The debate on the bill of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution thus far has deepened the rift within the SLFP and the last two weeks in Parliament it was obvious that all was not well in the blue camp. As the President seeks to introduce reforms, many in his party strongly opposed it. Cabinet spokesperson and Minister of Health Rajitha Senaratne said reforms would clean up the party and put it on the path envisioned by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The question however is whether the clean-up would result in a break-up.
Following are excerpts:
In Parliament last week we saw two SLFPs; one supporting the President’s reforms and the other against. Is the President losing control of his party?
A: There is one SLFP, the Leader is Maithripala Sirisena. The Party General Secretary, Office bearers and Central Committee, they are all with him.
The problem is that there are a few trouble makers. This always happens when a party is defeated. This is not the first time. The former leader who had lost power has started making use of the support of some factions to evade the charges of corruption. This is the scenario, but there is just one party.
There is speculation that certain individuals are trying to make peace between the former President and the incumbent. Your campaign during the election however was strongly against the Rajapaksas, but now people fear that there the Government would reach a compromise with Mahinda Rajapaksa to keep the party together.
A: No. The President has already made Mahinda Rajapaksa a patron of the party. He did the same for former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and previous Prime Ministers Ratnasiri Wickremenayake and D.M. Jayaratne. Thus, he told the negotiators that he did that and that the patrons’ council could make new suggestions to the party on its policies, framework and the action plan. So others are working with the party except Mahinda Rajapaksa. If he (Rajapaksa) does his job in the party, there will be no problem.
The second demand of his negotiators was that he be made the Prime Ministerial Candidate. The President said no to this. If he is the Premier Candidate, the party will be definitely defeated. The minorities, the intellectuals and the youth will never support Mahinda Rajapaksa. In such a scenario, we will definitely be defeated by the UNP at the general election.
But, his supporters keep insisting that Mahinda Rajapaksa has a vote base of 5.8 million.
A: The 5.8 million was with him after having used all the money and resources to win them over. This was clear in the case of Basil Rajapaksa where we now know that billions were spent on the election campaign. He had bribed so many. The next case is where Rs 600 million was taken from the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to the Presidential Secretariat to distribute ‘sil redi’ throughout the country. So the 5.8 million was gained using Government money and power. If you have an election today and he contests, he won’t even get 3.8 million. In the country at that time, there was a mood that Rajapaksa would definitely win and that there was no way of defeating him. So there was a certain voting bloc which voted with that swing. Rajapaksa had all that to his advantage. He does not have that now. Many people who had voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa now say they are very sorry for supporting him when they see all the charges against him and his family.
The third point of negotiation from the Rajapaksa camp was that we do away with the corruption charges against them. The President said he could not do that because we have promised good governance. The people were not really bothered about the executive presidency or political reforms, they were more bothered about the corruption charges and family bandyism and that is what they voted against Rajapaksa. So the President said that he could not do that. If they have done anything wrong, they can face the law and clear their names. So he said ‘why don’t you help the investigators and get your names cleared. But if someone has been involved in corruption, how can you ask me to get you out of it?’ So he said he had never spoken to the Commissioners of the Bribery Commission and had never called any judge. ‘So I cannot tell anyone to do this or that. Let due procedure take place’ he said.
You can find out from the third request that their main motive is to topple the government so that the corruption charges won’t be investigated.
Are you saying that all those MPs who slept on the floor of Parliament did so because they all have corruption charges against them?
A: At that time, most people, including myself thought, ‘why the former President was being called for a statement for a small charge like that?’ Even the President was of that opinion. However there is no need for the legal institutions to contact anybody, they have the power to summon and question anybody. No permission is needed. As the President said to the Members of Parliament, when they summoned the former head of state, there was some courtesy at least to inform him of this through a third party so he could have advised them to just send someone to the former President’s house to take the statement and finish it off. But there is no protocol regarding this because he is an ordinary citizen now.
The issue however is that this is a charge of bribery, so for the officials, whether it is Mahinda Rajapaksa or anybody else, a charge is a charge, small or big. Politically, it was a problem for us, legally there is no issue.
During a protest organized to show support for Gotabhaya Rajapkasa in front of the Bribery Commission, the supporters were seen waving national flags without the green and orange stripes. MP Dulles Alahapperuma apologized saying he did not know it was the wrong flag. Do you see them using the race card for their political ends again?
A: This means that he (Alahapperuma) being a Member of Parliament does not know what the national flag is.
They always practised racism in this country. That is why the country was isolated in the international community, because of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s racism. This is similar to Robert Mugabe who is a racist. The difference between Mandela and Mugabe was that though the former fought for the majority, he got along with the minorities and created a unified nation. But Mugabe continued the racism practised by the whites and gave it to the blacks. Mahinda Rajapaksa is in the same category as Mugabe. Mugabe was a greater patriot than Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was one who fought as a guerilla leader and liberated the country from British imperialism. But now he is isolated from the rest of the world.
But, you cannot deny that we still see people attending Mahinda Rajapaksa’s protests and meetings. Why is that?
A: There are certain businessmen who earned a lot of money through him and they spend money on the buses and food to bring the people in, because they want the regime to continue, so they can continue to earn.
When Mahinda came to Colombo, though he could not take Liyanage’s house, in that house they had arranged meetings for 2,000 people every day with lunch, and they had asked each businessman to spend Rs 500,000 a day to cover the expenses.
Will Mahinda Rajapaksa get nominations from the SLFP at an upcoming election?
A: Yes. If he wants to contest the Parliamentary Election and if by that time he has not been charged for corruption.
You are speaking of bringing in a code of ethics to Parliament. This would affect many incumbent MPs and it seems that the majority will be in the SLFP. Won’t this affect your party?
A: No, we can clean the party up. This is Bandaranaike’s party and he too started cleaning up the party once with the Thalgodapitiya Commission. Five Ministers lost their civic rights over bribery charges, and that is how he led this party and he was assassinated for that. It is this same party that President Maithripala Sirisena is leading, with the same policies of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.
Bandaranaike too faced opposition, much like today. His Cabinet went on strike. It was worse then. However, with all that, today, Bandaranaike is commemorated and everybody respects him, and that is what Maithri too wants, not posts but the respect of the people.
Many minority parties have raised concerns over the proposed electoral reforms. At a certain point in history, there was a need for minority parties but do you think if your Government’s vision of good governance and democracy works, there will not be a need for minority parties?
A: We must work and behave in a manner where all those people who wanted ethnic oriented parties move towards a national party. I read in the papers that the TNA was looking to be more of a national party and contest around the country, not just for the Tamils. That is a very good move. They supported us not for Tamil rights. We never promised them anything. There was no promise to any ethnic group but they supported us for good governance. They knew that under good governance, they will have democratic rights for their community, because when everybody is winning under a common democracy, it will benefit all. The remaining ethnic disparity would be sorted-out later.
Every Tuesday, under the President, the National Executive Council meets and all parties meet. The SLMC, Rishad’s Party and the TNA are together for the first time and making decisions. A good understanding is built when they meet. They understand our problems and we theirs. The thing is that we understand their problem but our problem is that we cannot remedy them quickly. They now understand why we cannot do it quickly. If they press to get it done quickly, they will lose everything.
First we need to decide what we need to do to have a united country and then both have to understand what the timetable is. We have now come to that. At such circumstances then they would think ‘why should we serve only one community? Why not national politics?’ That is how change should come about. This will not happen in a month or two; misunderstandings that have taken place for decades cannot be corrected in months. But it is a good process.
You have said that with the code of ethics you wanted intelligent politicians in Parliament. But, are people ready to vote for intelligent politicians?
A: Not yet. That is why 5.8 million voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was not based on intelligence. It was based on certain material benefits. The poor were worrying about getting three meals a day, means to educate their children and the basics in life. So where does intelligence of politicians come in there? When you are hungry, your priorities are different and it is to this class that Mahinda Rajapaksa can still cater to.
We need social reforms where poverty and unemployment is reduced. Then people will think of national politics and intelligent politicians.