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- You were one of the few MP’s who crossed over with Mr. Maithripala Sirisena in November 2014. You supported him at the January 2015 Presidential poll. He was elected president and you were made a state minister. Subsequently you resigned from that Govt but remained supportive of President Sirisena. However after the August 2015 Parliament elections you were not appointed a national list MP. Why do you think that happened and where does it leave you now?
I suspect I fell victim to the internal warfare between supporters of President Sirisena and President Rajapaksa. I took seriously the President’s decision to give his predecessor nomination, since that was the best way of promoting a SLFP / UPFA victory, and ensuring indeed that the party was not decimated.
But those around the President panicked him with stories of what a Rajapaksa led SLFP victory would mean for him, while in turn this was fueled by the latter’s supporters claiming that they would be revenged on the President if they won. Neither side took note of the reality that the party was not likely to win an absolute majority, and that even if it did, there were enough solid supporters of the President to ensure that the Prime Minister would be someone he chose (though it would of course have had to be with his predecessor’s support).
As a result the President played games with the Secretaries of the parties, and sadly the UPFA allowed this to happen. The claim was that he had to be absolutely sure of the allegiance of any National List nominees, and those who were currying favour – none of whom had dared to speak out when the Sirisena campaign was launched – doubtless told him I could not be relied on, even though I had been told that he had wanted me on the National List, and he should have known better. But in any case the UNP had been allowed a significant plurality, which is why this is not really a genuine coalition, but one dominated by the UNP. Perhaps that is just as well, since it is more likely that President Sirisena, if he really believes in the manifesto on which he won the election, will realize that that cannot be fulfilled by a UNP government as constituted at present.
- When you became State minister of Higher Education in President Sirisena’s Govt much was expected of you as you had wide knowledge and experience in that sphere. Yet due to differences with the cabinet minister and also the Prime minister you resigned within 5 weeks. What led to your resignation? Has the passage of time made you regret the decision?
Parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha is no stranger to controversy. A State Minister in the yahapalana government that took office in January, he was the first to cross the floor and rejoin the opposition. Though he has fallen out with what he describes as a UNP government, he remains combatively loyal to president Maithripala Sirisena. In this interview, Rajiva speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the difference between RW and MS.
Q. How would you briefly describe your experience of the yahapalana government in the short time that you were in it?
A. The major problem is Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is JR’s creation which means a lack of morality and a certain ruthlessness. In a Westminster style system you don’t get rid of your rivals in the party. If they are able, they get a position. There was a promise that I would be in the cabinet and I told the president this. He told me that I should talk to Chandrika and to Ranil as it is they who decide on the cabinet but nothing came of it. There is really no one to argue with Ranil in cabinet except Rajitha and Champika. Rajitha was very good at getting the transfer of powers from the president to the prime minister stopped. But you need a critical mass. M.K.D.S.Gunawardene is upset about what is going on, but he cannot argue in cabinet. This is supposed to be a coalition government but in reality it’s not. It’s a UNP government which happens to have two or three outsiders in it. Kabir Hashim was appointed cabinet minister of higher education above me. There is no point in having a position where you can’t work. FUTA (The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations) had a meeting with Ranil and later Kabir informed me that he had written to the president recommending the removal of the UGC chairperson…
Q. What bugged you the most, was it the turf war between you and your cabinet minister or the principle behind the removal of the UGC chairperson?
A. Both really. If there is a State Minister he should have been consulted on a decision like that. We could have discussed the matter. FUTA announced that the prime minister had said that the UGC chairperson would be removed and a letter would follow from the president’s secretary. What you don’t do is to ask someone to resign because of pressure from FUTA. Once something is done without consulting you, that will become a routine practice. I was even told that the UGC has to be reconstituted and that there are lists in the prime minister’s office and that I should go and have a look. I said that this is not a political matter so why should there be lists of potential candidates in the PM’s office? Basically what we should be doing is looking for the best people and anyway, the prime minister should not be involved as it’s the president who appoints members of the UGC.
Q. That brings us to an interesting point. You said earlier that people like Champika and Rajitha Senaratne were taking the lead in not allowing the transfer of power from the president to the prime minister. But before the election when Maithripala Sirisena came to Sirikotha he told the assembled UNPers that even after becoming president he will continue to address Ranil as ‘Sir’. Then he said that he was not going to step into any of the presidential residences. All that was said to convince the voter that he was going to dismantle the executive presidential system. He signed MOUs with many parties saying he was going to abolish the presidency and with the JHU saying that only certain powers of the executive presidency would be reduced. People like Jayampathy Wickremeratne and the other NGO activists who backed the yahapalana campaign want it abolished. Why are you, a liberal, in favour or retaining the executive presidential system?
A. The Liberal Party was the first to say that the presidency has too much power. That situation was exacerbated by the removal of term limits through the 18th Amendment. In 2013, the Liberal Party came to the conclusion that the presidential powers should be pruned but the institution retained. But I don’t have any objection to abolishing it. When we were preparing the manifesto Jayampathy Wickremeratne said that we are committed to abolishing the executive presidency and that legislation is being drafted to transfer power to the prime minister. I said that such an arrangement was immoral and that I can’t ask people to vote for Maithripala Sirisena in order to make Ranil Wickremesinghe the leader of this country.
Q. But that precisely was the promise that was held out in the election campaign and that is why UNPers came out in their numbers to vote for Maithri and to do all the ground level work for the election campaign.
A. That was never the position of the coalition. In any coalition people are going to say different things.
Q. Everybody who spoke of the powers of the executive presidency wanted the institution scrapped not to have its powers pruned.
A. That’s not true of everybody. That is true of some people including Jayampathy. The point that I wanted to make was that the removal of excessive powers does not mean the transfer of excessive powers. My point was that if the powers of the executive president are being removed you do not give them to another executive.
Q. The vast majority of the votes that Maitripala got were from the UNP and they voted for Maithri on the understanding that RW would be made prime minister. If you don’t fulfil the expectation that the vast majority of those who voted for Maithripala had, that raises questions about the whole concept of popular sovereignty.
A. Over the past several years, Ranil did not get anything more than 35% of the vote. Many people are emphatic on the point that they voted for Maithripala. The UNP is now going around and saying that Maithripala won because of them.