Chairman of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Prof. G.L. Peiris, in an interview with Daily Mirror, spells out his views on litigation against his party’s presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa and political dynamics triggered by the internal crisis of the United National Party (UNP). Excerpts of the interview:
Q What do you think of the political dynamics after the nomination of UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as the candidate of the rival camp?
Never before has there been such a turbulent situation regarding nominations for any election. Prospective candidates demand candidacy. They even threaten to contest no matter what. Meetings and rallies are conducted all over the country to pressurise the party leadership to extort nomination. People like UNP MP Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe said it would be taken by force. There are members threatening to resign. There was a ferocious conflict between two camps within that party. It was also an unprecedented situation where candidates are given nomination subject to conditions. You may call them conditions or whatever. Nomenclature is not important. Clearly, the candidates did not have a free hand.
"The lotus bud is embedded in the public consciousness. People identify themselves with Pohottuwa not with SLPP. Pohottuwa has become the principal draw. There is intimate connection between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Pohottuwa"
Public Administration Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara said they were minor conditions. There is a sense of cynicism. One time candidate UNP MP Sarath Foneseka said he had no confidence in winning this time. Party’s General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam who has authority to comment said there are certainly conditions.
There are several things which stand out during this situation. One constant factor, out of all this, is the position of the Prime Minister. Sajith Premadasa is supposed to abolish the Executive Presidency within six months. Then, Premadasa is a shooting star. But, the Prime Minister remains in office. Not only that, he will present himself as the prime ministerial candidate of the party at the next general election, next year.
Q But, Mr. Premadasa says that he will usher in a new era for the party. Your comments?
There is no change. There is continuity of the direction of the present government during the last four and half years, its political complexion, ideology and policies. It is clearly old wine in a new bottle. The content of the parcel has not changed. Only the packaging has been changed. The colour of the packaging has been changed.
As for the abolition of executive presidency, the President cannot simply abolish it. That is a matter for Parliament. Parliament has to approve it by two-thirds. Not only that, there has to be a referendum. That is going to take time. If Sajith becomes the President and Mr. Wickremesinghe remains as Prime Minister, isn’t that a repeat performance of the last four and half years? There was a ferocious conflict between two centres of power under the 19th Amendment. What you have is exactly the same situation. The relationship between the two UNP leaders is known to the whole country. Insults were hurled against each other. What you have is far worse. The Deputy Leader, Sajith, said he was not going to cling to power like an octopus. That being the degree of acrimony and rancor, the gridlock situation is definitely going to continue. There is an anarchical situation, each side trying to stultify the other. Causality is the public at large. That will be a government that is incapable of delivery. Against this overall context, they find it impossible to take on Gotabaya Rajapaksa politically. Gota’s style has been to set out his policies clearly with regard to different areas. It has been very effective. People are appreciative of this new political culture- no abuse, no vituperation, no maligning of opponents. He is telling what he can deliver as a presidential aspirant. No attempt is being made to counter that on political platform. To counter him is something different. But, to remove him from the political scene and to destroy his candidature is a different strategy altogether.
"The relationship between the two UNP leaders is known to the whole country. Insults were hurled against each other. What you have is far worse. The Deputy Leader, Sajith, said he was not going to cling to power like an octopus"
This is where the Dilrukshi Dias episode becomes relevant. She talked about ‘Karumakkara Deshapalanaya’. Criminal charges are brought in not because of the interest in justice, but because of political purposes. Former Solicitor General Suhada Gamlath said decisions on politically sensitive issues were taken completely outside the established system. This shows how alarming the situation is. Gamlath had been summoned to Temple Trees. He found it to be a meeting by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
The Prime Minister was chairing. There were ministers present- Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and so on. Most astonishingly, there had been Arjuna Mahendran, the former Central Bank Governor. The man who cleaned out the Sri Lankan Treasury and has been absconding court is sitting in judgment on other people. Direct orders were given to arrest Gotabaya. He was asked to carry out their bidding. It is a total distortion of the country’s criminal procedure. He had been asked to finish off Gota. Here you have the politicization of the entire prosecuting process.
The question is whether these are instituted on the basis of evidence, in the interests of justice or purely for political purposes. There is a special duty devolving on the courts to ensure the integrity, impurity or rectitude of the criminal justice system. The most serious harm inflicted by the Yahapalana Government is the destruction of institutions- judiciary, the prosecuting department, the Attorney General’s Department and the Bribery Commission. The only bulwark against it is the intrepid and assertive judiciary. That is the importance of the role of judiciary.
Q How do you intend to correct it under a future government?
This would be one of the tasks of the Government headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He will deal with all these people who have prostituted the laws of this country. We will do it under the established law of this country and within the regular judicial system.
Q Now, the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been challenged in the Court of Appeal. How serious is this challenge for you?
This is part of a series. We can expect more and more litigation. The whole idea is to have Gota tied up in court, so that he will have limited time for political campaigning. It is a strategy of obstructing and stultifying. We would expect that to continue. When a case is before court, it is wrong to comment on the merits of the case. That is an expected tradition. We would respect that tradition. The case has been filed. We have retained our lawyers. We are perfectly confident. The dates have been fixed. As far as we are concerned, we are telling the public not to get distracted. These are red herring across the trail. It is perfectly clear that people have made up their mind about whom to vote for. We are going to concentrate on political issues. We are asking people not to get deflected by irrelevancies.
Q Initially, everybody thought that the Prime Minister would be the candidate. Now, it is clear that Sajith Premadasa is the candidate. How do you see his strength as your rival candidate?
We do not regard him as a threat at all for very good reasons. It is impossible for Sajith to distance himself from the government that ruled this country for the last four and half years. He is not only an integral part of this Government, but also occupied a prominent position in that Government. He is the Deputy Leader of the UNP. He occupied one of the highest possible positions of that party. He is by no means an outsider. If you look at the bond scam, is Sajith on record saying anything about it? Has he said anything about on the alienation of assets in his own constituency of Hambantota? Has there been any substance?
There is a sense of disillusionment among people. Can their problems be solve by bringing back into power, even to a higher position someone who is part and parcel of this government which has provoked so much opposition, frustration and resentment ?
Q Mr. Premadasa is not implicated in any of the main allegations that brought this Government into disrepute.-the bond scam, the alienation of national assets and the co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution. Isn’t it an advantage for him?
No. A government operates on the principle of collective responsibility. If a member of the Government is able to take credit for everything that is popular for and to disclaim everything that is unpopular, the whole system of Cabinet Government cannot function at all. When a Government rules a country, each and every member is responsible for what is done. If you have a fundamental disagreement, you need to resign. If you don’t resign, you are as responsible as anybody else. There is no question of washing your hands off these things. That is the cardinal principle of Cabinet Government. If you ignore that principle, the Cabinet Government cannot operate.
- There is a significant shift with regard to the minority votes
- Sajith is nothing but old wine in a new bottle
- Parcel is the same, but packaging is different
- Has Sajith ever spoken against alienation of national assets?
- Security is engaging the minds of everybody
Q How is your campaign going on?
Our campaign is going on. We have met with our affiliated organizations. Those are different interest groups. These meetings have been tremendously successful. The first rally will be conducted in Anuradhapura on October 9. We have drawn up a comprehensive plan to cover the entire campaign period.
Q President Maithripala Sirisena said he would not team up with SLPP unless the lotus bud symbol is changed for an electoral alliance. What is your view as the SLPP Chairman who participated in bilateral talks with Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)?
I think this issue with the symbol is being inflated beyond all proportions. A symbol is a huge political asset. The lotus bud is embedded in the public consciousness. People identify themselves with Pohottuwa not with SLPP. Pohottuwa has become the principal draw. There is intimate connection between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Pohottuwa. This has a powerful impact on the public mind. On the verge of elections, it is not sensible at all to abandon voluntarily one of our largest political assets.
Q Are you still open to talks with the SLFP?
We have had seven rounds of talks. Much has been achieved. The most important thing is consensus on substantive policies. This is a matter. It is not something that the party leader can disregard.
Q How important will be the minority votes this time?
We think there is a significant shift with regard to the minority votes. If you look at the major issues confronting the country today, there are two main issues. One is security. That is engaging the minds of everybody in this country cutting across ethnic, racial and other divisions. Today, people are concerned about their safety. We remember what happened on April 21. Eight bombs went off within one and a half hours. That is by far the largest calamity that befell this country ever since the end of the war in 2009. You can imagine the degree of organization and pre-planning that had gone to it. The government is totally inept and incompetent. That is a concern for everybody, not just to the Sinhalese, the Tamils or the Muslims. There is universal clamouring for a strong leadership.