Land Minister Gayantha Karunatilake, in an interview with Daily mirror , speaks about the current political situation and the future of his party.
QHow do you rate the outcome of this election which saw the defeat of your party?
Of course, people have given a clear verdict against us. We have to admit it humbly. On the one hand, we received such a warning signal when we were halfway through our term. If we waited for the last minute without such a warning signal, we would have faced even direr consequences at a national election-the Presidential Election or the parliamentary elections. We have reached a critical point in politics.
There are numerous areas where we should transform ourselves. There are numerous areas needing reforms. We have to be considerate about public aspirations. While looking to the future, we should also look at the present. That is the message given to us. People pinned a lot of hopes on us when giving us a mandate in 2015. First, they hoped we would act against corruption. We took a lackadaisical effort in this regard. There is a criticism even from within the government over this. There were instances in which the ministers raised it. Somehow or other, the anti-corruption drive took place at a snail’s space. May be, it is a delay that has to be understood as we follow the proper legal procedure. When nothing happened finally, people thought we only made false allegations about corruption before 2015.
Not that alone, there were many other reasons that caused our downfall at the elections. The government itself faced corruption allegations. It had a bearing on our vote base in urban areas. That allegation turned out to be a tool of political power game within the government. It was used by one party of the government to undermine the other. It alienated people from us eventually.
In the agricultural areas like Anuradhapura, people did not receive fertilizer in time. We introduced a new system for the distribution of fertilizer. It was not popular among the people. We experienced drought. That also affected the government finally. I, as an electoral organizer, met with much consternation when it comes to the delivery of Samurdhi. The methodology, adopted for giving Samurdhi benefits, is not acceptable to us at all. We, as Ministers, could not correct any injustice caused in the process. It is a process politicized for years.
We could not give solutions to issues faced by people in the short term. Whatever anyone might say, ours is a country with Sinhala-Buddhist culture at its core. There was a fear psychosis created among the Sinhala-Buddhists. They feared the foremost placed accorded to Buddhism would be taken away in the proposed new Constitution. I do not think it is legitimate allegation. Anyway, there was fear mongering.
QWhat are the areas that need changes and reforms?
Both the UNP headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena discussed it after the electoral defeat. We all agreed that we had to be more and more people-oriented. We have to reform our policies. We need to take rigorous steps in this regard and ensure sensible benefits to people.
Cabinet reforms is one things accepted by both the leaders. They were attending to it. We need facelift changes. People expect it.
It is better to adopt changes. We have to renew ourselves. After I received the Land Ministry, I was happy. Otherwise, I was the Media Minister earlier. I assumed duties in that position at a challenging time. There were serious assaults on media freedom. It was a time when some journalists had fled the country or got killed. The media institutions came under arson attack. I ensured media freedom in the truest sense of the word. In fact, media freedom was literally overflowing. But, as the Media Minister, my scope was naturally limited. I could not serve much to my constituents. Yet, as the Land Minister, I could travel across the length and breadth of this country and address land issues of people - giving them freehold rights, deeds etc.
We have youthful spirits in our party. They have to be assigned responsibilities to grow. We need changes in our party structure.
QSome members in your party criticized the national unity government and the President. How do you view this?
There are factors for and against. It is not an easy task to reconcile two political forces that harboured enmity against each other for long years. It is a gigantic task. We are happy that the President and the Prime Minister took such a decision. We were able to deliver something to the people. That is the positive side. There are minuses also.
We ran the government together but contested the elections separately. I feel it is better for the two parties to be together for the rest of its period to serve people.
I do not condone any UNP Cabinet Minister criticizing the President. It is equally unethical for any SLFP Minister to rebuke the Prime Minister in the open.
QWe saw the UNP backbenchers constantly attacking the President. What do you feel about it?
If there is no example set from above, it will be the end result. Then, we will lose control over those in the lower-rung. A Cabinet Minister should serve as an example to others. The Cabinet is collectively bound. We have to correct the situation now. After the Cabinet reshuffle, such discipline should be instilled to avoid criticism of each other.
The President has given too much freedom to the Ministers in the Cabinet meeting. Some Cabinet Ministers, who served in the Rajapaksa rule said they never had such opportunity to look at anything in a critical perspective. They were mere ‘Yes Sir’ men. Now the situation is different. The Ministers can openly air out their grievances at the Cabinet sessions. Such criticism should be confined to the walls of the Cabinet hall.
QYour opinion on the current President...
I feel he is very democratic. He is someone who had a humble beginning. He has his native and village identity. He is familiar with rural conscience, and capable of reading the pulse of the people. He is a practical politician.
The Prime Minister has long experience in politics. It is not easy to produce such an experienced, mature politician. Nobody can match his experience of 40 years in politics and statesmanship.
We gained a lot through the national unity government. Yet, we failed to convert it to electoral success. People yearn for short-term gains. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is a great achievement. We avoided economic sanctions being imposed.
QThere is an allegation that the country cannot get out of the current impasse because of the 19A, which bars snap elections. What is your view?
There is no impasse. The national unity government can proceed. The opposition parties try to project the situation as a gridlock.
QAnimosity between the UNP and the SLFP rose to new levels after the elections. Then, how can you sustain unity in the future?
We have reached some agreement now. There were issues. We cannot rule them out. We discussed them and sorted them out. Both the parties have a responsibility to work in keeping with the 2015 mandate.
QEven the new election law has created confusions. A party that won nine out of ten electoral wards has not sometimes got a stable number elected. Your comments on this...
This is a novel experience. We experimented the new system. I think the law should be amended to rectify grey areas. It is practically difficult to nominate woman representatives on the list under the current circumstances.
QYou have introduced it for the provincial council elections now. What are you going to do with it?
We have now tested it for the local polls. We know its shortcomings. We should not fall into trouble for the second time. Otherwise, there will be a serious crisis.