President invites Opposition to join in rebuilding country | Daily News

President invites Opposition to join in rebuilding country

The Government would be extremely satisfied with what it achieved last week, obtaining endorsement from Parliament for the process of Domestic Debt Optimisation (DDO), an integral component of the economic recovery strategy formulated in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

There were grave concerns both in political and business circles that this exercise could be fraught with untoward consequences, especially for the economy as the political Opposition also took to the media, criticising the measures and hinting at hidden agendas and conspiracy theories.

As a precaution, the Government had declared June 30, the day the financial year ends, as a special bank holiday. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, this would create a ‘window’ of five holidays for the banking sector. The Government believed this would eliminate a climate of panic.

Paradoxically, in interviews with the mainstream and social media, the Opposition sought to highlight the declaration of an additional holiday as a move to mask the steps that were being taken during the DDO process. The measures being contemplated would increase burdens on the public, they claimed.

The Government summoned its Parliamentary group to discuss these issues. In attendance were President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, State Ministers of Finance Shehan Semasinghe and Ranjith Siyambalapitya and Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe.

DDO process

The discussion began with an explanation of the DDO process by the Governor, Dr. Weerasinghe who provided a lengthy and somewhat technical appraisal of the measures that were being contemplated to which some Parliamentarians responded saying they found the technicalities difficult to understand.

A robust discussion ensued in which there was a free and frank exchange of views. Many Parliamentarians of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), including Sagara Kariyawasam, Gamini Lokuge and Sarath Weerasekera sought assurances that the DDO will not affect the public.

Governor Weerasinghe was able to provide guarantees which appeared to satisfy the group. It was with such diligent preparation that the Government set about the DDO process, which was also presented to Parliament last Saturday in a special session summoned specifically for this purpose.

It was not a requirement of the IMF that the DDO process be submitted to Parliament for approval. The Government had already entered into an agreement with the IMF. Nevertheless, President Wickremesinghe was keen to have the issue debated in Parliament and for it to be subjected to a vote.

The debate on the DDO process was a lively discussion. The main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), expressed its opposition. Its stance was that many nations had negotiated with the IMF without agreeing to a DDO exercise and that this would be detrimental to the general public.

The National Peoples’ Power (NPP) was handicapped by the absence of its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who is engaged in a tour of major cities in Australia for fundraising and publicity. Its main submissions were made by Parliamentarian Vijitha Herath who also opposed DDO measures.

After a day of debate, Parliament endorsed the DDO measures by 122 votes 62 votes, a majority of 60 votes. Among those who voted for the DDO were recently appointed SJB Parliamentarian A.H.M. Fowzie and ‘independent’ Parliamentarians Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Sudarshini Fernandopulle.

The vote on the DDO, though not required for its implementation underscored the fact that, nearly one year after Parliament voted President Wickremesinghe into office, he still commanded the confidence of the legislature and that he is able to push through controversial reforms when the need arises.

This will be a wake-up call for the major Opposition parties, the SJB and the NPP, who often claim that the Government has lost its mandate to govern following last year’s political events that led to then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. The political mood has certainly shifted since then.

The Opposition would do well to also take note of the fact that, despite their extensive campaign in the lead up to the DDO in the media, there was hardly any response from the general public. Even major trade unions who usually oppose such measures have been mostly silent during the DDO exercise.

‘Aswesuma’ recipients

Despite its success in implementing the DDO, there was however reason for the Government to be concerned regarding an entirely different issue. That was the decision of the Government to transition from the ‘Samurdhi’ welfare scheme introduced decades ago to the new ‘Aswesuma’ programme.

The ‘Samurdhi’ scheme, devised with the intention of assisting those experiencing economic hardship has come in for strong criticism recently. Among its shortcomings that have been cited are claims that it does not target the most needy segments of the population and that it is used as a political tool.

Officials have also noted that a significant proportion of ‘Samurdhi’ recipients have been beneficiaries for nearly thirty years. This is not in keeping with the aims of a poverty alleviation programme which should empower the underprivileged. Instead, it has only encouraged dependence, officials say.

For all these reasons, the Government went ahead with announcements that the ‘Samurdhi’ programme will be replaced by a new programme, ‘Aswesuma’. Applications were called for the new programme and the selection of recipients was made using a set of published, defined criteria.

The selection of ‘Aswesuma’ recipients has led to a wave of protests. A number of ‘Samurdhi’ recipients, many of them long-term beneficiaries, have been excluded. There have also been counter-claims that many ineligible persons have been included in the lists of ‘Aswesuma’ recipients.

This has reportedly caused considerable discontent among SLPP Parliamentarians. Among those protesting was Colombo District SLPP Parliamentarian Jagath Kumara Sumithraarachchi, who served as a key official in the Samurdhi Officers’ Association prior to being elected to Parliament in 2020.

This matter too was discussed at the highest levels of Government, with ruling party Parliamentarians attending. Defending the Government’s decision to go ahead with the ‘Aswesuma’ scheme was State Minister Shehan Semasinghe with whom Parliamentarian Sumithraarachchi had a lively interaction.

While there is reportedly a group of SLPP Parliamentarians who are unhappy with the current state of affairs, the Government is proceeding with the ‘Aswesuma’ programme as originally planned. Those applicants who have been declined benefits have been given time to submit appeals.

What is worrying a section of the SLPP leadership is the political impact of this decision. It is widely acknowledged that ‘Samurdhi’ recipients formed a core group of supporters of the ruling party. Depriving them of benefits they enjoyed for many years could lead to a backlash, party officials feel.

With such deliberations taking place in the ruling SLPP, President Wickremesinghe this week once again invited the Opposition to join forces with him to engage in the task of rebuilding the country following the economic setbacks experienced last year. In this instance, he did so publicly.

That was on Monday at Hambantota when the President attended a ceremony held to felicitate Minister Mahinda Amaraweera for completing 32 years in politics. In his speech, the President extended an open invitation to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa to join him in the Government.

The President outlined the sequence of events that brought him to power last year and noted that Opposition Leader Premadasa had been critical of the DDO process during the debate in Parliament. Querying what alternatives were available, the President then invited Opposition parties to join him.

It is noteworthy that these remarks were made at a ceremony felicitating Amaraweera who himself has opted to join the Government while his parent party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sits in the Opposition. SLFP Leader Maithripala Sirisena was not present at the felicitation for Amaraweera.

President Wickremesinghe’s call to Opposition Leader Premadasa is hardly surprising. Almost all Parliamentarians in the SJB were members of the President’s party, the United National Party (UNP) before they joined the SJB and have served in different roles while under the President in the UNP.

This invitation appears to be part of a broader strategy from the President to woo Opposition parties collectively. Even if the parties themselves do not join the Government, some individuals in them may join him. Amaraweera and Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara from the SJB are examples.

With major issues addressed to some extent and a full blown crisis averted at least for now, President Wickremesinghe is slowly but surely setting the stage for the next Presidential Poll, due by October 2024. There is no doubt he will be ready for the contest. The question is, will the Opposition be too?

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