- It was inappropriate to take dissolution of Parliament to court
- 19th A has grey areas in addition to its positive side
- RW arrogated to himself presidential power
- I looked aside as I wanted to be grateful to him
Ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, President Maithripala Sirisena, in an interview with , speaks about the steps taken by him to appoint a new Prime Minister and his intentions for the future.
QAfter you appointed a new government, you spoke with confidence that it would get the required parliamentary majority. It is not so now. What happened actually?
Based on negotiations undertaken by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa along with the relevant parties, I was informed that it would be possible to muster the support of 113 members. I expressed my views in this regard depending on information fed to me by the relevant parties involved in negotiations only.
QIn your view, what is the reason for the inability to get the required number at the end?
It is not a secret that a monetary value descended upon MPs in this exercise. In the actual sense, the price tags were attached to the MPs. It is like tender calling in normal business operations. I personally learnt that some MPs asked for Rs.500 million. I did not talk to anyone personally. In my political career, I have not offered even a petty cash inducement to a local government member at least. I will stick to this principle even in the future.
If we look at our post-Independence history, we have experience in this regard. We remember how the government of late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike collapsed in 1964 over the legislation to acquire Lakehouse. I heard that price tags were attached to the MPs for the first time in 1964 when 11 MPs including C.P. de Silva from Polonnaruwa crossed over in a move to topple that government. That is as far as I can remember. I do not know whether any such thing existed before that. Since then, the political crossovers have taken place under different governments.
In 1994, in the event of the elections to the Southern Provincial Council, the members were lured through cash offer inducements in the same fashion.
Late President R. Premadasa only brought the Act governing the local authorities. Before the enactment of this law, I remember the local government election conducted under the old law in 1969. After that, such elections were conducted under the new law enacted by Mr. Premadasa. The new law rectified all the lacunas previously exploited to financially induce members at local government levels to change parties. Before that, under the old law, Gam Saba members were attached with price tags of Rs.400, Rs.500 or Rs.100 as an inducement to switch sides. I remember vividly how Gam Saba members changed their parties for such cash offers. I remember what happened to the Gam Saba member of our village. People laid siege to his house. The tyres of his vehicles were punctured. In that sense, it is not a novel phenomenon in our country. We have a disgraceful history in this respect.
This time, I heard some bargained themselves for sums as high as Rs.500 million.Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa could not muster the majority because of such high price tags quoted by the MPs. If not for that, he could have got the majority. Then, the current political turmoil could have been averted well.
QIn your address to the party convention, you spoke with confidence that the crisis would be resolved within one week…
QHow are going to resolve it in a week?
The Supreme Court was supposed to complete hearing submissions on the court case in this regard by December 7. The ruling will be delivered by Monday or before. That is what I believe. I gave my assurance according to this belief. The ruling regarding the dissolution of Parliament will clear the air for everything to settle. It will end the crisis. If the court rules in favour of dissolution, there will be an election. Then, the problem is over. Otherwise, I will have to afford the opportunity for the party with majority support in Parliament to form the government under someone handpicked by me as the Prime Minister.
QYet, you said you would not give premiership to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at any cost. The UNP insists that it will nominate only Mr. Wickremesinghe to the post. Then, it will lead to further stalemate. Won’t it?
I have categorically stated that I am not ready at all to appoint someone, unfit for the country, and corrupt, as the Prime Minister. I have not changed my stance.
QThen, is it possible for you to handpick someone other than him?
Why can’t I do it? There are 224 others other than Mr. Wickremesinghe. Can’t these political parties identify even a single MP other than Mr Wickremesinghe?
QIn your speeches in the past, you always said that you had won over the world. You said Sri Lanka had only friends, no enemies in the world. But, your action for the change of government is criticized by the western envoys. What will happen to the international trust you built?
No envoy has threatened us. There is no undue influence or pressure on us. They expressed their opinions. They held talks with us. Whenever I called for a meeting, they participated in it. They met me individually or as a group. They expressed themselves. I put forth my position. It is a feat of democracy as I can see. The media have played it up as a huge crisis. These are not serious matters in my view.
QWhen you defected from the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in 2014, you made a scathing attack on him. You joined hands with the UNP leadership. Today, you say Mr. Rajapaksa is even better than Mr. Wickremesinghe. What is the reason for your change of attitude?
I will refer to a rural proverb. The true colours of a bird become visible only when it takes flight. It is the same story with Mr. Wickremesinghe. The true nature of Mr. Wickremesinghe also became apparent only after he took over power. I never thought Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe would be such a person- stubborn, adamant, and not ready for dialogue or to listen.
Mr Wickremesinghe makes a hue and cry about democracy. But, he is the person who ruled out democratic space within the UNP for the last 25 years. During the last four years, he arrogated to himself the presidential powers in addition to being the Prime Minister. I maintained silence in the face of such actions as I wanted to be grateful to him.
He arrogated to himself some presidential powers on matters such as bilateral agreements with other countries, diplomatic engagements, agreements with the foreign leaders, and foreign investment. According to the Constitution, the President has the sole authority on land power. Without my authorization, he proceeded with the Hambantota Port deal and the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore.
During my election campaign, I, along with him and others, said that the work on the Port City project would be suspended. After the election, Mr. Wickremesinghe, without consulting me, contacted the project company and suspended the work. He never discussed terms and conditions reached with the company for suspension of work. After a few months, again without consulting me, he gave the go-ahead for the project on fresh terms. It is impossible to reach any agreement with a foreign investor on land matters without authorization by the President.
QDoes it mean that he acted as if there was no President for the country?
He acted as if there was no President for the country. He sometimes worked virtually putting me in the shoes of a local government member, let alone the President.
I have already said that I will appoint a presidential commission to probe frauds and malpractices during the past three and a half years. It will have an important job in investigating such frauds, malpractices, improper transactions and decisions taken on the contrary to the provisions of the Constitution. When the Central Bank bond fraud was probed, there was undue influence on the investigative officers. In fact, those investigative officers came under scrutiny. A number of institutions such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Police Department and the Attorney General’s Department conducted investigations.
The CID officers involved in probing the bond fraud, were subjected to inquiries on the charge that their actions amounted to harassment of Mr. Wickremesinghe. These officers got intimidated as a result, and investigations were crippled. The officials who were otherwise conducting investigations enthusiastically became discouraged. As a person who was close to both Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, I know the characteristic differences of the two. In a family, only the husband and the wife know their compatibility with each other.
I have a long-standing political relationship with Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. I had political contact with Mr. Wickremesinghe for four years. I know both well.
QHow do you compare and contrast the two? I am asking that question because you said you would end up buried six feet under the earth if Mr. Rajapaksa won. Today, you say Mr. Rajapaksa is better than Mr. Wickremesinghe
As I said at that time, I would have ended up buried six feet under the earth. However, my motherland would have been buried without any trace, in the manner Mr. Wickremesinghe worked. It is far more dangerous to see my country being obliterated from the world map virtually.
QWith the enactment of the 19th Amendment, you lost some authority as the President. Especially, you lost the power to dissolve Parliament after one year. You would have been on a strong footing in dealing with the current crisis if not for that. Do you regret the enactment of the 19th Amendment?
No. It is a positive piece of legislation. It is absolutely essential for the country. It strengthened the democratic institutions of the country. It upheld human rights and ensured judicial independence. We have to protect the 19th Amendment.
Yet, there are some grey areas in it triggering political concerns. For example, today’s Parliament is a hung Parliament. No one has a clear-cut majority. It is a reason for this political crisis to prolong. It is difficult for a party to take decisions under these circumstances.
If the power to dissolve Parliament were retained, it would have been better to deal with the current crisis. People have to decide. It is their right. Today, price tags are attached to MPs. As a result of this crisis, some MPs got BMW cars as inducements. They drive them without number plates these days. They got new vehicles. The credibility of some MPs has suffered. The party leaders cannot take a decision. The MPs come out with their personal concerns such as the loss of their pension rights in the event of dissolution of Parliament. They are least bothered about the plight of the country. They must be ready to make a sacrifice for the country.
It was inappropriate for anyone to go to court against the dissolution of Parliament in a crisis situation like this. I will not comment on whether the judiciary can rule out dissolution or not. Be that as it may, the Legislature and the Executive should have been able to resolve this crisis without going to court. If this case was not taken to court by anyone, the current crisis would have been solved by now.
Today, if I call for a meeting with any leader, he will come. We have political issues, but not personal animosities. We discussed the issue at length. We must recognize that democratic ambience and be happy about it.
As the matter was taken to court, we lost the opportunity to resolve it within the democratic ambience. If the matter is referred back for us to resolve, I think it will be better. These are not criminal cases. This is a political question. It has to be addressed politically. The political leaders should have wisdom and magnanimity for it. Law is above anyone.
The complications in the 19th Amendment are a hindrance to resolve this matter.
We remember the day it was enacted. The vote was taken up at 5.00 pm. It lasted for long hours. The problems that arose during the process were addressed through hurriedly conducted meetings. The parliamentary session was conducted under a tense atmosphere. There was no opportunity to give careful and peaceful thought on matters at hand. That is how a piece of legislation detrimental to the future of the country, was enacted.
QWas there a need to enact it hurriedly?
I do not think there was such a need to rush through. Actually, Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, along with a few others who assisted him, is responsible for the hurried enactment of it leading to the present crisis.
QDespite the Executive and the Legislature being involved in a crisis, normalcy prevails in the country. People get on with their lives without any tension among them over the crisis. What is your view on it?
It is definitely correct. I will add something to your question. There is no Prime Minister. There is no Cabinet. However, the President governs the country together with the Ministry Secretaries under the blessings of the Triple Gems. There are no clashes in the country. That is because of the moral discipline of our people. Despite skullduggery and idiocy among politicians, people have put the country before self. They carry on their routine activities peacefully. This is the moral discipline of our people nurtured by the Buddhist culture and values for millennia.
Also, the spirituality of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam contributed to the moral conduct of their followers in our country. People of all these religious groups have regards for the country.
I am very happy about it. People have cooperated with me in the conduct of governing affairs with the Ministry Secretaries. I am grateful to people for it.
QThe UNP calls for an early presidential election. It is possible only if you become the candidate. Are you ready?
I am not ready to work according to the political agendas of others. My official term will end next year. Then, there will be a presidential election for sure. If there is a snap presidential election, only I have to declare it. I have no intention of declaring such a presidential election. I am not ready to fall in line with the political agendas of the others.
QAre you planning to run for presidency for the second term?
There is one more year for it to be decided. There is no need to decide on it now. If you look at the past one month, politics was riddled with happenings on an hourly basis. As media personnel, you all have so many news stories. That is what happened during the past five weeks. Who could say what will happen in a period of one year from now on? We cannot say it now.
QWhen you defected from the last government, you were harshly critical of former Minister Basil Rajapaksa. Now, we see reports about you having meetings with him. How is chemistry between you and him now?
The Indo-China border war in the 1960s claimed so many lives in the 1960s. The leaders of those two countries were able to sit together. We are familiar with decisions taken by the political leaders to address disputes involving Diego Garcia islands.
As for our Kachchaithivu issue, Mrs. Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi addressed it after five-minute talks.
In politics, there are no permanent enemies or friends.
QHow do you see the role of the Speaker during this critical time?
The MPs hold different views with regard to his conduct. After this crisis erupted, I was able to meet with him and discuss it on several occasions. He came to see me here. Likewise, I contacted him over the phone. We were able to resolve so many issues. We were able to do it using our political maturity, knowledge and experience. If others, especially Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe can behave in the way we did, this problem could have been addressed easily.