Personal agendas before country

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Two significant events took place last week. Finally, Parliament was able to put together an interim Budget, which was passed with a majority vote. Out of all the Budgets and interim Budgets passed in this august hall, this must be the most momentous. While our attention was on this process, former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to the Island and was warmly welcomed by his loyalists.

We declared ourselves bankrupt on 12 April 2022. It is only now, 2 September 2022 – nearly four-and-a- half months later, we managed to get our act together enough to put out an interim Budget to steer our meagre finances for the rest of the year. Since the Sri Lankan Government and the IMF at staff level agreed to a USD 2.9 billion facility, workable for 48 months, we seem to be rejuvenated. Whether our lawmakers’ reaction to this financial plan reflects the lessons we ought to have learnt from the causes that landed us in the current mess is questionable.

Rebels no matter what

This interim Budget that received the support of 120 votes was passed with a majority vote of 115. Former president Maithripala Sirisena and three of his closest loyalists, like sly foxes, stayed away from  Parliament altogether. Yet, the other 10 SLFP MPs voted for the interim Budget.

Only five – the three MPs from National People’s Power led by Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and the two MPs from AhilaIlankai Thamil Congress opposed. However, that opposition is hardly worthy of notice. Those parliamentarians who opposed would have done so irrespective of the Budget proposed. Even if the celestial world’s overlord, lord Sakkara supported this Budget, these parliamentarians would not.

To vote would have been detrimental to their political image. It is in their interest that they must appear to be the rebels. Every high school classroom has such a bunch who think it is ‘cool’ to be rebellious. These MPs are no different.

If they voted or abstained, they would have blended with a larger group and would have not stood out as now. Whether politicians who prioritise their political image before country, especially at a time our country is vulnerable, should return to Parliament after the next election is a serious question before the voter.

What is meant by abstaining?

At a time when the country’s finances are just a hairbreadth away from collapse 43 MPs abstained from voting. This included the main Opposition, the SJB and the teams led by Dullas Alahapperuma, Wimal Weerawansa and the TNA.

No one who voted for Weerawansa or his team member Udaya Gammanpila would have ever dreamt a day that they would one day take the same stance as the TNA. Of course, just because they individually arrived at the same decision does not mean that they are now working in cahoots. At the same time, just because their respective objectives may be different does not mean that the same action taken by both will not affect the country in different ways.

The LTTE ideologists make no bones of their wish to destabilise the Sri Lankan economy. The TNA cannot vote against the wishes of the LTTE international ring. After all, TNA was the LTTE’s political proxy. It was only after that terrorist group’s total annihilation did the TNA MPs were freed from the LTTE’s shackles.

However, once in the grasp of such a sinister organisation, it is impossible to be totally free from them – especially when that organisation is regrouping and fearlessly raising its head again. In this context, it is indeed intriguing that the TNA simply abstained and not opposed it outright as the rebels did. Could it be that the TNA was trying to send different messages to their voters and the West?

TNA, just like  MP Dissanayake’s party, cannot afford to be seen supporting the Sri Lankan Government, which they derisively refer to as the ‘Sinhala’ or ‘Colombo’ government. The LTTE international ring is however in need of a polish to their image.

As lobbyists in the West’s forums, they must somehow now distance themselves from their extremist, terrorist past. Especially at a time the Sri Lankan economy will be monitored by the West with the watchfulness of a hawk, outright opposition may come across as extreme. Given these two objectives – wishing not to be seen as supporting the ‘Sinhala Government’ by the voter and not coming across as extreme to the Western supporter – the only course left was to abstain from voting.

This brings the question as to the objective or reasoning of the Weerawansa group for abstaining. This small group is in a more pathetic plight than the TNA. After emancipating from the Government, they have rendered themselves to be politically orphaned. Apart from the oratorical power, they are without any other political strengths.

At a future election, they may not return to Parliament with the same strong mandate they did in the previous August 2020 general election. There is even a possibility that they may not return at all.

Many of their voters feel that their much publicised rally, ‘The Whole Country into the Right Path’, held on 2 March 2022, was the catalyst that set the chain reaction to oust a strong government, including a popular Prime Minister and a president. Though they did present an economic plan, the publicity rested on Weerawansa’s accusations against then Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa as an ‘ugly American’ bent on fulfilling the US agenda vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. The facts that they were Cabinet Ministers at the time they discredited their own government and that they never again referred to their economic plan are not lost on the discerning voter.

As shrewd political analysts, they must be very much aware that they also have fallen into the same hole they dug for Basil Rajapaksa. According to the grapevine, they had supported MP Dullas Alahapperuma for the Premier post as far back as 2021 or at least early 2022. In fact, it was not the anti-government protestors who first called for PM Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation but this group. After President Gotabaya’s resignation, this group openly supported Alahapperuma’s candidacy to presidency, even though the President was elected through a secret ballot. However, they are now clearly not with Alahapperuma either.

Their refusal to partner with a stronger alliance is curious enough. Their actual reasons for abstaining from voting either way on such an important decision is indeed confounding. Usually, they are highly opinionated and not shy about it. Sitting on the fence, irrespective of the wind’s direction, is not their normal modus operandi.

SJB offered a strange justification for not voting either way. According to SJB MPs Dr. Harsha de Silva and Harshana Rajakaruna, they signified their support to the efforts of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Government by not voting for or against the interim Budget.

However, this leaves the onlooker baffled. Does this mean that they support the Government even if they are not in agreement with the contents of the interim Budget?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa Returns

In the meantime, former President Gotabaya was escorted to his new residence under tight security. He, even as Sri Lanka’s Executive President, wanted to live in his simple home in Mirihana with minimum security and pomp. Thanks to the anarchists, he now must live in a palatial residence with a large retinue of security at government expense.

Thanks also to the anarchists, the former President – a very capable man – cannot in the present state render any service to the country. The former President too is responsible for this current predicament.

According to Weerawansa, it was US Ambassador Julie Chung who put mental barriers in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mind from executing the needful. The US Embassy has neither denied nor clarified this serious allegation. Either way, recent events that denied Gotabaya Rajapaksa entrance to the US, a country that has been his home for many years, should help to remove these ‘mental barriers’. Perhaps this realisation comes too late for him, but let it be a lesson for others.

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(The views and opinions expressed in this column are writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ceylon Today)

BY Shivanthi Ranasinghe