Special commissioners end stint
As flood waters recede and relief aid pours in from the world, the political stage is poised to heat up with the demand for the restorations of the functions of local authorities by conducting LG elections as early as possible.
The terms of the local authorities: municipal councils, urban councils and municipal councils, lapsed in 2014. They were then placed under special commissioners for a period of one year as provided by law, if the incumbent government intends to postpone elections. That one-year period has ended, and the elections are overdue. The local bodies are responsible for the deliverance of various services such as the collection of garbage, maintenance of roads and numerous other administrative affairs concerning the day-to-day lives of people.
After adverse weather conditions hampered normal life, the role of local government representatives was discussed at a time when the absence of some political authority to respond to emergency situation was felt. In this scene, political parties and organisations agitating for immediate elections to the local bodies have made renewed calls in this regard, and contemplate more action to drive home their demands.
The Joint Opposition, which is virtually the UPFA faction loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been asking for this election to be conducted as early as possible. After the recent floods however, it even vowed to lay siege to the office of the Elections Commissioner, urging it to initiate action for immediate elections.
“Elections Commissioner Mahinda Desapriya, during the presidential election, even asked the police to shoot those trying to rig the polls. If he could dare to say that, we would like him to apply the same boldness to declare local elections,” Matara district MP of the Joint Opposition Dalles Alahapperuma said at a press conference.
More than ensuring governance at local levels, the Joint Opposition, hell-bent on taking on the government, has political interests in asking for this election. It believes the local authority election will afford opportunity for voters to vent their resentment over some policies of the ruling side.
With the belief that voters’ behaviour would translate into its success, the Joint Opposition is planning to stage demonstrates calling for the election. Yet, it is unlikely that the government would agree at this hour when it has taken a slew of measures which are not populist.
The Joint Opposition has also petitioned the Supreme Court against the postponement of the election and a ruling is now awaited.
However, the election office is of the view that it is not Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Desapriya who should be blamed for the postponement. According to sources close to the office, only the subject minister has to announce the number of members to be elected under the new electoral system in a gazette notification, enabling the election to be conducted in a practical context. It means that Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faizer Mustapha should be held accountable in this respect. Once he announces new electoral wards and the number of members to be elected under the new system, the election could be conducted.
President Sirisena rejects Talatha’s Cabinet proposal
The governments led by the United National Party (UNP) encouraged foreign employment as domestic housekeeping assistants in the Middle-Eastern countries in the past. In fact, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), as the then main opposition, scorned the move even calling it sending women for slavery in the Arab world. After the SLFP-led alliances took over the reins after 1994, attempts were made to discourage women migrating for work in Arab countries as domestic aides, citing social implications that outweighed economic gains from such employment. However, the number has only increased since 1994 under the SLFP governments as well. The successive governments, UNP-led or SLFP-led, depended on remittances from migrant workers for foreign exchange.
Various forms of physical and sexual harassment faced in the Middle-East during employment, and children losing motherly care at home were often cited as the reasons for the need to discourage such job seeking.
Now, a national unity government formed by the UNP and the SLFP is in place. President Maithripala Sirisena is the head of the government. Foreign Employment Promotion Minister Talatha Atukorale, who is from the UNP, submitted a Cabinet memorandum seeking approval to reduce the age limit of women migrating for work as domestic aides in the Middle-East from 25 to 22. President Sirisena, who is also the SLFP leader, rebuffed the idea to drop the age limit, and even opined such job seeking should be restricted totally if possible. The President took up the stand that if the age limit were lowered, it would only encourage very young women migrating more and more for work.
Several other Cabinet ministers spoke supporting the President’s viewpoint, and even spoke of some other countries in the region had banned their citizens leaving for work as domestic aides in the Arab world. They suggested that Sri Lanka should also follow-suit.
However, a compromise was struck eventually as Ms. Atukorale agreed to fall in line if it were the policy of the government. Subsequently, a committee including her and two others- Labour and Labour Relations Minister John Seneviratne and Child and Woman’s Affairs Minister Chandrani Bandara - were appointed to work out a comprehensive policy on migrant workers.
Addressing frauds in foreign job seeking-Talatha
Ms. Atukorale also said she was also for a full ban on the migration of women for jobs, but she, as the subject minister, observed practical inconveniences in proceeding with the present restrictions in foreign employment. “Today, women with children aged less than five cannot go abroad for work. But, job seeking women tend to bribe their way to get family background reports with false details from development officers assigned for the purpose at Divisional Secretariats. Already, eight such officers have been interdicted. They had accepted bribes as high as Rs.65, 000 from desperate women for falsified family background reports. Besides, there are different age limits stipulated for various countries. One has to be above 25 years in age to leave for work in Saudi Arabia. Then, there is tendency to falsify ages to seek work in that country. It involves a lot of fraud. I moved to reduce the age limit only to sort out all these frauds as a practical means. Our ministry is the authority in charge of implementing all these restrictions. We have to work out practical means to address this issue. That is why I proposed this. The President did not, in fact, reject my proposal. He only said that it was vital to discourage such work abroad,” she told Daily Mirror.
It is learnt that even Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was not in favour of this Cabinet proposal.
Galle district ministers lock horn over relocating court complex
In a separate case at the same Cabinet meeting, the Ministers representing the Galle Electoral district had a showdown. It was on the Cabinet proposal by Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to relocate the court complex from Galle to the Boossa area. Home Affairs Minister Wajira Abeywardane was in support of it, yet Petroleum and Petroleum Gas Minister Chandima Weerakkody had reservations about it. He argued that the court complex should remain where it stands at the moment, and any relocation would inconvenience the public seeking legal redress due to the long distance to be commuted.
The President, yet, said he had to stand by what the Justice Minister proposed. The Cabinet dealt with it extensively, but it was decided to take the final decision next week.
Cabinet amused over President’s remark regarding John Amaratunga
During the Cabinet meeting, the ministers amused themselves over a jovial remark directed at Tourism Minister John Amaratunga by the President. It was in response to a suggestion by Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. He said the Railways Department looked overstaffed with female employees, and they should be sent elsewhere. The President added humour to the suggestion when he said the Tourism Ministry of Mr. Amaratunga would be the ideal place to entertain extra female employees of the railway authorities. Laughter followed his remarks.
SLFP ministers flash gun against FCID
The group of SLFP ministers recently met at the residence of Minister John Seneviratne and discussed the way forward. Despite being part of the government with the UNP, they decided to fight against the operation of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID).
Calling it a politically-motivated body, the SLFP group resolved to prevail upon the government to establish a proper body through a parliamentary legislation to investigate financial crimes and frauds.
“Financial crimes should be investigated, yet through a professional investigative body established under parliamentary law. It should not be done on an ad hoc basis on political motivation,” a member who attended the meeting said.
The group discussed the SLFP viewpoint on power devolution at this juncture. It unanimously held the view that maximum possible power should be devolved to the periphery under a unitary constitution. Again, some members said even that was resisted in some quarters in the country today.
“If Police and land powers are devolved under the present Constitution, that will also be resisted,” the member said.
SLFPers in Joint Opposition skeptical about their colleagues in Govt
However, the latest approach by the SLFP section in the government is looked upon with disdain by some in the Joint Opposition. Former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa is reported to have said it was an attempt to hoodwink the public.
“While being in the government, they try to stake a claim for the role of the opposition. Otherwise, this is not a genuine effort in criticising the government. In a way, it is an attempt to undermine the role of the Joint Opposition,” he told his confidantes.
With such thoughts, some SLFP MPs of the Joint Opposition insist that a new party should be formed as soon as possible for them to act independent of the present SLFP leadership. Another set of SLFP MPs in the Joint Opposition do not see the need for a new party as they keep their fingers crossed that they can take control over the party one day with the support of the rank and file.
Eastern CM’s issue, SLMC wants to douse the fire
Eastern Province Chief Minister Nazeer Ahmed’s public reprimand of a naval officer at an event in the East sparked a hot debate with political undertones. Ahmed is from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Minister Rauff Hakeem.
Hakeem raised the matter with the chief minister and asked him to tender an apology. The SLMC acted in this manner to avoid the political opposition gaining any mileage out of the incident. He is now planning to raise the matter with President Sirisena and ask him to sort out issues in organising events in the East hereafter.