People will not vote for Nepotism - Prime Minister | Sunday Observer

People will not vote for Nepotism - Prime Minister

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe  Pix: Wimal Karunathilake
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Pix: Wimal Karunathilake

With campaigning for the local government elections winding up midweek, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe spoke exclusively with the Sunday Observer about the big questions facing the nation in Saturday’s poll.

The Premier who leads the United National Party – the leading constituent in the ruling national unity alliance, said, a silent revolution has unfolded over the past three years in Sri Lanka since his Government took office, with major democratic, economic and welfare gains for the citizen, the scrapping of an exploitative electoral system and efforts to bridge the gender gap in political representation.

Unperturbed about the political threats from the Rajapaksa-backed fledgling SLPP, the Prime Minister said, he welcomed the contest against the former President because it would remind people of the struggle fought and won democratically in January 2015. “I think this country’s decade of darkness under President Rajapaksa is not easily forgotten. It is not so easy to forget the brutality, nepotism and unbridled corruption of that dark era. It was a time when Sri Lanka faced an existential threat – whether it would remain a functioning democracy, or, slide into authoritarianism. I think the people of Sri Lanka recognized that threat in January 2015 and overwhelmingly endorsed democratic rule over tyranny and repression,” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe noted in his interview.

He expressed confidence in the electorate as his party faces next week’s poll, saying, the Sri Lankan people would never vote for tyranny, repression, nepotism and corruption over democracy, freedom and the promise of real economic prosperity.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Why do you think the people of Sri Lanka should trust in the UNP to deliver at this local government election?

A: The very fact that this local government election is one of the most peaceful in recent memory is a case in point. This is not a chance phenomenon. There is a reason for this. For decades, politicians have talked about electoral reform. This Government delivered on it. The rotten preferential system has been scrapped and anyone can contest the local council elections today because competition has been limited to a ward rather than an entire local government area. This has not only brought local politicians closer to their constituencies, which was the old way, but it has dramatically reduced the need for massive and expensive campaigns that attract contributions from various unscrupulous elements. When this system works, it will result in a sea change in the country’s political culture, freeing the politician from interest groups and agendas, and making him or her truly accountable to their constituents.

We have also ensured that for the first time 25% representation of women in a party’s nomination list has been made mandatory. These are big steps in the right direction, as we seek to perfect our democracy, but they are silent revolutions that have happened.

When you don’t hear of election violence or walls pasted with posters, just as when you pump a full tank of petrol or buy a cylinder of gas at cheaper prices you may not necessarily think of the UNP. But, all this was possible because of the sound policies we have pursued. From Gal Oya to Mahaweli to the Mahapola Scholarship scheme, to Gam Udawa and Janasaviya these great community and welfare projects are part of the UNP’s legacy. Today, this Government has provided free medical insurance to all schoolchildren and offered life-saving cardiac medical equipment completely free of charge at Government hospitals. There is so much left to do, but there is no question, the UNP is a party that always delivered, whether at a national level or at a local level.

Q: Are you concerned about the rise in popularity of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa?

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe Pic: Saman Sri Wedage

A: I have complete faith in the long-memory and the intelligence of the Sri Lankan people. I don’t subscribe to the theory that Sri Lankans have short memories. I think this country’s decade of darkness under President Rajapaksa is not easily forgotten. It is not so easy to forget the brutality, nepotism and unbridled corruption of that dark era. It was a time when Sri Lanka faced an existential threat – whether it would remain a functioning democracy or slide into authoritarianism. I think the people of Sri Lanka recognized that threat in January 2015 and overwhelmingly endorsed democratic rule over tyranny and repression. Even with all state power at his command, and rampant abuse of state resources at the January 8, 2015 election, Mahinda Rajapaksa was unable to defeat the courage and will of the Sri Lankan people. I doubt anyone has forgotten how he and his family ran this country.

One brother terrorized the country. Journalists were killed, protestors shot dead and media organizations set on fire. Another brother pilfered the country’s resources. People have not forgotten that his sons were having night races outside the sacred Dalada Maligawa. A brother-in-law who had no educational qualifications was tasked to run the national carrier and ran it to the ground. A plethora of friends, relatives and cronies were appointed to every feasible government position. People are not fools. While there will naturally be some incumbency fatigue in any democracy, the intelligent Sri Lankan electorate will never intentionally choose terror, tyranny, nepotism and corruption over democracy, freedom and the promise of real economic prosperity. And of course, democracies are flawed and must be perfected. That is our duty, to move towards a more perfect democracy. But, there is no question of going back to brutality and repression.

Personally, I am glad Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan of miscreants have decided to contest these local government elections. It will remind people of what we all defeated in January 2015 and at what risk to life and limb we struggled against the Rajapaksa regime.

Q: What do you say to the accusation that some in the government are blocking investigations into corruption and other crimes under the Rajapaksa regime?

A: This is simply not true. One of the promises we made to the people in January 2015 was that we would re-establish the rule of law. This is a promise we have delivered on. The Rajapaksa years were marked by the fact that the law of the jungle prevailed. The war hero Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka was dragged out of his office like an animal and put in prison like a common criminal, after frivolous charges were brought against him.

In that case, legal proceedings happened at lightning speed. But no one will argue that the process was just or that due process was followed. The whole country knows that General Fonseka was jailed for the crime of contesting the presidential elections in 2010. If President Rajapaksa had won in 2015, many of those fighting against his candidacy may have suffered a similar fate.

We cannot do things that way. We cannot constitute political witch-hunts just because we want to see justice served as quickly as possible. This Government has given the law enforcement agencies total carte blanche to investigate and bring to book any persons who have been operating outside the law, whether they were members of the former regime or even if they are presently in office. This is the fundamental difference between the Rajapaksas and the Government that followed their defeat. People who have committed crimes will pay a price, irrespective of their politics.

This is the governance the people asked for when they defeated the Rajapaksas in 2015. They did not ask for witch-hunts and quick fixes, but for justice to prevail. The law must be allowed to take its course.

Q: You mentioned that the government has approved draft legislation for a special High Court to try mega corruption under the former regime. Some would say the move is coming late in the day. How quickly do you expect at least the high profile corruption cases to be brought to court?

A: Sri Lanka saw unprecedented levels of corruption by the ruling family between 2005-2015. When the head is so rotten, the body stands no chance. Once we took over in 2015, getting to the bottom of the corruption cases was a priority. At the same time, we needed to be cautious that these investigations were not conducted like political witch-hunts and that due process was followed every step of the way. It is remarkable that a newly established police unit to probe financial crimes has been able to conclude investigations in more than 400 cases. It is a priority for this Government to ensure these cases are expedited. But, just as important as speed is the need to get the process right, so there can be no allegation of bias or malice against political opponents. At the same time, it is understandable that people are losing patience and are eager to see justice served against those who have misappropriated the people’s money. I am hopeful that this new High Court on Corruption that has just got approval from the Cabinet will help to expedite the backlog of cases, since it will have specific jurisdiction over complex financial crimes and misappropriation of state assets. Rather than waiting years for a case to be completed, our hope is that the new High Court on Corruption can conclude cases within six months.

Justice was the promise of Yahapalanaya and we remain committed to living up to this promise. But, the people also want to see justice so I am hopeful that within the year some of the large scale corruption cases will be tried and concluded.

Q: How do you address the accusations of corruption under this administration, especially the Bond issue?

A: The fact that there has been accountability with regard to the Bond issue is the best example that can be given for the success of the Yahapalanaya government. During the Rajapaksa regime there was daylight robbery of resources of this country. We recall the Greek bond scam, the hedging deal, Krrish and the outright sale of Galle Face. That regime ran Sri Lankan Airlines to the ground. Political loyalists could literally get away with murder and rape and proximity to the ruling family gave them immunity from prosecution and facing up to those crimes. The economy was in the vice-like grip of Basil Rajapaksa and other cronies, to run as they pleased. There was no such thing as accountability for any of these crimes.

Think about how vastly different things are today. Checks and balances have been put in place and democratic institutions and law enforcement arms strengthened. No country has been able to root out corruption entirely, but the main thing is, the rule of law is in place and people will be held accountable for those crimes, no matter who they are. With regard to the Bond issue for instance, I went before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry investigating the problem. As did other Ministers. There is no precedent for this, when a serving Prime Minister has willingly gone to testify before such a Commission. That process is now moving forward.

It has always been our position that the UNP will not protect anyone responsible for financial misconduct. Let justice and accountability take its course. In fact, even within our party these checks are in place. The Thilak Marapana Committee which went into the findings of the Bond Commission, recommended that the Assistant Leader of the UNP refrain from holding office until his name is cleared. This is Yahapalanaya or good governance and this government can be proud that for the first time in our country’s post independence history, the democratic checks and balances have been established to ensure that no one is above the law.

Q: How do you foresee going forward with the Yahapalanaya government, with the President being critical of the UNP in recent weeks?

A: We must not forget that the election of President Maithripala Sirisena was a watershed moment in our history. He was not elected by only the SLFP or the UNP but by all forces that desisted tyranny, one family rule and state terrorism. For the first time, the UNP, SLFP, JVP, the parties representing the Tamil and Muslim communities all came together to save our democracy. The situation was dire. We forgot all our ideological differences and came together to protect our motherland from tyrannical family rule. We prevented Sri Lanka becoming Zimbabwe. As a result of that election, Maithripala Sirisena is our President. We will work with him and ensure that we deliver on the promises that we made on January 8, 2015. While we have come a long way, there is much more to do. The patient is out of the coma but not yet ready to be running a marathon. But, we will get there. I believe, we need to constantly strive to perfect our democracy. This battle cannot be won in a single day. It is an incremental process, and we must plod on, and chip away slowly at the old prejudices and political culture that holds us back. I believe, President Sirisena is equally committed to this journey towards a more perfect, less flawed democracy. But, we must remember this is not an easy task – many of the ghosts of the past are lurking in the shadows, ready to drag us back into the dark days.

Q: Where does constitutional reform process stand at the half way point of your Government’s tenure?

A: The current constitution-making process is the most transparent and democratic endeavour undertaken since independence. In 1947 we were given a constitution by the departing colonial regime. In 1972 and 1978 the winning political party with an overwhelming majority enacted constitutions with hardly any participation from other stakeholders. In both the Republican Constitutions (1972 and 1978) the minority parties, especially, the Tamils boycotted the process. Today, the situation is different. For the first time in our history the two main political parties have joined together to make a constitution that suits all of us in the 21st century. The country’s main Tamil party and all the Muslim parties are very much on board and are negotiating in a credible and reasonable way. This will be a constitution for all the peoples of Sri Lanka and I am determined to see it through, as is President Maithripala Sirisena.

As a country about to celebrate 70 years of independence we must collectively reflect on whether we have done justice to ourselves by failing to enact a constitution that meets the aspirations of all our people and treats all citizens equally. Finally, we have an opportunity to achieve this. It is a special window of opportunity and my view is that we must not let it slip away. All peace loving people of this country must unite to see this through. There have been many lost opportunities over history, and we must not allow a handful of extremists to engage in fear mongering in order to derail and sabotage this process. I am confident that 2018 will be a historic year for many reasons and I hope, one of these major milestones will be the drafting of a new constitution for Sri Lanka which will acknowledge the rights and freedoms of all our people.

Q: Where does the reconciliation process stand vis-à-vis the government’s pledges to its own people as well as the international community?

A: Since January 2015 the government has taken many steps to heal the deep wounds that prevailed in the country. This is a long process that could take generations to fulfil completely. All major political parties, both in the North and South have contributed to the divisions that caused the civil war. We must learn from these mistakes. Playing into ethnic divisions, riling passions may be great politics, but it is disastrous for a country. We must desist from such petty politicking because so much is at stake. To go down that path again is not only to open this island out to the potential of future conflict, but also to ensure stunted economic growth and development.

True reconciliation has to happen in our hearts. That is what all the current processes that are underway really aims to do – to heal the hearts of our people. That is why they are domestic processes. No internationally imposed process can achieve real reconciliation after a civil conflict. That is why we have taken ownership of these processes. Even the recent Geneva resolutions were co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. We demonstrated to the international community that we were undertaking these commitments not due to international pressure but because it is the right thing to do for us as a country striving for lasting peace. Our government has worked to strengthen the human rights framework. Today, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is an independent body with commissioners who are confident and strong and with whom the Government has never dared to interfere. We have established a Missing Persons Office and allocated funding for that Office to commence work. Legislation is in the works for other mechanisms that will also take the reconciliation forward, including compensation and reparations for those who have suffered from the long war.

None of these are happening because of international obligations, but because they are important steps in the process to healing the wounds of war and prevent a recurrence of violence. This country must never again experience the blood-letting and strife that has plagued two generations. Let’s not forget Sri Lanka has seen several bouts of extreme violence since independence. The war in the North and East, the 1971 insurgency and the 87-89 bheeshanaya. If we do not address underlying causes for these bouts of extreme violence, our future generations are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

True reconciliation is not just the Government’s task. It’s also up to the people, because we all have a stake – we all have much to lose if we fail in this endeavour.

Q: Will the UNP contest the next parliamentary and general elections on its own or with a coalition?

A: The UNP remains the strongest political force in the country. We sought a national unity government not because we couldn’t form a government of our own after the August 2015 election, but because we believe Sri Lanka is at a unique moment in history where we can rise above petty party politics and do something truly great. When the two main parties in the country who have always been rivals, and always sabotaged each others’ agendas come together the opportunity to radically change a political culture and a system of governance comes about. Consensus is necessary between the two parties to tackle big issues, like drafting a new constitution or accelerating development and economic growth that was stunted for decades because of the war. The people have waited so long for an economic dividend and for lasting peace. As responsible politicians it is our obligation to try to deliver this to our citizens, even if it meansforging unconventional alliances, that can appear to be rocky or tenuous at times. The mandate of the people in 2015 was crystal clear in my opinion. The people wanted unity rather than division. They wanted statesmanship rather than petty politicking. This is what we are trying to deliver.

For the moment, we are not focused on the next major election. Once local government elections are over there is work to be done. When the time comes to decide on how to contest national elections, the UNP will make its decision in consultation with all stakeholders. For the moment, we are focused on the job at hand – which is governance.

Q: Who will be the UNP’s candidate for the 2020 Presidential election, if the current constitution remains unchanged in respect of the Executive Presidency?

A: This question will arise only if the Executive Presidency is not abolished, but our focus now is building the economy and increasing its growth, improving infrastructure facilities and developing the health and education sector. We are focused on reducing unemployment, improving exports and trade ties that will bring dividends to the people. You must understand, when we took over the economy in 2015, it was in shambles. The extent of the trouble we could not tell the people, because it would result in a hopelessness that would be devastating to the national psyche.

With the greatest difficulty, we have resuscitated this patient who was on life support as it were. Day by day the health of the economy is improving. But, given the situation we were in, people cannot expect miracles. Over three years, the people have experienced a reinforcement of their democratic freedoms, and borne witness to the strengthening of democratic institutions and systems that restore power to the citizen and perform the necessary checks on those holding public office. But as I said before, there is much work left to do here too. We have a constitution to draft. We have to heal the wounds of a brutal war. So we are not like other governments always wondering about the next election. We are trying to be a different type of government. One that will think rather of the next generation.