Provincial Councils election and government’s economic woes

• President in a quandary about plummeting popularity • The fall-out from Mrs World 2021 and damage control

By Lankathilaka

Sri Lankan politics are in a state of flux with nobody in the know where the country is heading.

On the one hand, there seems to be a school of thought that the government should hold the long delayedProvincial Councils election without further delay. On the other hand, there is another which think that Provincial Councils will not serve any purpose but is a waste of public money.

However, the government is in a dilemma trying to find political space for the second layer of politicians in the political equation who have been left in the lurch for years now.

The Opposition at the time attributed the alleged delay and the failure to hold the Provincial Councils election to the UNP and the Yahapalanaya government. The then Opposition, in government now, showed enthusiasm during the formative years of the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna) to obtain an assessment oftheir popularity among the masses and looked to the Provincial Councils election for a vindication of this. Nevertheless, having installed themselves in office following massive electoral victories, the Provincial Councils election are still being held in abeyance while the proposed legislation to introduce a new system is languishing in cold storage.

The UNP’s inability to come up with necessary legislation to hold the election with a new system in place had few merits associated with it since there was a serious allegation that the Rajapaksa government at that stage was interfering with the findings of the Delimitation Commission which was responsible for the demarcation of electoral boundaries. Hence not only the Yahapalanaya government but the previous Rajapaksa administration too should be in the accused box concerning the delays in holding Provincial Councils election.

Talk about the Provincial Councils election first surfaced a few weeks ahead of the crucial United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in March.  It was mainly a step towards appeasing India and to lure its vote in favour of Sri Lanka. However, India played its cards as a mature political player in the region without upsetting its political apple cart.

Now once again, various parties are discussing what the future holds for them in the political arena. Some eleven political parties in the government coalition met at the SLFP headquarters recently to gauge the actual ground situation if the Provincial Councils election are to be conducted shortly. At the same time, there is speculation of a new entrant to the fray from the Rajapaksa family. Political circles are buzzing with the news that Rohitha Rajapaksa could be the chief ministerial candidate for the North Western province. However, the political atmosphere in the country is not that conducive to the SLPP owing to various reasons associated with their political culture.

Nobody needs a soothsayer or astrologer to measure the political climate or to come up with predictions of the direction in which the country is heading.  There is a palpable sense that the government is fast losing its ground due to various factors, from the cost of living to personal freedoms such as freedom of expression.

The main accusation by Opposition parliamentarians isthat the democratic space enjoyed by the people to express their views is fast shrinking in the hands of the present rulers. A parliamentarian from BatticaloaShankiyan Rasamanickam raised a privilege issue in Parliament on Friday against State Minister ShehanSemasinghe. MP Rasamanickam called upon the Speaker to take stern action against Semasinghe for allegedly infringing on his privileges when he spoke of the Easter Sunday attack and the perpetrators. Semasinghe had allegedly told Parliament that Rasamanickam should be questioned by the CID for the utterances he made regarding an impending attack similar to that of the Easter Sunday attack.  Similar sentiments have been expressed by various Parliamentarians over the need to maintain decorum in Parliament and to strictly adhere to Standing Orders without infringing on others rights, and to refrain from interfering when somebody is on his/her feet.

Bandula Gunawardena and Dinesh Gunawardena, two senior parliamentarians, also expressed similar sentiments on the need to follow strictly the Standing Orders of Parliament to conduct business in the House without being distracted. They lamented that the conduct of the members was at times appalling and below the expected standards.

Dinesh Gunawardena, while emphasizing the importance of maintaining decorum in the House, did not forget to take a few swipes at the former regime and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya for not recognizing their party in Parliament as the main Opposition. He said they had enjoyed the confidence of 54 members as against 14 members of the Tamil National Alliance that held the position of the Leader of the Opposition. He also underlined the fact that the then Opposition was not given enough time to speak and that they were blacked out on TV when they spoke.

Independent observers however opine that the conduct of the Opposition members was equally or more appalling during the 2015-2020 period. Most of the time members in the Opposition behaved like hooligans, more so soon after they failed in their endeavour to secure the government following the fifty-two-day conspiracy designed to oust the Ranil Wickremesinghe government.

Besides privilege issues and the matter relating to Parliamentary discipline, Gajendra Ponnambalam and various other Tamil parliamentarians raised the issue of the arrest of the Jaffna Mayor. The Mayor had been arrested on the frivolous charge of employing a uniformed staffer who was assigned the task of controlling traffic and matters connected to road discipline.  Ponnambalam who said that he was no fan of the Mayor, called the arrest preposterous. Many Tamil parliamentarians spoke on the same lines stating that even the Colombo Municipal Council is also engaging in similar practices with uniformed personnel.

Chief Government whip Johnston Fernando came to the defence of the government to say that they would not tolerate any outfit similar to that of the Police which was introduced by a local authority and hinted that action would be taken against the Mayor of Jaffna.

However earlier, the Leader of the House had promised to discuss the matter at a higher level and with the Minister concerned.

Meanwhile the factors that contributed to the diminishing popularity of the government was discussed extensively at many fora. The dwindling popularity of the government has posed a huge question for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is making every effort to salvage the country from the economic precipice it is already in.

The President had wanted to know why the government’s popularity is plummeting, but nobody had been able to give concrete answers. Parliamentarian S.B Dissanayake who had made a courtesy call on the Gatambe Nayaka Thero (Venerable Keppetiyagoda Siriwimala Nayaka Thero) had told the venerable prelate about what ailed the government. Hesaid that bureaucrats are in mortal fear to take decisions. “Nobody seems to be carrying out presidential orders,” Dissanayake had said. The prelate however had snapped back saying that they get their work done. “See what has befallen us, we will not get involved in politics hereafter,” the prelate had said. The monk had criticized the government’s decision to appoint military personnel to discharge the duties of senior government officials saying that “they are unable to do it efficiently.

S.B Dissanayake had visited the Venerable Kepptiyagoda Sirvimala thero on the prelates ninetieth birthday with greetings from the President and the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he was confronted with many questions by the prelate. He had tried his best to bail the government out of a difficult situation and sheer embarrassment by laying all its misfortunes on the global pandemic, but the prelate’s ready answer had been that it affected not only Sri Lanka but the entire world.

S.B Dissanayake apparently had an escape route.  He had said that the Chinese government stood ready to lend a hand to pull Sri Lanka out of its economic abyssby giving any amount of money which can be paid back leisurely when the country can afford it. What Dissanayake did not enlighten the prelate on was the percentage of the compound interest that will be added to the amount given as a loan.

The most crucial question that had arisen out of the dialogue is whether the prelate will buy this story or whether it will augur well for the government as far as the people are concerned. What the people will absorb is that the government intentionally placed the whole country in jeopardy by walking into a virtual debt trap without devising a proper way out. Whether there is a more practical way out of this problem is the billion-dollar question that the government will have to answer in time to come.

Sri Lanka has a penchant for grabbing the limelight for all the wrong reasons. For years it has been bad human rights, for months its been questionable burial regulations and now, a beauty contest which has turned ugly. The hideous scenes of the Mrs World pageant 2021 at the Nelum Pokuna auditorium last Sunday have gone viral and so have the memes that came on fast and thick. The country has become the butt end of jokes of the international media which have been giving a ball- by- ball account of the event. Caroline Jurie, who was Mrs World 2020, unilaterally took it upon herself to de-crown the winner of the title who was selected by a legitimately appointed panel of judges for the contest. Her accomplice was Chulpadmendra Kumarapathirana, a one-time model. The reason for them to storm onto the stage and wrestle the crown off the head of the winner Pushpika De Silva was seemingly because the latter violated a rule in the pageant that contestants must be married, a fundamental question for the qualifying stages of the contest. Ms De Silva reportedly sustained injuries during the fracas and according to the local organisersof the event there has also been damage to the auditorium. Jurie and Padmendra have been arrested by the Cinnamon Gardens police but not before the country has become the subject of ridicule the world over.  The need of the hour is damage control.    

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