“We need a broad democratic front and a clear agenda” | Sunday Observer

“We need a broad democratic front and a clear agenda”

Although truncated of much of its original powers, the Presidency is yet viewed as Sri Lanka’s ‘top job’, at least by those who aspire full-time political service to the country. The Executive Presidency still has many centralized powers, including that of control of the armed forces and national security, a subject crucial in a nation that has been wracked by socially divisive struggles and remains so today. Thus, while the forthcoming Presidential Election hints at becoming a race of a few horses, the contest is seen as decisive for the vitality of our fragile Republic and its capacity to manage our island society. With all the main political parties either riven with factional infighting themselves or at least simmering with internal personality rivalries, the election is turning out to be another playboard of power games and tactical drama. Major potential candidates are yet to emerge to be presented to the citizenry for their assessment as suitable for the ‘top job’. While some names are already being thrown about in the news media, it is mostly media hype and speculation. The name of the Minister of Megapolis and Western Development, Patali Champika Ranawaka, however, is one that attracts serious attention given his record as an emerging, barely tested, political personality whose own party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), has a cleaner image than the bigger ones. With the election buzz now including his name as a possible candidate, the Sunday Observer sat him down to talk politics and hear his views on the nation’s priorities.

You were assigned an important Ministry in this Government. When you look back at the last four years, are you satisfied with the work done under your Ministry?

A: From the onset, I instructed officials not to carry out projects which could be an utter waste of public money. Therefore, we now have a practice of several steps before implementation of all our projects: we first conduct a feasibility study, a financial analysis, an environmental impact analysis and also a social assessment. We are satisfied that we have initiated some very important projects. Some of them are already completed and some are still half done. I am especially endeavouring to turn this Ministry into a governance prototype in terms of financial discipline.

We also introduced the Private-Public Partnership model for many projects. We have initiated Rs. 2,000 billion worth of projects and the Government is bearing the burden of only 30 per cent of project costs. The bulk of investment in the majority of projects is by the private sector. Liberals would say that everything in this country can be done through the private sector. But I do not believe that. Similarly, I do not believe that everything in the country can be done through the state as Marxists would say. What is needed is for the State to fulfil its role properly and for Private Sector to do likewise. In our country the State is a mechanism comprising more than a thousand agencies.

The Opposition says that the present Government has done nothing compared to the last regime in terms of national development. Your comment?

A: During the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, all financial allocations were based on family bandyism. The Rajapaksa family members in the government received the lion’s share of the national budget while other ministers had to make-do with what was left. Compared to that, this government has a balanced approach to utilizing funds and resources, though it is not perfect.

On the other hand, projects done by Mahinda Rajapaksa has buried the country under a mountain of debt. Mahinda mainstreamed all the development work in line with the agenda of a foreign country and distributed all that work among his family members. In contrast, our Government has invested larger amounts in the Health and Education sectors. These are vital things for the nation but, are not immediately visible, like the‘beautification’ of Colombo.

You launched some projects named, ‘Pannaraya’ and ‘Yakada Minissu’ recently. It is said that all these projects are aimed at serving your political ambitions. Is this true?

A: The politician always seeks popularity among the public. There are three ways for a politician to gain a good reputation. First, and the only acceptable way is, for politicians to work on some good projects and then, ultimately, he or she wins the hearts of the people. We cannot do that in secret,can we? The second way is by looting money from development projects and distributing some of it among the public in the form of goods. That is nothing but purchasing people’s votes.

The third way is lying or pretending to the public and winning popularity. I reject the two latter approaches. I only follow the first method.

‘Yakada Minissu’ is a program to appreciate people who had done a great job in the field of innovation. ‘Pannaraya’ aims at retaining our youth within the country. In the past, when there was injustice in society the youth rebelled. Nowadays, instead of rebelling, they flee the country. We have to change this situation.

It is said that there are some clashing opinions about the UNP’s next Presidential candidate. What is your understanding of this?

A: To win a Presidential election, the candidate should receive at least 50 per cent of the vote and one more vote. In the forthcoming election, there will be 16 million voters. If we leave aside any invalid votes, we can look forward to at least 14 million votes to be cast. In that context, the winner has to obtain about 7 million votes. But can the UNP win such a large proportion of the national vote? The UNP won their last Presidential race 31 years ago, in which Ranasinghe Premadasa got elected. However, it was not a fair or stable race, as the IPFK (Indian Peace Keeping Force) was in the North and the East, while there was a JVP insurgency in the South. Therefore, the last time the UNP won a Presidential election under fair conditions was in 1982.

What could be the determinant factor at the next Presidential election?

A: Clearly, it is going to be, neither political party members nor minority votes. This time the winner will be decided by who are non-aligned in party politics and free from nationalistic and religious impetus. There should be a set of leaders who could guide this camp and once the leader board is selected, they can appoint a candidate out of them.

If you are invited to become the next candidate …?

A: Nothing has been decided yet. What we need now is a substantial democratic front and an agenda for it; also, a team that could implement that agenda in the context of ground realities. If such a broad coalition is formed, we can gain the votes of the large number of non-aligned voters.

Ven. Athuraliye RathanaThera says he will bring another No-Confidence Motion if ex-Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is reinstated as a Minister. What is your stance on this?

A: There was an accusation against some Muslim politicians that they provided political shelter to terrorists. The police should conduct an independent inquiry and those politicians found to have done this should be punished if found guilty. Without going through such a proper process, the shouting of some political outsiders cannot be entertained.

The Acting IGP informed the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Easter bombings that, Rishad Bathiudeen had no links to this terrorist attack according to a CID findings… …

If that is the case, that report must be publicized. It is the right of the public to know what is in that report.

People aspired for a government which could unite the nation when they elected the present government. Do you think that the country has moved forward progressively towards reconciliation?

A: This Government forgot that there should be a balance between democracy and stability. For instance, freedom of speech should not be a freedom of the wild ass. It has to be liberty combined with responsibility.

For example, when two cops were killed in Vavunathivu, some politicians said that the LTTE has re-emerged. These crooks should be punished.

In England when Boris Johnson said that the UK was losing £300 every week while remaining within the European Union, he was sued to prove his statement. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to spread hatred. This Government failed to control that and it damaged the overall unity.

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