25 July 2020

Whither Gota and the SLPP?

Even the staunchest opponents of the Government would concede that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is more than likely to secure a clear majority at the parliamentary elections in August. A resounding victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the last presidential elections less than a year ago, an Opposition in disarray and a general approval rating of the president for the way in which the Covid19 issue is being handled certainly weighs things in favor of the SLPP.

In effect we are likely to have a situation where the parliament is controlled by the same party which the president belongs to. As things stand, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa is likely to retain his prime ministerial portfolio. The 19th Amendment (flawed and anti-democratic let us not forget) does give the Prime Minister more sway than was the case before it was constituted. Whether this cramps or further empowers the president will depend on the relationship between the two brothers. That too is left to be seen.

The SLPP is seeking a two-thirds majority. Such a majority, historically, has fed power-greed to the detriment of democracy and the interests of the citizen. Let’s not forget however that Ranasinghe Premadasa and the UNP didn’t have a two-thirds majority and yet was responsible for the bloodiest period in post-independence history.

‘Fear of a two-thirds’ is obviously not reason enough for a voter to shift allegiance. Simply, one does not endorse a party/candidate that one considers less competent or downright moronic just because one’s first choice might obtain more control in government.

The numbers thrown up on August 5, 2020 will tell many stories, the possibility of cobbling a two-thirds being just one. Power tussles, imagined or real, could be analyzed thereafter. What is more important at this point is policy.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa carried out what was probably the first ever carbon neutral election campaign. By the 12th of November 2019, 26,000 trees had been planted, 6,000 above the 20,000 required to achieve carbon neutrality, accounting for average mortality rates and unexpected destruction. The campaign team maintained at the point that each tree will have a geo-tag to facilitate monitoring and that allometric equations would be used to infer the carbon content stored in these trees by using data such as height and diameter of the plants. The campaign team has not uttered a word since. Maybe it’s all good, but we have no way of knowing. Nevertheless it gave the indication that Gotabaya would be a ‘green president,’ quite in line with the campaign promise of an environment-friendly presidency.

And yet we saw a relaxing of sand-mining regulations following a cabinet decision ‘to support the construction industry.’ Environmentalists warned that the move would see a spike in illegal sand mining as such activity is detected mostly during transportation. Cabinet spokesperson Ramesh Pathirana would later admit that the liberalization of permits to transport sand was being abused and that there was indeed a spike in complaints about illegal mining.

Environmentalists are also up in arms over the decision to revisit Circular 5/2001 related to ‘Other State Lands.’ The Land Commissioner General has stated that a committee has been appointed to segregate lands into protected areas and bare lands. This was in response to objections to the cabinet decision to revoke Circular 5/2001 which would have brought such forests directly under District and Divisional Secretaries whereas previously provisions for releasing areas ‘for development’ had to adhere to numerous environmental protocols. Environmentalists claim that even existing regulations are being flouted and fear that removal of the same would make it an open season for wanton abuse.

The SLPP Government’s pledge to combat the ‘rice mafia’ has also been tested. Dismantling cooperatives of small-time rice millers clearly made a mockery of wresting ‘the right to price’ from the big players. Are they that powerful? Is the government that weak? Is it an indication of true ‘constituency’?  

The SLPP Government has, to its credit, put a lot of effort to review the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact. The Gunaruwan Committee has effectively called for dropping it. For reasons best known to the President, the report has been sent for cabinet perusal. The map of Sri Lanka in 2050 as envisioned by the MCC team-leader, Steve Dobrilovic, presented at Temple Trees in August 2018 included a nation dividing electrified railway line between Colombo and Trincomalee. Jenner Edelman, MCC Country Director sweet-talked about it all being a gift and declared that the railway line was ‘fake news.’ When confronted with the relevant slides, she is reported to have gone red in the face and mumbled ‘Steve made a mistake in giving out this map.’ The MCC stinks. Period. Why the SLPP refuses to dump it clearly raises concerns over the party’s ‘nation first’ rhetoric.

Then there’s the issue of the Eastern Terminal of the Colombo Port. Is this pay-back to India for compensating for possible ‘loss of immediate bucks’ that could come with the MCC (minus of course the nation’s sovereignty).

The SLPP Government is simply not coming clean about all this. The President portrays himself as a nationalist. The SLPP claims the same. You can’t be a nationalist and barter sovereignty. It’s best to tell the truth and be judged accordingly. Navel-gazing and thumb-twiddling will be read as capitulation, nothing less.  

The President raised a lot of hopes immediately after his election by limiting cabinet size. No mention of sticking to this after a possible victory in August. Why not? Are there plans to ‘buy over’ opposition MPs by offering portfolios and using provisions surreptitiously included in the 19th by the UNP (and endorsed by the SLFP and the then Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa)? A committee was appointed to receive applications to high posts. This was to minimize political interference. Well, the committee no longer exists. Loyalty outweighed competence. Is that what a future SLPP Government will also do? If not, the SLPP must tell the voter what’s what as would a ‘kiyana de karana - karana de kiyana (do what was promised, tell what’s being done)’ government.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a doer. It seems clear that he wants to do things differently. Is the SLPP with Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Will he become a creature of the party? Will the SLPP elect those who are in line with the President’s thinking or are they ok with how things were done before? Was Gotabaya Rajapaksa sincere in his promises and was he biding his time until a parliamentary majority was obtained? Will an SLPP-dominated parliament strengthen him or will it render him ineffective? Time will tell.

An SLPP victory is all but assured. That however doesn’t mean everyone, electors included, feels comfortable about endorsement being treated as a blank check. If Gotabaya and/or the SLPP believe it is a mandate for ‘do as we please,’ they would be dead wrong.

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