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The UNP at 70 and SLFP at 65

* How ‘crowds’ became the key word in politics
* Confusing witness statements in Duminda Silva case
* Govt. pressed to answer embarrassing questions



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The UNP marked the 70th anniversary of its founding yesterday with a very well attended rally at Campbell Park. The promise that the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made at the poorly attended first anniversary celebrations of the UNP-SLFP unity government held in Matara was that he would show the country ‘what a crowd was’ (senaga kiyanne mokakda kiyala penwanawa) at the 70th Anniversary rally of the party, meaning that the crowd attending this rally would be unlike anything ever seen before in the country. He also said that they will be closing the roads on either side of Cambell Park by which he meant that the crowds would be such that the closure of those roads would be necessary to accommodate the spillover. This writer observed the UNP rally at its peak just before 11.00 am. Even at that time, people were still arriving from the outstations.


A group of a few hundred from Weligama was seen passing the Borella junction at 11.10 am. There certainly was a large crowd but a huge marquee covered more than three quarters of Campbell Park and seating was provided within it and the rest therefore had no option but to spill out on to baseline road. They need not have closed Ananda Rajakaruna Mawatha at all because the crowds had not spilled on to that road. In fact, even at the peak of the rally, traffic could have passed on the other side of Baseline road going towards Borella if the police had kept that side of the road open. The UNP’s 70th anniversary rally was certainly well attended and not a disappointment like the Matara event held earlier, but it was only too obvious that an effort had been made to make a large crowd look even bigger.


They were probably trying to emulate the visual impact created by the events of the Joint Opposition. Even the SLFP adopted this strategy of having a large marquee with seats to improve the appearance of the gathering. In terms of sheer numbers however, the UNP’s 70th anniversary rally came nowhere near the crowds at the Joint Opposition May Day rally this year or the final gathering at the conclusion of the Pada Yathra at Town Hall. It is obvious that as far as pulling crowds to meetings are concerned, both the UNP and the SLFP are fighting a rear guard battle to keep up with the Joint Opposition. If an opposition party attracts bigger crowds than the governing party, that is always a bad sign for the governing party. Usually after a party is defeated at the polls, supporters of that party take a step backwards and meetings of the opposition are never as well attended as the meetings of the governing party for the first several years of the new government. It is only in the final few months of a government that the opposition rallies begin to look larger than the meetings of the governing party.


Old Lake House hands say that one thing that hastened the takeover of the newspaper company by the Sirima Bandaranaike government was an aerial photograph of the huge crowds that attended Dudley Senanayake’s funeral. Extraordinary crowds at any opposition event - even a funeral – always spooks the government in power and if the present government is unnerved by the presence of large crowds at Joint Opposition events, that is quite understandable. The unprecedented crowd at Dudley Senanayake’s funeral in 1973 was no doubt a harbinger of what would happen at the next general election which is why the unity government is expending so much effort and money on trying to outdo the Joint Opposition (albeit unsuccessfully according to this writer’s personal ground level observations.)


The obsession with political spectacle


As a governing party, the UNP is placed at a huge disadvantage because though the Prime Minister is UNP, many of the good ministries are held by the SLFP with the UNP an also ran. The rank and file members of the party can get hardly anything done and the frustrations of ordinary UNP members who are being sent from pillar to post and denied even relief that can be given at no additional expense and a single stroke of the pen have been expressed openly in pro-UNP websites like Lanka e News and this column has been highlighting those articles from time to time. Given the unenviable position that the UNP finds itself in more than a year into the unity government, perhaps they deserve to be congratulated for the showing that they were able to put up for the 70th  anniversary.


The party is old, and no longer grand because they are wielding power in diminished and oppressed circumstances, but they still have a loyal rank and file who will go out of their way to attend a party event. Getting this crowd for the Campbell Park meeting would have been a wrenching experience for the ministers and MPs of the UNP because they would have had to cajole their members to ensure participation and the rank and file would naturally make this an opportunity to extract the maximum from their leaders. For the UNP rank and file, they will have to get whatever they can right now. There is no tomorrow for them, because if they lose power, they will be out in the cold for years. (The SLFP rank and file on the other hand have the best of both worlds. They can get whatever they want done through this government by approaching the dominant SLFP half, and even if the government is voted out, they will still be able to get anything done from the lot which will also have a dominant SLFP element in it.)


Be that as it may, the one incontrovertible truth that has been made apparent by the Matara event of the unity government, the Kurunegala 65th anniversary meeting of the SLFP and now the 70th anniversary meeting of the UNP is that the Joint Opposition is still well ahead of both governing parties as far as crowd pulling capacities are concerned. Indeed ‘crowds’ appear to be the key word in politics today. When the SLFP held its May Day rally in Galle earlier this year, President Maithripala Sirisena claimed that was the biggest May day rally ever held. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was promising crowds the likes of which had never been seen and will define the word ‘crowd’ at the 70th Anniversary of the party. This is a contest to prove to the public which side has the allegiance of the general public. The SLFP 65th anniversary rally in Kurunegala was being hailed as largest gathering that town has ever seen.


The SLFP Kurunegala rally like their May Day rally in Galle drew a respectable crowd. Now that both the UNP and the SLFP (Sirisena faction) have had well attended events, the acid test will be to see if this gives them the confidence to announce dates for the local government elections. The only way to really see who is on top is to hold an election. In 1981 the rousing welcome that the then Prime Minister R.Premadasa got in Jaffna gave that UNP government the impression that they would be able to put up a good showing in the north if they fielded a list at the District Development Council elections in Jaffna. But it so turned out that they miscalculated the disruptive effect that terrorism would have on the elections and the UNP was never really able to test their strength in the north before other events overtook the country. However there is no terrorism to disrupt the local government election that is due and the government can if they so desire call an election and test the ground.


If they fight shy of calling the LG elections even after putting on shows of strength, that will be a clear sign that the two governing parties are not really convinced that they have enough public support to be able to win an election. However we should not be surprised if the government plays safe and avoids calling an election. President Maithripala Sirisena himself told the SLFP central committee openly that he had got intelligence reports that the UPFA led by Mahinda would win the parliamentary elections last August which is why he took the unusual step of publicly announcing that Mahinda would not be made prime minister even if the UPFA wins the election and sacked the secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA to show that he means business. Given that background, it would not be surprising if the government decides that caution was the better part of valour.


During the presidential election campaign at the end of 2014, the government always had the largest crowds, but the indication that the government was on the backfoot was the larger than usual attendance at opposition rallies which though still smaller than the government gatherings were an indication that the public mood was changing. What we are seeing now however is that the gatherings of the Joint Opposition are consistently better attended than those of the government. The constant pressure on the partners in the government to bring cowds for their events is because the performance of the Joint Opposition has been ratcheting up the pressure on everybody else.  


The Duminda Silva case


Last week, former parliamentarian Duminda Silva was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court over the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three others. The dissenting judgement delivered by the President of the Trial at Bar which stated that the evidence presented by the prosecution was contradictory and recommended the acquittal of all the accused. The sharply divided bench left a cloud hanging over the judgement. The proceedings of this trial was followed with great interest by the newspaper reading public and the various flip flops and about turns it took are well known. In fact by the time the judgement was pronounced, the reading public and even the court reporters writing about the proceedings had lost track of who said what and who retracted what.  


The only thing that all so called witnesses who gave evidence seemed to agree on was that Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s and Duminda Silva’s vehicles came face to face and stopped within a few feet of one another and that both Bharatha and Duminda alighted from their vehicles. After that various people had seen various things. It would be naive in the extreme to expect the members of two politically motivated rival groups to give evidence without a slant to one side. Depending on whose side they were on, witnesses recited a a whole medley of contradictory stories. Some said that Duminda punched Baharatha and as the latter fell, someone from Bharatha’s group had shot Duminda and that when Duminda had fallen on the ground, someone from Duminda’s party had opened fire on Bharatha and his group. Others said that while punching Bharatha, Duminda had shouted at his men to open fire.


A key witness who said that he had heard Duminda Silva shouting at his men to open fire, later retracted his statement. Well over a hundred witnesses gave evidence and there is probably no court reporter who has the foggiest idea as to what had really had happend after listening to the witness statements. It is not surprising that the two judges who had convicted Duminda Silva had focussed on the fact that Duminda Silva was drunk and unruly and that it was his behaviour that had led to the whole incident. The court had observed that the medical records proved that Duminda was in fact drunk at the time of the incident while Bharatha was not. The dissenting President of the Trial at Bar obviously did not consider being drunk and disorderly sufficient reason to impute blame on Duminda for the killings that took place. Obviously shouting at or punching someone is very different to actually pointing a gun at someone and pulling the trigger. Whatever the result of an appeal, the lesson that wider society should learn from this unsavoury episode is the need to reform our electoral system.


Thanks to the Rajapaksa government and Basil Rajapaksa’s initiative, the electoral system has been changed at the local government level. So in the future the kind of turf war that led to the confrontation that led to Bharatha’s death and the condemnation of Duminda Silva to death may not take place at least at the local level. An electoral system which enables two politicians in the same party to compete for votes in the same constituency, will of necessity lead to such confrontations. Under the proportional representation system, there were more conflicts between the candidates of the same party than between candidates of rival parties. But of course in human affairs, there is nothing called a totally foolproof system. Under the constituency and first-past-the-post sytem too there is the possibility of confornattions between candidates of rival political parties. There really is no escape from the human condition when it comes to the power game.


Exhuming Lasantha’s remains


The exhumation of Lasantha Wickrematunga’s remains smacks of the kind of show trial that the government tried to put on with regard to Wasim Thajudeen whose remains were dug up and two policemen including a former DIG remanded only for the much vunted CCTV footage which was supposed to clinch the case to fail to reveal what was promised. The exhumation of Lasantha’s remains looks like another show trial to take the place of the Thajudeen matter. The government is thrashing about looking for traction. Nobody knows on what basis Namal’s car bought with his MP’s permit which had been sold to someone else, was brought to the FCID in a trailer and shown to the media. What are they trying to prove? While the whole government was obsessed with trying to keep an anti-Rajapaksa show going, they have been neglecting important issues that had been boiling over due to the lack of attention.                                


Last week for the first time all employees of the Inland Revenue Department took sick leave in protest against what was poratrayed as an attempt to hand over revenue collection to a private company. The IRD unions claimed that their Director General has already been informed of the decision taken by cabinet to hand over revenue collection to a private company. The Labour Dept went on strike against what was portrayed as a restructuring attempt. When Dinesh Gunawardene warned the government to address the issues that the Labour Dept employees had raised, the answer given by Lakshman Kiriella was that the government had come into power to change things.


 


In the past several weeks, the Customs officials were agitating and canvassing for the proposed changes to the Customs law to be shelved. However the government has still been trying to go ahead with their original plans and the private sector has already been holding seminars on how the new scheme is supposed to work.


‘Happy anniversary’ questions & unhappy answers


As the two main parties in the governing coalition marked the anniversaries of their founding in September, the opposition asked questions in parliament designed obviously to cause embarrassment and discomfort to them.  Dullas Alahapperuma asked the Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade (Malik Samarawickrema) to state in parliament the total number of foreign investors who have come to Sri Lanka from 10.01.2015 to date and the value of the total investments they have made during that period in US dollars; the names of the countries from which such investors came, the names of those foreign business firms and their addresses, and the amount invested by each of those investors;and the areas where such investment projects have been located in Sri Lanka and the nature of those investment projects, the number of Sri Lankan citizens employed in each of the aforesaid projects; and separately the total value of the foreign investments made in Sri Lanka in years 2012, 2013 and 2014.


Bandula Gunawardana wanted to know from the Finance Minister the rupee value of the foreign grants received by the Sri Lankan government each year from 2000 to 2014, the total amount of foreign grants, received by the government of Sri Lanka, in the year 2015, the reasons that led to the decline of the foreign grants received for the year 2015; and whether a positive change on the projected foreign grants in 2016, is anticipated? Kanaka Herath wanted to know from the Minister of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure (Harin Fernando) whether the project for establishing free WiFi zones under the 100 day programme is currently in operation; the number of free WiFi zones established under this project; whether he is satisfied with this number; and whether they are in operational condition?


The questions asked in parliament are not sprung suddenly on the ministers to whom they are addressed. The questions are written, and appear in the order paper of parliament. For these questions to be included in the order paper, they have to be handed seven days earlier. However when the above questions – amongs many others - were taken up in parliament, the government dodged answering them asking for more time. At one point, Anura Kumara Dissanayake complained that questions were being asked but no answers were forthcoming and he asked the Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella whether it was right to slip away using ‘lawyer’s tricks’ (perakadoru geta walinma yanna hadana eka hari ne neda?)  On the few occasions in which the government provided answers to the questions posed, they were portrayed in a very poor light.


For example, Udaya Gammanpila asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation whether he is aware that the salaries for the month of March 2016 had not been paid until 28th April 2016 by some Depots of the Sri Lanka Transport Board; the Depots that failed to pay the salaries of all  the employees for the month of March 2016 on the due date; and the steps that will be taken to ensure that the salaries will be paid on due date in the future. In reply to this, the Deputy Minister of Transport Asoka Abeysinghe said the SLTB has been experiencing financial difficulties over a period of time and that in certain depots the payment of salaries, EPF and gratuity had fallen into arrears. He said that from allocations made by the treasury, the SLTB head office pays each employee of the SLTB Rs. 16,200 a month which is sent to his account direct. The rest of the salary is paid  from the earnings of the various depots.


The depots that get a high income pay the salaries in time but the ones that get lower incomes have fallen into arrears.  Due to the increase of salaries by Rs. 10,000 and the existence of excess staff, it has become difficult to make do with the income generated by the depots, the Deputy Minister said. He also informed parliament that the Negombo, Nittambuwa, Kirindiwela, Kalutara, Horana Aluthgama, Ratmalana, Kinniya, Kegalla, Ratnapura and Muttur depots have not paid salaries on time. He added that after taking over as minister, steps have been taken to pay the salaries on time and to pay the gratuity due to retired employees and to safeguard the rights of employees going on retirement. It was also said that after he took over as minister no new employees have been recruited and further that they have put into place a voluntary retirement scheme and that 3,480 SLTB employees have opted to go on retirement.


Bandula Gunawardana,asked the Minister of Finance whether he admits that a new tax called ‘Mansion Tax’ was proposed through the interim budget of 2015 and that it was further


empowered through the budget proposals of 2016; the basis on which the said ‘Mansion Tax’ is levied; the total tax revenue received by the government in the years 2015 and 2016 from this tax; and the names and addresses of persons who paid the Mansion Tax in the above years. The reply was read out by minister Gayantha Karunatilleke on behalf of the government. He admitted that such a tax had indeed been proposed in the interim budget in 2015 and the 2016 budget and that this tax was to be charged on houses built after April 1 2000 which were over 10,000 sq feet in extent or 150 million in value. Minister Karunatilleke admitted that not a single cent had been raised from this tax in 2015 and 2016!


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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