Tuesday, 16 June 2020

2020 parliamentary polls: Country at a crossroads



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Finally, the Supreme Court paved the way for parliamentary polls, on August 05, 2020. The ruling was given by a seven-judge-bench, on the afternoon of June 9 in respect of over half a dozen petitions filed, with a divided and beleaguered Elections Commission (EC) further highlighting its differences.

The Supreme Court suspended the then President Sirisena’s gazette notification, calling nominations, from Nov 19 to 26. President Sirisena, in his first televised address to the nation, after the dissolution, alleged that he was prompted to dissolve parliament to prevent MPs being bribed to switch allegiance, as the two camps the UPFA and the UNP battled to gain control of the House. Claiming that lawmakers had been virtually selling themselves for amounts, ranging from Rs 50 mn to Rs 500 mn, President Sirisena said that it was the primary reason for the dissolution. One-time SLFP General Secretary declared that he wanted to thwart bribe-taking lawmakers. President Sirisena gave two other reasons to justify the dissolution of parliament. The President alleged that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s reaction to the situation, as well as the possibility of violence in the chamber of parliament, when it was reconvened contributed to his decision.

Polls campaigning will be quite a challenge for major political parties due to restrictions now in place as part of overall measures to curb the highly contagious coronavirus, or COVID -19. The world is still struggling to cope-up with the deadly disease though Sri Lanka seems to be in control of the situation at the moment. The situation, in neighbouring India, is frightening, with over 500,000 corona cases reported so far.

In spite of the relative stability here, the possibility of a second outbreak cannot be ruled out, before the scheduled polls. However, Sri Lanka could have handled the situation much better if not for negligence on the part of successive governments, since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, which caused the corona outbreak at the Welisara Navy base, as a result of unbelievable congestion, complicating matters somewhat.

If not for the first coronavirus eruption, in the late second week of March, the parliamentary polls could have been concluded on April 25, as originally planned, and new parliament convened by, or before, the June 2 deadline. The EC’s move to conduct the delayed polls, on June 20, went awry, primarily due to the crisis that erupted at the Welisara Navy base. The Navy owed the country an explanation as to why officers and men at the Welisara base, weren’t moved out till the third week of May (19-22) nearly a month after the detection of the first corona patient there, and despite there being daily new detections of new victims, from the crowded base.

Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s overwhelming victory at the 2019 Nov. presidential polls, that party would have definitely won the parliamentary polls, comfortably. But, securing a two-thirds majority would have been a quite a task, in terms of the PR system, whenever the poll was conducted. In spite of SLPP leaders repeatedly vowing to obtain the two-thirds required to do away with the controversial 19th Amendment to the Constitution, such a parliamentary majority is unlikely, especially against the backdrop of the sharp economic downturn caused by the corona crisis.

Political parties, as well as the EC, should explore ways and means to attract voters to polling booths. Since the introduction of the 1978 Constitution, there had been seven parliamentary polls. Out of which, only on two occasions, in 1989 and 2010, the UNP and the SLFP-led UPFA managed to secure simple majorities. Two-thirds hadn’t been secured by any political party so far, and the 2020 parliamentary polls wouldn’t be any different. With the crucial parliamentary polls, six weeks away, it would be pertinent to examine key issues, including the crisis-ridden political party system, now in tatters due to waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement.

Before examining the issues at hand, let me remind you how President Maithripala Sisisena almost succeeded in completely changing the political environment in late 2018. Had he succeeded, a new parliament would have been elected, on January 05, 2019, at the expense of Gotabaya Rajapaksa - the then front-runner for the presidential candidature from the Joint Opposition. High profile, controversial move that had been implemented with the participation of the Joint Opposition (JO) almost derailed the former Defence Secretary’s plans. However, the UNP-led Opposition comprising the UNP-TNA-JVP thwarted President Sirisena’s move by successfully moving the Supreme Court. The Opposition move enabled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to continue with his strategy.

The Supreme Court, on Dec 13, 2018, rejected the President’s attempt to dismiss parliament and hold snap elections. The court ruled that President Maithripala Sirisena’s order to dismiss parliament, issued on 9 November, was unconstitutional.

President Sirisena launched his operation on Oct 9 by dismissing Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. The unprecedented move, if not challenged in the Supreme Court, would have paved the way for parliamentary polls, on January 5. Had the project succeeded, President Sirisena would have succeeded in securing an opportunity to contest the presidential polls, depending on the outcome of the January 5 polls.

On the part of President Sirisena, it was certainly a master stroke as his SLFP suffered a humiliating defeat at the Local Government polls, in early Feb 2018. If not for the Supreme Court intervention, President Sisisena could have succeeded in consolidating his power, to a certain extent, though a section of the JO members, two days after the dismissal of parliament, took membership of the SLPP.

Premier Rajapaksa was among, over 30, who received membership from SLPP Chairman, Prof. G.L. Peiris, and its Secretary, Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam, at a well-covered event at the PM’s official residence, at Wijerama Mawatha. Others who received membership were Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, C.B. Ratnayake, Janaka Bandara Thennakoon, Johnston Fernando, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Priyankara Jayaratne, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Prasanna Ranatunga, Dulip Wijesekara, Janaka Wakkumbura, Namal Rajapaksa, Shehan Semasinghe, Thenuka Widanagamage, Arundika Fernando, Kanchana Wijesekara, Nimal Lanza, Indika Anuruddha, Prasanna Ranaweera, D.V. Chanaka, Anura Priyadarashana Yapa, T.B. Ekanayake, Chandima Weerakkody, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Sumeda G. Jayasena, Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Tharanath Basnayake, Sanath Nishantha, Kanaka Herath, Gamini Lokuge, W.D.J. Senewiratna, Susil Premajayantha and Premalal Jayasekara, Wimalaweera Dissanayake and Lohan Ratwatte.

Premier Rajapaksa’s move surprised President Sirisena though he lacked the wherewithal to take tangible measures against the powerful dissident group. They obviously believed that whatever the agreement with President Sirisena, the next parliamentary polls would be contested on the SLPP ticket.

If the Presidential election was to follow the January 5 parliamentary polls, the whole political environment would have been different and the possibility in President Sirisena reaching consensus on a bid for a second term couldn’t be ruled out.

Imagine if the Easter Sunday attacks were to occur following the parliamentary polls, against the backdrop of a change of government, the SLPP would have suffered a debilitating setback. But, at the same time, the possibility of the SLPP administration handling the threat, posed by the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) efficiently, couldn’t be ruled out.

Contentious issues

Health guidelines issued, in respect of coronavirus, will not allow political parties to conduct high profile campaigns, with mega rallies, at selected venues. With health authorities warning of dire consequences, unless all political parties adhered to health guidelines, political parties will have to campaign through print and electronic media, including the social networks. Let us examine the contentious issues that had to be addressed by major political parties, in the run-up to the August 5 polls, regardless of the restrictions imposed on electioneering, to prevent a second wave of corona eruption.

Post-corona recovery plan

*Top priority for all political parties should be a post-corona recovery plan. The national economy had been in shambles at the time corona delivered a deadly blow. The national economy had been severely weakened due to unbridled corruption, waste, mismanagement and irregularities, over the years, coupled with the 2019 shocking Easter Sunday suicide attacks delivering a body blow to the tourism sector. When the corona pandemic struck the world, the local tourism sector was just about picking itself up from the repercussions of the Easter attacks. Sri Lanka could have had the strength to face the corona crisis much better if those who exercised power, over the years, governed responsibly. Financial accountability and responsibility no longer seemed to be the parliamentary obligation, with the House mired in controversy over corrupt practices. It would be pertinent mention no less a person than the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, cautioned the electorate as regards who should be elected as members of parliament. Interestingly, Dr. Coomaraswamy advised the electorate, before President Sirisena dissolved parliament, on Nov 11, 2018, to fix polls on January 5.

Dr. Coomaraswamy told the P Col (Presidential Commission of Inquiry) that the country was facing a non-virtuous cycle of debt and it was a very fragile situation which could even lead to a debt crisis. "Of course, my colleagues, in the debt department, have plans, and the capability, to manage it. But it’s the duty of every citizen to act responsibly as regards the government policy", he told the PCol.

Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized that people should elect MPs who were prudent enough to handle fiscal and monetary responsibilities of the country. "I am not referring to any government, but it’s been the case ever since Independence".

There hadn’t been a previous instance of a serving top public official advising the electorate how to exercise their franchise at, perhaps, the most crucial election in post-independence era. Whoever in power must realize that economic difficulties cannot be tackled only by restricting imports, including luxury vehicles for President, Prime Minister, members of cabinet and members of parliament. Corruption, waste, irregularities and mismanagement should be tackled, at every level - from the Office of the President to Local Government authorities.

Restoration of political and economic


In spite of rhetoric, there should be consensus among political parties that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution is not the only cause for instability. As a result of breaking up of political parties, with the UNP being the latest victim, the entire political environment is in chaos, with different factions pulling in different directions.

Political developments during the 2015-2020 period, had weakened the SLFP and the UNP so much the 2020 parliamentary polls is expected to further deteriorate their positions. Both parties are desperate and struggling to overcome overwhelming challenges. The SJB, led by Sajith Premadasa, clearly has the upper hand, with the UNP even struggling in the Colombo district, in the wake of nine out of 11 elected to the last parliament, on its ticket, switching allegiance to the rebel SJB. Only UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ravi Karunayake remain on the UNP Colombo list from the party team that won the District comfortably at the previous general election, in August 2015.

Many an eyebrow was raised when the UNP accommodated businessman A S P Liyanage, who had received diplomatic postings from both Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. At the last parliament, there were 106 elected and appointed on the UNP list, whereas the SLFP-led UPFA group consisted of 95 elected and appointed lawmakers. How many seats would the UNP and the SLFP secure at the August 5 polls?

Tamil issues

In the North, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) faces an unprecedented challenge from former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. The Thamizhi Makkal Tesiya Kootani, or the Tamil People’s National Alliance (TPNA), poses quite a challenge to the once LTTE cat’s paw - the TNA. Having won 15 seats, at its first appearance in the political scene, at the 2001 Dec parliamentary polls, the TNA achieved its best performance at the 2004 April polls, when it obtained 22 seats, with, of course, the overt and covert help of the LTTE in the then temporarily-merged North-East Province. At the first parliamentary polls, in 2010 April, after the demise of the LTTE, in May, of the previous year, the TNA won 14 seats, followed by 16 at the last general election, in 2015 August. The TNA is likely to secure the majority of seats in the Northern and Eastern electorates though the number is expected to be lower than the last performance. Interestingly, both the TNA and the TPNA rejected an offer made by a group of ex-LTTE cadres to reach consensus on a political programme, covering both the parliamentary and Provincial Council polls, as they distanced themselves from the LTTE.

Forgotten Treasury bond scams

The country’s biggest ever financial scam -2015 and 2016 Treasury bond scams - continue to haunt three major political formations, the UNP, SJB as well as the SLPP. Disgraced Central Bank Governor, Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran, remain at large with local investigations continuing at a snail’s pace. Having attacked the UNP almost on a daily basis, over Mahendran affair, in the run-up to the presidential poll, the SLPP lot (formerly JO) hardly mentions the Treasury bond scams these days. The SJB, too, is largely silent on Treasury bond scams, as some of those who had benefited from the suspended primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries, at the centre of those scams, and defended the UNP at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) inquired into Treasury bond scams, are in the fray from the Sajith Premadasa’s outfit. The incumbent government owed the public an explanation what it had done, since 2019 Nov, to secure Mahendran’s extradition and custody.

Unused forensic audits

The failure, on the part of the previous parliament, to initiate action on five forensic audits conducted on the Treasury bond scams, as well as other major questionable transactions/deals, during 2010-2015, should be an issue addressed by all political parties.

Controversy over SLSFTA remains

The controversial Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2018 January, remains a major concern though leading political parties remain largely silent, with once vociferous SLPP spokespersons hardly saying a word on SLSFTA. The UNP finalized the agreement following just six rounds of talks initiated in 2016 July. The signing of the FTA took place with the participation of visiting the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, and President Maithripala Sirisena, in Colombo. The Singaporean Prime Minister arrived in Colombo for a three-day official visit, on an invitation extended by the Sri Lankan President.

"The Free Trade Agreement will boost the trade between the two countries as this would facilitate duty-free access to selected goods and services of each other", President Sirisena’s Office said in a statement at the time. The former President, who is also the SLFP leader, is contesting from the Polonnaruwa District, on the SLPP ticket, at the August polls.

Easter Sunday carnage impede political parties

The Easter Sunday carnage is another issue that’ll have an impact on the parliamentary polls. Former President Sirisena and the top UNP leadership cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility for the Easter attacks. The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), headed by former Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri, found fault with both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe, in addition to the then head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS), DIG Nilantha Jayawardena for the shocking failure of those at the helm to take any preventive measures, despite having credible advance intelligence warnings from India.

The SLMC and the ACMC alleged to have had links with those responsible for the near simultaneous suicide attacks, are contesting the August 5 polls, on the SJB ticket.

US agreements bother Sri Lanka

The Highly contested agreements on Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) as well as Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), sought by the US cannot be ignored by major political parties at the parliamentary polls. In the run-up to the presidential polls, the SLPP and its allies, the National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU), flayed the UNP over the proposed US agreements. In spite of the then President Sirisena publicly vowing he wouldn’t allow the UNP government to go ahead with the US agreements, it was subsequently revealed Sri Lanka entered into/extended Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in early August 2017, with the President’s approval. Sri Lanka first signed ACSA in 2007 March, during Mahinda Rakapaksa’s tenure as the President. On behalf Sri Lanka, the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed the agreement.

99-year lease on H’tota

Sri Lanka’s agreement with China, on Hambantota harbour remains a touchy issue with the US as well as India continuing to oppose Chinese expansion. The previous UNP-led government in late July 2017 finalized the 99 year-lease on the new port with the blessings of President Sirisena. The incumbent government reiterated Sri Lanka’s commitment to the commercial agreement though in the run-up to the last presidential poll, and even after Sri Lanka announced no ne-negotiations would be held as regards Hambantota transaction.

Clandestine UK garbage project

* Political parties should address the UK dumping toxic garbage here issue exposed by the media during the previous administration. In spite of promises, the previous government never really inquired into the UK garbage matter. None of those responsible for the clandestine operation at a time Sri Lanka is struggling to cope up with its own garbage problem, were arrested, though heavy reportage revealed those involved. Today hardly any political party takes up this matter.

Geneva dilemma

Geneva remains a hot issue though Sri Lanka, in late February this year, announced its withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 and others adopted, after 2015. Since making the announcement, the government hardly had time to examine the developments due to the corona eruption in the following month. Sri Lanka needs to address the accountability issue, seriously, taking into consideration all available information, to set the record straight. Tangible measures are required to address accountability issues. Mere rhetoric won’t do.

Lastly, continuing accusations against accommodating retired military personnel and more space for the military will further strengthen the government in the South.