Abhiman Lanka Peramuna
Dr. Rohan Pallewatta Opposes Politics that Ignore the Ethics of Society
Apart from mainstream political parties preparing to contest the Presidential election scheduled for November 16 this year, this contest has also brought to the fore several groups whose common endeavour is to introduce an alternative political culture. Sri Lanka has been governed these past 71 years either by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party or the United National Party, or coalitions where one these two parties’ played a leading role.
While alternative political parties have sprung up from time to time, this time around, there has been a greater effort to communicate their ideas to the people through social media and fairly well publicised launches. Currently, the major contenders to the presidency from within the alternative forces are highly successful businessman, Dr. Rohan Pallewatta, the Leader of the Social Democratic Party of Sri Lanka representing the Abhiman Lanka Peramuna and former Army Commander Mahesh Senannayake, of the National People’s Movement.
Counterpoint met Dr. Rohan Pallewatta at his residence cum office in Gampaha this week, to learn about his plans for the country, if he wins the presidency.
Q.How long has the Social Democratic Party of Sri Lanka been around?
A. The party was formed about four years ago, with the idea of running for the presidency, though there is no requirement that you have to have a party of your own to contest that office. I could have contested through any of the parties registered in the country. The reason to register the party is to ensure there is a platform for the people who have volunteered and spent time with me, after the election, whether or not I win. It is important that their livelihood remains intact and that there is direction in their lives.
As well, to bring about the change that we envision for the country, contesting a presidential election alone will not be effective. We need to contest the general election too.
Q. How did you become part of the Abhiman Lanka Peramuna, and what was the process followed to elect you as the presidential candidate from amongst the other aspirants?
A. I met with the Convenor of Abhiman Lanka Peramuna, Mr. Dinesh Keerthinanda and indicated my willingness to join with them to achieve our common goal. He wanted to know why I was prepared to do that, as I had been campaigning for the past three years. I told him t it was important to work under one banner and leader, or else we would be considered a joke, and the votes would be divided. I told him I was ready to step down. He was encouraged that a major candidate was prepared to do that, as that would be a pre-requisite to bring all the groups together. That was how all the groups joined, and we signed an agreement and decided who should be on the selection committee etc. But subsequently, some opted out on various excuses. I pointed out that we signed an agreement to stay together to run the country and that we should not find lame excuses, but find reasons to remain together and not disintegrate. After that, there were several names submitted to the committee to be picked as presidential candidate. I submitted a 15 minute video and a document to prove my eligibility and I was chosen by a unanimous decision.
Subsequently, the National People’s Movement (NPM)met me, just before my candidacy was announced, with General Mahesh Senanayake to inform me that they had picked him to be the candidate. I explained to them that I cannot step down at that point as I have already made my plans and also have a following. I said that we both should go ahead and file nomination papers on October 7th. I suggested that during the campaign, we could judge the pulse of the people and one of us could pull out of the race to ensure the best candidate wins.
What is important is that we introduce principled politics. I am not entirely sure whether someone from a Military background will be able to uphold democratic values, because they are used to having orders carried out without being questioned. So, I wonder, whether it was wise to bring in someone with such a background to contest the presidency. I have nothing personal against him, but if other ambitious military officers use this platform to contest the next presidency, what would be the result? I don’t want to be part of such a precedent.
I am all for principled politics and not popular politics.
If the idea is to counter the SLPP candidate, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, I am not sure if that is a good strategy.
Whoever wins the presidency must be able to comprehend the issues the country is facing and implement solutions accordingly.
For example, one must understand the concept on which a village is formed, that they are self-sustained units. Clearing thousands of acres of forest to build houses is not the answer, we need to move towards vertical living, and protect the greenery.
Our policies must be framed around protecting the air quality we breathe, contamination of water, poisoning of the food we eat etc.
Q. There is a clamour to abolish the Executive Presidency, what is your stand on that?
A. I have a different stand. Our manifesto was drawn up by a think tank, which included Pr. Krishan Deheragoda and others. I was also involved in it; it is in fact, not just a manifesto but a blue print for the country. When I went through it I felt confident that it is very doable.
But to implement it, you need certain powers, the authority; you need the executive powers of a president to be able to deliver what is envisaged. There are certain management styles, and for me to deliver, given my personal experience, I need executive power. Therefore, I am for the Executive Presidency.
Q. 19A has substantially reduced the power of the President and if you win, you will have to work the current government until the next general election is held. How will you work around that situation?
A. I don’t agree with the popular belief that 19A has narrowed down the powers of the president, to be virtually a name sake. Of course some sections curb powers severely, but the Supreme Court held that to implement those, there should be a referendum. But no referendum was held; instead those provisions have been left out. So, the President still holds substantial powers, and is the Head of State, Head of Cabinet and the Tri-Forces. That is enough power.
Although I will be handing in my nominations through a party, if I am the winner, I will disassociate myself from the party, the moment I am elected. The Executive of the country must remain neutral; if you read the constitution, it says the President is the leader of all. I can manage diversity better than a person inclined towards party politics.
When Maithripala Sirisena became President, everyone visited him. So, I know, that practically within the first week, you can get everyone together and be a real Statesman. Show them what needs to be done and the way forward; when the country is in jeopardy, this is what I must do, and that they should not stand in my way or tie my hands. I am confident of winning their support and my ability to work with the existing government.
No transition could happen overnight, it needs to be gradual, if not there is the threat of conflict and bloodshed. I believe in avoiding all that.
I do not believe in approaching any issue with hatred. There are allegations that the country has been robbed, but you can’t solve it through hatred. We must be compassionate even towards those who have robbed. Of course, we must do our best to get back what has been looted out of the country, rather than putting people behind bars. Getting back the loot must be our priority.
Q. You are a very successful businessman and an innovator. Now you say you want to serve the people, though you have never been in politics. How do you see yourself playing a vastly different role?
A. I have learnt a lot these past three years. It’s a different set of values, because people may not always keep their word. They would easily dismiss something as “oh, that is politics.” In fact, a major political party requested I join them. I told them that I cannot, because I am opposing the two main parties, the very culture, the politics. Politicians seem to have taken it for granted that the very ethics of society can be ignored when it comes to politics, and that is exactly what I oppose.
Q You are committed to changing the current political culture. Has this idea caught the imagination of the larger population?
A. We have recruited people from all Grama Sevaka divisions and have taken the message to all the rural areas as well. With new technology, people are well informed. I was speaking in a really rural area in Galgamuwa recently, and there were several people who were videoing the proceedings. I did not have to do much to explain the need to change the political culture we have. Communication is the key to get the information out and we have a political machinery of sorts to do that.
I must say that even the media is involved in corrupt politics. I wanted to carry an ad as a false cover page in a newspaper, they first quoted about a million rupees, later they said it would be Rs. 4.3 million and after the election was announced upped it Rs. 14.3 million. I decided against it. So you see the colossal amount of money being spent on campaigns.
After October 7th, we will decide how we should expand our campaign. Right now, there is no need to spend so much, but if the trend shows we have a good chance of winning, then I will throw everything I have towards it. If the trend is against us, then I do not see the need to waste money on a result that is not what I want it to be.
Q. General Senanayake has the Sarvodaya, Deshodaya etc. which are well spread out within the country, how will that affect your campaign?
A. At the moment, our agreement is to see who has the most support during the campaign, and at the 11th hour, the one less likely to win will pull out.
Q Most politicians try to mislead the public, even about a sound programme the government in power tries to introduce. You are trying to introduce a completely new political culture and system, how will you handle any attempts to destabilise that?
A. Whoever comes to power needs to address the economic issue. That is not addressed properly be anyone. To correct the course, I personally believe that we need at least $ 10 billion as Foreign Direct Investments (FDI); not just putting money into the stock market and taking it out. If it comes as FDI, we can manage the situation. In the past few months, I have received pledges from around the world for about $ 4 billion; those will not be channelled through line ministries etc., but through me as the leader, because of their confidence in me. A future leader must be able to exude such confidence. I have been able to raise that many pledges without being in power. I have seen how developed countries get things done, and ensure unity even amongst their own dissenting party members. That is what we must do too.
Q. You have business interests world –wide. If elected President, don’t you think that could interfere with foreign policy?
A. I have a strong second layer that can manage the company. I will stay out of it, as it could cause a conflict of interest.
Q. Will you resign from the company if elected?
A. “Not only must Justicebe done; it mustalso be seen to be done.” I want to set that example. We had a good value system in the ‘70’s, but now we don’t respect our promises. The problems we face isowing to lack of integrity.
Q The public service itself is politicised, how will you effect the changes you plan, in such a scenario?
A. We have to handle it gradually. We can’t sue all the public officers,, that would mean more than 90% of them. Our system is such that their promotions, terms of office etc. are dependent on their political allegiances. We need to introduce the change gradually, so they become real public servants. Despite the 30 year war and the Tsunami, we were a resilient nation. All that changed under the previous regime when key institutions such as the judiciary, the Central Bank, the Treasury for instance were politicised. That is the danger, because the country will not fall for any error in politics if the key institutions are strong. We need to get these institutions back into the hands of the professionals. That will be one of my priorities. We are currently finalising the team, and even if we do not win, we will present it to whoever forms the next government.
Q. At the Abiman Lanka Peramuna launch, it was mentioned that the number of ministers and secretaries to ministries will be kept at 20. Will they be picked from amongst your group who were not successful in their bid to run for the presidency?
A. No, it can’t be run like a consolation prize. They will be picked on merit. People who have proven themselves, professionals, will be appointed to run the ministries. The Ministers will be decided upon after the election; first we will form a broad coalition with like- minded groups to contest the general election, and hopefully even form a minority government. The ministers will be drawn from that group. They must be people who have been successful in life, so they have the ability to turn the country around. Qualifications are only on paper, what is important is that they should be people who have achieved something tangible. My business success is from this soil. Irrespective of whether a government was good or bad or conducive to my business, I have made a success ofit.
Q. You had mentioned that no government has grasped the exact problem of the ethnic issue. What is the problem as you see it, what is your solution?
A. In any country where the GDP is high, you will see that race and religion are considered as private matters. Such things don’t matter when the people are economically stable. So the answer is, reduce poverty, bring up their economic status, and those other problems will become non- issues.