Ranil intensifies moves to retain presidency

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  • Stops SJB crossovers to UNP until he declares his candidacy
  • In Parliament speech, President explains various measures to stabilise economy and strengthen country
  • Ranawaka opposes Basil’s call for parliamentary election first, says such a move will bring country to brink bankruptcy again


By Our Political Editor

President Ranil Wickremesinghe stalled a move by an unknown number of crossovers from the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) last May Day. He was of the view that such a move should come only after he declared himself as the “all party common candidate” for the presidential election.

Some United National Party (UNP) leaders had arranged for the SJB members to appear on the UNP stage in Maligawatte. The exact number is being kept a secret for fear of pressure moves being brought upon them not to quit.

The development comes as the Election Commission, in an unusual move, said in a statement that the presidential election would be held between September 17 and October 16 this year. The statement said, “In accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the provisions of the Presidential Elections Act No 15 of 1981 the nominations for the Presidential Elections will be called at the right time and in accordance with the powers vested with the Election Commission, the Elections will be held between September 17, 2024, and October 16, 2024.” A Commission official said that the official statement was issued since there was confusion in the people’s minds about the dates for the elections. Besides, the announcement is also an indication that the presidential election will take place before the parliamentary elections.

Basil Rajapaksa, founder of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), at the opening of their “Operations Centre” for the elections that was opened this week.

Parties busy with preparations

President Wickremesinghe has been busy with his senior aides including those from the UNP preparing for the presidential election. This includes the selection of polling agents and other logistics related to the polls. Since May Day, there has been a spurt in poll preparations by the leading political parties and even the smaller ones. Thus, the lineup of the presidential candidates is becoming clearer.  With more to come, those in the running include:

President Wickremesinghe who is yet to formally announce his candidature. There is no change in the position that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will back him. The SLPP has already opened an “operations centre” at its office in Battaramulla to monitor the elections. Taking part in the event this week, among others, were founder Basil Rajapaksa, onetime Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa and businessman cum casino owner Dhammika Perera. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa will be the SJB candidate whilst Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led National People’s Power (NPP), will contest on behalf of his party. Publisher, businessman and Attorney-at-law Dilith Jayaweera is contesting on the Mawbima Janatha Party (MJP) ticket. He is the party’s leader.

There is still uncertainty over whether Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Minister of Prison Reforms and Constitutional Affairs, will be able to contest. His candidature on behalf of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was announced by its one-time leader, Maithripala Sirisena. However, the District Court has stripped Rajapakshe of his position as acting leader of the SLFP. Sirisena has also been stripped of the  office he held in the SLFP following an interim court order.

In the north, opinion is divided over the fielding of a candidate for the presidency. C. Wigneswaran and Suresh Premachandran are in favour of fielding a Tamil as the common candidate.  However, there is opposition from a section of the Tamil polity. Selvam Adaikalanathan has declared that such a common candidate could be fielded if the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi  (ITAK) decided.

Lalkantha misunderstood: NPP

Amidst all the polls activity, remarks made at the NPP rally by K.D. Lalkantha are reverberating in political circles. He said among other matters (according to a transcript from a recording), “We want a beautiful country. For that to happen, we need a beautiful political landscape. If we are to create such a beautiful political landscape, we need to change this system. Those who ruled this country for 76 years did not bring such a thing. That’s not all. We don’t just want representative democracy. We also want direct democracy. What does that mean? It means we want a system of government that allows us to directly intervene in matters that concern our village and our country. That is what’s known as direct democracy. How do we build that? We need to hold referendums where necessary. They can’t be like the sham referendum that J.R. Jayewardene held in 1982. When it comes to development projects, we need to hold referendums and ask the people directly whether they like those projects or not. We should involve the people in that way.

“We need to bring direct democracy to this country in addition to representative democracy. You can find that in more advanced countries. Did they ask the people before building an expressway from Kottawa to Galle? No. They should have built the expressway from Katunayake to Colombo first. There was no referendum on these. We elected our representatives. They did whatever they wanted. To create a beautiful political landscape, we need to include aspects of direct democracy whereby we are asked if development projects carried out by our local government authorities are environmentally friendly and how those projects affect our village, area, and country. When passing laws, we need to have referendums to decide whether we need those laws for this country.

A section of the SLPP “Operations Centre” for the elections located at their headquarters in Battaramulla

“We will create a system of government where you have the power to make laws for your village. We will devolve power to make this possible. Power to make laws for certain matters of national importance such as maintaining national unity must remain with the centre. Think about what we said during this May Day. We will give you the power to implement the law. You will also have certain judicial powers within the village. All those powers are currently at the top.”

An NPP spokesperson said that the remarks made by Lalkantha had been “misconstrued.” What he sought to convey, he said, was that the villages would be empowered through a mechanism so they could deal with their own issues than seek the help of the centre.

This week, three Colombo-based envoys met NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. They sought the views of the party towards ethnic reconciliation. The trio comprised Japan’s Ambassador Mizkoshi Hideaki, South African High Commissioner Sandil Schalk, and Switzerland’s Ambassador Siri Walt.

Particularly in view of the upcoming presidential election, it is imperative that President Wickremesinghe holds a careful balance on new controversies that are building up. One that caused considerable friction between two ministers – Tiran Alles and Harin Fernando – was the issue of visas to tourists by a private entity. The issue has been resolved. Another issue that is assuming controversial proportions is the recent revelation that Sri Lankan ex-soldiers have been fighting alongside both Russian and Ukranian troops.

Ranawaka on Lankans going for Russia-Ukraine war

United Republic Front Leader Patali Champika Ranawaka convened a news conference to speak on the issue. Together with him were retired Major General Tilak Ubhayawardena, who heads the URF “Ranaviru Pavura” and a person holding the rank of a Captain whose full name was not revealed.

Ranawaka said that a large number of serving and retired security forces officers have faced the economic crisis in the country and as an extension of that, they are being fraudulently sent to Russian and Ukraine. That the process has caught up. He pointed out that there is a tendency to encourage them to commit criminal activities in the country in the face of these economic problems.

He declared: “In the last two or three years, it has been reported that more than 50,000 people have left the security forces. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have retired. All of these people have armed training. Some of the murders that have occurred in the underworld in recent days have been reported to have been committed by security forces shooters. We have seen how people who are currently working as well as those who have retired from the service and those who have run away from the service are involved. Currently, it is reported that 84 people went to the battlefield in this way. Eight of them have died. However, unofficial reports say that this number is much higher. The government must intervene in this matter. Under the guise of providing foreign jobs to Malaysia and other countries. Those who were taken to Singapore have become prisoners in the camps of Internet fraudsters in Myanmar. The incidents have not been reported yet, but the government should take responsibility for these incidents

Major General (retd) Tilak Ubhayawardena, who is in charge of activities of Ranaviru Paura organisation, said that the government had not paid attention to the war heroes who sacrificed their lives to end the thirty-year war. He claimed that the main reason for the serving and retired officers to be deceived by fraudsters was that the monthly salary they receive was insufficient in view of the current economic crisis. The retired Army officer said that despite the possibility of sending our country’s security personnel as foreign peacekeeping forces, the Ministry of Defence was not doing so and by sending such personnel, the country could earn foreign exchange.

During question time, Ranawaka was asked about the SLPP’s call for parliamentary elections whilst the President would go for the presidential election. Ranawaka responded:

Basil Rajapaksa has wanted a general election, I have seen the media reports claiming that there is a majority of parliamentarians support this and that this parliament should be dissolved. If such a majority of parliamentarians resolve to dissolve parliament by a resolution, we have no objection to that. But it is wrong to dismiss the opinion of the President. There are several reasons for that. This President came to power on the promise of stabilisng the economy. Therefore, the first task of the President should not be to have another election to save the Rajapaksa family. As he himself told us, before the end of June, we need to restructure this country’s debt and stabilise the country. Otherwise, if the president dissolves parliament and directs the country to a parliamentary election again, if an unstable parliament comes from that election, the country’s economic crisis will increase, and the country will come to the brink of bankruptcy again,

Q: Will it be possible to hold both the presidential election and the general election at the same time?

I have already said that Basil Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa are responsible for the bankruptcy of the economy. And there are other people who are responsible. Remember that too. There was an oil crisis in this country. Whether the oil crisis was caused by negligence, incompetence or a conspiracy has not yet been properly investigated. All these people have no right to do politics in this country. Because there is an oil crisis, an electricity crisis, and a financial crisis, apart from the judicial process, a formal study by a formal economic criminal justice commission is needed to punish everyone.

President on the state of the economy

Another matter of significance was a brief on the state of the economy President Wickremesinghe delivered on Thursday in Parliament. He noted, “For the first time in many decades, a surplus in the current account of the balance of payments was achieved in 2023. Furthermore, interest rates decreased substantially, reaching levels as low as 10-13%. Tourism rebounded, and remittances from foreign workers rose significantly. By the first quarter of 2024, the exchange rate dropped to less than LKR 300 per US dollar. Furthermore, foreign exchange reserves exceeded US$ 5 billion, signalling a favourable trajectory in economic stability.”

President Wickremesinghe added: “We reached this progress by navigating a challenging and demanding path, one that we believed to be the right course of action. Despite facing criticism from certain groups within the country, we persisted in our efforts. Despite facing criticism at every turn, ranging from our endorsement of IMF support to the implementation of economic discipline, we persevered. Amidst the onslaught of criticism, slander, and rumours, we pressed on, recognising that there was no alternative path forward. Starting from September 2023, we proceeded methodically, implementing measures to control public spending. Numerous price reforms were also initiated across various goods and services.

“Government revenues stood at below 8% of GDP, insufficient to cover government expenditure, which accounted for 20% of the Gross Domestic Product. Consequently, the only viable solution was to enhance state revenue.

“Numerous past administrations provided employment, raised salaries, subsidised fuel, electricity, and water services, and managed budget deficits by borrowing from foreign countries or printing money. We opted to alter this approach. Adapting to such a change all at once was challenging, given the years of conditioning to operate in this manner. For the country to undergo reconstruction, someone must spearhead this transformation.

“Through a series of reforms, we established financial discipline within the country. Another crucial reform for economic stability was restructuring our debt. This was a significant consideration for finalising the IMF agreements in September 2022. By December 2022, the total debt as a percentage of GDP had reached 128%, a concerning level. Hence, we devised a debt restructuring programme, which was structured into three primary phases. The initial phase involved restructuring domestic debt.  The first phase was finalised in 2023. The second phase focused on restructuring loans obtained through official agreements with foreign countries. Following negotiations with these nations, a policy agreement on debt restructuring was successfully reached by November 2023.

“For this purpose, both the Paris Club and non-Paris Club countries, including China, have reached a policy agreement. The next step involves signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the creditor countries to finalise the process.

The Sri Lankan government is presently in discussions regarding the draft with the Official Creditors Committee. Additionally, negotiations are underway with China’s EXIM Bank. The third phase identified for restructuring is commercial debt. Consulting firms Lazard and Clifford Chance, representing the
Sri Lankan government, are currently engaged in negotiations with the creditors’ committee.

Negotiations are progressing positively, with both parties considering proposals. We aim to conclude these discussions by the middle of this year. The overarching objective of debt restructuring is to decrease our total debt to 95% of GDP by 2032, maintain the government’s gross financial requirement at 13% annually, and limit external debt servicing to 4.5% annually.

“Ensuring debt sustainability is paramount for long-term economic advancement. Without it, sustaining economic progress becomes untenable. As part of our efforts, we’ve initiated an anti-corruption programme based on the Governance Diagnostic Report, conducted with support from the IMF. Over the past couple of years, our government has diligently endeavoured to bring relief to our citizens through the outcomes of our economic recovery initiative. We arranged to directly grant substantial sums of money to economically disadvantaged groups in our country under the “Aswasuma” programme and other relief initiatives. Moreover, allowances granted to kidney patients, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities have been increased by 50%.

“Under this programme, economically disadvantaged groups receive more than three times the existing Samurdhi subsidy. In 2024, a total of Rs. 205 billion will be spent for these relief programmes. Relief programmes in Sri Lanka trace their origins back to the Second World War. Since then, there has not been such a significant allocation of funds to aid the impoverished.

“Over the course of the 2022 Yala season, 2022/23 Maha season, 2023 Yala season and 2023/24 Maha season, our agricultural practices have yielded successful harvests. The government has contemplated providing a portion of the crops to the impoverished free of charge. Accordingly, arrangements were made last year and this year during the Sinhala and Tamil New Years to provide free rice to the impoverished. The government intends to continue supporting those in need in the future. It is expected to allocate an expenditure of Rs.12 billion for this purpose in 2024. Starting from January 2024, government employees began receiving a monthly living allowance of Rs.5,000, which has now been increased to Rs.10,000. Additionally, starting from April, retired government employees also receive a monthly pension allowance of Rs.2,500.

“While these allowances may not fully address the broader cost of living concerns, the government has extended the maximum level of concessions it can afford.

It can be seen that the prices of imported goods have significantly decreased in recent months due to the strengthening of the rupee. This strengthening has caused a notable decrease in the prices of gas, mineral oil, milk powder, and other essentials. Additionally, the decrease in interest rates has provided a boost to the entrepreneurial sector. Despite receiving numerous requests for salary revisions, there is currently no government revenue growth allocated to address this in 2024. Past instances of indiscriminate concessions have had detrimental effects on our economy and the livelihoods of people. It is imperative that we do not revert to such practices. The economic crisis has affected every part of society, and everyone has been going through a very difficult time over the past two years…..”

From now on until the presidential election and beyond, there is little doubt that President Wickremesinghe has some onerous responsibilities. Whilst steering the government without any major crisis, he must ensure plans for the presidential poll are not marred.

The saga of Diana Gamage and how she lost her seatDiana Gamage has ceased to be a citizen of Sri Lanka upon acquiring British citizenship. She is disqualified to be a Member of Parliament, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.That brought the curtains down on the political career of a colourful and even controversial personality. As Minister of state for Tourism, she advocated for extended closing hours for bars and to lift legal restrictions on the use of ganja. She also played a limited role in ethnic reconciliation during visits to London where she met Tamil diaspora.

On Friday, she vowed to return to Parliament. The task, however, seemed difficult, if not impossible since she is no more a citizen of Sri Lanka after the Supreme Court ruling. Her travails are not altogether over. On Thursday, the Colombo Chief Magistrate, Thilina Gamage, placed a travel ban on her. Among other matters, there are questions over her legal status. As a British citizen, she does not possess a valid visa. Nor has she obtained Sri Lankan citizenship. There are also questions over her stint in Parliament and as State Minister. This is over whether she would have to pay back the public funds she utilised.

The influence of both Diana Gamage and her husband Senaka Silva grew as Sajith Premadasa, and his backers were veering away from the United National Party (UNP). They needed a registered political party to rally round. The husband and wife held the Apey Jathika Peramuna (AJP) or Our National Front. That went through a name change to become the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) or the United People’s Force. Premadasa named Diana Gamage as a National List MP. She later switched allegiance to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Succeeding her in Parliament is Mujibur Rahman. The Colombo district former MP resigned in January, this year, to contest the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) elections. Like all other local councils, elections did not take place. He now comes in as an appointed MP from the National List.

Earlier, an application from petitioner Oshala Herath was heard by a divisional bench of the Court of Appeal. The (“majority judgement”) upheld the preliminary objections and dismissed the application. The Court of Appeal President, Justice Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne, then declared that petitioner Herath had submitted a petition based on a personal and hidden political agenda. Agreeing to the dismissal was Justice Khema Swarnadhipa. However, Justice M.A.R. Marikkar delivered a dissenting judgment.

The 32-page Supreme Court judgment was delivered by Justice Janak Silva with Justice E.A.G.R. Amerasekera and Justice Kumudini Wickremesinghe agreeing. Appellant Herath, Justice Silva noted, had sought special leave to appeal on the following questions of law:

(1) Did the Court of Appeal err in law in its application of the law for a Writ in the nature of a Writ of Quo Warranto?

(2) Did the Court of Appeal err in law in failing to appreciate that in a Writ of Quo Warranto the burden of proving title and/or authority to Public Office is on the 1st Respondent?

(3) Did the Court of Appeal err in law in its application of principles of Writs of Mandamus and/or Procedendo and/or Certiorari in a Writ of Quo Warranto?

(4) Did the Court of Appeal err in law in not holding that the 1st Respondent is disqualified from holding office as a Member of Parliament upon her refusal to provide proof for her Sri Lankan citizenship in terms of the Law?

(5) Did the Court of Appeal err in Law in failing to appreciate that the Appellant’s application relates to the franchise of the people of the Republic?

Among significant highlights of the SC judgment are:

=  …..the material before us clearly establish that the 1st Respondent (Diana Gamage) was a citizen of Sri Lanka by descent and sometime after proceeding to Britain in 1981, had obtained a British passport. The 1st Respondent was at one time the holder of British passports bearing numbers 094425352 and 521398876. She had used these two British passports to travel to and from Sri Lanka on several occasions, last on 05.10.2014.

=  …….all what the 1st Respondent needs to have done is to provide the relevant declaration made by the Minister or the exemption granted to her. That may well have been the answer to the pending criminal proceedings. Instead of choosing that path, the 1st Respondent chose to take refuge under the right to remain silent and the presumption of innocence, which are concepts applied in criminal proceedings.

=  It must be borne in mind that the Court of Appeal as well as the Supreme Court exercises the judicial power of the People when exercising the jurisdiction in terms of Article 140 of the Constitution. In this application, the Appellant has sought a Writ of Quo Warranto declaring that the 1st Respondent is disqualified to be a Member of Parliament and is thus not entitled to hold office as a member of Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. When a Court issues such a mandate in the nature of a Writ of Quo Warranto, the 1st Respondent ipso facto ceases to be a Member of Parliament. The declaration made by Gazette No. 2188/46 dated 14.08.2020 as an administrative step insofar as pertaining to the 1st Respondent ceases to be operative. I reject the contention that issuing a Writ of Quo Warranto as prayed for in the petition is a futile act.

=  In response, the learned counsel for the Appellant submitted that facts were reported to the Magistrate on 21.03.2021 and that thereafter the matter strangely and startlingly remained in limbo with no investigation for over 18 months. It was submitted that such is a privilege only a very few people in the Republic are afforded, especially when suspected to have been in violation of the Immigrants and Emigrants Act. According to the Appellant, despite almost 3 years since the facts were reported, the 1st Respondent continues to function as a Member of Parliament with the law not taking its course as it would against any normal citizen.

=  I am constrained to address another point relied on by the Appellant, which has caused the Court great concern. The learned counsel for the Appellant submitted that: (a) The entire majority judgment, including the parts which are seemingly an analysis of the case before us, is directly from the written submission of the 1st Respondent and, accordingly, with no analysis in Law;

(b) The parts of the majority judgment which is a reproduction of the said written submissions of the 1st Respondent is a blatant and manifest misapplication and misconstruction of the law pertaining to a Writ of Quo Warranto.