By Marianne David
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is not split despite members taking different decisions, especially when faced with the 22nd Amendment Bill vote, asserted General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam.
“Constitutional change is a critical thing which has serious impacts, so we decided that the party would not tell anyone how to vote and that they should take a decision in line with their conscience,” he revealed, in an interview with The Sunday Morning.
Kariyawasam said he did not vote due to two reasons – the weakening of the Executive Presidency in an ad hoc manner and amendments being brought targeting individuals.
Commenting on the criticism being levelled against SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa by party members, Kariyawasam said there had been no change in how the affairs of the party were being handled and that people came up with excuses when they saw the other side as being greener.
He also questioned the policies and principles of those voting for successive amendments to the Constitution, noting that they were voting merely to remain in power.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Problems within the party have resulted in splits with the SLPP, with defections of several groups over the past few months. Remaining SLPPers have also shown a clear split over the 22nd Amendment Bill vote. Why did you oppose the bill?
Firstly, I don’t agree that the SLPP is split. The SLPP is a party with a huge membership, starting from grass-root level. We believe that our party is not split but some of the people elected by our party members have taken a different decision.
Secondly, in terms of those who have taken a different view, some voted for the amendment and some voted against. At the last group meeting, the party’s final decision was for anyone to vote according to their conscience because we thought this was not a matter for the party to get involved, but a matter for the country. This will not affect our party alone; this will affect the whole country.
When there is a constitutional amendment, it has a direct impact on the country that lasts for the rest of our lives as long as this Constitution is there. Constitutional change is a very critical thing which has serious impacts, so we decided that party members should take a decision in line with their conscience. That was the final decision at the group meeting held under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister.
Thirdly, as to why I did not vote, I opposed it due to two reasons. One, I have always opposed the Executive Presidency, but I strongly believe that if we are going to abolish it, you must create a situation where the prime minister of the Parliament will have more power.
In the present parliamentary election system, except for two parliaments after the present Constitution, none of the other parliaments had a clear majority for the ruling party. In 1994 they said Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had a huge wave of support, but ultimately after the results the Government was formed with the support of M.H.M. Ashraff. It was only on two occasions – in 2010 after the war victory and at the last General Election – that a single party had a clear majority. Even the ‘Good Governance’ Government did not have a clear majority in Parliament. That situation is highly detrimental to the country.
When you take away the powers of the president and give them to the prime minister and Parliament and Parliament is not stable, the prime minister in place will try to retain power and remain in power; he will try to do things which can be very detrimental to the country.
I will give an example – the Provincial Councils Amendment Act. When it was brought to Parliament, then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe did not have a clear majority in the Parliament. He had to get the support of various other parties. Muslim community-based parties opposed the mandatory female representative requirement, saying that it would be difficult for them to find female candidates for their lists, so that was taken off in order to pass the bill in Parliament. Then they made it 50:50, because another minority party said they would vote only if the act was amended to make it 50% from the electoral level and 50% from the Proportional Representation (PR) level.
Anyone who knows about politics will tell you that we will never have proper, clear administration in any of the provincial councils under the present system. Our argument is, don’t take away the powers of the president in an ad hoc manner. Ultimately we are putting the country in jeopardy. Do not take away the powers of the president without amending the election system; do it by introducing a new constitution.
Secondly, I was personally against the amendments being brought targeting individuals. The speeches in Parliament made it very clear that everyone voted in favour of the dual citizen ban saying that in the future Basil Rajapaksa would not be able to come to Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa will do politics for a maximum of another 10 years and if he wants to do politics, he can always withdraw his dual citizenship, become a Sri Lankan citizen, and contest.
We are a country that has suffered a three-decade long war and two JVP insurrections. We experienced a huge brain drain during the last three to four decades. Most of the educated Sri Lankans are living elsewhere and they are dual citizens. It is not about Basil Rajapaksa; we are depriving a couple of million of dual citizens who are living in other countries and are exposed to international businesses and developments who are willing to come to Sri Lanka and serve their Motherland.
Some SLPPers who supported the Bill opined that if Basil Rajapaksa wants to engage in politics in Sri Lanka, he can easily renounce his US citizenship and devote his services to Sri Lanka. What is your view?
Yes, obviously, if he wants he can do that. I am not talking about Basil Rajapaksa, I am talking about other Sri Lankans who left this country due to the war and the two JVP insurrections.
My brother who was studying for his engineering degree at Katubedda University could not sit for his final exam for three consecutive years, so he decided to go to Canada. Now he is settled down there and his children are there, but he likes to come back here and do something for this country. Just because people had to leave this country for other reasons and not because they don’t love this country, are we saying we don’t want them? We should not make amendments to the Constitution looking at individuals.
Two other examples. With the 19th Amendment, they brought in two amendments – one to increase the age limit to contest the presidency from 30 to 35 to prevent Namal Rajapaksa from contesting. They had some fear that if Namal comes, as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, he would get votes and that they needed to prevent it. Now Namal is over 35 and he can contest, but what have you done to about five million youth who are between 30 and 35? You have deprived them of an opportunity.
Then they brought an amendment saying a president could not be elected more than twice. But if you take all the countries in our region, we have had leaders who ran for more than two terms. Mahathir Mohamad was in power for over two decades and he developed Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew served as Prime Minister for over three decades and he developed Singapore. Then, whether people like it or not, Vladimir Putin – he restored Russia to its old glory.
If you get a good leader, it is the people who should be given the opportunity to elect or reject, not the Constitution. In today’s context, the rarest thing is finding good leaders. If you can find a good leader, let them lead even for five or six terms if the people wish it – every leader has to go before the people every five years for a fresh mandate.
We should not amend our Constitution looking at individuals. We must do so looking at the country as a whole.
There is growing dissension within the party over party politics being controlled fully by Basil Rajapaksa and his loyalists. Do you agree?
It’s not correct. There can be certain people who will come up with some excuse when they want to move to greener pastures on the other side. There has never been any change in how the affairs of the party are being handled. People can come and go. During the last Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, he said that he was having a saloon door where anyone could come and go and people used to do that.
Some politicians engage in politics with policies while some do it for personal benefit and power. For example, the 17th Amendment was brought in to take away the powers of the Executive President. There are some members in Parliament who voted for it. The same members voted for the 18th Amendment to increase the powers of the Executive President. Then the 19th Amendment was brought to reduce the powers of the Executive President, which they also voted for. The same members voted for the 20th Amendment to give back the powers of the Executive President. Then the same members voted for the 21st Amendment to take away the powers of the Executive President.
So what is the policy? They don’t have any policies. They are just voting to be in power and to get their benefits. As long as this kind of politics is there in Sri Lanka and as long as our people don’t understand this bitter truth, we will have these problems in the country.
The answer to your question is that these allegations are made by certain persons who think that the other side is greener. We can’t prevent it; it has always been happening in this country. However, we are very confident that our party is very strong even though the representatives make different decisions. Our grass-roots level, our members, the people who voted for us because of our policies on the national economy and the security of this country, those people are still there with us. Even right now we are the strongest party in Sri Lanka.
How do you view the argument that the SLPP stands for dual citizenship only because its National Organiser is a dual citizen?
Basil Rajapaksa will have a maximum of another 10 years in his political career. Apart from that, if he wants, he can always give up his US citizenship and come and contest here; that is up to him. He left the Parliament when there was no such clause. He thought, ‘If the people think that I should go out, I will not be here’. He is a different personality altogether.
We are talking about millions of dual citizens of this country who have had to leave due to other reasons. We are not basing our arguments on one individual.
How do you view the affiliation with the Government of Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose policies the SLPP has continually criticised?
We have to understand the present situation of the country. This country faced a serious threat in terms of its democratic process. If somebody says that the burning of houses of 76 members of Parliament, which is more than one-third of the total number of people’s representatives, happened due to the incident that took place on 9 May, I think that is an illusion.
A part of Gamini Lokuge’s house was burned down well before that. Roshan Ranasinghe’s house was burned down well before that. S.M. Chandrasena’s house was attacked well before that. There were six MPs whose houses were burned down or attacked before 9 May.
If you can burn the houses of 76 members island-wide within two hours when an incident takes place at Temple Trees, anyone who believes it is an unorganised thing does not understand politics. This was a totally organised thing and a serious threat to the democracy of this country. At that juncture preserving democracy was our priority.
In our region, only Sri Lanka and India have been having democracy right throughout after independence. As a party we thought that it was our paramount duty to protect Sri Lanka’s democracy and we thought Ranil Wickremesinghe was the best person to do that. Now it has been proven that our decision was correct.
Secondly, I will admit one thing – that is about the economic policies. When it comes to economic policies, President Wickremesinghe believes in more neoliberal economic policies. We, as a party, believe in national economic policies, where we think local entrepreneurs have to be protected; it’s a different policy that came up with the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ in 2005 and then in 2010.
Up to 2020 it was proven that it was best for Sri Lanka because our GDP that was at $ 20 billion from the date of independence up to 2005 was brought up to $ 80 billion with the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ policy. That was the policy that we believed in as a party.
Wickremesinghe believes in a much more neoliberal economic policy but I think that when it comes to the bigger picture, we can still negotiate and sort things out with him regarding economic policies. Democracy has to be prioritised and we have to understand the bigger threat rather than looking at other issues, so I think that as a party we have taken the correct decision.