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SLPP in crisis while President strengthens his position

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  • Sagara Kariyawasam fires first salvo at Ranil over 13A; but Basil losing significant support within party
  • Lanza to form independent group, claims the backing of 40 MPs and ex-President Gotabaya’s private secretary Sugeeswara Bandara
  • Comprehensive Anti-Corruption Bill passed with retrospective effect, but controversy over new PSC to probe Election Commission

 

By Our Political Editor

In a year and three days, Ranil Wickremesinghe has remained President, there is no gainsaying, much has been done to ease the hardships to people from the bankruptcy his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa caused. Lengthy queues are no longer for fuel, cooking gas and what have you.

However, the journey towards fuller economic recovery remains. Other than accelerating efforts, the difficult task is the inability to place a timeline to alleviate all those woes. A comforting factor, spelt out by ruling party politicians, boasts of at least one timeline. They claim that from September, there will be no need to call the country bankrupt. A corollary of that would be that the economy would have improved even further. Of course, one is reminded of their projections last year about the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF). The coming attraction was repeated almost every month since late last year until it finally arrived in March. The Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO) got underway after a much-hyped campaign. A few understood and many remain confused. There is suspense over the next EFF tranche in September.

From the time he assumed office, one is not wrong in saying that President Wickremesinghe, who heads a Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government, has been preoccupied with arresting a deteriorating economy. The rot became worse after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country. When he returned and ensconced himself in a second government bungalow at Stanmore Crescent, (the first at Malalasekera Mawatha which he complained was “too noisy,”) he sat down with confidants one day to do some soul searching. He told one of them that there were three persons responsible for what he called “misleading” him and the resultant unprecedented chaos. One was a bureaucrat, and the two others were connected to the military. It was the responsibility of one of the two to keep him updated on all ground developments. One was related to protests. However, he had been found wanting on many occasions. One of the listeners asked the former President, “Why did you not sack him if he caused such damage?” The answer left the questioner speechless. “I felt sorry for the poor fellow. That would have ended his career.”

The officer remains to date but the boss who gave him his job was forced out. The moral – in high office sympathy for a favourite overlooking colossal blunders could place a nation in peril. The bureaucrat was faulted for his “erroneous” actions and the officer for allegedly “acting on his own agenda.” In another development, this officer has become the subject of a top-level probe by the Criminal Investigation Department. It must be mentioned that the trio were hand-picked by Gotabaya Rajapaksa for their jobs. He consulted them before making decisions on economic or security matters.

Bribery and corruption

As the leader of the SLPP government, President Wickremesinghe’s other top priority areas were either left out or received less attention. Among a lengthy catalogue, one can say, was the increase in bribery and corruption. True, an anti-corruption law was passed in Parliament this week. This Act, when it comes into effect, will repeal the Bribery Act (Chapter 26), the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption Act, No. 19 of 1994 and the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law No. 1 of 1975.

The new Bribery Commission that will be established under the Anti-Corruption Act will consist of three members appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council (CC). The Commission will consist of one person who has expertise, reached eminence, and has at least twenty years of experience in law while the other two persons will be those who have expertise, reached eminence and have at least 20 years’ experience in one or more of the following fields:- (i) investigation of crime and law enforcement; (ii) forensic auditing; (iii) forensic accounting; (iv) engineering; (v) international relations and diplomatic services; (vi) management of public affairs; or (vii) public administration.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House in New Delhi

The President will appoint one among the three Commission members as Chairman of the Bribery Commission on the recommendation of the CC.

The Commission will also have a Director-General appointed by the President on the CC’s recommendation. In a historic first, private sector entities, too, have been brought under the ambit of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption through the new Anti-Corruption Act.

The Act contains provisions for the protection of public officials and employees of private entities who act as informers, witnesses or “whistleblowers”; who expose acts of bribery or corruption. The crime of sexual bribery too has been added as an offence coming under the provisions of the new Act.

Many amendments were introduced to the Bill at the committee stage on Wednesday (19). These included amendments proposed by the Supreme Court (SC), the government and the opposition. One such significant amendment to Clause 162 of the bill ensured that the President too fell within the scope of the new law. The President had earlier been excluded from the bill in view of the definition of a “public official” which had only mentioned officials from the Prime Minister downwards. In its determination into Fundamental Rights petitions challenging the bill, the Supreme Court, however, ruled that excluding the President from the application of the provisions of the bill is “arbitrary and impinges on the sovereignty of the People which includes a right to a Government free of bribery or corruption.”

The new Act will also compel officials from the President and the Prime Minister downwards to submit their assets and liabilities declarations. As such the new Act will apply to many officials who were previously not covered by assets and liabilities declaration legislation. Presenting the bill to Parliament earlier, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said that at present, there was no follow-up mechanism to ascertain whether these declarations were correct or not. The only consequence for failure to submit assets and liabilities declarations was a fine of Rs. 1000. Under the new Act that was passed, however, all those coming under its scope must submit assets and liabilities declarations annually. This can be done online if they prefer. Even after retirement, the officials must continue submitting their assets and liabilities declarations for two years from the date of retirement.

During the hearing into the FR petitions challenging the constitutionality of the bill, some of the petitioners’ lawyers argued that select clauses of the bill infringed on the Right to Information (RTI) Act. As per an undertaking given by the Attorney General’s Department to the SC, a sub-clause was added at the Committee Stage to Clause 136 clarifying that the provisions of the RTI Act would apply to the Anti-Corruption Act. The opposition had urged the government to introduce an amendment at the committee stage to give retrospective effect to the bill.

During the Committee Stage on Wednesday, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella said the opposition had repeatedly asked Justice Minister Rajapakshe to include a clause clearly stating that the Bill would have a retrospective effect. Minister Rajapakshe, though, countered that the Bill already states clearly enough that it will have a retrospective effect.

For a long period now, even before the Anti-Corruption law was introduced, bribery and corruption have been on the rise. Even a ruling party parliamentarian was caught red-handed with gold and smartphones in his personal baggage. He smuggled the contraband from Dubai through the VIP Lounge at the Bandaranaike International Airport. He remains free to use this facility again and no action has been taken against him. Crime has galloped and murders are on the rise with Police in most parts of the country unable to arrest the trend. The free availability of weapons has led to an increase in killings. Two other vices which have assumed huge proportions are the smuggling of cigarettes and the manufacture of illicit liquor. The demand for illicit cigarettes and liquor has risen after the government announced price increases for these items.

If these have remained the ground realities for the SLPP government led by President Wickremesinghe, that is now changing significantly. The question that looms large is whether the new developments this week signal early signs of a widening rift within the SLPP. For the first time, SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam publicly opposed on Friday President Wickremesinghe’s offer of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, without Police powers, as an instrument to resolve the ethnic conflict. The offer was first made during a meeting of Tamil political parties and government sources said it was also raised when the President held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday.

The Indian Premier, however, had taken up the position during talks with President Wickremesinghe that 13A should be implemented in full. That would mean the provinces should have their own Police force. He has also further insisted that the elections to Provincial Councils should be held. Nevertheless, the references were not reflected in the official statements. It was Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra who made the revelation at a news conference. Last Monday, ahead of his visit to New Delhi, President Wickremesinghe obtained a series of approvals from the cabinet of ministers. Among them was one which said that all documents would be signed by Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi.

True, most Tamil political parties have already opposed the move. At least five smaller parties have also written to Premier Modi, ahead of the President’s visit, asking him not to endorse the move. In this instance, that is not the issue. The question is how Kariyawasam was making a conclusive assertion that President Wickremesinghe “has no moral right to make such a statement.” It is very well known not only in political circles but also in the SLPP that Kariyawasam is a staunch supporter of Basil Rajapaksa, the party founder. The question is whether the SLPP did discuss the matter and take a formal decision. If so, it would have been reflected in the form of a statement from the party. Here, he is voicing Basil Rajapaksa’s words to convey that it was the view of the SLPP.

It comes at a time when Basil Rajapaksa’s own standing in the SLPP has come down and he is said to command the support of only around 20 to 21 MPs. A good number of SLPP parliamentarians have voiced their support for President Wickremesinghe. Is Basil Rajapaksa, therefore, using his regular medium to trigger a power crisis within the SLPP? It was only weeks earlier that he voiced publicly that he had confidence in President Wickremesinghe’s leadership. It is known within the SLPP that his efforts to secure ministerial portfolios for more MPs did not materialise.

A detailed report on President Wickremesinghe’s visit to New Delhi appears elsewhere in this newspaper. What was released after talks on Friday between the two leaders was a five-page Vision Statement which among factors dealt with Promoting Connectivity, Catalyzing Prosperity: and India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership. The mission statement concluded with the following paragraphs: “To establish land connectivity between Sri Lanka and India for developing land access to the ports of Trincomalee and Colombo, propelling economic growth and prosperity in both Sri Lanka and India, and further consolidating the millennia-old relationship between the two countries. A feasibility study for such connectivity will be conducted at an early date.

“Both the leaders directed respective officials concerned to expedite realisation of this shared vision, which will not only impart long-term direction and significant momentum to bilateral cooperation for growth and prosperity in both countries and in the wider region, but also set the future direction of a dynamic India-Sri Lanka relationship, founded on enhanced mutual confidence and trust.”

The centerpiece of the latest Indo-Sri Lanka dialogue is a deal to jointly develop Trincomalee as an energy hub. An oil pipeline is also to be constructed across the Palk Strait.  Ahead of the New Delhi visit, President Wickremesinghe was armed with a 16-page document that listed the various measures the government has adopted or proposed to adopt towards ethnic reconciliation.

Even the main opposition , which has been exhorting in the past for the full implementation of 13A expressed reservations. Its General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara told the Sunday Times “We are unaware of what President Wickremesinghe is planning to concede. On such a matter of utmost national importance, he has not thought it fit to consult us, the largest opposition in the country.”

The recent weeks have seen an escalation of political shadowboxing. In what appears as a counter to a small but influential faction of the SLPP, a strong countermove has come from another section. It is led by Negombo district parliamentarian Nimal Lanza, a one-time confidant of Basil Rajapaksa. He said yesterday that he would formally announce the formation of an independent group. “So far, we have 40 MPs supporting us. We need to raise this figure to 50,” he told the Sunday Times. If his contention is correct, those numbers, whether it is 40 or 50 would have to come from the SLPP. Lanza, who coordinates political activity from the Presidential Secretariat to help President Wickremesinghe, said that his independent group would set up an office in Gampaha in the coming weeks. A surprise inclusion in this caucus is Sugeeswara Bandara, private secretary to ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Does that mean the former President is throwing his weight against the SLPP? Like Lanza, Bandara also operates from the Presidential Secretariat. It is no secret that political opinions between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brothers Mahinda and Basil are sharply divided. During the protests (aragalaya) last year, he sought the removal of both from the cabinet of ministers.

Controversy over PSC

The move to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the activities of the previous members of the Election Commission also reflects a political counterattack on the Basil Rajapaksa group in the SLPP. This is based on the belief that some members were backers of the founder of the party and were allegedly responsible for wrong actions. They, however, deny them. An allegation levelled against them is how they decided to award tenders during their tenure when they had claimed they were not even drawing their salaries.

The motion to establish a PSC to “investigate into the matters relating to the Election Commission in respect of the incidents of infringement of privileges of the Members of Parliament and of the Parliament and to make suitable recommendations in that regard” was approved on Tuesday amid angry protests from opposition members.

Fourteen SLPP MPs had signed the motion calling on Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to establish a PSC to investigate the conduct of the Election Commission (EC) with regard to the decision to announce the 2023 Local Council Election. The MPs are Lalith Varna Kumara, Upul Mahendra Rajapaksha, D. Weerasingha, Jagath Samarawickrama, Major Sudarshana Denipitiya, Milan Jayathilake, Kokila Gunawardene, Nalaka Bandara Kottegoda, M. W. D. Sahan Pradeep Withana, Thisakutti Arachchi, Kapila Athukorala, Sudath Manjula, Gamini Lokuge and Sampath Athukorala.

Opposition MPs insisted that there should be a Parliamentary debate on the matter before the motion to set up the PSC was approved.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem told the House that a PSC is only set up to find solutions to a matter of national significance. “They cannot be set up simply because the government has a majority and wishes to satisfy its own selfish objectives,” he noted. “Even more dangerously, we are seeing a pattern where such PSCs are being set up with the intention of influencing our judicial system. Therefore, this is a very wrong move. We are requesting the Chief Whip of the Government to give us a chance to at least debate this issue.”

He reminded the government that the opposition was already boycotting the PSC set up to investigate the country’s economic collapse owing to its chairmanship being given to the government. Describing the situation as “unprecedented,” he called on the government not to act in a way that another PSC is boycotted by the opposition. Chief Opposition Whip Prasanna Ranatunga, though, claimed the opposition was trying to convey a false impression that the aim of setting up this PSC is to influence the judiciary. “No such thing is included in this motion,” he claimed.

There are already several court cases pending over the postponement of the election, National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake pointed out. “On July 24, the EC is due to submit to the court why it has been unable to hold the election as scheduled. While such a case is pending in court, and at a time when the EC is due to give evidence in court as a respondent, it is unjust to summon the Commission to Parliament and it is clearly an attempt to influence them,” he stressed.

The text of the motion states: “Select Committee of Parliament to investigate into the matters relating to the Election Commission in respect of the incidents of infringement of privileges of the Members of Parliament and of the Parliament and to make suitable recommendations in that regard,—

“Whereas the Election Commission consisting of N. G. Punchihewa (Chairman), S. B. Divaratne, M. M. Mohamed, K. P. P. Pathirana and  P. S. M. Charles.

“And whereas the Election Commission is responsible to Parliament under Article

104B (3) of the Constitution;

“And whereas by Article 30(4) of the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, the members of the Commission have ceased to hold office and are exercising and discharging of powers and functions of the transitionary members;

“And whereas on 18th January 2023 the Election Commission purported to call

nominations for the Local Authorities Elections;

“And whereas two members of the Commission decided to fix 09th March 2023 as the date of polling and claimed to have obtained the consent of the other three members;

“And whereas the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization and National Policies has filed an Affidavit in Court stating that it would be challenging to find funds for holding such an election in March 2023;

“And whereas there is a question of whether the Commission itself is satisfied that all preconditions for holding such an election are fulfilled;

“And whereas on 25th January 2023 Ms. P. S. M. Charles, member of the Commission, tendered her resignation to the President;

“And whereas the Commission has failed to report to Parliament which is responsible for public finance on issues that have arisen on Local Authorities Elections;

“And whereas if the privileges of the Members of Parliament and of the Parliament

have been infringed, it should be investigated into and suitable recommendations in that regard should be made;

“This Parliament resolves that a Select Committee of Parliament be appointed to investigate into the matters relating to the Election Commission in respect of the incidents of infringement of privileges of the Members of Parliament and of the

Parliament and to make suitable recommendations in that regard…”

In a related development, the Attorney General has agreed to represent the Election Commission in cases before courts. The earlier Commission had obtained the services of a private counsel. Overdue payments to him, however, remain a controversy.

Now that SLPP General Secretary Kariyawasam has fired the first salvo from his party, those who support President Wickremesinghe from within the party are not likely to remain silent. He is also insistent on continuing as Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the country’s bankruptcy. All opposition members except one have quit this PSC. The remaining member, who is also not in favour of serving, expects his party to take a decision. Like the current climate, it could also become hot.

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