An indication of continuity inspires confidence | Daily News

An indication of continuity inspires confidence

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa heading to the polling station to cast his vote at the Presidential Poll in November 2019.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa heading to the polling station to cast his vote at the Presidential Poll in November 2019.

Several events of considerable political significance occurred in the past week, signalling the Government’s intentions while at the same time highlighting the challenges faced by an opposition hamstrung by the depletion of its numbers in Parliament and with little other visible support.

Foremost among them was the first public indication from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he intends to run for a second term of office. This came as a surprise even to members of the ruling party as previously, the President had indicated he wished to hold office for only one term.

Following a meeting with heads of media institutions, President Rajapaksa was quoted by his media spokesman Kingsley Rathnayake as saying “Not only next three years, but there are five years after that for me to implement my policies,” which hinted at the President’s intentions of running for re-election.

The meeting focused on issues such as vaccination against COVID-19, the use of organic fertilizer and renewable energy but it was the statement related to his re-election that attracted most interest in the media because it suggests that the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s candidate for the next Presidential Election, due by late 2024, is now a foregone conclusion.

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran as the Presidential candidate in 2019, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ineligible to run for a fourth time. That was because the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted during the Presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, imposed a two-term limit on an individual holding the office of President.

At the time, although Gotabaya Rajapaksa had distinguished himself as the Secretary of Defence and in his work with the Urban Development Authority, his critics and political opponents cited his lack of political experience as a weakness to hold the highest office in the land.

Presidential Election

Voters at the Presidential Election however thought otherwise, handing President Rajapaksa a resounding mandate. He polled 6.9 million votes or 52 per cent of the vote as against the 5.6 million votes or 42 per cent of the votes polled by his nearest rival, now Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vote was in fact an improvement on elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s performance at his first Presidential Election in 2005 when he beat Ranil Wickremesinghe polling 50.3 per cent of the vote. In 2010 however, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected in a massive endorsement, polling 58 per cent of the vote against Sarath Fonseka’s 40 per cent.

This statement by President Rajapaksa is significant for several reasons. There had been speculation about the future of the Government and its leadership at the next election. While Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa remains the most popular and charismatic politician in the country, he would be 78 at the time of the next election. Moreover, although the 20th Amendment to the Constitution repealed most changes brought about by the 19th Amendment, it retained the two-term limit on an individual holding the office of President.

This naturally focuses attention on the senior leaders in the Government’s ranks. The eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers Chamal Rajapaksa will be over 80 years of age at the time of the next Presidential Poll. Basil Rajapaksa, another potential contender for the candidacy however is a dual citizen, retaining his United States citizenship. The 20th Amendment, while allowing dual citizens to enter Parliament, retained the provision preventing dual citizens from running for the office of President.

Given all these considerations, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intimation that he had “eight more years” to complete his programme of work for the country suggests that he is determined to run for office at the next presidential polls due by 2024. This statement of intent would give clarity and intent to the Government and its leading politicians about the way forward.

NCM against Gammanpila

Another issue occupying the Government this week was the motion of no confidence moved against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila. The motion was spearheaded by the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) but was initially triggered by a comment from Sagara Kariyawasam, National List Parliamentarian and General Secretary of the ruling SLPP.

In public comments, Kariyawasam blamed Minister Gammanpila for the recent fuel price hike and called for his resignation. At a time when Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa was yet to return to Parliament and take his oaths, State Minister Nimal Lanza also stated that there would have been no need to raise fuel prices had Basil Rajapaksa been in the Government.

It was such comments which spurred the SJB to try and embarrass the Government, attempting to convey the impression that there was disunity within the Government ranks and that Gammanpila’s portfolio was under threat. Such a Motion would also place both Kariyawasam and State Minister Lanza in a difficult position.

In the meantime, however, Minister Gammanpila had responded by stating that the decision to increase fuel prices was a collective decision taken in full consultation with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, sending a clear signal to members of the SLPP that any decision to oppose him would amount to opposing the President and the Prime Minister.

The No Confidence Motion (NCM) was taken up for debate on Monday and Tuesday and was not without its share of drama. Former Prime Minister and the United National Party (UNP)’s solitary Parliamentarian Ranil Wickremesinghe attempted to divert attention from Minister Gammanpila, saying he wished to amend the Motion as being against the entire Cabinet. The premise for this argument possibly was Minister Gammanpila’s stance that the oil price hike was a collective Cabinet decision.

Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena however rejected this amendment stating that it was not in accordance with the Standing Orders. “The amendment handed over by MP Wickremesinghe is not relevant to the scope of the NCM as per 43 (4) of the Standing Orders which says any amendment to a Motion should not interfere with the status of it. It has no relevance to the original motion as per 43(5) of Standing Orders. The amendment to the NCM is therefore not acceptable,” Speaker Abeywardena ruled.

In any event, the NCM had no chance of success. Even SLPP General Secretary Kariyawasam whose comments inspired the Opposition to move the Motion had said prior to the debate that the Motion will be defeated because the ruling party would not allow the Opposition to gain undue political mileage.

In fact, even the Opposition’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake said the Motion was not well thought out from a political point of view. “The motion has only united the groups within the Government, which had started to criticise the Government for several of its decisions,” the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader noted.

Dissanayake said however, they would support the NCM on the grounds that Minister Gammanpila failed to pass down the benefit of the fuel price reduction in the world market by utilising the Fuel Price Stabilization Fund and his failure to find alternatives to prevent a fuel price increase. “The Minister has been unable to provide facts to the Cost of Living Committee which met to discuss the fuel price increase and find alternatives,” he said.

When the vote on the NCM was taken, it was overwhelmingly defeated by 152 votes to 61. All SLPP MPs, including those who were publicly critical of Gammanpila over the recent fuel hike, voted against the motion. SLPP MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was absent during the vote which was taken at the end of the two-day debate. Former Premier Wickremesinghe voted with the SJB as did the TNA. The debate and the drama leading up to it did give the Opposition some breathing space but in reality, it was much ado about nothing.

The Opposition would have other concerns to deal with. One of its controversial Parliamentarians, Rishard Bathiudeen has been in detention for some time, held in custody since late April for alleged involvement in the April 2019 Easter attacks. The former Minister has filed a Fundamental Rights application in the Supreme Court challenging his detention which is ongoing.

Domestic aide’s death

This week, a 16-year old girl employed in his household died following burn injuries. The teenager who passed away was from Dayagama and obtained work as a maid in the Bathiudeen household last year. The minimum age of employment in Sri Lanka is 16 but persons employing workers between the ages of 16 to18 are subject to certain restrictions.

To make matters worse for the embattled Bathiudeen, Borella Police this week informed a Court in Colombo that the Judicial Medical Officer’s (JMO) report into the death of the domestic aide at the former Minister’s house revealed she has been subject to sexual abuse for quite some time.

Police submitted the statements obtained from the mother and brother of the victim and Parliamentarian Rishard Bathiudeen’s uncle in connection with her death. Police also informed Court that investigations are in progress to ascertain whether she has been subject to rape before she came to be employed at the former Minister’s house.

There will no doubt be much public focus on this tragedy in coming weeks but the Government will pursue its own agenda, both in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic and in reviving the economy.

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