The UNP manifesto covers a range of social and economic issues, but what is the main campaign theme for this election? On what basis are you asking the people to vote for the UNP?
The basis is to give priority to the people. Putting people first and ensuring that no province or no person is left behind in development work. People have been ignored by the Rajapaksa regime.
There is no employment, education is in a total mess and you cannot find medicines in hospitals.
Freedom of the people has been taken away completely. Women who constitute the majority of the country do not have rights and benefits as men. So we thought we will focus on these main areas -- economy, education, political freedom and women.
Put theses sectors in order in the first two years and in that period look for the plans to develop the country and give the next three years to reap the benefits. That is our programme in a nutshell.
In 2001 you followed a similar programme didn’t you?
It was different then as the economy had taken a bad turn and people were suffering from power cuts. The harbour and airport had been affected. We had to put the economy in order and look into the benefits for the people. Now, the people cannot survive any more.
You mean you would be looking for immediate relief for the people?
Yes we would look into immediate relief such as pay increases, increases in Samurdhi, increases of allowances for pensioners. We will also give helping hand to businesses that have been affected.
At the Presidential election the UNP backed Gen Fonseka under an alliance and now you have decided to go on your own. What are the reasons?
During the Presidential election Gen Fonseka said he would contest only as a common candidate. We had a common purpose -- the abolishing of the Executive Presidency. At that time the UNP made it clear that it would contest the Parliamentary elections separately. We told the JVP as well.
We announced at public platforms that we would contest under the elephant symbol at the Parliamentary elections. After the Presidential election when the issue came up, the party working committee said we would be contesting under the elephant symbol. We did not discourage any party coming along with us, if they wished to. I spoke to Gen Fonseka. He was not willing to go with the UNP and said he would probably go with the JVP. We said we will have a friendly arrangement.
But, now the UNP is campaigning to vote for the UNP to get Gen Fonseka released?
Yes, we say vote for the UNP to get him released. There are certain legal barriers which we need to overcome by passing legislations. Already Wijedasa Rajapaksa has presented this as a Private Members Bill. We have to form a government to pass this Bill, if we do not form a government we cannot pass this Bill. That’s what we are campaigning so that we can form the government and pass the Bill to get him released.
In 2001 you had the bitter experience of trying to work with a President of a different party and eventually the President took over key ministries and dissolved Parliament. This time, if you form the government how do you hope to get around this problem?
If we had taken action in the first year it would have been difficult for President Chandrika Kumaratunga to continue even as President. The country was in dire straits with the economy going from bad to worse. This is why we worked together.
Unfortunately, in November 2003 the situation changed. This time we are asking for a mandate from the people so that Parliament can be supreme. If Mahinda Rajapaksa is going to respect that we will work with him and work out the legal arrangements as we will not go by any word.
In the event you fall short of gaining a majority to form a government, are you looking forward to forming a
coalition with parties like the TNA and DNA.
We believe that we will be the largest party in Parliament. The present system is unfavourable to the UNP. In our worst moments we can get about 83 to 84 members. If you look at the past five elections, only three governments have had overall majorities. Two were UNP. The other was the PA. Two Parliaments did not have majorities including this Parliament.
These trends will continue since the Government has lost its popularity and has not delivered. On that basis we will be not be restricted to 82. The Opposition will get more. Even in the worst scenario the Opposition can get 105 -- the TNA will get some seats in the North and East and the JVP (DNA) will get some. In that scenario I will say the Opposition will be ahead of the Government. Our aim is within that to be the largest party in Parliament. Then I can say the country has accepted our programme. I will present our programme to other parties and tell them to support it either as a Government member or from the Opposition. I have no problems in working with the TNA or DNA. I am prepared to work even with the UPFA .
In your manifesto you promise a salary increase of Rs 10,000 for public servants, but your opponents say it is not practicable. How do you think the UNP will be able implement such proposal given the current economic situation.
We will pay it in instalments. Initially we will give Rs. 3,500 to give relief to the people. Then we will look at the Treasury and pay the next instalments within 12 months and two instalments thereafter. There is a programme of work through which we have found money. We can save money. Reducing corruption is another way.
Repaying foreign loans is another issue. I will speak to friendly countries and ask them to defer payment of interest and capital payments for one year. Some of the foreign commercial loans are contrary to law. We have to pay back 500 million US dollars to the HSBC by 2012. To pay this every person has to be taxed Rs 3,000 to reach that target. I have told the IMF we want to renegotiate the standby agreement. We are looking at new ways of finding money to get the economy moving and see that the economy has a boom.
You mentioned about abolishing the executive Presidency. What are the powers you want reduced?
We want to establish supremacy of Parliament. The President will come under Parliament. We are suggesting a referendum on the Executive Presidency within six months. We thought we will have a referendum to have a final say on the issue. We will campaign for the abolition of the Executive Presidency.
What about the Independent
They should come into effect
In the event you fail to get power how do you hope to get it implemented.
We will agitate for it, but we are confident that we will get power. We will call for names and the Commissions appointed.
But, still the President can block it by not appointing the Constitutional Council which appoints the members to the independent commissions ?
If he does not do it after we get the mandate, then he will be heading for a crisis.
You have proposals on building national reconciliation, but beyond national reconciliation what do you propose as a political settlement to the North and East.
We have to find solutions to the problems faced by Tamils and the Muslims. The options are there even in the Prof. Tissa Vitharana report. What we are looking at is building a new Sri Lanka where equality is a reality and no one will campaign for a separate state.
As for a political settlement ?
We are for a full implementation of the 13th Amendment immediately. Beyond that we will go for a referendum. If the people accept that we will go for a new constitution. First national reconciliation and then have a referendum where the people can decide.
On the issue of the possibility of your elected members trying to leave the party?
If we are trying to form a government why should they leave? We will not take government people. The candidates themselves have addressed this situation and they themselves have given affidavits.
After the last Presidential election there were complaints of rigging. This time what steps hav been introduced to prevent such a scenario?
The main problem was at the counting centres. It is a question of being alert. Having the circulars alone is not helpful. We have looked at the computer operation. Last time we found the tally sheets missing. Because different parties were involved we could not keep the tally. This time we are looking at all of these aspects. Remember also this time it is a candidates elections. Therefore there is an inbuilt mechanism that minimizes malpractices.
In the event of a defeat, would you consider a change in the role of the leadership
We are looking at going forward. I have no problems about the leadership. I don’t want to be the leader for ever.