by Zacki Jabbar
Former Prime Minister and leader of the UNP Ranil Wickremesinghe is hoping there will be a high voter turnout at the forthcoming general election, which, he believes, will prove advantageous to the UNP.
“The higher the number of votes cast, the better for the UNP,” Wickremesinghe said in an interview with The Island, while travelling across the country to address a series of public meetings.
Asked how the UNP would perform with the Samagi Jana Balawegaya vying for a share of its vote base he said, “We are the largest party. It all depends on how many come to vote. No party is sure of that. If there is no fear of the Coronavirus, more people will go to the polling booths. We hope a large number of persons would cast their votes. The higher the percentage, the better for the UNP.”
Wickremesinghe said the people, in a short period of eight months, had got fed up with the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration, due to the problems they were facing on many fronts including the home economy, as a direct result of leaders in what he called the Family Party––Podujana Peramuna, pulling in different directions.
The government had since last November been unable to secure any tangible international assistance, having isolated itself on the world stage due to the lack of an economic vision and plan, the UNP leader said. It is only the UNP that has a track record of raising the required finances through developing international relations. Economic mismanagement by the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government was the main cause for the suffering people were undergoing and not the Coronavirus pandemic, the UNP leader stressed.
The politicisation or militarisation of the public administration system would not be permitted under a UNP government, Wickremesinghe said when asked about the appointment of Special Task Forces packed with former military officers to run the government. The recent practice of delegating functions of the Police to the military would also be stopped and the military given its rightful role.
Q: How do you see the governments decision to pledge USD 1 billion worth of US Treasury Bonds held by the Central Bank and enter into a repo facility with the US Federal Reserve ?
A: It is illegal without parliamentary approval. Parliament is vested with the control of public finances. The monetary law does not make specific arrangements for this repurchase agreement. The government should explain the need for such an arrangement, how it would be repurchased and what would happen if Sri Lanka defaulted. How does a country with a shortage of USD 7 billion in export earnings repay over USD 1 billion to recover the pledged U.S securities. In this scenario the possibility of default is extremely high, with the country facing the likelihood of losing ownership of the assets pledged. Meanwhile, the MCC agreement has been finalised. The government has a duty to reveal the truth prior to the General Election.
Wickremesinghe said that new laws would be introduced to help protect businesses from bankruptcy due to lockdown caused by COVID-19 and steps taken to ensure that every citizen was able to own a piece of land and a home. It is estimated that the population of the Indian Ocean region would increase by 500 million by 2050. Our long-term goal for Sri Lanka’s agriculture sector is to see the county being positioned to produce the food requirement of the region. Local agriculture will be strengthened to ensure we are modernized and competitive on the global stage.
The UNP has always worked with the intention of developing the country as an operational hub in the Indian Ocean region. It will be with this plan in our sights that Colombo will be transformed into a financial centre, for which, legislation on financial cities will be enacted, he explained.
Highlighting the importance of ethics, Wickremesinghe said that a Parliamentary Standards Act would be enacted to ensure that Members of Parliament and Ministers were governed by a Parliamentary code of ethics. An independent commissioner to ensure the high standards of the legislature would be appointed to inquire into complaints made against parliamentarians.
“In order to minimise the level of corruption – a by-product of the existing Parliamentary electoral system, we will abolish the preferential voting system and replace it with a mechanism that will be a mixture of the proportional representation system and the first past-the-post system to elect members to the 225 seats in Parliament. Laws will also be introduced to control and limit the expenditure of politicians and political parties during election time. Similar laws that exist in the United Kingdom and other countries will be taken into account when formulating the relevant legislation.”
Explaining measures that would be taken to overcome the Corona virus challenge, the UNP leader said steps would be taken to prevent an economic downfall by implementing measures to revitalise the economy. The government’s attention would also be focused on minimising the adverse economic impact a second or third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic could have on the country.
“5,000 PCR tests will be carried out daily. At least 10 million facemasks will be provided to schools, higher education institutions and other such facilities.2,000 ventilators will be purchased for hospitals.”
Wickremesinghe says that under a new programme a special compensation payment would be made to any worker who died while engaged in battling COVID-19. Such individuals will be offered the same facilities offered to military personnel killed during the war. Personal Protection Emergency kits will be made freely available. The number of ICU beds will be increased. A special laboratory to conduct tests on diseases will be established and the Public Health (Emergency) Act will be enacted to legalize lockdown mechanisms and provide the required powers for disease control.
Asked what his government which served four and a half years had achieved, the UNP leader said that period had been marked by economic prosperity and strengthening of democracy by introducing independent judicial, police, elections, anti corruption, human rights and media commissions amongst others.
Wickremesinghe pledged to build on the economic achievements of his government such as improved relations with global superpowers, regained GSP+ resulting in concessionary duty for 6600 export items, increased import earnings by 35 percent by negotiating to lift the ban on fish imports to the European Union, enabling the country to pay off debts by working with Development Banks, enabling better fiscal management, ensuring the timely repayment of debt to avoid rollover risk, regained Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over the Colombo Port City by converting freehold rights given to China by the Rajapaksa government into a leasehold agreement, transformed the Hambantota Port from a failure to a sustainable venture, free trade agreements to strengthen access to export markets, increased tourist arrivals to over two million by establishing the country as a safe destination, powered the boom of the tourist industry by increasing rooms by 30 percent, oversaw Sri Lanka being named best destination” by Lonely Planet. Steered Sri Lanka to be graded as an upper middle-income country, achieved a Primary Surplus for the first time since 1954, powered the highest ever direct investment in 2018 and ensured good governance and transparency.
He also promised to build on the last UNP-led government’s contribution to strengthening democracy such as curtailing the powers of the Executive President by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which included reducing the maximum term limit of the incumbent to two terms, ensuring that suitable persons were appointed to high posts by establishing the Constitutional Council and establishment of the various Independent Commissions that ensured the independence of the judiciary, free and fair elections, restoring the independence of the State sector, ending political interference in the Police service, withstanding the Constitutional coup and restoring the supremacy of Parliament, challenging the President’s right to dismiss a Prime Minister elected by Parliament, successfully challenging the Presidents right to unlawfully dissolve Parliament, introducing the Right to Information Act improving transparency, establishing the rule of law, whereby politicians and their families were subject to investigation, granting citizens the right to protest and voice their opinions, ensure media freedom with no journalist being killed or made to disappear as happened under the previous Rajapaksa government. A future UNP administration would rectify this tragedy as well, he stressed.
The UNP leader said that Sri Lanka was faced with the gravest economic crisis since independence and it was only the UNP that had the vision, a plan and the capability to address the present crisis, protect the people and the country, safeguard the nation and ensure a prosperous future. “We have a proven track record time and again undoing economic mismanagement by others and reviving our economy. In 1977, 2001, 2015 and again in 2019 after the Easter Sunday attacks, it was the UNP that led the country’s economies recover.
“It is estimated that Sri Lanka will lose USD 7 billion in foreign revenue this year having to pay USD 3 billion for debt servicing. We have revealed the need for USD 6 billion for the next two years of which USD 3 billion is required immediately. Many countries have already received international assistance to fund their immediate financial requirements. Countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Maldives, Egypt and Kenya have begun the process of securing financial support from the International Monetary Fund. We will raise US$ 6 billion utilising the assistance of the IMF and other financial sources including friendly governments.
Wickremesinghe said: “Sri Lanka’s relations with the government of Japan are strained. Ill-advised actions of the Rajapaksa administration have resulted in one of our oldest financial lenders losing confidence in Sri Lanka. We will revive this historic relationship through our strong and pro-active foreign policies. Our economic revival plan will set the basis to build a competitive platform similar to the Japanes model, strengthen competitive enterprises and promote new age industries and services. This will create the necessary foundation for us to develop a strong economy that could repay the loans and immediately provide relief to the people by improving their financial situation, safeguard jobs and income, Wickremesinghe said, recalling that the UNP has a track record of raising the required finances through developing international relations.”
He noted that the people were facing many problems at home due to the economic downturn. With the onset of the financial crisis there was a shortage of jobs and many had reduced or no income at all. Daily wage earners and even businessmen and women higher up in the economic scale were feeling the pressures exerted by the financial collapse.
“The people are facing a reduced or an absence of an income. From the daily wage earners to the large businessmen and women, the pressures exerted by the financial collapse is being felt. It is important that we recognise that the cause for this economic collapse cannot be attributed entirely to the health issues in the country. It has been the short-sighted economic management by the government that has resulted in this precipitating state of the economy.
It is the home economy that forms the foundation of our day-to-day lives. The price increases that we have witnessed at every level of consumer goods, starting from the basic needs to the luxury appliances, has clearly demonstrated that the home economic situation is no longer manageable. People around the country are facing difficulties in providing three square meals a day for their families.
“Businesses are unable meet the necessary monthly salary payments for their employees. The government chose to slash the allowances of the state sector employees who were then deprived of the festival advances that have been previously provided to them yearly. Allowances of private sector employees have been reduced and most businesses are finding it difficult to meet the salary bills.
“The Industrial sector is grinding to a halt. The recently imposed import restrictions have taken many businesses to the verge of collapse. The self-employment sector is in danger, the incomes of those who are engaged in agriculture as well as other sectors of our economy are also declining. Many of the key export markets have been lost. The country’s foreign revenue sources are disappearing fast and the economy is facing a grave danger of falling down an abyss. The retrogressive aspect of this crisis is the unbearable increase in the cost of living that has resulted in a large number of families in the country facing financial difficulties. The country as a whole is recording a decline in the per capita GDP. It has been predicted that over one million will be jobless by 2021.
“The level of unemployment is expected to skyrocket with a fall in the Middle East employment. Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves are also depleting. Printing Rs. 450 billion is no solution to the crisis. We are falling from the frying pan to the fire. We must overcome this crisis and disentangle ourselves from the existing chaos created by this government. There are no short solutions to the problems that we face.”
Wickremesinghe said the UNP had on numerous occasions highlighted the importance of implementing a long term comprehensive economic programme that would cover all aspects of the economy. “This is the only approach that can overcome this crisis. We have called upon the government to announce such a programme, but it is unable to formulate a strategy, because it lacks a viable economic vision. The government has already demonstrated in this short period that it lacks the capability to face the external economic challenges and build a strong national economy.
“Steps should be taken to ensure that the country is not hit by a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wickremesinghe cautioned, pointing out that if that was to happen, the economy would be dealt a further devastating blow. “We need to win the support of the international community. This challenge cannot be overcome by becoming a hermit state. We have to ensure that the democratic freedoms enjoyed by our citizens are protected and promoted, future generations are empowered with knowledge and skills of the 21st Century and build a united, like minded and peaceful nation in order to preserve the Sri Lankan identity. The need of the hour is a country that has discarded the divisions of the past.
“The people will be provided immediate provide relief by improving their financial situation, safeguard jobs and income, help self-employed and provide relief to the unemployed. The welfare of the unemployed will be provided for, while simultaneously creating new employment and revenue generation opportunities.As a consequence of the crisis unemployment in Sri Lanka will increase by over a million.
We will restore the remuneration allowances of the government employees, while imposing a moratorium on Enterprise Sri Lanka Loans below Rs. 50 million and a payment of Rs. 10,000.00 to families affected by a lockdown, establish an Enterprise Finance Fund consisting of the Business Support Scheme, SME Support Scheme, Export Support Scheme utilising financing from the IFC Private Sector Financing facilities including the Global Trade Liquidity Programme and the Critical Finance Programme, ADB US$ 20 Billion Covid 19 Response and other similar schemes together with the Government Business Support Scheme to assist the Private Sector, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises as well as the self-employed segment in the country will be empowered through these funds and related plans. These enterprises will be provided with valid long term state bonds to allow them to obtain the required financial assistance.”
The UNP leader said that private sector employees making payment to their workers would be eligible for support. Export enterprises will be supported. “There will also be a special package to regain overseas markets including assistance to meet the new conditions specified in the buyers’ contracts and grants for finding new markets.
“The tourism sector, hotels, home stays, restaurants and the self-employed will be granted loan relief grants to re-enter tourist markets and offer packages, re-train and upgrade staff in the tourist sector. Financial assistance will be provided to the youth to help develop their entrepreneurial skills, providing them with greater opportunities to enter a sustainable workforce.
“Arrangements will be made to offer concessionary loans to three wheel vehicle owners, allowing them to purchase motor vehicles, a package for leasing companies in lieu of payment for three wheeler owners,safety net for Banks with refinancing and similar schemes. Laws will be introduced making it mandatory for leasing companies to prepare their agreements in either Sinhala or Tamil languages.
“Liquidity and currency circulation in the local economy will be expanded by the payment of arrears and unpaid bills of contractors and service providers to the Government.
“A future UNP government will also continue to make the national economy internationally competitive. For this plans will be activated to strategically develop the enterprises, industries and products to global standards.
“Bingiriya 2” and the “Ruhunu Free Trade Zones” will be established to generate new employment and revenue for the country. We plan to allocate some of these zones exclusively to countries engaged in large scale manufacturing like Japan, India and China.
“Two large modern tourist zones will be established and the economy digitalised, funding for gaining export markets in IT products, separate financial scheme to assist start ups and grant a longer period to repay start-ups loans and ensure all export oriented IT companies eligible to apply for state projects.
“Export industries will be encouraged. import restrictions imposed by the incumbent government has resulted in manufacturers including exporters facing many difficulties in procuring the raw materials required for their production process. We will change this situation.
“Concessionary long-term loans will be granted to low and middle-income families to ensure that they receive the opportunity to own a home. These loans will be granted in two stages. Each stage will consist 500,000 houses.This will also boost the country’s construction sector. The program, which will be implemented in two stages, will see the construction of one million houses around the country.
“The title deeds for the land provided to the public will be issued in line with the Supreme Court directives and relevant regulations. Steps will be taken to amend and introduce new laws necessary to address any issues pertaining to this matter.
The UNP will develop the local agriculture sector to suit both international requirements as well as cater to regional demand.
“We will convert one million acres of uncultivated land into agriculture lands that will focus on cultivating export-oriented crops.
“We will strengthen the rural economy in order to improve the income generation capabilities of the farming community. The rural trade fair (pola) concept will be further developed.
“The establishment of warehouses and cold storage facilities will be encouraged through tax incentives and will be expanded to assist the agriculture and fisheries sectors.
“A UNP government will provide incentives and assistance to encourage the cultivation of potatoes, onions and chilies.The agriculture and fisheries production network will be designated as essential services in order to ensure fair prices are provided to the farmers and fishermen.
“Steps will be taken to ensure the continuous supply of high quality fertilizer while preventing shortages that will hamper the operations of the sector.
The “Dhaanyagaraya” programme will be implemented to promote rice exports while safeguarding the productivity, quality and competitiveness in paddy cultivation.
“We will also commence the Lower “Malwathu Oya” project. The necessary technology, equipment and facilities required to modernize the fisheries sector will be provided to the fishermen and focus on developing the fisheries sector as an export industry.
“Steps will be taken to promote marine economy projects by make available Green Financing with the assistance of World Bank, the Global Environment Facility and the International Financial Cooperation etc., to finance environmentally friendly projects including climate change.
A Mini Forest Programme will provide assistance to establish Mini Forests on half acre to maximum of 25 acres.”
Wickremesinghe said that the UNP had always worked with the intention of developing the country as an operational hub in the Indian Ocean region. It would be with this plan in our sights that Colombo will be transformed into a financial centre. The legislation on financial cities would be enacted.