LG polls 2018
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 203
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, MP, has contradicted those who had downplayed the importance of the Feb. 10 local government polls. Samaraweera didn’t mince his words when he acknowledged the growing and formidable challenge posed by the war-winning, twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP-led Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), though his colleagues depicted a different picture. Samaraweera, in a statement issued on January 25, warned the electorate of dire consequences over the Rajapaksa group making significant progress.
Declaring that the Feb. 10 countrywide local government poll is much more than a contest to capture political power in local government authorities, Samaraweera asserted: "It is an old regime’s first real attempt to recapture power and restore an old, corrupt and dictatorial order."
Samaraweera warned that electoral inroads made at the forthcoming poll could be utilized to attempt to recapture national control at future elections. The Minister admitted that the outcome of the poll would have ‘national consequences’ and undermined the yahapalana administration. "With the Rajapaksa regime and its fellow barbarians at the gates once more, Sri Lanka is at crossroads at this election," he claimed
Acknowledging the possibility of the January 8, 2015 constituency wavering, Samaraweera, one of those who had spearheaded the campaign, both here and overseas, against the Rajapaksas, in the run-up to the last presidential poll, said: "Perhaps we are not where we hoped to be by this time."
Having reminded the electorate how the then President had brazenly abused power, shot people who asked for clean drinking water and allowed his incompetent brother-in-law to ruin the national carrier et al, Samaraweera said: "On February 10th the people will have to choose once more - will we continue the march to freedom or herald a return to fear."
Samaraweera referred to white vans, grease yakas, attacks on media, killing of journalists, night races in Kandy, Thajudeen killing, though there was no reference to his earlier charge that Rajapaksas had stashed away billions of US dollars in offshore accounts. Samaraweera, some time ago, estimated the Rajapaksas’ ill-gotten stash at a staggering USD 18.5 bn. Did Samaraweera purposely omit that line against the backdrop of the UNP being accused of massive treasury bond scams involving Perpetual Treasuries (PTL), by no less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena. Had the treasury bond scams not taken place, the veteran politician wouldn’t have had to admit: "Perhaps we are not where we hoped to be by this time."
In fact, Samaraweera wouldn’t have had to admit the possibility of former President Rajapaksa making a rapid comeback, if not for the treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016. Widely dubbed Sri Lanka’s biggest single financial fraud, the treasury bond scams dominated both print and electronic media, since March 2015. The reportage of the treasury bond scams certainly embarrassed the yahapalana government, both locally and internationally.
Prime Ministers of Malaysia Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak (Dec 17-19, 2017) and Singapore Lee Hsien Loong (January 22-24, 2018) and President of Indonesia Joko Widodo (January 24-25, 2018) visited Colombo amidst massive media attack on the government over the fraud, with former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris and former Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal mocking the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) whether the issue of former Central Bank Governor Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran was taken up with Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong.
Samaraweera’s statement is revealing. One-time member of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet, Samaraweera obviously realized the risk of Rajapaksa making electoral gains at the Feb. 10 poll ahead of still unscheduled Provincial Council elections.
At the onset of the Eelam war IV, Samaraweera had been Rajapaksa’s Foreign Minister in his first cabinet though he was sacked in early 2007. Having strongly backed Rajapaksa at the Nov. 2005 presidential poll, much to the chargin of the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Samaraweera received the coveted foreign portfolio at the expense of Anura Bandaranaike. Samaraweera relentlessly campaigned against the Rajapaksas until the war-winning leader’s reign was brought to an end, in January 2015. Samaraweera also played a strategic role in the abortive January 2010 attempt to dislodge Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The writer, in a recent live TV 1 ‘Face the Nation’ programme, anchored by Shameer Rasooldeen, explained that the Feb. 10 poll was nothing but a referendum on the three-year-old yahapalana government, whereas election monitors, Keerthi Tennakoon (CAFFE), Asoka Abeysinghe (TISL, Sri Lanka) and Manjula Gajanayake (CMEV) argued the poll under the new electoral system was meant to pave the way for cleaner local level administration and an increase in women representation in local government bodies. The writer asserted that having avoided local government polls for over three years, the government was now facing a crucial test with President Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Rajapaksa battling it out. Having campaigned against Rajapaksa, at two national elections, the civil society groups seemed to be blind to ground realities. Can there be anything as hilarious as expecting cleaner local government administration when no less a person than President Sirisena, who is also the leader of the SLFP, alleging existence of an unholy corrupt alliance in parliament.
Thanks to treasury bond scams, the Rajapaksa led group has been able to make significant progress. In a way, the Feb. 2015 bond scam can be described as an own goal at the onset of a soccer match. If not for the treasury bond scams, those who had been responsible for mega corrupt deals, during the previous administration, would have been in serious trouble now.
UNP strategist Samaraweera’s statement is evidence that the coming contest can inflict an irrevocable setback to an already struggling administration, ripped apart by treasury bond scams. With the Supreme Court recently ruling that the next presidential election has to be held within two years, in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the government seems to be in a deepening dilemma. Close on the heels of the unanimous Supreme Court ruling, the UNP declared that its leader, Premier Wickremesinghe, would contest the next presidential poll. The UNP’s declaration should be examined against the backdrop of the UNP fielding war-winning General Sarath Fonseka and SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena at the 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, respectively.
Samaraweera, in spite of not being Foreign Minister, must be really worried about the local government polls fallout causing serious damage to the constitution making process, which the writer believe is Samaraweera’s priority.
It would be pertinent to mention that Samaraweera, as the first Foreign Minister of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, was instrumental in co-sponsoring the Geneva Resolution 30/1 that addressed accountability issues. In spite of losing the foreign ministry portfolio, Samaraweera, obviously plays a critical role in the overall government effort to introduce a new Constitution, subjected to a referendum. In fact, a new Constitution has been prescribed by Geneva as its primary remedy to achieve post-war national reconciliation.
The ongoing local government polls campaign has been dominated by treasury bond scams, so much so it’ll certainly have a significant impact on the outcome of the Feb. 10 result. Electoral gains achieved by the JO/SLPP will certainly weaken both the UNP and the SLFP ahead of momentous efforts to secure parliamentary approval for far reaching constitutional reforms this year.
The financial fraud is having a telling impact on the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) working overtime to achieve its PRIMARY objective, a new Constitution. TNA Chief R. Sampanthan has sought international backing for his efforts. Last week, Sampanthan, in talks with Colombo-based EU official, Paul Godfrey, underscored the need to table the draft Constitution in parliament, immediately after the Feb. 10 poll. TNA spokesperson quoted Sampanthan as having told Godfrey: "Soon after the local government elections, the process must be expedited and the draft Constitution submitted to parliament and eventually approved by the people, in a referendum. The TNA statement was issued on January 23, immediately after Sampanthan met Godfrey.
On the following day, Sampanthan told Singaporean PM Loong he expected President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe to convince the Sinhala community of the need to bring in a new Constitution, before the end of 2018. Plainly, the veteran politician has totally ignored the crisis caused by President Sirisena and the SLFP stepping up attacks on the UNP over treasury bond scams. President Sirisena stunned the UNP on Friday when he alleged an influential section of the UNP helping certain business enterprises at the expense of the government.
On Saturday, addressing a gathering at Ratnapura, President Sirisena offered to form an SLFP government immediately if the Rajapaksa-led rebel group joined him. President Sirisena inadvertently referred to the SLFP-led UPFA having 96 elected and appointed members in parliament. JO/SLPP MP Ranjith Zoysa dismissed President Sirisena’s offer contemptuously. The MP was addressing a meeting at Wellawaya, chaired by former President Rajapaksa. Zoysa, too, referred to the UPFA having 96 members. The UPFA won 95 seats at the Aug. 17, 2015 parliamentary polls with more than 50 throwing their weight behind Rajapaksa. Forming an SLFP government is certainly not realistic as the TNA and the JVP are unlikely to support such an initiative, under any circumstances. On the other hand, the JO/SLPP will not be deceived by such an offer, especially against the backdrop of President Sirisena controversial declaration, on the eve of the Aug. 17, 2015 parliamentary polls, that Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed Prime Minister in the event of a UPFA victory.
A senior journalist, representing the Tamil media, last Thursday, sought President Sirisena’s explanation as to his battle with the UNP having an impact on the constitution making process in parliament. President Sirisena side-stepped the query. The issue was raised when President Sirisena addressed the media at the President’s House. President Sirisena refrained from responding to the writer’s query whether Sampanthan told him, and Premier Wickremesinghe, of the 2018 deadline for the enactment of the new Constitution, before the matter was discussed with the Singaporean Premier Loong.
The writer used the opportunity to remind the gathering that the Geneva Resolution that had been co-sponsored by Sri Lanka was moved on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations with the military accused of massacring over 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front. The gathering was also told how Lord Naseby used confidential wartime dispatches, from the British High Commission in Colombo, to expose a despicable gigantic lie to move Geneva against Sri Lanka. Asked why his government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, turned a Nelsonian eye to the opportunity provided by the respected Britisher Lord at the expense of his own country, President Sirisena said that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (Ravinatha Aryasinha) had made representations on behalf of Sri Lanka in the wake of Naseby’s revelations.
As far as The Island is aware, Sri Lanka hasn’t so far officially requested members of the Geneva body to re-examine the case. Sri Lanka even refrained from referring to Naseby’s revelations at the recent Universal Periodic Review (UPR), in Geneva, whereas the Britisher requested the UN to examine the controversial circumstances under which Resolution 30/1 was adopted, on Oct. 1, 2015.
The President’s House gathering was reminded that Geneva called for a new Constitution on the basis of unverified allegations, propagated by interested parties.
UN Human Rights Chief Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid-Hussein called for a new Constitution. The unprecedented Resolution has paved the way for a new Constitution, in addition to implementing four specific measures meant to address accountability issues, namely (1) a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international human rights law (2) A Commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (3) An Office for Missing Persons (OMP) and finally (4) An Office for reparations.
Let me reproduce verbatim what Zeid-Hussein stated in his June 28, 2016, address in Geneva:
= Significant momentum has been achieved in the process of constitutional reform. On 10 March, 2016, Parliament adopted a resolution establishing a constitutional assembly to draft and approve a new constitution, or amendments ,by the end of 2016, which would then be put to a referendum, in 2017. The drafting process has benefited from an inclusive public consultation process, overseen by a Public Representations Committee that received submissions and held district level consultations in the first quarter of 2016.
= From a human rights perspective, the constitutional reform process presents an important opportunity to rectify structural deficiencies that contributed to human rights violations and abuses in the past and reinforce guarantees of non-recurrence. These could include a more comprehensive Bill of Rights, stronger institutional checks and balances, enhanced constitutional review, improved guarantees for the independence of the judiciary, effective individual complaints mechanisms and greater direct enforceability of international human rights treaty. Also, as demonstrated by other countries’ experience, is the strengthening of civilian oversight over the military in the form of multiple oversight and accountability mechanisms over defense policy, discipline and promotion, budgeting and procurement. The new Constitution will also be important in facilitating the establishment of the transitional justice mechanisms envisaged by the Government, for instance the criminalization of international crimes in national law or allowing for the involvement of international judicial personnel. At the same time, the High Commissioner hopes that the political process of adopting constitutional changes will not involve tradeoffs and compromises on core issues of accountability, transitional justice and human rights.
Sampanthan now insists that he wants the Geneva project finalised this year.
The TNA has so far not responded to The Island queries as regards its stance on Naseby’s revelations. Recently, a British parliamentary delegation, comprising Conservative Party members, too, declined to answer its position on the Naseby revelations. However, the next Geneva sessions, scheduled to commence in the last week of February, will take up the Sri Lanka issue. The outgoing Geneva Chief will surely reveal his stand on vis a vis Sri Lanka’s commitment to Resolution 30/1. Sri Lanka has been given two years, beginning March last year, to fully implement the Resolution. The Geneva initiative is likely to suffer further in case the Rajapaksa-led group made headway at the forthcoming local government polls. Rajapaksa will certainly capitalize on the situation and maximize its influence, ahead of the elections to nine provincial councils,, before the next presidential contest, followed by parliamentary polls.
Minister Samaraweera’s concerns, as regards the Rajapaksas making a comeback, are real though some continue to pretend the Feb. 10 poll posed no danger. The possibility of a situation that had been caused by a member or members of own party can lead to political catastrophe. Let me remind you how National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa fired the first shots at the then Rajapaksa administration, in early 2014, that eventually led to Rajapaksa’s defeat at the January 2015 presidential poll. Weerawansa flayed the then Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera over the way he managed the economy, then he openly clashed with the then ruling SLFP, leading to a split in the run-up to the Uva Provincial Council poll on Sept, 20, 2014. Although the UPFA managed to secure Uva, comprising Badulla and Moneragala districts, it recorded a significant loss of votes. Weerawansa’s party contested one of the two districts on its own. The former JVP firebrand politician’s campaign caused immense damage to the Rajapaksa administration, ahead of the January 2015 presidential poll. Today, even Weerawansa may have forgotten that he was the first ruling party politician to seek the late Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha thero’s intervention, in June 2014, to heal the Rajapaksa administration. Although he quickly distanced himself from Ven Sobitha, the UNP swiftly moved in with the JHU, too, joining the movement. Weerawansa surely kicked an own goal for petty political reasons, months before the then SLFP General Secretary was approached by the UNP, whose yahapalana dream now is in tatters due to the treasury bond scams, with both the UNP and the SLFP in power, deeply implicated.
Whatever President Sirisena says now, he cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the second far bigger March 29, 2016 scam. The second robbery could have been averted had he acted swiftly and decisively in the aftermath of the Feb. 27, 2015 scam. Instead, he dissolved parliament, in mid 2015, to thwart the presentation of the parliamentary probe on the first scam and then called for general elections, and, on the eve of the poll, dealt a deadly blow to his own party by declaring that Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t be appointed Prime Minister thereby discouraging a sizable number of supporters from exercising their franchise.
The Feb, 10 poll outcome will influence the electorate as the country heads for elections to nine provincial councils, and presidential poll, within the next two years.