Voters’ lax attitude raises concerns while Rajapakshe’s hold on UNP turns dicey | Sunday Observer

Voters’ lax attitude raises concerns while Rajapakshe’s hold on UNP turns dicey

The affable and approachable State Minister of Finance, Eran Wickramaratne was a worried man on Thursday night or more accurately, in the wee hours of Friday. The worried Minister sent off a series of short messages regarding the decrease of registered voters in Colombo city and district. He proceeded to add the website URL of the Elections Commission, where Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, wants citizens to check whether or not they are still in the voter registry.

The drop in the voter registry is unusual. Every year, the usual pattern is an increase, reflecting the increase in population and the demographic changes where more and more people come to reside in the western province and in the district of Colombo. The district currently elects 19 of the 225 members of the Sri Lankan Parliament and had 1,552,734 registered electors in 2014. In the 2010 Presidential election, there were 1,521,854 voters registered, while the 2005 Presidential election had 1,468,537 voters registered in the district.

As we report elsewhere in the Sunday Observer today, in Colombo metropolitan area including Dehiwala, Mount Lavinia, Moratuwa, Colombo and Kotte only 60,000 new names were registered while 76,000 names are to be deleted due to failure to register. In other areas identified as Colombo suburbs such as Maharagama while around 9,500 new names have been added, 14,000 names are to be deleted.

Logistical difficulties

While the drop is unusual, even more stranger is one of the reasons the election department is subscribing to the overall decrease. “One of the main reasons we see for this is the increasing number of luxury apartments,” our story quotes Deshapriya. According to him, Grama Niladaris face logistical difficulties in approaching denizens of these luxury apartments to register them in the electoral roll.

State Minister Wickremaratne sees it differently. “I got concerned straight away that maybe the government or UNP voter has kept away. This is the lowest we have had. This could be a reaction to what’s happening at the moment,” the State minister told the Sunday Observer. “At an electoral level I have told my people to speak to the people and get their input as to why there is such a reduction.”

“My feeling,” the minister said, emphasizing on the fact that this is just his observation, “is that they are fed-up with the system.”

“The quick-fix to this first is to make people aware they still have time to register themselves if they have not, so far. However, they are doing the wrong thing. Because they forget that, this reaction does not harm us, the politician, but them. They have to vote. Having the vote and not going to the polling booth is harmful to them,” the minister said.

It appears that it is not only the people who are ‘fed-up’ with the system, but also, at least, some politicians. Amongst these is another state Minister, Dr. Harsha de Silva. Dr. de Silva, an economist by training and market researcher by job-orientation, set up one of Sri Lanka´s first market research houses and sold his stake to Nielsen’s, a global market research firm before taking to politics. At a TV debate, televised earlier this week, Dr. de Silva was to tell the audience that he is sick of ‘disgusting politics.’ He was to say that he turned into politics after setting up enough funds to cater for his family´s needs and that he has no need to steal like others. Dr. de Silva´s plaintive cry followed a blistering attack on corruption delivered moments before by JVP parliamentarian and COPE chairman, Sunil Handunnetti. Some of Handunnetti´s accusations involved Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, against whom the joint opposition is in the process of moving a no-confidence motion in Parliament. According to reports published elsewhere, there are 11 charges in the motion, including:

Evading the investigation process conducted by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption on complaints lodged by parliamentarians and civil organizations,

Creating a series of crisis in the country’s health sector by paving the way for privatization of medical education in the country,

Misleading the public in taking over the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital, which is owned by a private body but now funded by the public purse,

Misusing his powers as the minister in giving legitimacy to the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine,

Deliberately avoiding publicizing the minimum standards of medical education in the country,

Failing to find immediate solution to dengue epidemic and preventing dengue patients from seeking treatment in government hospitals,

Handing over the Mutwal Fisheries Harbour to a private company as the Minister of Fisheries in a manner causing massive loss to the government,

And engaging in actions such as influencing and threatening the Department of the Attorney General with regard to filing and investigating certain cases.

Particular deliberation

Minister Senaratne has dismissed the allegations as frivolous and untrue, “stringed together without rhyme or reason” to create mischief by a “collection of rogues who are being investigated by the FCID”.

Handunnetti´s allegation however was over an investigation ordered by the COPE committee, where State Minister Dr de Silva has also participated in that particular deliberation, concerning an instance of recruiting 30 persons for the State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation on a letter issued by Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne’s wife, and private secretary.

Chair of the SPMC, Sayuru Samarasundara, had admitted before the COPE that he had recruited 24 marketing promotion officers and six minor employees on the recommendation of the Minister’s wife, Dr. Sujatha Senaratne.

She in her capacity as Private Secretary to her husband had issued letters recommending that those employees be recruited to the SPMC. The appointments were made in 2016 and the SPMC has paid the 30 employees Rs 11,226,473 as salaries. It was after MP Handunnetti revealed the documents on live TV that Dr de Silva lamented that he is sick of politics in an atmosphere where each and everyone is only alleging the other is a ‘rogue’. “How can we develop this country this way,” the state minister asked.

It is in this background that the Election Commission Chairman´s statement made yesterday to the Sunday Observer becomes of paramount importance to the government. Deshapriya said that the Commission has noted a change in attitude amongst youth and professionals where they have adopted a ‘quit politics’ ‘quit elections’ attitude.

Mandatory

“This is a very big problem. Therefore, now we have initiated several awareness campaigns to refute this attitude. It is necessary to make people aware the importance of voting and educate the people on the importance of registering themselves. If we question about 100 people around 10 will says that they are not concerned about elections,” he said.

When asked if Sri Lanka should adopt a system that makes voting mandatory the chairman responded positively stating that at least as an initial step registration should be made mandatory.

However, that will not help the root issue of the people appearing to lose confidence in politicians as State Minister Wickremaratne has noted.

Last week´s forced resignation of Dr Wijeyedasa Rajapakshe from his cabinet positions and the resignation of former Foreign and Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake may go some way to restore that confidence, but signs from within the cabinet itself and from those close to the President and the Prime Minister show an indication of a sense of urgency to restore the people´s confidence before the tide retracts completely to the depths of the sea of apathy.

The first salvo in this renewed sense of urgency was fired during the media briefing of the cabinet decisions on Wednesday. It came in the form of a statement of renewed commitment for the national government from the two spokespersons, representing the UNP and the UPFA who both stated that they were committed to continuing with the national government for its full term.

“What is the alternative?” asked Sports Minister and SLFP spokesperson Dayasiri Jayasekera.

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who represents the President at the briefing, said that if Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had heeded calls for a general election shortly after the January 2015 presidential election the UNP would have obtained a two-thirds majority, but he had opted to form a national unity government instead. The national government was Wickremesinghe´s idea, Senaratne noted, adding that President Maithripala Sirisena had agreed after Wickremesinghe explained that he was interested in developing the country and forging national reconciliation and not obtaining a big parliamentary majority for the UNP. “It is natural for there to be differences in a coalition. But, we need to continue this partnership for the sake of the country,” Seneratne said.

In an interview published elsewhere last week (not in the Lake House Group), President Sirisena was also to reiterate the importance of the National Unity Government.

President Sirisena said, “When the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2015, all approved it. So, why do they criticize it now? What would have been the outcome if both parties did not agree to this?” he asked.

“If there was no regime change in 2015, the global community, the US and EU would have imposed trade embargoes against Sri Lanka and political and military leaders would have taken before International Criminal Court for war crimes. The Yahapalana Government was able to defuse that negative impact on Sri Lanka and no country or international agency now talks about Sri Lanka’s war crimes and electric chair. The entire international community is friendly and respects Sri Lanka now. As a result of this positive global atmosphere, Sri Lanka has been able to regain GSP+ and remove fish export ban to the EU,” President Sirisena had stressed.

“Though we have made a steady progress in the international arena, we have failed to put an end to corruption and waste,” President Sirisena is quoted to have said.

Financial performance

The President´s comments came close on the heels of the semi-annual financial performance indicators of the government ministries being presented in Parliament. According to this report, only two ministries have spent over 50 percent of the funds allocated for them in the budget as of June this year. The Posts and Postal Services Ministry had spent 50.5 percent of the total amount allocated for it while the Power and Renewable Energy Ministry had spent 70.4 percent as of mid 2017.

The report says that only Rs 1,792,165.1 million has been spent of the total of Rs 3, 628,110.4 million allocated for various ministries.

The Digital Infrastructure Development Ministry has spent only 3.9 percent of the total allocated amount while the National Integration and Reconciliation Ministry has spent only 3.3 percent.

The Tourism Ministry has spent only 6.8 percent while Public Enterprise Development Ministry has spent 5.9.percent.

These figures point to deeply troubling inefficiencies in the government – where capital allocations not being spent translates to development not happening.

Last week also saw a crucial piece of legislation passed by parliament and the 20th Amendment to the constitution being placed on the order book. The amendment seeks to take over the powers of dissolved provincial councils and provide for the holding of elections for provincial councils on a single day.

The amendment says, “The election of members to all Provincial Councils shall be held on the same date and Parliament shall determine the date on which all the Provincial Councils shall stand dissolved; provided specified date shall not be later than the expiration of the term of the last constituted Provincial Council.”

It has also been proposed to introduce a new Article immediately after Article 154E of the Constitution to enable Parliament to exercise the powers of a Provincial Council between the time of its dissolution and election of a new council.

The amendment is closely related to the Local Government Elections (Amendment) bill that was also passed in Parliament with 120 voting for it none against and 44 abstaining.

MPs of the Joint Opposition abstained from voting while the JVP and TNA MPs voted with the government. Sixty MPs were not present in the chamber at the time of vote.

Before the final vote was taken for the bill, a vote was taken on an amendment presented by MEP leader Dinesh Gunawardena seeking permission for government officers to contest elections. In that vote, Minister W. D. J. Seneviratne abstained from voting while his erstwhile colleagues in the Joint Opposition voted for the amendment. The government voted against it.

According to the provisions of the Local Government Elections (Amendment) Bill public servants are required to resign one year prior to contesting the elections for the local government bodies.

The Joint Opposition proposed an amendment to remove that clause from the draft Bill.

The government rejected the amendment and the House was moved for a vote. In that vote Minister W D J Seneviratne abstained. But he voted in favour during the vote on the Bill.

Speaking to media later on reasons as to why he abstained from voting, he said that depriving the field officers of their democratic right to contest elections amounted to violating their Fundamental Rights, and his conscience did not permit him to vote in favour.

Be that as it may, the removal of Justice Minister Wijeyedasa Rajapakshe was not a premeditated move by the UNP, but it was part of his own agenda to be part of the unity government and criticize the same which was not warranted under collective responsibility.

While being part of the Cabinet that approved the leasing of the Hambantota port to a Chinese company Rajapakshe expressed his repugnance over the move in a newspaper interview causing ripples in the unity government.

Rajapkshe was given time to correct himself in line with the government thinking but he apparently rejected all the opportunities and remained defiant during the UNP working committee sessions that discussed the matter at length.

The UNP working committee eventually decided that Rajapkshe should be removed from the Cabinet and the decision was conveyed by the General Secretary of the UNP to President Sirisena who cautiously wrote to him that he had been removed from the Cabinet. He however did not heed earlier calls by the authorities to tender his resignation.

Several hours prior to the decision of the government to remove him from the Cabinet he had many telephone calls from opposition members asking him to fight back while being in the Cabinet but it never worked out that way and he was pondering over the weekend as to what his move should be.

Joining the Joint Opposition is one option left with him or to remain independent in Parliament, but the more pertinent question is whether the UNP would move to remove him from the party which may cost him his seat in Parliament. 

 

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