Ceneral Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Minister Duminda Dissanayake said that the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP) have made sacrifices as political parties to introduce a new political culture to the country. He requested people not to look at this move with suspicion but be open minded to welcome the national government which is a new experience targeted for better social, political and economical reforms.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Waruni Karunarathne
Q: The SLFP initially had some concerns related to the MoU signed with the UNP which delayed the swearing in of the new cabinet ministers. Have you by now addressed all concerns to ensure the smooth functioning of the new parliament?
A: We did not have such concerns. The swearing in of the ministers was delayed as we had to get the required number of cabinet ministerial and other ministerial portfolios increased to form a national government. According to the 19A, we have to get the consent of Parliament to increase the number of ministers. Therefore we had to wait until the new parliament was convened to get the consent of parliament. The new ministers swore in a couple of days after the first session of parliament. We had no other issue that delayed the swearing in.
Q: The 19th Amendment was passed after coming to an agreement that 30 cabinet ministers were adequate to govern the country. If that is the case, what was the necessity now to increase the number of ministerial portfolios?
A: If it is one party governing the country, 30 ministers are adequate. However, when forming a national government, we can increase the number of cabinet ministers up to 45 to 50 upon receiving the consent of Parliament. Now a national government has been formed by all the parties coming together. Therefore there was a need to increase the ministerial portfolios.
Q: However, there is a feeling that the number of ministers was increased to satisfy the politicians of the two main parties rather than to serve any purpose of national interest. How do you respond to that?
A: Certainly, when parties come together to form a national government, the parties need to share all the powers that are required to govern the country. We also have to share the responsibility for all the actions taken by the government, share power and share the responsibility of both good and bad. One party cannot keep all the powers and share the responsibility. Now, ministerial portfolios have been shared among many political parties including United National Front (UNF) and the parties within the UNF, SLFP and independent groups who joined the move to form a national government. When we talk about a national government we cannot govern without sharing power, responsibility and ministerial portfolios. It is not only about sharing power, but also in future will have to face both good and bad criticisms and take equal share and responsibility of the actions of the national government. That is why 19A had a provision allowing increasing ministerial portfolios if and when a national government is formed.
Q: Is the SLFP happy with the ministerial portfolios it has received?
A: Clearly, we are not unhappy. Both SLFP and UNP have made great sacrifices to take a decision to introduce a new political culture to this country. We had a history of filling the ‘heads’ required to form a government by getting people to crossover from the opposition. Now, we have come together setting an example to the country as to how we can put an end to the hateful and vengeful politics aside and work in unison. Our objective as a party is to give leadership to such positive changes. Our intention was to build a platform for this new political journey rather than looking at ministerial portfolios or number of ministries that we would get. Therefore, we are very happy about the ministerial portfolios that we have received.
Q: What are the main areas in which the UNP and SLFP finally came to an agreement?
A: We have a set of promises that we made to the people on January eighth this year. We promised to put an end to frauds and corruptions and to build a new political culture and a new country. That is the main objective in which all of us united. When the country was at a point of destabilisation, we identified the need to be united. We came to an agreement to unite as a country to face the issues raised internationally and to overcome the challenges directed to us by the international community. We can see that economy all over the world is collapsing once again. We cannot face such challenges if we are not united. Besides, we know that even though the leaders of the parties do not fight and verbally abuse each other, at the grass root level, people used to fight and die for politics. Even though the roads were carpeted and some development took place, the political platform was not in a good place. Therefore, there is a need to introduce a new political culture. Those are the main areas that we came to an agreement.
Q: During the last election, the SLFP contested under the UPFA with other minor parties in the alliance – and the UPFA is the recognized political party in Parliament. However, none of the minor party representatives of the UPFA has been given any ministerial portfolio. Does it mean that only the SLFP joined the national government?
A: Both the SLFP and the UPFA have signed agreements with the UNP agreeing to form a national government. The main constituency party of the UPFA is the SLFP with about 51% of SLFP members in the alliance who hold key portfolios in the party. That is why we as the SLFP signed a separate agreement with the UNP.
Q: Yet, the UPFA does not only consist of the SLFP – it also consists of other minor coalition parties. By now we do not see any of the minor coalition parties of the UPFA within the national government. In that context, the question about the definition of the ‘national government’ arises. Can it still be called a national government?
A: This is definitely a national government. The SLFP, Muslim parties of the country and independent groups are there within the government. Plus, even though some members of the UPFA did not want to join the government, they have extended their support to the national government. They recognised this as a positive move and a new experience and said that they would give the necessary support for its activities. From other significant constituency parties of the UPFA, we currently have only Chandrasiri Gajadeera and Dinesh Gunawardena in parliament. As the UPFA, we have signed agreement only with them to work under the UPFA. Wimal WeerawansaTs party has been with us based on initial understanding but they have not signed an agreement to be with the UPFA. Therefore the main constituency party of the UPFA with majority members is the SLFP. According to the decision taken by the Central Committee of the party, we have thus agreed to form a national government. The other two members of the UPFA, Chandrasiri Gajadeera and Dinesh Gunawardena have the right to choose to be in or out of the national government.
Q: There are some SLFPers sitting in the opposition. Will it affect the smooth functioning of the new parliament?
A: We have no obstacle. By now 65 of the SLFP have agreed to work in the national government. What happened was that President Maithripala Sirisena made a statement saying that we were ready to give the Opposition Leadership to the opposition in parliament. Some interpreted it wrongly saying that a member of the SLFP from those who sit in opposition would be given the post of the Opposition Leader. As a party we would be thrilled to take the post of the Opposition Leader to the SLFP while we are also in the government. But there was a huge criticism against the SLFP directed by the intellectuals of this country saying that it would be wrong for the SLFP to take the position of the Opposition Leader while being part of the national government. We realised that the Opposition Leadership should be given to someone who is truly in the opposition. It was the right thing to do. As a party we have to take some decisions. If we want to build a new political culture in the country, as a party we cannot commit any wrong. We need to be first to set an example. When Kumara WelgamaWs name was suggested for the post of the Opposition Leader, many must have signed it because he is from our party. If they brought that petition to me, even I would have signed. We should not count the signatures in that sheet to see who is pro or against the national government. As a party, anybody would like to have one of our members as the Opposition Leader. Despite all that, 65 out of 95 members of our party have agreed to be in the national government.
Q: Does the split in the SLFP still exist?
A: Clearly, we do not have a split in the SLFP. Everybody should agree with the decision taken by the Central Committee. People may have their personal ideologies but when they are in the party, they must agree with the decision taken by the Central Committee of the party. Recently, we had our 64th anniversary convention of the SLFP and all the members who took part in the 63rd convention were there. Directly speaking, even Mahinda Rajapaksa came to the same stage with us. If he did not agree with the party decisions he would not have been on the same stage.
Q: When the SLFP and the UNP work together at parliamentary level, will it confuse people when you contest separately at the local government elections? Is there a structure like national government at the local government level for the two parties to work unitedly?
A: No, there won’t be any confusion about the UPFA contesting separately. At the January eighth Election, all of us came together to ensure the victory of the common candidate. At that point also, we told the people clearly that we would contest the general election separately as two parties and later form a national government. In future, we will have to do politics based on party policies unlike in the past where we did politics based on individuals and other factors. Even though we are in the national government, at the local government level we can talk to people about our party policies as the SLFP or the UPFA. That is up to the people to decide which policy that they would adhere to.
Q: Now within the national government, there are parties with multiple political ideologies. Will that affect taking certain decisions within the two years of the national government?
A: When there is a mixed system with mixed ideologies it is much better. Then we do not have to go to extremes but take the good ideas from everybody and build a better system for the country. In the national government, it is not a matter of a crossover situation – it is a matter of parties coming together to work in one platform. In that case, the UNP will have to listen to the ideas of the SLFP and the SLFP will have to listen to the ideas of the UNP – and then take the middle path to come to agreement which is better for the country. However, the public of this country have not experienced this before. That is the reason why they look at this with suspicion. This is like a marriage between two strangers introduced by a proposal. There may be instances of divorce but the majority of such marriages have worked out well. Therefore we have hope that the national government will work for the benefit of the country and for its betterment.
Q: Do you think that you would be able to achieve social, political and economic reforms that you aspire within a period of two years?
A: Definitely we will be able to achieve those objectives and fulfill all the tasks required. As promised at the January eighth election, the President could let go of his executive power which no one else in the world has done before. Nobody quite believed that at first. Now we are at a point beyond what we hoped to achieve in January this year. Within the last several months, we worked together as two parties and delivered the promises we made to the people. In future also, we have the capacity to work together by coming to agreements and fulfill the tasks we promised. We signed a MoU with the UNP for the national government for two years as it is an new experience and unfamiliar to all of us. We can go beyond two years, if required.