Prez warns of hard times ahead
Why did former President Sirisena vacate the Paget Road residence, having made it part of his ‘deal’ with the UNP?
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Priyantha Jayawardena, Gamini Amarasekara, and Kumuduni Wickremasinghe, having examined the arguments put forward by both the petitioner and respondent parties, issued an interim order on March 29, 2022, suspending the decision of the Cabinet-of- Ministers to allow former President Maithripala Sirisena to continue use of the residence occupied by him at Paget Road.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The inordinate delay in filling the remaining vacancies in the Cabinet-of-Ministers underlines the continuing turmoil, within the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, grappling with the worst ever economic-political-social crisis in post-independence Sri Lanka.
UNP leader Wickremesinghe, in spite of having only one National List slot, polled 134 votes in Parliament, whereas his chief rival, Dullas Alahapperuma, secured 82 votes in the July 20, 2022, contest that elected him as the 8th executive president. Wickremesinghe’s job is to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term won at the last presidential election held in November, 2019.
Having comfortably secured the presidency in the first such vote by members of Parliament, Wickremesinghe appointed his first Cabinet on July 22, 2022. The first Cabinet consisted of 18 lawmakers. Twelve vacancies exist as in terms of the Constitution, 30 Cabinet and 40 non-Cabinet ministers can be appointed regardless of the size of the ruling party/ruling coalition.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) secured the lion’s share of portfolios though the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) received the premiership.
Wickremesinghe had no option but to go ahead with the appointment of the Cabinet after the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) declined to join what Wickremesinghe called an all-party government.
But Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Premier (April 12, 2022-July 20, 2022) managed to engineer two crossovers from the Opposition (Galle District SJB MP Manusha Nanayakkara and SJB National List MP Harin Fernando).
Wickremesinghe faced daunting challenges, on multiple fronts as his government struggled to avoid Local Government polls, scheduled for early this year. In spite of its leader being the President, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as the Defence and Finance Minister, the UNP is in a precarious situation. Restricted to just one National List MP (Wajira Abeywardena), the UNP lacks the organisational strength to conduct a Local Government election campaign.
Wickremesinghe’s sponsor, the SLPP, though still the largest party in Parliament, has been weakened by nearly two dozen desertions.
However, Wickremesinghe as wily as his uncle, the late President Jayewardene, remains confident of pulling through.
During a brief informal chat with Editor of The Island Prabath Sahabandu, Editor of The Sunday Island Manik de Silva, Irida Divaina Editor, Udesh Sanjiva Gamage, Divaina Editor, Narada Nissanka, and the writer, Associate Editor of The Island, at the President’s official residence at Mahagama Sekera Mawatha (formerly Paget Road), Colombo 07, the President explained his position on a range of issues.
At that onset of the 40-minute conversation, President Wickremesinghe dealt with the economic crisis and how it could affect the country this year and possible scenarios, depending on the global situation.
Wickremesinghe warned of imminent hike in electricity tariffs while suggesting the fuel and power crisis couldn’t be tackled with a two-hour-and-20-minute power cut. The UNP leader recalled how successive governments had aggravated the power crisis by refusing to increase electricity tariffs since 2015.
Wickremesinghe, however, cannot absolve himself of responsibility for the current predicament as he served the Yahapalana government, as the Prime Minister, from 2015 to 2019.
The President found fault with the media for discouraging successive governments from increasing electricity tariffs.
The President separately received groups of senior representatives of both the print and electronic media at his official residence on Poya Day (06).
Second Prez at Paget
It would be pertinent to discuss the circumstances Wickremesinghe moved to Paget Road residence, previously occupied by former President Maithripala Sirisena.
At the tail end of a politically turbulent five-year term, Sirisena, in his capacity as head of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, secured approval for him to retain his official residence, following the end of his term. Wickremesinghe served as the Prime Minister, at that time, though the proposal was made by the late Mangala Samaraweera, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) raised this issue in Parliament as to whether it would have been fair for the former President to retain his official residence, though he was constitutionally entitled to an official residence, along with security, and a pension, at the end of his term.
Such extravagant facilities granted to ex-Presidents and their spouses should be re-examined against the backdrop of the current financial crisis. There should be consensus among political parties that such benefits entirely depend on their retirement. Twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Sirisena now serve as members of Parliament. Perhaps, ex-Presidents should be constitutionally barred from seeking office as part of the overall measures to improve the political culture here.
A violent group executed a meticulously planned attack on the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s private residence at 5th Lane, Kollupitiya, on the evening of July 09, hours after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Colombo as rioters stormed the President’s House. The group stormed the well-guarded residence in the absence of clear instructions from the military and law enforcement higher-ups. The group mounted the attack after Wickremesinghe stoutly refused to resign. Had Wickremesinghe, in his capacity as the Premier, given in, the protest campaign could have taken a turn for the worse. Perhaps, Wickremesingthe decision to stay put and stand up to the Aragalaya storm troopers helped thwart their plans to storm the Parliament complex.
When the politically motivated gang destroyed Wickremesinghe’s private residence, he moved to the vacant Paget Road residence.
Why did former President Sirisena vacate the Paget Road residence, having made it part of his ‘deal’ with the UNP? Obviously, the SLFP leader’s intention was to occupy the place for the rest of his life. There cannot be any ambiguity about Sirisena’s intentions as far as the Paget Road residence is concerned. But thanks to a case filed by Executive Director of CPA, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, Maithripala Sirisena left the place in May 2022.
A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices Priyantha Jayawardena, Gamini Amarasekara, and Kumuduni Wickremasinghe, having examined the arguments put forward by both the petitioner and respondent parties, issued an interim order on March 29, 2022, suspending the decision of the Cabinet-of-Ministers to allow former President Maithripala Sirisena to continue use of the residence occupied by him at Paget Road.
Prez confident of China,
Making reference to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2022 (minus 11) as well projected GDP this year (minus 04), President Wickremesinghe underscored the fact that Sri Lanka’s recovery depended on external factors, the difficulty in overcoming the ongoing crisis and how global issues could influence developments here. Wickremesinghe was referring to the much anticipated consensus with India and China in respect of the debt restructuring plan.
India had never been part of such a plan, President Wickremesinghe declared, referring to the USD 3.5 bn made available by India last year to meet the developing crisis here. The President acknowledged China’s dilemma in throwing a lifeline as it had to consider the implications of such a move.
According to Wickremesinghe, China deliberated the consequences of setting a precedent. The President explained how finalisation of USD 2.9 bn IMF facility spread over a period of four years could infuse confidence among all concerned.
Commenting on the agricultural sector, the President asserted that a bumper harvest was expected during the Maha season. He also mentioned substantial rice imports last year.
The President explained the adverse impact the loss-making Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the national carrier SriLankan Airlines was having on two State Banks and the subsequent consequences for the Central Bank.
We sought a clarification from the President as regards him calling for explanation from the CPC and SriLankan Airlines over the payment of bonuses last year, contrary to specific instructions issued by the government. Asked whether the Chairmen of the CPC (Mohamed Uvais Mohamed) and SriLankan Airlines (Ashok Pathirage) responded to his call for explanation, the President said they were yet to do so. The President asserted that SriLankan Airlines management granted bonuses ahead of privatisation of the airline. The CPC, too, had responded the same way, he added.
Responding to a query on Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission Janaka Ratnayake’s opposition to the proposed tariff hike, the President reiterated the official, who owned buildings, was personally affected by increaes in electricity prices. The President opined that Ratnayake couldn’t serve as Chairman of the Commission due to a conflict of interest.
Asked whether Ratnayake could hinder government moves, the President said the official couldn’t do. He said there was a dispute between Ratmayake and PUCSL Director General Damitha Kumarasinghe.
Litro Chairman Muditha Peiris received the appreciation of President Wickremesinghe after we commented on his handling of the crisis quite efficiently. (However, serious allegations directed at Litro over the procurement process at a time when the country experienced a balance of payment crisis cannot be ignored. The top Litro management has denied accusations made by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises, during Prof. Charitha Herath’s tenure as the watchdog’s Chairperson).
Purchase of paddy halted
President Wickremesinghe suggested placing Divisional Secretaries (Assistant Government Agents) in charge of a paddy purchase scheme when we pointed out that though the government expected a bumper harvest this Maha season, farmers were up in arms over the failure on the part of the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) to perform its primary duty last year. The President asserted that the PMB should be actually closed down.
We pointed out that over Rs 1 bn, in fixed deposit, belonging to the PMB, hadn’t been utilised, in spite of growing demands for government intervention. We also pointed out that State Finance Minister, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, is on record as having said that the Treasury lacked the wherewithal to launch a paddy purchasing scheme.
President Wickremesinghe stressed the need for a ‘system change.’ The Sri Lankan leader stressed the need for a total overhaul of the system.
Wickremesinghe cited the crisis in the entire education system as a case in point. The need for setting up more government and private universities and the possibility of attracting foreign students, too, was discussed.
Asked whether the government was prepared to review the policy of having a large number of holidays as part of the overall system change President Wickremesinghe acknowledged the need to do so. Wickremesinghe said that he was ready to discuss the issue with religious leaders in an effort to reach a consensus on the reduction of holidays.
The President also stressed the need to streamline Railways and the Central Transport Board after we pointed out how railway services were deliberately disrupted, claiming staff shortage, following the retirement of some of its workers, in line with the government policy.
We also sought a clarification from the President, who also served as the Finance Minister, regarding the inordinate delay in recovering taxes, interests, etc., amounting to Rs 763 bn as disclosed by COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) Chairman Kabir Hashim, while the new and additional taxes were slapped on the entire population. The President responded by saying those were ‘old taxes.’ The President expressed dissatisfaction at the overall revenue collection mechanism. “Revenue should be about 18 to 19 percent of the GDP in a social market economy,” President Wickremesinghe said, while pointing out the requirement to gradually address issues at hand, pertaining to the economy.
President Wickremesinghe, in response to our query regarding accountability issues, dealt with land, PTA, full implementation of the 13th Amendment, and releasing of those who had been in detention for more than 14 years.
The President expressed the belief that Diaspora pressure could ease when his government addressed those issues. That could influence the international community, the President said.
The President was responding to our suggestion that the government should ask for an end to the Geneva process, targeting the war-winning Sri Lankan military, in parallel to the abolition of the PTA, and release of terrorist suspects. We questioned the legitimacy of war crimes accusations against the military after the Tamil community overwhelmingly voted for the war-winning Army Commander, then General Sarath Fonseka, at the 2010 presidential election.
President Wickremesinghe said pressure would begin to ease once the government did away with the PTA and released terrorists suspects.
Commenting on the continuing controversy over the scheduled Local Government polls, President Wickremesinghe said the members of the Election Commission were sharply divided on the timing of the LG polls.
Wickremesinghe indicated that the time was not opportune for Local Government polls, whereas his mandate was to run the country for the next two years.
While tackling national issues, President Wickremesinghe has to be mindful of other problems that may further undermine public faith in the political party system.
A glaring example is allegations made against Ashu Marasinghe. The resignation of Wickremesinghe’s Parliamentary Affairs Secretary, following allegations made by his ex-paramour, Adarsha Karadhana, of him sexually abusing a pet dog. Former MP Marasinghe has immediately initiated legal action against Karadhana and ex-lawmaker Hirunika Premachandra.
The Ashu Marasinghe affair has further weakened public confidence in a corrupt, irresponsible and reckless political party system, struggling to cope up with the worst ever political-economic-social crisis.