President and ministers of both parties say 2017 Budget was the best in many years But divisions persist on issues relating to the bond controversy and COPE report; SLFP wants parliament to initiate action against those found culpable Basil pushing hard to promote new SLPP for next year’s polls but Mahinda likely to take over [...]


UNP-SLFP relations on a political see-saw


  • President and ministers of both parties say 2017 Budget was the best in many years
  • But divisions persist on issues relating to the bond controversy and COPE report; SLFP wants parliament to initiate action against those found culpable
  • Basil pushing hard to promote new SLPP for next year’s polls but Mahinda likely to take over leadership at the right time

By Our Political Editor
Like a see-saw, relations between the two partners of the Government – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – seem to shift between moments of harmony and disharmony.

In the past many weeks this has become a public manifestation casting serious doubts over their once inseparable bond — a marked contrast from the weeks and months that followed the January 8, 2015 presidential election. There were no divisive trends then.

That this is fast changing was reflected in events this week. Ministers met for a special session on Thursday morning. Just hours before Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake delivered the budget speech in Parliament, he briefed, as is customary, his colleagues on the highlights of his proposals. Hardly had he finished, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe showered praise on Karunanayake. He said in his twenty-year stint as a minister, he had not seen such a good budget. Joining him was President Maithripala Sirisena. He noted that in his 15-year stint as minister, he had also not seen such a well-crafted budget. There were cheers all-round for Karunanayake.

Senior ministers listening to the Budget speech in Parliament on Thursday

That UNP-SLFP consensus on the budget was to be expected. Unlike the disastrous first Karunanayake budget last year, there has been consultations between the two sides. This was amid murmurs that SLFP parliamentarians would not vote if the budget placed serious burdens on the people. President Sirisena had named an SLFP team to formulate their own suggestions for incorporation as budget proposals. As revealed in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) on October 23, the SLFP parliamentary group met at the conference hall of the Disaster Management Ministry. They made their suggestions to the team. It comprised Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena and Minister Susil Premajayantha. Later, the trio handed over a report to Finance Minister Karunanayake in the presence of Sirisena. They recommended that measures be taken to reduce prices of essential commodities so the cost of living could be lowered. Now that the two sides have reached consensus on the proposals, the SLFP members will defend the Government at the budget debate now under way in Parliament.

Almost at the same time the special ministerial meeting was under way, State Minister Dilan Perera, who is official spokesperson of the SLFP, addressed a news conference together with Deputy Minister Arundika Fernando. It was held at the SLFP headquarters in Darley Road.

Perera, who was also under probe by the FCID months earlier, said that the parliamentary watchdog Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had presented its report on the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) bond scam to Parliament. It had contained footnotes. It was Parliament that should be the final authority to decide on the next course of action, he said. “I would like to say instead of trying to gain political advantage from this report, they should heed a decision made by Parliament,” he pointed out. He argued that “instead of trying to send the report to the Attorney General, the final decision should come from Parliament after a full debate. He said there should be a mechanism to take action against those found guilty. An SLFP Committee was appointed to ensure that the latest COPE report did not end up in the Parliament Library. “Some parties are trying to blame the father-in-law and save the son-in-law while others are trying to save the father-in-law and blame it on the son-in-law,” Perera said.

The two events this week show growing instances of the good and the ugly side of the UNP-SLFP relations, something which was not seen in public before. Now, news conferences are being held to articulate such positions. That issues are recurring every now and then not only would erode public confidence but also raise worries about instability on all fronts, particularly the economy. It is no secret that such a situation is a strong deterrent to investor confidence. The reams of news releases about millions of dollars of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and foreign funded projects coming in, as the Government claims, raise serious doubts. A fundamental precept for investment is the need to ensure there is political stability, the law and order situation, a stable judicial system, the rule of law and a corruption free environment are all contributory factors. It is no longer a secret that money has to change hands for some investors to win projects or contracts. There are also the local companies which are having a windfall because of their connections with politicians. It also makes clear that the CBSL bond scam is there to stay until Governmental action is initiated. The further it is delayed, the further the issue will persist. An Opposition move that would have brought greater attention to the issue has been thwarted. There will be no vote of No Confidence on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Though the ‘Joint Opposition’ was keen to move such a No-Confidence motion, the SLFP faction led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not in favour. Rajapaksa argues that the Government as a whole should be held responsible and not the Prime Minister alone. As a result, the Opposition parties have agreed to an adjournment debate on the bond scam possibly in the third week of January next year. Though Parliament was expected to sit for four more days after the end of the budget debate, it has now been agreed that no such sessions will be held until January 10 next year.

An earlier date for the debate on the CBSL bond issue, Government leaders had pointed out, was not possible. This was because of a planned debate on the six different subcommittee reports of the Constitution Assembly after sittings resume in January next year. These six reports are to be tabled in Parliament on November 19. It is pertinent to note spokesperson Dilan Perera’s declaration at Thursday’s news conference that “the Government has so far not taken a decision regarding the proposed Constitution.” There is little doubt that the remarks represent the official position of the SLFP. In any case, mustering a two thirds majority is no easy task either, particularly if the SLFP drags its feet on it.

Views on the pros and cons of the budget will unfold as Parliament debates the Finance Minister’s speech and his proposals in the coming weeks. That it will pass muster is not in doubt though the ‘Joint Opposition’ contends it is a “sugar coated pill.” Its leader Dinesh Gunawardena said foreign debts are not being told to the public and the rupee was taking a plunge vis-à-vis the US dollar. This has now led to the belief that things would improve after Donald Trump became the President elect at Tuesday’s elections in the US. This is on the basis that the dollar had fallen. Another senior leader remarked that the concessions granted in the form of price reductions were just a little over Rs. 60. He said the increase of the fine to Rs 2,500 for traffic offences was unreasonable. If a person, say a motorcyclist, is charged twice, he would lose half his salary, he pointed out. He was not thinking, however, of the chaos on the highways and byways motor cyclists were causing to motorists and pedestrians.

Be that as it may, the enforcement of the budget comes in 2017, one which poses serious challenges to the Government. Uppermost will be the local council polls and elections to three Provincial Councils. When the local polls would be held remains an important question. Even Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha, who somewhat like an astrologer made periodic forecasts of dates and grabbed headlines, has now gone silent. Some of the months he forecast have come and gone and the country’s local authorities continue to remain under Commissioners, incompetent as some are for the job.

That bureaucrats are assigned to run local authorities has been bad news for the political base of both the UNP and the SLFP in areas where they mostly draw grassroots level support. Though there was corruption involved when jobs had to be carried out, residents in those areas say, the elected representatives delivered in most instances. This was because they had to go back to the electors for their votes. It is now different with bureaucrats sticking to laws and rules for fear they may otherwise be hauled before the FCID or the CID. It has also seen most councillors and even chairmen switching sides to the Opposition. The SLFP, in particular, has begun appointing organisers to replace them.

There is, however, an element of certainty with regard to elections to the councils for Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces. Their terms cease in September 2017. The elections for the three provinces were held on September 8, 2012. In the event of an early dissolution of the respective Councils, the Elections Commission is empowered to call for elections. Otherwise, it would still become compulsory when their term ends in September. Logically, the local polls would have to be held before that date.

Independent Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya met representatives of political parties on Friday. He told them that the Delimitation Commission had finalised its report. It would now be the task of the Surveyor General to map out the wards in some of the local authorities based on the recommendations of the Commission. Local elections, he said, could be held only thereafter.
Either way, local and provincial polls will become inevitable next year. The SLFP is busy organising its grassroots level organisations. Those who are now being “weeded out” are members considered loyalists of Mahinda Rajapaksa. “We had to make our own preparations since thousands who supported us are being side-lined,” Basil Rajapaksa, the convenor of the new Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP), told the Sunday Times. The new party has grandiose plans to enlist a membership of a million with branches in all 12,500 Grama Sevaka divisions.

Basil Rajapaksa said they were going from district to district conducting seminars on the new party and recruiting members. The Kurunegala, Puttalam, Trincomalee, Galle and Kalutara districts have already been covered, he said.

The former SLFP chief organiser and Minister said that the legal requirements for the party had already been completed with the Department of Elections. It will function on a three-tier basis – as a party by itself, a broad alliance with other parties and different civil society groups. Already, he added, three trade unions of the party had been registered. One was for the public sector, another for state corporations and statutory boards and the third for the private sector.

The emergence of the new political party has laid bare a new reality. Moves by SLFP stalwarts backing President Sirisena to bring about a rapprochement with the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction have failed. Eya apita enna kiyanney danagahala, vendagana (he is asking us to come to him kneeling and worshipping), said a high ranking insider commenting on Sirisena’s intra-party reconciliation efforts. It is clear from the assertions that the Rajapaksa faction does not want to be caught out when its supporters are dropped altogether when the local and provincial polls arrive. They themselves will be left without a platform. Hence, the emergence of the new party. Making a case for this, Basil Rajapaksa noted that “people of this country have no choice at present except for the SLFP and the UNP, both of whom are together.” What would people who now dislike those parties do, he asked, buoyed by the recent grassroots level co-operative society election gains for the Rajapaksa supporters

This clearly places a time frame on Mahinda Rajapaksa. He would have to assume the leadership of the new political party once it is somewhat established, certainly before the local and provincial polls. The new party’s present leader G.L. Peiris is only a stop gap until then. Such a scenario is also not without some danger. Those including Rajapaksa, formally joining the new party, would see their expulsion from the SLFP. They would have factored in that eventuality but a greater split of the SLFP down the line would thus be inevitable. Sadly, the UNP, mired in the bond scam, is unable to harvest the full benefits that would accrue from such a situation. Hence, a string of new uncertainties will cloud the ruling parties at both the local council and provincial polls. The SLPP is gearing itself to exploit that situation.

Adding to those uncertainties are some issues that could easily have been avoided. The latest is the Police firing of tear gas on injured war veterans, most wearing artificial legs, when they were protesting outside the Presidential Secretariat. President Sirisena was to declare publicly that if he was in Colombo, he would not have allowed such a situation to occur. His remarks were more to underscore his genuine concern though one cannot expect the President to be present in places where incidents occur and the Police are found wanting. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament that the police officers involved in the incident would be sacked if they were found guilty. Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake re-iterated the same sentiments. He also said that he was awaiting the report of a Committee appointed to conduct a probe and would table it in Parliament once it is received. A police departmental inquiry was also to be conducted.

The Committee has in fact concluded its findings. It was chaired by Jagath P. Wijeweera, Law and Order Ministry Secretary and included Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, Commanding Officer of the Army’s Western Command and N.A. Weerasinghe, Senior Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Law and Order.

According to a Law and Order Ministry source, the Committee had made some significant revelations. It has noted that there was involvement by third parties who had claimed through the media that it was they who won the demands. It was not so. Since 2008, the wounded soldiers have been conducting their own protests. They had remained peaceful.

The source, privy to the contents of the report, said among the major observations in the Committee report were:
g The Police officers had been acting very sympathetically and with discipline during the protests. However, if there was a better communication and better strategy was used before the water cannon and tear gas were used the situation could have been controlled.
g Since October 31, 2016 there were external parties who had no connection with the protest extending support giving the impression that they were providing leadership. The disabled soldiers whose ambition was to gain their demands too had not rejected their involvement and thereby an external party had taken control of the demonstration.

g Though the Government had resolved an eight-year-long issue in a short period, the decisions taken had not been conveyed to the disabled soldiers and the public at the right time. The failure to communicate the decisions taken at the final stages through the media immediately provided an opportunity for external parties to obtain undue advantages.

g The actions by the OIC of the Fort Police Chief Inspector Gunaratne and Brigadier Ranaraja Ranawaka, Deputy Military coordinating Officer at the Defence Ministry, were of high standard. If not for their assistance the situation would have been aggravated.
g Though DIG Lalith Pathinayaka, (Colombo Division) in sincerity decided to use water cannon and tear gas if there was proper communication as to what was taking place at the discussions the group of some 500 protestors could have been stopped.
g It is observed that the officers stationed had not taken measures to call an army officer to coordinate with the disabled soldiers and also separate them from the external parties instead of using tear gas and water cannon.

g Since the demonstration started DIG Lalith Pathinayake, had kept the State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardena and Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna informed, but had failed to communicate with other senior DIGs, Secretary Ministry of Law and Order or the Minister of Law and Order.

g It is observed that the Police are severely inconvenienced in controlling demonstrations in public places as the high security zones do not exist any longer with the lapse of the state of emergency and the police do not enjoy any special legal power to do so. If there are designated locations for demonstrations the police could direct them to such locations.

g During the entire incident it is clear that the police had received basic police intelligence and a lapse in obtaining information on changing situations exists.The other incident over which the Police came in for severe criticism recently was over the death of two youth in Jaffna on October 21. The Police said in a statement that it was the result of their motorcycle crashing into a wall but later initiated an inquiry to determine Police involvement. “This act of violence by the police in the name of law enforcement is a grim reminder of the brutality that plagues the police force. There is need for extensive overhaul and reform of the police service,” said the Friday Forum in a statement issued on Thursday.

The need for changes in the Police have become imperative after several events in the recent weeks. It was only last week President Maithripala Sirisena told the Sunday Times in an exclusive interview that specialised agencies in the Police were not following up cases where major frauds or misappropriation were involved. In other sectors like crime fighting there had been a serious setback. This is reflected in the rise in the number of murders. Traffic accidents are mounting and the public perception of the Police is at its lowest ebb. There is no gainsaying that there is a greater need now to ensure discipline and an efficient Police service. The Government’s inability to do so will be at its own peril, for the public hold it responsible. In a new year where both local council and provincial elections are due, it becomes imperative.


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