Ranil to challenge Mahinda

An Interview with Tissa Attanayake


UNP general secretary Tissa Attanayake speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about the agenda of the combined Opposition for the forthcoming presidential election and the most suitable candidate to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Q. You were present at the meeting presided over by Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera at the New Town Hall calling for the abolishing of the executive presidency and the restoration of the 17th Amendment. What relevance do these demands have for the UNP today?

A. The UNP also subscribes to the view that the executive presidential system should be abolished and the 17th Amendment brought back. Even though it was the UNP that introduced the executive presidency and the 1978 constitution, we do not think it should remain as it is. It was sometime back at the executive committee meeting held in Kataragama in 1997 that the UNP decided to call for the abolition of the executive presidency. There is opposition in the country today to the executive presidency and lack of independence of the public service.

Q. To what extent can you rally the people around slogans like abolishing the executive presidency and bringing back the independent commissions? During the time of President Premadasa, there was much talk about dictatorial rule and a one man show.  We experienced a similar situation under Chandrika Kuamaratunga. In both instances we all saw that a head of a government who is outside Parliament may at times do things that a head of government who sits in parliament would not normally do. Talk of the need to curb presidential powers died down after D. B. Wijetunga had become President. Don’t you think since CBK was succeeded by Mahinda, the need to curb the powers of the presidency has receded in the minds of the public?

A. There are varying views on how presidents Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa have wielded power. Somebody may argue that there will be no problem so long as the president moves with the people. But, I think the majority of the thinking people in this country are in favour of transferring these powers to a prime minister who sits in Parliament. It is not the UNP that first brought up the question of abolishing the executive presidential system; it was Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994. In 2005 president Mahinda Rajapaksa also adopted the same slogan. President Rajapaksa also held discussions with us in 2010 to abolish the executive presidency. But these ended after just one or two discussions, and instead of abolishing the executive presidency, he moved to enhance the powers of the post! The 17th Amendment was passed almost unanimously by Parliament. It sought to make the Public Service independent. But the President Mahinda Rajapaksa truncated the 17th Amendment and arrogated to himself most of the powers. People are opposed to this.  

Q. If Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes President with all the present powers, do you think he will turn out to be a dictator? In December 2001, the UNP managed to come back into power after suffering much persecution under Chandrika Kumaratunga. Yet, Ranil did not go on the rampage to wreak vengeance on those who had wronged him and the UNP for seven long years. It is thanks to him that the tension between the government and the Opposition was reduced. RW has proved that he is not of an unbalanced and turbulent disposition. If Ranil is made executive president, do you think he will do harm to the country?

A. A certain opinion has taken shape in the country about this executive presidency. When Mr. J. R. Jayewardene was President, there were no allegations against him in the first term. But, in his second term, various accusations were levelled even against him. That is how all this started. If you recall, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike did contest the presidential election in December 1988 on the promise of abolishing the executive presidency. At that time it was not an issue and she was just one of the contestants. Had she won, she would have continued to wield all the powers that president Jayewardene had. By the time of president Premadasa, there was talk about dictatorial rule and a one man show. There was even a rebellion within the UNP itself against the executive president. When you ask me whether Ranil Wickremesinghe will rule this country democratically if he is elected to power my answer is in the affirmative.  But we have to be responsive to what the people want. So what I say is that as already agreed on, let us all get together and do away with the executive presidential system.

Q. Whether the people consider the abolishing of the executive presidency a priority has not been tested in any acceptable way. For example what is the real priority of the average UNPer, capturing power or abolishing the executive presidency?

A. I agree that no one has really tested public opinion on this in a convincing manner. UNP voters will also think that their priority is capturing power, not abolishing the executive presidency. But, there are some floating voters who think about the manner the country is governed, the independence of the judiciary and all that kind of thing. I also agree that these topics have no relevance for confirmed supporters of the UNP and the SLFP.

Q. That eliminates a good proportion of the population from the reckoning!

A. But, many people want democratic governance. In the midst of problems like the cost of living, dwindling real income and all that, one may ask whether the abolishing of the presidential system as well as the restoration of the 17th Amendment is a priority. But, people feel that many of the ills affecting the country are the direct result of the system of governance.

Q. Various NGOs and professionals discuss the 17th Amendment but the ordinary public does not know what it is all about.  It is the UNP that has suffered most under the 17th Amendment. In 2001, after forming a government after much trouble, the UNP tried to provide redress to all their members in the state sector who had been victimised under Chandrika. The Education Ministry started collecting details about political victimisation but the independent Public Service Commission seized all the files saying that the ministry did not have the authority to look into such matters. Then they sent letters to all long suffering UNPers saying that from what the PSC could ascertain, there had been no political victimisation! The ordinary UNPer thought it was due to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s insensitivity and lack of concern for the ordinary party member. But, these were not matters that needed the PM’s intervention – they could all have been solved by the minister in charge at the stroke of a pen. Why do we mistrust politicians to the extent of wanting to take power away from them and give it to unelected officials? Politicians may be corrupt, but officials are no less corrupt. Champika Ranawaka has just released a book about corruption in the Ceylon Electricity Board which is due to a bureaucratic mafia, not the politicians. The minister in charge is just a puppet of the CEB officials. So, what is the rationale in trying to take power away from politicians and giving it to officials by restoring the 17th Amendment?

A. I agree with what you say. When we assumed power in December 2001, it is true that the 17th Amendment was an impediment to offering redress to our members.  About 30,000 or our members were left without redress and we are still suffering from the resulting political fallout. Another factor was that we gave top priority to the peace process and to reviving the economy and we thought we had time to sort out these issues of political victimisation but our tenure was cut short. I agree that taking power from politicians and giving it to officials does not necessarily result in justice.  

Q. Not only did the 17th Amendment take away power from elected politicians and give it to unelected officials but even the Parliamentary Committee on Public Petitions made up of representatives of all political parties did not have power to question the actions of these unelected officials.

A. That was definitely a shortcoming in the law. Parliament should have oversight over the independent commissions in case injustices were being committed.

Q. Something that goes hand in hand with the slogans of abolishing the executive presidency and bringing back the 17th Amendment is this talk of a common opposition candidate. Can the UNP afford to ask their members to vote for an outsider again?

A. The biggest political entity on the joint opposition platform is the UNP. So the common opposition has to be led by the UNP. The common opposition candidate will be a member of the UNP. Even in 2010, when Sarath Fonseka’s name came up as the common opposition candidate, many people in the party felt that the candidate should be from the UNP, but given the situation at that time, we did not have any alternative but to agree to General Fonseka.  Today however the situation is different.

Q. Have you informed Sobitha Thera that the next candidate will be from the UNP?

A. We have not named a candidate yet but our parliamentary group is of the opinion that the candidate should be from UNP. It is no longer a secret as to who will be coming forward. People have got to know unofficially.

Q. So Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the candidate?

A. We have to ask ourselves the question whether there is any person in the Opposition who is more suitable for that task than Ranil Wickremesinghe. Everybody is aware of his experience, his international links and his ability to revive the economy. We are now not looking for a leader to wage war. We are looking for a leader to revive the economy, to raise incomes, to establish good governance and the rule of law.






















"UNP voters think that their priority is capturing power, not abolishing the executive presidency. But, there are some floating voters who think about the manner the country is governed, the independence of the judiciary and all that kind of thing.  I agree that these topics have no relevance for confirmed supporters of the UNP and the SLFP."

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