By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
A record number of 41 candidates have paid deposits to contest the November 16 presidential poll. It is a foregone conclusion; no more than five candidates will receive over 100,000 votes.
The leading presidential contenders, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), Sajith Premadasa (SP), and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), have kicked off their campaigns with rallies at Galle Face, Anuradhapura, and Thambuttegama respectively.
They spew the same old falsehoods, fabrications, and deceptions similar to those of their predecessors. The Sri Lankan born world’s first female Prime Minister in 1970 promised to bring rice even from the moon!
Candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa
A key focus in his campaign so far has been national security. While conceding it is an area criminally neglected by the Yahapalana regime, thus requiring urgent attention, that alone is not the sum total of the country’s problems. It would appear, he has the backing of a large section of the business community. It is, in all probability, linked to his reputation as an efficient administrator capable of getting the job done.
There are several worrying factors in GR’s candidacy.
Firstly, he seems to be overshadowed by his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). Even many campaign posters seem to have a greater focus on MR rather than the candidate himself. MR speaks as much or even more than GR of plans in a GR Presidency and SLPP government. Who would steer the ship in such a situation, or will it turn out to be another mess similar to the Maithripala Ranil unity government? Will GR be his own man or MR’s ‘Puppet on a String’? Secondly, GR’s has few if any new faces in his team. He is surrounded by the same set of scoundrels who were ministers and top officials in his elder brother’s administration.
The former Governor of Central Bank unveiled a 12-point “shock treatment” economic revival plan for the Sri Lankan economy. It includes the commencement of several mega infrastructure projects, including a 600 km circular highway around the island. He did not elaborate on how he hopes to finance these megaprojects. Does it mean, the country’s foreign borrowings will balloon further? From experience, Infrastructure Projects and Rajapaksa family are bad words in this country.
What role does GR envisage in his presidency for his controversial nephews who ruled the roost till January 8, 2015? What does he hope to do with the two former envoys Jaliya Wickramasuriya and Udyanga Weeratunga wanted by Sri Lankan judiciary and are now fugitives?
Candidate Sajith Premadasa
He has spoken little other than on poverty alleviation and housing development since he entered Parliament in 2000. To play catch up between his formal nomination and elections is a tall ask.
No doubt, he was neither trained nor groomed by the party leader who intended to remain at the helm for life. Nevertheless, contesting for the presidency at the age of 52 is a welcome departure from the hitherto over 60 candidates excluding Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who became President at the age of 49 years. Little is known of his economic policies, and his manifesto is awaited.
Meanwhile, he has made some startling and meaningless declarations. Turning the Presidential residence to a Technical School is one of them. In the process, he will incur expenditure upgrading his house with equipment required for security, pubic engagements, etc. and facilities for security and support staff. Once his term is over, the state will have to provide new accommodation to his successor. Similar to GR, SP too is surrounded by a bunch of scoundrels. He recently spoke at ‘Meet the Candidate’ organized by the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka. He undertook “not to surround himself with a cadre of Yes men or women and have transparency without hidden agendas.” He promised, “there will be a wholesale change as far as the team is concerned.”
Will he or can he dump Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who featured prominently in the Central Bank Bond scam? What of Minister Ajith Perera who did his best to derail the COPE investigation of the bond scam? Then again, could he ignore Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, who spent millions having his mug shot published in free schoolbooks? Will he exclude Minister Rishard Bathiudeen accused of making illegal payments through Sathosa to his friend’s company Liverpool Navigation Pct. Ltd.? Even if he tries to do so, will his Prime Minister and party leader permit him to do so? Or is a future President Sajith Premadasa planning to decide and appoint ministers on his own rather than on the ‘advice’ of the Prime Minister as required by the 19th Amendment?
How could SP talk of transparency? According to Transparency International Sri Lanka, Sajith Premadasa had failed to submit his Declaration of Assets and Liabilities for 2018/19 as of August 20, 2019. It is a requirement as per section 4(a) (ii) of the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law. So have his supporters Navin Dissanayaka, Harin Fernando, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ravi Karunanayake, and Gayantha Karunatilleka.
Candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake
During his inaugural rally in his hometown Thambuttegama, AKD spoke of studying under a village lamp post, the only place with electricity in 1972. He narrated about a sister having burnt her hand frying ‘kavum.’ He lamented of a war started by leaders destroying the harmony and way of life between Sinhalese and Tamils by creating a war. JVP slogans have changed little from those of Rohana Wijeweera’s infamous speech at Vihara Maha Devi Park in 1969. He spoke of his parents having to pawn their jewelry to educate their children. In 1972, less than 25% of Sri Lanka had electrification, whereas, since 2016, it stands at 100%. That is progress that needs to be acknowledged.
AKD speaks of those who died in the 30 years civil war but is silent of all the killings by the JVP in 1971 and 1987/89 insurrections. He speaks of an NPP government getting back and refunding every cent stolen from the people. Nevertheless, he remains silent of the millions if not billions stolen by JVP from state banks.
The JVP has gone a full circle and now fallen into the same rut as politicians from other main parties. They no doubt have not indulged in tender bending nor bond scams to date. However, they have not tasted real power and had an opportunity to indulge either.
Recently, AKD addressing a public rally promised to build schools of equal standard all over the country whereby the 2 km rule will no longer apply for admissions. Similar to all other politicians, he has not divulged his funding source.
During his address, AKD promised all land occupied by armed forces in the North would be returned. He also promised to pay compensation to families of the war dead. He has no military background. One wonders how he could give such an undertaking without consulting the military high command unless he plans to withdraw the armed forces in toto from the North. However, no compensation was offered to those murdered by JVP. These are ploys of a populist candidate wishing to tap into the minority vote base.
A JVP led government will be the death knell to this country. Trade Unions and students will rule the roost, and streets will be clogged with all types of demonstrators. The JVP, having encouraged these types to agitate for years, will be hard-pressed to instruct the Police to do what is necessary when in the driving seat.
Some things that need be done and will not be done
Present-day Sri Lanka can hardly be deemed secular. The involvement of the Maha Sanga in the country’s political landscape has increased progressively since the advent of SP’s father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Both GR and SP would appear to be competing with each other in their offerings of Ata Pirikara and prostrating before clergy almost daily. AKD, to his credit, keeps the Maha Sanga at arm’s length.
MR recently boasted of having given jobs by increasing the number of state sector employees from 750,000 to 1.5 million between 2005 and 2015. What he achieved was doubling the state sector payroll while halving productivity. By promising jobs to voters, that is what GR, SP, and AKD are offering to continue. There is much talk of populist measures such as reduction of VAT, personal and corporate taxes, free mid-day meals for school children, and free fertilizer.
No candidate speaks of the need to prune down the list of national holidays. Ten out of twelve Poya Holidays besides several other religious holidays could be done away with. The practice of government employees reporting sick to engage in demonstrations is an indication of the desperate need for Trade Union reforms. All three candidates promise enhancement in remuneration for employees, including plantation workers. Yet no one speaks of remuneration increases linked to increasing productivity. Candidates are aware, foreign investors would be very encouraged to invest in this country if some of these issues are addressed. Contestants nevertheless do not have the political will to implement such reforms for fear of losing votes of an electorate of welfare-dependent lotus-eaters.
Some of the other contentious issues involve the duty-free vehicle permit scheme and the jumbo-sized cabinet of ministers. No presidential candidate has given an undertaking to abolish the vehicle permit scheme across the board (not only for MPs but for all categories including public servants) if voted to office. Neither has any candidate promised a cabinet of ministers to suit the size of the country and economy. If Japan could manage with a cabinet of ministers amounting to 25 members, why can Sri Lanka not manage with 20 less?
Nagananda Kodituwakku, the only contestant who undertook to implement some of these measures was deviously knocked out of the contest. The representative of the political party promoting his candidature failed to turn up to pay his deposit. He had proposed a parliament of 60 MPs, abolish Provincial Councils, and to do away with duty-free vehicle permits, among other things.
An acquaintance recently told this writer, he considered this candidate as unbalanced, a view endorsed by another, a former leading industry captain. It reflects the passive acceptance of much that is wrong in this country by civil society as the inevitable.
Therein lies the reason for mendacious presidential contenders to dish out the same old fallacies and falsehoods, albeit with new labels.