Caretaker Govt. as Flat Beer
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has his own way of doing things and sending messages across. He began his Independence Day address on 04 Feb by stating, ‘Sri Lanka is a unitary state.’ His message was clear; the unitary status of the country would not be compromised under any circumstances. The national anthem was sung only in Sinhala but by a group of students representing all ethnic communities in the country. He apparently wants that model adopted, but he had his speech translated into Tamil so as to show that he respected the language rights of the Tamil community.
President Rajapaksa also conveyed a powerful message to the Sinhala nationalists who voted for him overwhelmingly and their Tamil counterparts who went all out to defeat him, albeit in vain. He said he was the President of all Sri Lankans and would serve all of them alike. Reading between the lines one will see that he said he wouldn’t be a prisoner of the Sinhala hardliners or deterred by the attempts being made by the Tamil nationalists to prevent him from reaching out to the Tamil community.
President Rajapaksa made it clear that national security was at the top of his list of priorities and would do his utmost to develop the economy. What one may gather from his contention that economic, political and social inequalities were common to all regions regardless of ethnic and religious differences is his belief that economic development and the equitable distribution of national wealth and opportunities will help usher in national reconciliation. This view runs counter to the TNA’s position that more power will have to be devolved if ethnic harmony is to be achieved. The TNA boycotted the Independence Day ceremony.
It is now obvious that the TNA won’t be able to make President Rajapaksa agree to a power sharing arrangement that goes beyond the 13th Amendment. The chances of reviving the constitution-making process that the last government initiated under pressure from its trusted partner, the TNA, look remote. Even the UNP-led administration, despite its dependence on the TNA, chose to tread cautiously without making any commitment, fearing a political backlash.
Campaigning for extensive devolution, if not federalism, is the TNA’s sole purpose of being. What will the TNA offer to the Tamil electorate in return for votes, at the next general election? At the first parliamentary election it contested in 2004, it secured 22 seats and in 2015 the number decreased to 16. It is trying to win 22 seats at the upcoming parliamentary polls. Whether the TNA will be able to retain the same number of seats, increase it or prevent it from decreasing remains to be seen.
Hobson’s choice for Sajith
Nothing seems to go right for UNP MP Sajith Premadasa. He fumes, rants, raves and even issues veiled threats to break away in a bid to secure the party leadership. Ranil remains unfazed by overt and covert moves to oust him, threats, etc., and always has the last laugh. Sajith gives in and settles for less. All his protests come to nought. Following the defeat of presidential candidate of the UNP-led Opposition, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, in 2010, Sajith went ballistic, declaring as he did at Sirikotha that he was ready to run for President if the party leader was not ready to do so. But a few years later, he chose to bite the bullet and agree with Ranil to field Maithripala Sirisena as a common presidential candidate. Thereafter, he demanded the party leadership to contest the 2019 presidential election. Ranil allowed him to contest but continued to be the party leader. He knew Sajith would not be able to win; subsequently, he said Sajith had not been leading in any of the pre-polls surveys! When Sajith continued to demand the post of UNP leader, he was made the Opposition Leader and later the prime ministerial candidate as well the leader of an electoral coalition to be made.
The UNP, in disarray, has its work cut out to better its performance within the next couple of months and be able to win a general election. If it loses in April as well, Sajith leading the UNP’s election campaign will face a double whammy. He is likely to lose the post of the Opposition Leader in such an eventuality with the Ranil camp striking back.
The removal of Sajith loyalists, UNP MP Ajith P. Perera and Imtiaz Bakir Marker, from the UNP Working Committee has sent a powerful message to the anti-Ranil faction of the UNP: Ranil calls the shots in the party and Sajith won’t be able to save his supporters. Sajith is in a dilemma. He has had to work with Ranil while his loyalists are being victimized.
Caretaker govt. as flat beer
There is absolutely no constitutional requirement for a government in power to resign when its presidential candidate fails to get elected. The UPFA government set a bad precedent in 2015 by resigning upon the defeat of its presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the incumbent president at that time. The UNP-led government followed suit, last year following the defeat of its candidate, Premadasa.
The UNP, however, did so with an ulterior motive. It wanted to avoid a clash with the newly elected president and have a breather before facing a general election. If the UNP had held on to power in Parliament and put itself on a collision course with the President, public sympathy would have been with the latter and winning the general election would have been a cakewalk for the SLPP in such a situation. The UNP took a gamble, a huge one at that, and gave up power, and its strategy seems to have worked to some extent.
The caretaker government is now facing numerous problems. It is fast becoming the political version of flat beer. It is struggling to fulfil its election pledges. Expectations of the people are extremely high. Power cuts are on and the cost of living is soaring. As if these were not enough, the government has been hit by the Central Bank forensic audit report and the corrupt Airbus deal, which took place under the Rajapaksa government.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa lost no time in ordering a probe into the Airbus scandal and the Attorney General instructed the CID to arrest two suspects and carry out investigations into the revelation made by a British court that Airbus had granted USD 2 million to a shell company formed by the wife of a SriLankan airlines executive to clinch aircraft sales. On Thursday, February 6, former SriLankan CEO Kapila Chandrasena and his wife surrendered to the police and have since been remanded. Did they act on their own in doing what they are alleged to have done, or did they have the blessing of their political masters? What will be their defence, if at all? Will they rat on their masters as Sajin Vaas Gunawardene has done? Will the government make a serious attempt to finish the probe into the questionable aircraft deal before the upcoming general election? These are some of the questions that need answers.
As for the forensic audit report, which has become grist for the Opposition’s mill, the government has called the credibility and integrity of the foreign audit firms concerned into question. Quoting The Economic Times of India, the government has pointed out that audit firm, BDO, is embroiled in a bribery scandal and had to sack a partner, last year. The government of India, after detecting at least 22 violations of auditing standards by Deloitte Haskins & Sells and a KPMG affiliate, sought a five-year ban on the auditors, the government has said, quoting a Reuters dispatch. The question that the government asks is whether forensic audits conducted by such firms can be taken seriously. What the Opposition and the other critics of the government have got to say to this will be interesting. Parliament is scheduled to take up the forensic report for debate shortly.
The challenge before the government is to maintain the momentum it got from the presidential election until the end of April, when the next general election is due. This is no easy task, given the country’s economic ills and the serious allegations being levelled against some government politicians and their cronies.