Politics, Economy in the Spotlight | Daily News

Politics, Economy in the Spotlight

Politics and the economy continue to be the main focus of the Government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe this week as he took several critical decisions while at the same time preparing to present an ‘Interim Budget’ to Parliament, the latter in his capacity as Minister of Finance.

What attracted the most headlines last week was the release on Friday of Ranjan Ramanayake, the popular film actor turned Parliamentarian who represented the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Ramanayake was released on a special conditional Presidential Pardon issued by President Wickremesinghe.

Ramanayake has always been a controversial politician. An extremely popular artiste, he began his political career as a United National Party (UNP) organiser, initially for the Katana Electoral District in the Gampaha District and later for the Balangoda Electoral District in the Ratnapura District.

In 2008, Ramanayake contested for the position of Chief Minister on the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council (SPC) from the UNP and was elected as the Leader of the Opposition in that Council. His entry to Parliament came two years later, again representing the UNP from the Ratnapura District.

At the General Election held in August 2015, Ramanayake received the highest number of preferential votes for the UNP from the Gampaha District. He was one of four MPs elected from the SJB in the Gampaha District at the August 2020 General Election, second on the preferences list after Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka.

Ramanayake courted controversy when it was revealed that he had recorded telephone conversations with many individuals including fellow Parliamentarians, Police Officers and Judicial Officers. The careers of many Public Officers were in jeopardy as a result of these recordings becoming public.

Ranjan’s release

Ramanayake was alleged to have made remarks which were defamatory of the Judiciary during an interview with a private television station in August 2017. He was sentenced on January 12, 2021 to four years Rigorous Imprisonment (RI) by the Supreme Court for committing Contempt of Court.

Ramanayake was also accused of making remarks against the bench of the Supreme Court that heard a Fundamental Rights Petition challenging a decision taken by then President Maithripala Sirisena to dissolve Parliament in 2018. Ramanayake was to plead guilty to this second charge of Contempt of Court.

The Supreme Court which reviewed the matter sentenced him to two years imprisonment but suspended the sentence for five years. Following these verdicts, Ramanayake was imprisoned and he forfeited his seat in Parliament in April 2021. He was replaced by Ajith Manapperuma.

For some time now, even before the recent political upheavals, the SJB had been requesting a pardon for Ramanayake from then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Taking the lead on this issue was Minister Harin Fernando, Ramanayake’s close friend and fellow Parliamentarian from the SJB.

Fernando went to the extent of saying that he would wear a black coloured shawl in Parliament until Ramanayake was released. He also pledged that, should Ramanayake be released from prison, he would resign from his National List seat of the SJB to enable Ramanayake to re-enter Parliament.

Much has changed in the political landscape since then. President Gotabaya resigned on July 13. He was succeeded by President Ranil Wickremesinghe who was Ramanayake’s leader when the latter was in the UNP. Harin Fernando had also defected from the SJB to become an independent MP and become a Minister in former President Rajapaksa’s Cabinet.

Nevertheless, the campaign to obtain Ramanayake’s release gathered momentum following President Wickremesinghe’s election. It is known that Fernando and his colleague Minister Manusha Nanayakkara who also became an ‘independent’ MP after entering Parliament from the SJB, agitated for this.

It was initially expected that Ramanayake would be released soon after President Wickremesinghe assumed office. However, the process has taken some time. This is because the President was keen to ensure that all due processes were followed and for the Presidential Pardon not to appear to offend the Judiciary.

This was particularly so after some Presidential Pardons have come in for scrutiny. Among them is a pardon granted to former Parliamentarian Duminda Silva by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This matter is now being reviewed by Courts and the Pardon has since been suspended.

As a result, the Pardon granted to Ramanayake was the subject of a close study by the Attorney General’s Department and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. When the Presidential Pardon was announced last Friday and Ramanayake was released, it was also announced that it was a ‘Conditional Pardon’.

The exact nature of these conditions has not been made public at the time of writing. However, it was announced that Ramanayake is subject to a condition that ensures he undertakes not to be critical of the Judiciary. The Presidential Pardon was granted under Section 34 of the Constitution, reports said.

The SJB and the Opposition have sought clarification as to what impact these ‘conditions’ would have on Ramanayake. Due to his immense popularity as an actor, now further enhanced by serving a prison sentence, Ramanayake carries significant value as a politician. Hence this inquiry from the SJB. Incidentally, just a couple of days before his release, Ramanayake was brought by prison officials to a cinema in Colombo for the premiere of his new movie ‘The Game’. He was released from handcuffs for the duration of the movie.

Upon Ramanayake’s release, Nanayakkara, who is also Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment, announced that Ramanayake would be offered the position of being an ambassador for migrant workers in the Middle East, a cause that Ramanayake had worked for previously.

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether Ramanayake will take up this offer and some reports said he had declined it. It is also equally unclear whether the conditions imposed on Ramanayake would disqualify him from re-entering Parliament or contesting future elections and whether they would impact on his Civic Rights.

It will be recalled that previously, MP S. B. Dissanayake was convicted of the same offence and was pardoned by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He did return to Parliament thereafter. Whether Ramanayake can emulate him however depends on the nature of the Pardon granted.

Understandably, there is considerable interest in this regard. Ramanayake would be a boost to any political party. Following his release, he appeared at a press briefing flanked by Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa and other stalwarts of the SJB. The party clearly values his political potential.

Fernando and Nanayakkara duo

However, it is also possible that Ministers Fernando and Nanayakkara would prefer to enlist his services for the UNP, now that their former leader Wickremesinghe is the President. Having defected from the SJB to join the Government of President Wickremesinghe, the duo is known to be keen to re-engage actively with the ‘Grand Old Party’ (GOP).

On his part, Ramanayake has maintained a studious silence about his political prospects. That is most appropriate since the exact nature of the conditions imposed on him is as yet unknown. At the press briefing, he indicated he would prefer to focus more on his work for the Sinhala cinema.

In Parliament on Monday, Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella queried the legal implications of Ramanayake’s Pardon. The Government has responded saying it is willing to release all legal documentation pertaining to the Pardon. This is now being eagerly awaited in legal, political and media circles.

Another politically significant event is likely next week. Speculation is rife that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to the country shortly from Thailand. There have been a series of consultations in this regard and President Wickremesinghe has indicated he has no objections to this.

Former President Rajapaksa had to hurriedly leave the country prior to his resignation as protestors stormed President’s House in Colombo. Since then, he has spent his time first in The Maldives, then in Singapore and now in Thailand. He is reportedly keen to return to Sri Lanka soon.

As a former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is entitled to the privileges of accommodation and security, though some have questioned whether such facilities are still available upon resignation. It also appears that the public anger against his leadership has now abated to a great extent. Therefore, his advisors have recommended that a return to the country is now feasible.

There is also speculation that former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not only return to the country, he would also return to politics. This arises from a section of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) agitating for his return to active politics upon returning to Sri Lanka.

There have been suggestions that a National List MP from the SLPP would be asked to resign to make way for former President Rajapaksa to return to Parliament. Whether he is keen on this idea remains to be seen but there is certainly nothing preventing such a course of action by the SLPP, which commands a majority in the House.

The coming weeks therefore will shed light on the political futures of both Ranjan Ramanayake and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Both of them might shun the political limelight at least for now or both of them might return. Their decisions will have a significant impact in the coming months.


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