Politics take centre stage as pandemic recedes

The dawn of the New Year appears to have fuelled intense political discussion and debate as the country continues to face challenging times due to the ongoing Coronavirus and the resultant economic impact, issues that the Government has been grappling with for the past two years.

A major topic of discussion last week was the sacking of Susil Premajayantha as the State Minister of Education Reforms, Open Universities and Distance Learning Promotion. Premajayantha was removed from his portfolios after he publicly criticised the Government.

Speaking to the media at the popular Delkanda fair, Premajayantha was asked about rising prices of vegetables and lashed out at Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage saying the latter had ‘failed’. He was also critical of the decision to pursue a policy of organic fertilizer instead of chemical fertilizer.

This was not the first instance where Premajayantha had been critical of the Government. In a speech in Parliament late last year, Premajayantha blamed the government for sidelining experienced politicians such as himself and expecting them to agree to legislation prepared elsewhere.

Premajayantha escaped sanction at that time but that tirade would not have gone unnoticed. Therefore, when Premajayantha openly criticised Minister Aluthgamage and the Government in general, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was quick in his response: he was removed from his position forthwith the very next day.

Incidentally, Premajayantha was not forewarned of his removal from office. His sacking was announced through a media release from the Presidential Media Division (PMD) which meant that Premajayantha would have been informed of his removal at the same time as the public.

Susil Premajayantha’s removal

“The State Minister portfolios of Susil Premajayantha have been removed with immediate effect, under the powers vested with the President,” a terse statement from the PMD said. The manner of his removal as well as the manner in which it was announced sent a strong message to certain other ministers who are sometimes critical of the Government.

Since then, there has been much discussion about Premajayantha’s removal from office. The former State Minister, while continuing to be critical of the Government, has been defiant and re-iterated claims that the Government was not adequately using politicians with a wealth of experience.

Premajayantha has noted that he has been a senior Cabinet minister under Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena and has held portfolios such as Education and Power and Energy and also been the General Secretary of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance.

That reflection is ironic because it is this very wealth of experience, being a Cabinet Minister for decades, that should have taught Premajayantha that public criticism of the Government or its leadership while being part of it at a ministerial level is not a tenable option in the long term.

At the same time Premajayantha was lamenting his plight, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also offered his point of view. During a recent public gathering he said that if an individual was critical of a Government of which he was a part of, he was in fact being critical of his own performance.

Similar sentiments were expressed by ministers Namal Rajapaksa and Johnston Fernando. The latter is also the Chief Government Whip. Premajayantha was removed from his ministerial portfolio due to several discipline related allegations raised against him, Minister Namal Rajapaksa said.

Minister Rajapaksa said allegations were made against Premajayantha for criticizing the Cabinet and the policies of the Government. There were other disciplinary issues as well and the President had sacked Premajayantha following complaints by several ministers, the Minister of Sports explained.

Highways Minister Johnston Fernando said that Premajayantha, being a vastly experienced politician, should have known better before taking a stance against the Government while remaining a Minister. Fernando said Premajayantha had made statements detrimental to the interests of the Government.

“Premajayantha being a senior politician should have known better. He as a State Minister representing the Government has responsibilities and should have acted within limits. He has a responsibility to protect the Government and its policies,” Minister Fernando said.

“There are many occasions when the President meets the ministers. Premajayantha should have raised the problems or opinions he had about the Government policies then. As a senior politician, Premajayantha is expected to provide an example for new MPs,” Minister Fernando pointed out.

In a sequel to Premajayantha’s removal, the subjects and the institutions held by him have been brought under the purview of Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They are the National Education Commission and the National Institute of Education.

This, in effect, removed the state ministry held by Premajayantha. In a similar exercise, President Rajapaksa has also scrapped the State Ministry of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation. The institutions and functions of that ministry have been assigned to the Ministry of Justice.

The State Ministry of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation was previously held by Lohan Ratwatte, who resigned after it emerged that he had entered two prisons outside routine hours where it was also alleged he engaged in behaviour that was intimidating to some prisoners.

In another reallocation of subjects, President Rajapaksa has directed that the Central Cultural Fund (CCF) that remained under the purview of the Ministry of Economic Policies and Plan Implementation be brought under Buddha Sasana Ministry. A gazette notification was issued to this effect.

SWRD’s Birth Anniversary

While Premajayantha’s removal from office was a distraction to the Government, the ceremonies held to commemorate the 123rd birth anniversary of the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike at Galle Face in Colombo revealed dissension within the Opposition ranks.

The ceremony organised by the family of the late Prime Minister was conducted early in the morning and was attended by his daughter and former President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Conspicuous by his presence was former State Minister Premajayantha who was seen exchanging pleasantries with Kumaratunga during the ceremony.

Also present at the same time was Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian and former Minister in then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, Kumara Welgama. He opted to join the SJB instead of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) despite being a loyal member of the SLFP for decades.

In comments to the media after the ceremony, Welgama was liberal in his criticism of the Opposition, highlighting the many divisions within the Opposition ranks. Welgama was asked for his position in the SJB and quipped that “there is no unity but I always am and always will be a staunch supporter of the SLFP”.

However, former Minister Welgama reserved his harshest criticism for former President Maithripala Sirisena who he accused of destroying the once powerful party. He said that the former President was now leading the SLFP only nominally and the party had always belonged to the “Bandaranaikes”.

In what appeared to be a move aimed at damage control, former President Sirisena arrived at the commemoration only after the morning ceremony organised by the Bandaranaike family had concluded. Asked about it, he said it was only correct for the family to gain precedence in the event.

However, it is well known that former President Kumaratunga resents Sirisena’s actions while he was President which ended in the destabilisation of the SLFP from which it is yet to recover. It is likely Sirisena skipped the morning event, to avoid a public tongue lashing from Kumaratunga in front of the TV cameras.

Sirisena spoke about his plans to restructure and reorganise the SLFP but with the vast majority of former SLFPers having defected to the SLPP, only 14 Parliamentarians at his disposal and without the blessings of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Sirisena has a very difficult task ahead of him.

There is general acknowledgment, even within the Government circles, that the current economic climate in the country compounded by COVID-19 has led to a dent in the Government’s popularity. As a result, issues such as the use of organic fertilizer and domestic LP Gas cylinder explosions are greatly magnified.

However, those in the Government ranks note that the Government still commands a very comfortable majority in Parliament, even if all SLFP MPs defect to the Opposition or act independently as a separate group. The mandate the Government received in August 2020 was such that its position over the next three years is actually unassailable.

Opposition parties

In such a scenario and within the context of the present scale of division, dissent and unrest in all major Opposition parties, the SJB, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP), it will be either a very a brave SLPP Parliamentarian or a very naive one that will rebel against their own party. Only the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) seems to be intact, with seemingly no divisions within its ranks, though the party had earlier split into several factions.

They also point out that while the past two years have been particularly difficult for the public and extremely challenging for the Government due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ill-effects of the pandemic on the economy and society in general are slowly but surely diminishing now.

This still leaves the Government with three more years to deliver on its promises of Visions of Prosperity. This is a fact alluded to by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has indicated that he is ready to take up the challenge of compensating for the two years the country missed out on due to the pandemic.

In fact, the Government can afford to do so. It has time on its side. It also has the numbers in Parliament to see its task through, particularly with regard to enacting a totally new Constitution. The question that remains is whether the Opposition is as prepared and motivated as the Government is, to mount a challenge.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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