Support of all parties needed to form Interim Government - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana | Sunday Observer

Support of all parties needed to form Interim Government - Dr. Ramesh Pathirana

8 May, 2022

Co-Cabinet Spokesman, Plantation Industries and Education Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana said that forming an Interim Government with the support of all the political parties is of paramount importance at this particular moment as the country is facing an unforeseen financial crisis.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said whatever the solutions that we need to find in relation to the current economic crisis should come through the Parliament.

Those solutions whether it is economic, political or otherwise need to be found after abiding with the Constitution of the country he said.

“We are hopeful even though this problem was gradually becoming complex over a period of time starting from 1977 with the introduction of the open economic policy, it had come to a culmination during our time. So, we are duty bound and responsible to create a stable economic situation in the country. The Government is working towards that for which we need the assistance of all political parties.”

Excerpts of the interview

Q: It has been agreed to form an Interim Government at a recent discussion held between the President and the independent group of MPs in Parliament. Has any final consensus been reached in this regard?

A: There is no final decision as yet. We had a cordial discussion with other parties, actually our coalition parties who were part and parcel of the Government. Basically, they have put forward certain conditions and that is a sort of a draft for future discussions. The SLPP agreed to go ahead and discuss matters highlighted in the draft letter.

Q: Do you think forming an Interim Government will provide solutions to the burning issues faced by the people?

A: Whatever the solutions that we need to find in relation to the current economic crisis should come through the Parliament. If those solutions need to be found whether it is economic, political or otherwise, we have to abide by the Constitution of the country. When it comes to the Constitution, most of the things are pertaining to parliamentary activities, therefore the Members of Parliament have a right to decide.

We also know that there is a new President and judiciary as well. Forming an Interim Government with the support of all the political parties is of paramount importance at this particular moment because as a country we are facing an unforeseen financial crisis.

Q: Over thousand trade unions engaged in a demonstration in Colombo recently asking that the President and the Government to step down by respecting the people’s demand. Would you like to comment?

A: The demand made by the pressure groups is justifiable when the essential food items are not found on the shelves and there is also a scarcity of diesel, petrol, gas and some medicines. So, it is quite natural for the people to come on to the streets and protest against the Government. However, as I mentioned earlier, we have to find a solution to the issue within the existing Constitution. So, we are duty bound and responsible to create a stable economic situation in this country. The Government is working towards that end and therefore we need the assistance of all political parties.

Q: Some say the economic crisis cannot be resolved without resolving the current political crisis. Would you like to air your views?

A: First, it was the economic crisis that took place. Secondly, we saw the political crisis looming. Now it is the other way around. Political stability is a must to have economic stability as they are interlinked. The social upheaval is also a part and parcel of this whole thing. It is a mandatory requirement that we need to provide much needed political stability to provide economic relief to the people.

Q: Even though the President has made an open invitation to all political parties to form an Interim Government, the SJB and the JVP have categorically rejected to be a part of an Interim Government. How do you look at this scenario?

A: Some of the intermediary groups are still having discussions with the SJB and the JVP. In the proposed draft document, they have suggested having a committee which will comprise the political party leaders. Even though the SJB and the JVP don’t want to become active participants of the Government or part of the Cabinet, still they have a wide opening to become members of that particular committee which will decide the policy direction of the country. That is why that invitation is wide and clear and it is open now. We hope they will also come forward and join hands for a national course.

Q: The youth and the middle class who have never participated in protests earlier have for the first time, come on to the streets alleging that the Government has failed to ensure their basic requirements. Your views?

A: Actually, we are responsible for some policy errors. Even Finance Minister Ali Sabry in his address to Parliament on Wednesday admitted that fact. There are three factors. Historically, we are a debt- ridden country starting from 1977 and our debt burden has gone up to an unbearable proportion. That is why when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019, we took the policy decision not to take any more loans and not to entertain even project loans.

That is why we cancelled the proposed monorail project which came from Japan. So, we didn’t take any loans. There was a debt burden which was getting more complex and heavier over a period of time. The second thing was certain erroneous policy measures taken by the Government to cut taxes which were done in good faith to ensure that the private sector engaged in more business so that their accumulated funds could be diverted to development activities to stimulate investments. It didn’t happen.

The third factor is the whole world was locked by the Corona fear and all the businesses were badly affected. They didn’t have the gamut of going ahead with their normal potential.

However, they were partly protected because we provided them with some sort of assistance. On the other hand, we didn’t have the expected outcome of it. The whole world suffered because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we started picking up again, the Ukraine - Russian war started so that the prices of oil, gas and wheat flour were moving above the ceiling. All those situations have affected the gradual picking up of loans. In addition, certain miscalculated decisions in relation to tax income, Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine-Russian war have affected the Sri Lankan economy.

Q: How do you view the demand made by the Opposition and various other groups to abolish the Executive Presidency?

A: Actually, it is a highly debatable topic. In 1978, late President J.R. Jayewardene introduced the Executive Presidency hoping for certain progressive moves. However, over a period of time, we have been trying to abolish it.

Even though a lot of political parties and politicians came to the helm stating that they will abolish the Executive Presidency, it has not happened so far. Even today it is a debatable issue. According to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a lot of powers have been vested to the Provinces. Those Provinces are partly controlled and interlinked by the President’s representative with governing those provinces.

If we are abolishing the Executive Presidency, then we will have to think of other ways and means of powers pertaining to controlling the provinces as well. Those are very difficult areas to address acutely and it is also very clear that if we want to abolish the Executive Presidency, we have to go for a referendum. Those issues cannot be resolved immediately but there are lot of issues that we can discuss and go ahead with.

Q: The main Opposition SJB has handed over two No Confidence Motions against the President and the Government and the Prime Minister and the Government. Is the Government confident of defeating them?

A: As of now we hope that we have the majority in Parliament. That would be entertained sooner than later. So, it has to be kept in the Order Paper for five days. It has not come to the Order Book as yet. Most probably during the next Parliamentary session, that No Confidence Motion would be taken up for debate.

Q: At present a large number of people are of the view that politicians should be audited and all their unaccounted wealth should be confiscated by the State. Your comments?

A: I think openness is the best policy. As Members of Parliament and Ministers, every year, we submit our asset declaration forms to the Speaker or the President. That is a public domain. Anybody can take the details out. It is a good move and it is not a secret document as such. It is the Income Tax Department which should go and investigate and also inquire about the wealth of other individuals. If they have accumulated wealth by undue means, they should be brought to book. Unfortunately, those laws are very weak in this country.

Q: It seems there is no consensus among the political parties to come to a negotiating table to resolve the current crisis. Would you like to comment?

A: That is a very unfortunate situation faced by the country. Lot of political parties is trying to get an undue political advantage from the current crisis situation. Two main Opposition parties are not willing to support the national course at this particular moment and they don’t provide any solution on how to rebuild the economy and bring in the dollars.

Historically, we have seen that there is a huge balance of payment deficit and trade deficit in the country. Our imports are about US$ 22 billion but exports go up to only US$ 12 billion. The tourism industry, foreign remittances, investments and other forms of money should come to bridge the US$ 10 billion gap that we accumulate annually.

It has not happened during the past two years. That is why we have seen this complex situation arising during the period of Covid-19 pandemic. It is very important that whatever the political stance we adopt, as the Finance Minister said all these political parties should get together and find a common solution and economic direction. If all of us can reach a consensus, we can prepare an economic blueprint which will lead the country economically during the next 10 years.

Q: According to you, why is corruption taking place in Sri Lanka? Is it mainly due to poor governance?

A: It is partly due to poor governance. Partly there are no proper laws being enacted. Most of the institutions themselves, such as the Bribery Commission, are very weak and they don’t go behind the big people and only small people are being caught.

It is partly the lawyers who will have to strengthen the law and ensure not only the politicians but also the other corrupt elements to be brought before the law. It is a widespread phenomenon now. Every society starting from top, middle and up to the very low level, they all are lined up to undue means of accumulating wealth. They don’t pay income tax and only a very minimum number are doing so. This is a crisis in circles which covers the entirety of the society.

Q: At present there is a demand to abolish the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and reintroduce the 19th Amendment. Could you explain?

A: There is an ongoing discussion in this regard. The Prime Minister put forward the Cabinet Paper last week based on the 19th and 20th Amendments. There are certain deficiencies in the 19th Amendment as well. Based on the 19th Amendment and also taking into consideration the good effects of the 20th Amendment, it has been proposed to go ahead and introduce the 21 Amendment to the Constitution.

So, we are going ahead with that one. This is only forwarded to the Legal Draftsman. Once the draft is finalised, it will be put forward to the Parliament for approval.