa. 

A government source said that Chamal had been in continuous discussions with the President and Prime Minister to resolve the controversy over Basil’s portfolio, the growing split within the governing SLPP as a result, and the clash between Basil loyalists and SLPP alliance partners. 

However, details of the discussion held between the three brothers are yet unknown since it was a closed-door meeting with no other persons permitted to attend it. 

However, given the discussions that were held leading up to the confidential meeting, it is believed that the three senior Rajapaksas would have discussed the need to resolve the internal conflicts in the Government due to the rising economic challenges as well as those posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Supporting Basil

It is also learnt that most of the SLPP National List MPs who had volunteered to resign and make way for Basil in Parliament, have requested for various positions in the Government. Therefore, a final decision is to be reached on who should resign for Basil.

Meanwhile, backbenchers of the SLPP had last week called on Basil to enter Parliament on the SLPP National List. 

The request was forwarded following a meeting that was convened by MP Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon. Around 35 governing party backbenchers had attended the meeting, it is learnt. 

The meeting had lasted for over one-and-a-half hours and after starting the discussion with the current economic and political issues in the country, the backbench MPs have noted the need to urgently address these issues. 

They have pointed out the fast-eroding popularity of the Government and its eventual impact during the next national level election. 

MP Tennakoon had then broached the subject of Basil’s return to Parliament and taking over a key cabinet portfolio. 

MP Sanjeewa Edirimanna had then informed the group that Basil’s return to Parliament is being anticipated not only by a majority of the SLPP membership, but also the country. 

Several governing party backbenchers who were unable to attend the meeting had telephoned and given their consent to urge Basil to enter Parliament. The backbench MPs have also discussed the need to prepare the necessary backdrop for his return to Parliament.  

Meanwhile, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam last Monday (28 June) held a press conference at the party headquarters. 

Kariyawasam said that many MPs are ready to donate their parliamentary seats so that Basil can re-enter Parliament. 

Kariyawasam said that he cannot rule out the request made to Basil to come to Parliament at this time. 

“I have made a strong request for Basil Rajapaksa to re-enter Parliament. He has not rejected the request so far, but there are many things that need to happen. If he comes, there should be a vacancy in Parliament for that. Then he should be appointed. I am proud to say that it is something done by informing the country and not something done behind the scenes,” he said. 

Basil loyalists also leaked to the media that a larger number of SLPP members have signed a letter calling for Basil’s appointment first as an MP and a cabinet minister afterwards. 

SLPP MP Jagath Kumara had told the media that over 113 SLPP MPs had signed the letter. 

He had further stated that the letter had been handed over to President Rajapaksa. 

Another Basil loyalist, MP Ranjith Bandara had last week posted on social media that Basil is under severe pressure by party members to immediately return to Parliament and take over the responsibilities related to the national economy. 

Bandara had stated that the pressure is from the SLPP’s backbench MPs and local government politicians, while Basil had maintained he had no intention of returning to Parliament. 

“He (Basil) has said he prefers to engage in national political work without entering Parliament. However, they (SLPP backbenchers and local government members) have said that the country was in dire need of Basil Rajapaksa’s economic management skills,” he had stated. 

According to Basil loyalists, trade unions affiliated to the SLPP have also exerted pressure on Basil to enter Parliament. 

Meanwhile, State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa was last week quoted in the media as saying that it was Basil who was engaged in most governance-related tasks of the Government at present from behind the scenes. 

He had explained that it was Basil who had prepared programmes for the ministries and monitored its progress. 

According to Shasheendra, it would be easier for Basil to engage in the activities from within the Government than from outside it. 

“I believe that Basil will be able to render a great service if he is assigned a portfolio that enables him to constantly deal with all ministries and monitor their progress,” he had said. 

However, Shashindra had noted that he was not among the 113 MPs who had signed a letter calling on Basil to return to Parliament and take over the country’s economic responsibilities. 

Upon inquiring from several members of the Government, it was learnt that quite a number of government MPs, in fact, did not sign such a letter. 

“There are 114 members of the SLPP in Parliament, the Basil loyalists have said over 113 government MPs had signed the letter. However, there are many government MPs who have not signed the letter,” a senior government source said. 

It was later learnt that the likes of Ministers Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Dullas Alahapperuma, Bandula Gunawardana, C.B. Ratnayake, State Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa, and MP Gevindu Kumaratunga, among others, have not signed the letter. 

Unconfirmed reports state that the letter had been signed by between 30-40 governing party MPs. 

 

Dual citizenship issues 

However, Basil’s dual citizenship is likely to pose a challenge to the Government with several nationalist movements supportive of the Government expressing concerns over the matter. 

Basil had, in the past, clearly maintained that he did not have any intention to revoke his US citizenship. When questions were posed during President Rajapaksa’s presidential election campaign whether he too would cancel his US citizenship, Basil’s response was that he had no intention to do so and that he was not in any hurry. 

Nevertheless, given the key state institutions requested by Basil to be vested under his new portfolio, a senior government source explained that it would pave the way for another protest campaign. 

“The country has witnessed what happened during the Yahapalana Government when a dual citizen was appointed as the Governor of the Central Bank. I don’t think people are ready to encounter such an experience again,” the source said. 

Nationalist forces supportive of the Government vehemently opposed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution mainly due to the inclusion of the clause that enabled dual citizens to enter Parliament. 

However, the protests were quelled with the intervention of the President and Prime Minister. 

Meanwhile, it is learnt that the Chinese Embassy is also concerned over moves to vest the Colombo Port City project under Basil. It is currently under the purview of the Prime Minister. The fact that Basil holds US citizenship when holding authority over key Chinese investments would definitely make the Chinese think twice.  

 

MR’s predicament 

However, talk of Basil’s return to Parliament and acceptance of a key cabinet portfolio in a bid to address the issues faced by the people has had a negative impact on the work of the Government, especially the President and Prime Minister. 

Every time a Basil loyalist expresses confidence in Basil, addressing key concerns of the economy, it further confirms Opposition claims that the Government has failed by indicating the failure of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers to address the challenges growing before the country. 

Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara charged last week that cabinet ministers and members of parliament have been reduced to mere rubber stamps at present. 

He pointed out that dividing ministries without understanding the real issues faced by the country would not help resolve the present crisis situation.   

Taking a swipe at Basil and his loyalists and the ongoing campaign to promote Basil, Jayasekara claimed that Basil wielded much power as a leader in the Government, although he did not hold a ministerial portfolio.

“Basil’s return to Parliament is not an issue. However, it would not resolve the present issues. All these crises have erupted in a government where Basil has played a key role,” the State Minister had claimed. 

 

Focus on fertiliser

The President, meanwhile, continues to focus on his legacy – the conversion of the country’s agriculture sector from being a chemical-based one to one based on organic fertiliser. 

President Rajapaksa had told the Cabinet of Ministers last week that many western countries have expressed keenness to assist Sri Lanka in its oath towards transforming into an organic-based agriculture system.

He had explained that Germany had expressed readiness to support Sri Lanka in this endeavour. 

Referring to the ongoing protests by farmers claiming fertiliser shortages, the President had said that there were sufficient stocks of chemical-based fertilisers for the present harvesting season and the relevant officials and ministers should intervene and address the issue of shortages where necessary.

The President had reiterated to the Cabinet that he would not under any circumstances revert the policy to shift to organic-based agriculture. The fact was also taken up before the Mahanayakes during the President’s recent visit to Kandy. 

Not stopping at that, President Rajapaksa also met with a group of farmers representing all key agriculture areas in the country at the Presidential Secretariat last Thursday (1). 

During the meeting, he explained to the farmers the importance of organic-based agriculture and noted that the Government would not be reversing its policy decision. 

Addressing the issue of possible crop losses incurred by farmers, the President assured that the monies that would be spent on importing agrochemicals would be distributed among farmers as compensation if they record crop losses. 

 

Cabinet reshuffle? 

Meanwhile, talk of an impending cabinet reshuffle continues to make the rounds in political circles. 

The President’s move to conduct a cabinet reshuffle was given fuel by the move to create a new cabinet portfolio to accommodate Basil.  

Members of the Government have since been discussing the possible changes to portfolios that could take place as well as the appointment of several senior government members who had not received portfolios when the Government was formed last year. 

It is in this backdrop that news came that several MPs of the SLFP were likely to be appointed as cabinet and state ministers. Among the recipients of a cabinet portfolio is said to be former President and SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena. News that did the rounds claimed that Sirisena was to be appointed as Environment Minister while the current portfolio holder, Mahinda Amaraweera, was likely to be given another portfolio. 

However, Sirisena was quick to deny these media reports and claimed that he is not set to receive a ministerial portfolio. 

Issuing a statement, Sirisena’s Media Unit stated that media reports stating that he is to be sworn in as a cabinet minister were false. 

The Media Unit further said the former President has not requested the Government to provide a ministerial portfolio or any other designation. 

Former President Sirisena is not expecting any such designations, the statement added. 

 

No-faith motion

The governing SLPP has another issue that requires urgent attention – the no-faith motion handed by the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to Parliament against Minister Udaya Gammanpila. 

Given the growing split in the SLPP between Basil loyalists and one of the governing alliance leaders, Gammanpila, the party would have to hold a serious discussion to decide on the party’s stance on the no-faith motion against Gammanpila. 

Criticism against Gammanpila has been made by SLPP General Secretary MP Kariyawasam, who has publicly called for his resignation as well. 

Kariyawasam had so far maintained that he had publicised the party’s stance on the recent fuel price hikes and therefore, the party’s stance on the no-faith motion would have to be reached following discussion. 

“I presented the party’s stance. We are opposed to the fuel price hikes as a party. The Opposition has now presented a no-faith motion and the party will decide its stance on the matter following a discussion. So far, there is no final decision on the matter. Regardless of the outcome, we will always function as a party,” Kariyawasam had told the media. 

He had further stated that there were no factions within the SLPP, but that the party will always stand against any actions that are harmful to the people and country. 

Several other members of the Basil camp continue to oppose the fuel price hikes and claim that Basil would be able to address the issue and provide relief after assuming his cabinet portfolio. 

However, the key coalition member of the governing alliance, SLFP, has decided not to support the no-faith motion against Minister Gammanpila. 

 

Responding to the President

The United National Party (UNP), meanwhile, last week raised questions over the President’s claims that the economy was well managed during the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Issuing a statement in response to President Rajapaksa’s address to the nation on 25 June, the UNP questioned: “The President claimed that the economy has been well managed during the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If this is correct, why has he chosen to remove the powers from Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, under the 20th Amendment, and empower P.B. Jayasundera to run the economy? Does the President not have faith in his own Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers?” 

The UNP had also alleged that the President’s speech did not address the issues facing the public. The party is of the opinion that it was used as an opportunity to present excuses for why the Government has failed, while blaming the people of Sri Lanka. 

“There are numerous problems facing the country, including the growing threat of Covid-19, the collapsing economy, fertiliser shortages, disruptions to schooling, and the rising cost of living. The President did not address any of these concerns. He instead made excuses as to why he has been unable to solve these problems while avoiding explaining his failure to implement any of the promises made in his manifesto,” the UNP had noted in a statement. 

“When the medical professionals advised him to implement a lockdown prior to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, he ignored them. The President is now accusing the public of causing the third wave of the virus by enjoying the New Year.” 

Voicing concerns over the Government’s failure to control the spread of the Covid-19 virus and the delay in implementing the vaccination programme, the UNP had expressed that these factors forced the country to undergo sporadic lockdowns. 

“The lockdowns cause grave financial burdens for the public. These could have been avoided if the advice of the medical professionals had been followed,” the UNP had stated. 

The party had also mentioned that even though the Health Minister had told Parliament in November last year that they would be purchasing the necessary doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, purchases were made only in March this year. 

“The delay in purchasing these vaccine doses has meant shortages resulting in over 600,000 people being unable to receive the second dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine,” the UNP had stated. 

It was also highlighted that the President’s remarks about the state of the economy during the period of 2015-2019 were inaccurate. 

“At the time of the UNP handing over the government in 2019, the country had $ 7.6 billion in foreign reserves. As of today, the foreign reserves have fallen to less than $ 4 billion. This Government has no plan on how to increase the reserves and deal with the pending loan repayments,” the UNP had explained. 

The UNP had added that the President’s speech spanning 69 minutes had demonstrated a lack of direction. 

 

Responding to the EU

Sri Lanka has apprised the European Union (EU) of progress in specific areas of reconciliation, as part of its regular engagement and dialogue with the organisation. 

Accordingly, the Foreign Ministry on 25 June, had informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, No. 48 of 1979, with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices. 

Following is the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry: 

The EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers on 21 June to appoint a cabinet subcommittee and an officials committee to assist the cabinet subcommittee, to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months. Toward this end, the officials committee was appointed on 24 June, with senior representation from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security; and the Attorney General’s Department, the Legal Draftsman’s Department, the Sri Lanka Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. 

The EU was further informed of the granting of pardon by the President, exercising his powers in terms of Article 34 of the Constitution, to sixteen (16) former LTTE cadres convicted and serving sentences under the PTA, on 24 June. The organisation was also apprised of the process that has been set in motion to release detainees who have been in judicial custody for a prolonged period, under the PTA. 

With reference to progress in ongoing reconciliation mechanisms, the Government has informed the EU of the release of SL Rs. 79 million to the Office of Reparations in June to settle 1,230 processed claims for reparation. An additional Rs. 80 million was released on 29 June to settle a further 1,451 processed claims, out of a total 3,389 processed claims. 

The Government of Sri Lanka maintains a regular, cordial, and multifaceted dialogue with the EU. This includes the constructive co-operation existing between Sri Lanka and the European Commission on the review of the country’s EU GSP+ compliance with the 27 core international conventions. 

In this regard, the Third Cycle of Review of Sri Lanka in the GSP+ Monitoring Process for 2020-2021 is ongoing. As part of this process, the Foreign Ministry has provided to the European Commission through diplomatic channels, the comprehensive response of the Government of Sri Lanka to the list of follow-up questions on the current GSP+ monitoring cycle, in adherence to the agreed timeline. The response was compiled by the Foreign Ministry in consultation with 26 line ministries/state ministries/agencies, and commissions. A GSP+ monitoring mission for the Third Cycle is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on mutually convenient dates in September/October 2021. 

As per the regular engagement between Sri Lanka and the EU, plans are underway to convene the Working Group on Governance, Democracy, Human Rights, and Rule of Law on mutually agreed dates in the fourth quarter of this year. The Foreign Ministry looks forward to convening, in consultation with the EU, the 24th session of the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission in the first quarter of 2022, to review all aspects of bilateral co-operation. 

The Government of Sri Lanka will continue its close and cordial dialogue with the EU with regard to commitments, while demonstrating the country’s substantial progress in areas of reconciliation and development. 

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage have met senior representatives of the Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) Sri Lanka, the Seafood Exporters’ Association of Sri Lanka (SEASL), and trade unions, and reassured them of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the EU GSP+ would continue to remain beneficial to the country.  Meetings with the relevant Chambers of Commerce are scheduled, with a view to updating them on the Government’s engagement with the EU.