SLFP Parliamentarians will take final decision in December on whether to continue the MoU with the UNP.Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil to outline ‘Vision 2025’ tomorrow–comprehensive economic strategy to address constraints on growth.Both parties gear up for local council and provincial elections, Rajapaksa loyalists make informal moves to reunite factions.
Coalition partners – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – are gearing themselves for local government and provincial council elections though there is still uncertainty over either being held this year.
A further set of amendments to three different statutes governing Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas are to be introduced in Parliament soon. These drafts are being hurriedly prepared. Just this week, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya signed into law amendments to the Local Authorities (Amendment) Bill passed by Parliament. Among the highlights are a new electoral system with 60 % being elected through the old ‘first past the post’ process and the remainder through proportional representation.
Polls for the three Provincial Councils- Sabaragamuwa, Eastern and North Central –which would end their five year terms on September 26, September 30 and October 1 respectively are due. Though nominations are due on October 2 or 3, it now hinges on whether or not the 20th Amendment to the Constitution is approved in Parliament. Already the provisions of the 20A, which seeks to conduct all PC elections on one day among other matters, are being challenged in the Supreme Court. Government leaders are also trying to woo the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has voiced its opposition to this amendment, by accommodating concerns it has raised. This may even see further amendments being moved to the 20A.
It comes at a time when both the UNP and the TNA are also busy canvassing support for the passage of constitutional amendments. A member in the UNP’s constitution drafting process has been briefing the legal fraternity. TNA and Opposition Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan had a one-on-one meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ‘Joint Opposition’ leader, to urge that JO parliamentarians extend their support. He had said that there were several advantages that would accrue to the ‘JO’ if they supported it. A high ranking JO source privy to the conversation said “Rajapaksa politely declined the request for support but made clear he would place the matter before the ‘Joint Opposition.’ Rajapaksa had said that the ‘JO’ was still not formally aware of the SLFP proposals. The ‘JO,’ Rajapaksa had pointed out, had placed 14 different proposals with regard to Constitutional amendments. He had also complained to Sampanthan that he and his family were being harassed by the Government.
Sampanthan told the Sunday Times “I met with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday on an invitation extended by him. I asked for his support for the new constitution making process currently underway as a senior statesman as there is a possibility to resolve many long-standing issues in the country through this process. As a leader, he should lead the people. In response, he told me, that he will think about it.”
On Friday, the JO Parliamentary group leader Dinesh Gunawardena led a “sathyakriya” of the party he also leads, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) to “protect the unitary state of Sri Lanka and the Buddha Sasana.” It was held on the footsteps of the historic Chaitya of Kirivehera Temple in Kataragama. Former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, ‘JO’ MPs, provincial councillors and former members of the local bodies were present. A group of Buddhist clergymen led by Ven. Kobawaka Dhamminda, Viharadipathi of the Kirivehera Temple participated in the religious ceremonies.
Commenting on the impending polls, Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told the Sunday Times;“the term of three provincial councils – North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern provinces ends in September. Within a week thereafter, the notice to call nominations will be issued. This will be done around October 2 or 3. Within 14 days thereafter nominations will be called for. Elections should be held between five and eight weeks after nominations close.” Deshapriya made clear that this will be effective only if the 20A is not passed in Parliament.
Commenting on the local government elections, he said, “For the local elections we expect that within a month we will receive final approval to prepare to conduct the elections. Once we receive approval within three and a half days we will call for nominations. Nominations will be received within two weeks thereafter. Elections should be held within five to seven weeks. Accordingly, the earliest any election (Provincial or Local) can be held is in the first week of December. However, the Examinations Commissioner, the Election Commission Chairman explained, has said since the G.C.E. (O/L) examination will be held for a month long period, schools will not be available as polling centres. Therefore, conducting elections during that period will not be possible and accordingly, any election could be held only after the first week of January next year.”
It is amid these developments that a formidable group who are with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa held an informal meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena. Making clear they were not in any way espousing Rajapaksa’s cause, but were only making informal soundings, they made a proposal – for the two opposing sides of the party (SLFP) unite to field candidates at the upcoming elections. The reasoning behind, they explained, was to ensure their party made the highest gains at the polls.
Failure to do so, they cautioned, would pave the way for the UNP to be the biggest winner. The group was pleased when Sirisena declared he had no issue with their proposal. Those wanting to contest on the SLFP ticket (under his leadership) were welcome to do so, he said. There is still a long way to go but the group has since been active lobbying like-minded colleagues. If the move works, the challenges for the UNP will be more formidable. The informal meeting has turned the spotlight on today’s 66th anniversary celebrations of the SLFP at Campbell Park in Borella.
Sirisena is expected to make an appeal for unity within the SLFP, a move that may strengthen a limited re-unification at least for the elections. It has been decided that Sirisena should make his speech when the crowd turnout is the highest instead of waiting to become the customary last speaker. This is to ensure that the message he delivers reaches the vast majority that is taking part in the event. Organisers said 2,000 buses have been hired to bring crowds to demonstrate that Sirisena is in an unassailable position as the SLFP leader.
Sirisena held a news conference last Wednesday at the Janadipathi Mandiriya in Fort to talk on the 66th anniversary of the SLFP. He said one of the messages at this event is for the SLFP to be involved in genuine politics and work unitedly, “Within those principles the party is dedicated to work for a consensual Government,” he declared. Other questions were also posed to Sirisena. One was the consensual Government agreement between the SLFP and the UNP. He was asked for his response on whether it would be renewed or he would heed the demand of some SLFP MPs that they should form a Government? His reply:
“To my knowledge members of both sides (SLFP and UNP) have said so. But we should understand the current composition in the government. The UNP led United Front government has 106 members while the SLFP led UPFA has a total of 95 members. Both these sides cannot form their own government. Whoever forms a Government, it will have to be a joint one or a consensual Government like this, as no one has 113 members.
“It was the SLFP Central Committee which decided in August 2015 that a consensual government should continue until December 2017. The decision whether we should continue should be made by the Central Committee after the SLFP anniversary event. Right now we do not see an issue. I also want to make it clear that it is the SLFP members in parliamentwho will have to decide on the continuation of the consensual Government. In my case there is no issue as I have to continue whoever comes or leaves. A Sunday national newspaper in their main story quoted a senior spokesperson of the UNP saying that by January they will form their own government. Whoever goes, I will continue to govern the country. That is my duty. During my tenure of office I have to continue with the government with whoever is available.”
Once again, Sirisena is confirming formally that a decision on whether or not to continue the consensual Government would be made by SLFP parliamentarians in December this year. By that time the budget, to be presented in Parliament by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera on November 10 and the debate on it will be completed. He told the Sunday Times“This year’s Budget 2018 will be an important milestone in the Government’s fiscal reform process based on “Vision 2025”- the vision statement of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is to be released tomorrow (September4). Private investment will be the cornerstone of economic growth and government expenditure will be targeted towards interventions that are supportive of the expansion of public enterprise. A Q&A with Samaraweera appears in a box story on this page.
At the news conference, asked if he was confident the consensual Government will continue till 2020, Sirisena replied “Yes, I am confident. Otherwise it should be a conspiracy.” Yet, Sirisena’s admission that his party MPs would have to take a decision on proceeding beyond December, makes it clear that his confidence lies in the hope that his own parliamentarians, at least the majority, would agree. What if they don’t remains an important question.
In the light of the ongoing commitments, particularly on the economic front, like the “Vision 2020” programme that he will be announced tomorrow, Sirisena cannot be seen to be throwing a spanner in the works. On his part he has to ensure continuity but it is no secret that there is growing friction between the coalition partners. In addition, Sirisena has adopted new measures to play a greater role in economic development. At last Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, how the new National Economic Council (NEC), the supreme body tasked with economic policy will execute its work vis-à-vis the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) was decided on. It was also agreed that more ministers would be drawn in as members to the NEC.
The 200 page Vision 2020 programme, most of which has been formulated by Premier Wickremesinghe and later updated, seeks to make Sri Lanka “a prosperous nation by 2025…..” Last Sunday night, Finance Minister Samaraweera together with Harsha de Silva, Deputy Minister for National Policies and Economic Planning and State Minister for Finance Eran Wickremeratne briefed President Sirisena. At his request, they also briefed SLFP Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera. A third SLFP minister who was to be briefed, Sarath Amunugama was not available.
The vision 2020 programme has the blessings and backing of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Its contents were enlarged by Deputy Minister de Silva with the help of officials of the Central Bank, the Treasury and the Institute of Policy Studies. Changes to several laws to make it compatible with Vision 2020 are in the pipeline. They are: In particular the new Inland Revenue Act, Foreign Exchange Act, Voluntary Disclosures of Income Act, State Land Bank Act, Anti-Dumping Act, State Commercial Enterprises Act, Ports and Airports Act, Ruhunu Economic Development Corporation Act, Lands (Special Provisions) Act, Sustainable Development Act, Liability Management Act, and National Debt Office Act which Government officials say will “improve the business-friendly environment.” Some selected highlights of Vision 2020:
- A 3-Year Economic Delivery Programme: Over the next three years, within the 2025 Vision, we will implement a comprehensive economic strategy to address constraints on growth. We will aim to raise per capita income level to USD 5,000 per year, create one million jobs, increase FDI to USD 5 billion per year, and double exports to USD 20 billion per year. These intermediate targets lay the foundation for our Vision 2025: Sri Lanka becoming a higher-middle income country.
- The exchange rate to be market determined. This will enable cost reflective pricing across all goods and services produced and traded in the economy, strengthening the competitiveness of Sri Lanka’s exports in global markets. Greater flexibility in exchange rate determination will help to build international reserves and strengthen the resilience of the economy to external shocks.
- Encourage Public-Private Partnerships(PPPs).The government will support PPPs as a means of reducing reliance on loan agreements in the provision of public assets and services. We are formulating a clear PPP policy with a well-defined legal, regulatory and institutional framework to attract private players with the requisite capacities. PPPs currently focus on provision of public amenities such as transport services, energy generation, drinking water, waste management, and industrial parks. Potential areas for expanding PPPs include healthcare, leisure, tourism, education, ports and aviation. We will prioritise expanding opportunities for alternate financing, including securitisation, to support PPP programmes.
- Weak governance and institutional mechanisms continue to undermine Sri Lanka’s long-term growth potential. Weaknesses in rule of law, perceptions of corruption and democratic freedoms, amongst others have continued to negatively impact the country’s standing in global indices on governance standards. Such weaknesses often manifest in policy unpredictability, weak public service delivery and administrative red-tape that deter private investment, both local and foreign.
- Strengthen policies of good governance.We have embarked upon an extensive reform agenda, incorporating elements of constitutional reform, economic policy changes, improved governance, and transitional justice. We commit to fight against corruption, unaccountability, non-transparency and inefficiency in the public service.
- Strengthen ongoing reconciliation efforts to ensure the rights of all citizens and enable everyone to feel Sri Lankan. These efforts will include creating equal opportunity for individual economic growth and advancement.
- Uphold and strengthen citizens Right to Information. The newly passed Right to Information Act makes the state accountable to the people, enables people to take part in decisions, and creates informed debate vital to a thriving democracy. It enhances people’s participation in government by empowering grassroots democracy and activism, and by improving the quality of input and debate. At all levels of the government we will affirm and abide by the Right to Information.
This week’s developments show that President Sirisena is set to face challenges both on the political and economic front. Local government and Provincial Council polls, the first popularity test for him and his Government and a set of new Constitutional amendments are among them. On the economic front, the controversial Hambantota Port project will get under way on October 1 when the Government hands it over to the Chinese firm. As for Vision 2020, most features contained in them have been re-iterated in the past two years ahead of budget proposals. There are some new features. However, even those are ones that were included in the Government’s pledges ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections. One is not wrong in saying that it is old wine in a new bottle. There are pledges again even to eliminate corruption.
How much will get done remains the critical question.