The JO consists of several parties. These parties have their distinct identities. They work together under the leadership of former President
They want the government to deliver what it promised
JO will agitate for early parliamentary dissolution
16-member group is not homogeneous at all
The situation in the country is totally chaotic. The government is dysfunctional even at the basic level
Chairman of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Prof. G.L. Peiris speaks about the current political situation and what his party plans for the future. The excerpts of the interview:
Q There are reports about a split in the camp of the Joint Opposition. In certain instances, there are some sort of open confrontations. Why is it?
There are no splits in the Joint Opposition (JO). That is a complete misunderstanding. The JO consists of several parties. They are Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s party, Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, the National Freedom Front, Lanka Samasamaja Party, Sri Lanka Mahajana Party etc.
The youngest party is Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that came into existence a year and a half ago. These parties have their distinct identities. They work together under the leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa towards common objectives. That is how it evolved since January, 2015 when the change occurred. The Nugegoda rally was the beginning. A strong characteristic of it is the close collaboration among these different parties. They will contest elections under the SLPP’s lotus bud symbol. There is no difference of opinion on those fundamental matters.
We should work with these 16 people in order to evolve a strategy in Parliament against the government. It is obvious that the days of the government are numbered
Q Yet, there are reports about differences of opinion on the accommodation of 16 Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs who defected from the government. What is your response?
With regard to them, what is happening is very natural. There is no reason for anyone to be astonished. It is to be expected. These are people who strongly backed President Maithripala Sirisena and accepted office under him. They were part and parcel of the government which carried out policies bringing down the country to the brink of ruin. They came only after the public opinion became very clear from the results of the elections on February 10, 2018. What the younger people in the Joint Opposition feel is this. There are strong feelings in this regard. They attacked the SLPP. They belonged to the government that pursued the Rajapaksa family and the SLPP leadership. Therefore, these feelings are to be expected.
However, there is the consideration that we should work with these 16 people in order to evolve a strategy in Parliament against the government. It is obvious that the days of the government are numbered. But, the various forces that installed this government are determined to get their agenda implemented during the short period available today. The chief item on that agenda is constitutional reforms. They want the government to deliver what it promised. The only way to thwart that exercise is to deprive the government of two-thirds in Parliament. Then, all these other initiatives become a nonstarter. For that, we have to receive people of the government into the rank of the opposition. From that point of view, the arrival of these 16 MPs is a salutatory move. It makes sense to work together with them in Parliament towards that objective.
The 16-member group is not a homogeneous group. Some members like Susil Premajayantha and John Seneviratne only said they would back the candidate to be nominated by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Others in the group said they were staying with the SLFP. They continue to accept the leadership of President Sirisena. There is a great deal of confusion.
The driving force will be Mahinda himself. Mahinda will spearhead and lead the campaign. There is no doubt about the results
Q Some of JO MPs did not vote for MP Sudarshani Fernandopulle to be appointed as the Deputy Speaker. She is a member of the 16-member group. Why is it?
It is not a division with regard to the course of action to be followed at elections. One from the 16 member group came over. All the members who are with Mahinda Rajapaksa were requested to support. They had certain reservations about doing it. It is human feeling. In politics, one has to conquer these feelings, though.
Q You said earlier that the JO would launch a campaign targeting the dissolution of Parliament for snap general elections. How are you going to do it?
The situation in the country is totally chaotic. The government is dysfunctional even at the basic level. It is simply not possible to go that way. The President is publicly attacking the Prime Minister. The two parties are pointing fingers at each other for the failure of Yahapalana administration. In the midst of all these public bickering, it is the people of the country who have to pay a heavy price. It is quite evident that nothing useful to the people can be accomplished by the government that is so much at loggerheads. The need of the hour is a fresh beginning. That is possible only after a parliamentary election. The rupee value has depreciated to 160 against the dollar. The most acute hardships are with regard to the cost of living. There is the crippling burden of taxation. There is the ever burgeoning expenditure for luxuries for the Ministers and government MPs. There is absolutely no restraint for that. Let the people have the opportunity of deciding for themselves!
It is legally possible in terms of the 19th Amendment. That is by the adoption of a resolution by Parliament with two –thirds. All the parties in the opposition are of that view. People are waiting to cast their vote and throw the government out of office. The clamour for a general election is going to be very popular. There is very strong opposition to the alienation of public assets. All these factors are there.
Q Some opposition parties such as the JVP and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) co-operate with the government overtly or covertly. How practical is it for you to muster two-thirds for dissolution of Parliament when the government has enough numbers to block it in that sense?
All these parties have significant fissures within them. The UNP is also not monolith at all. Some of the younger party members have made public statements. They are profoundly dissatisfied with the party and its leadership. They want fundamental changes. When the No-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was brought, the feeling was that they could not allow their rivals to throw their Prime Minister out. That is contrary to the culture and discipline of the party. They said they would rally around the Prime Minister to defend him. Yet, there was one condition. They said there should be radical changes in the party soon after that. The Prime Minister makes such promises when he is in difficulty. He forgets all of them when he is strong. This has resulted in huge disillusionment within the rank and file of the UNP.
The President is publicly attacking the Prime Minister. The two parties are pointing fingers at each other for the failure of Yahapalana administration
The situation in the TNA is even more acute. The TNA has dropped 34 percent of their votes from the parliamentary elections in August, 2015 to the local polls on February 10, 2018. Now, of course, the drop could be even greater. How are they going to face their people in the North? After September, this year, the chief instrument of devolution ceases to exist. The east does not have a provincial council for eight months.
The TNA is losing ground there. The other elements are coming up there. We have sharp differences of views between the TNA and Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. The Chief Minister is backed by other forces. It is in everyone’s interest to see the dissolution of Parliament. We will work towards that with the single-minded sense of focus.
Q The Presidential Elections is scheduled to be conducted at the end of next year. Why do you agitate for a parliamentary election in between?
That is still 16 months ahead of now. The harm that can be inflicted on the country during that period is enormous. People simply cannot make ends meet. There is a limit to human patience. The people cannot put up with this state of anarchy for a year and half. It is a long period in which they have to suffer.
Q There are different names being mentioned about prospective candidates. What do you think about it as the chairman of SLPP?
All this talk about the identity of the presidential candidate is a red herring across the trail. That is to divert public attention from other burning issues. The focus should be on current issues. Former President Rajapaksa said that, at the right time, he would decide who should be the candidate. He would announce it at the right time.
The driving force will be Mahinda himself. Mahinda will spearhead and lead the campaign. There is no doubt about the results.
Q If you were in office, what would you do regarding the bond scam?
First and foremost, we will ensure that Arjun Mahendran is brought back to the country. The government is not interested in doing it at all. On the contrary, the government wants him to live in Singapore or elsewhere as long as he wants. The Prime Minister said, as in the media reports, he had no knowledge of where Mahendran was.
His presence is necessary to recover money lost to the country. Arjun Aloysius and Kasun Palisena did not do it on their own.
When the No-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was brought, the feeling was that they could not allow their rivals to throw their Prime Minister out
Q As for the 20th Amendment brought by the JVP, there is objection to it today. Yet, the political parties, starting from 1994, have vowed to abolish the executive presidency. Now, are you opposed to it? Why is it?
Not that we are opposed to it. There is a parliamentary process at the moment considering all aspects of constitution making. It is a holistic process. It is not considering one component in isolation. The current 20th Amendment deals with one element. That is executive presidency. That is not realistic. If you take it away without doing anything to the totally flawed electoral reforms in operation at present, the result will involve a huge distortion. Executive presidency is one stabilizing factor. It has downsides though. In order to strengthen Parliament and effective governance taking place, you must deal with the issue of electoral reforms.