We Strongly Believe We Can Win the Majority – Sajith Premadasa
By Aruni Mallawarachchi
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa talks to our sister paper Mawbima on his election campaign.
Following are excerpts:
You are contesting the forthcoming General Election in a challenging background, isn’t it?
A: It’s not possible to engage in a conventional election campaign owing to the COVID-19 situation. Those activities are being conducted in accordance with health guidelines. People come to us with sheaves of beetle leaves and garlands as usual. They also find it difficult to get accustomed to this new situation. They do that because they love and respect us. But we are concerned about the people, and therefore, we have done a number of changes to our usual public meetings.
Do you see a political challenge this time?
A: Politically, I don’t see any other problem. As an alliance, SJB is functioning pretty well.
Hasn’t parting ways with the UNP caused any disadvantages to your alliance?
A: We trust that the majority of people are with the SJB, and therefore I don’t see it as a serious matter. We believe that the SJB will receive majority people’s blessings and acceptance.
The UNP had gained some recognition as Sri Lanka’s largest single political party. What reason caused a division within such a party?
A: It’s a well-known reason. As a matter of fact, Ranil Wickremesinghe suggested to me to contest from an alliance because he wanted to continue to be the party leader. He himself told me that he can’t conduct political campaigning and said Sajith you do it. Also, it was he who instructed the appointment of a Prime Minister candidate, alliance leader, nominations board chairman and a general secretary. The Working Committee as well as the Parliamentarians group approved of it. What we started like that is what we’re continuing now. However, a few days before the dissolution of Parliament they obstructed this.
You could have resolved this issue without parting, couldn’t you?
A: I’m merely one person, but at that time, we worked as a group. We discussed it. Majority of members of the Parliamentary group and the Working Committee discussed this matter with Ranil Wickremesinghe. But instead of solutions, what they got was postponement.
But now the UNP leader says he’s ready to welcome a new leadership. Don’t you think you were too quick?
A: What do you mean I was too quick! I implemented Ranil Wickremesinghe’s plan. He’s saying this after everything is over. A General Secretary has been appointed, and the Working Committee and Parliamentary group have already given approval for this.
The Government says a group of UNP members who are disappointed about the party’s division is supporting the Government and that another group is planning to boycott the election.
I’m of the opinion that the Government should focus on its voter base, because it’s shattered.
You left Colombo where the UNP has a strong voter base and contested from Hambantota. But now you have come back to Colombo. What’s the reason behind this?
A: Would you ask the same question from Mahinda Rajapaksa? You can ask him why he left Hambantota and decided to contest from Kurunegala.
Are you aware that on two occasions, I defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in Hambantota? I defeated him in the 2000 and 2001 General Elections. I contested in five elections held in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010 and 2015. I defeated him twice.
In the Presidential Election, you only received 26% of votes in the Hambantota District. Did you decide to contest from Colombo because of that disappointment?
A: If that were the case, I should’ve been disappointed in 2004, 2010 and in 2015 as well, except 2000 and 2001. I won in two out of five elections.
Why did you decide to contest from the Colombo district, then?
A: I realised that from Colombo a systematic service can be provided for the entire country. When implementing a systematic plan for the people of the Colombo district and the other 24 districts, it’s easy for us to work from Colombo. We rendered our fullest service for the Hambantota district. We can clearly see what we did. But, when it comes to the Colombo district, the situation is different. After my father’s time, there were Prime Ministers who hailed from Colombo. However, issues existing in the Colombo district have not been resolved.
When it comes to housing, there are a number of issues relating to those living in rented houses and slums, and also the houses of the poor and those who don’t have a permanent income. No significant development programs have been done in that regard. We have a plan to address those issues; we have plans to develop cities, suburbs and rural areas all around the country. Making Colombo the center of our activities makes it convenient for us to implement these programs.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is contesting from the Colombo district. Did you ever think you’d have to contest from the same district as opponents?
A: No, it’s not like that. This is not a decision that was taken after considering all these. When working as a new alliance, the Colombo district became important for us as a centre.
It appears that there is a discourse among the general public about scholars, professionals and intellectuals?
A: Those so-called intellectual and scholars are the ones who have put the country in danger. We don’t have with us that type of scholars or professionals who put the country in danger. With us are intellectuals who can build the country. We don’t engage in short-sighted politics. We work with people who have scholar qualities and expert knowledge.
Who are these new candidates – who have expert knowledge and are scholars?
A: In our group we have a professor, a doctor of philosophy, six working in the field of teaching, six doctors of medicine, a President’s Counsel, 34 lawyers, eight engineers and 49 degree holders, 27 diploma holders, three legal experts, four journalists, two accountants, three bank officials and five senior military personnel including a Field Marshal.
Do you think you can acquire 2/3 majority power with them?
A: Certainly; we can win.
How many seats does the SJB expect to win?
A: We strongly believe that we can win the majority power in Parliament. There is no doubt about that.
Some allege that you’re standing with extremist, separatist groups?
A: Is there anything they don’t accuse me of! They level allegations over everything.
Are there groups that suspect that you’d give into the power of small political parties that implement the agendas of extremist and separatist forces, and divide the country?
A: Those are dreams of this Government.
Party membership of those who left the UNP has been suspended?
Your name is not on that list. They’re saying that a decision about you would be taken after the second inquiry board’s decision?
A: Those are Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cunning political tactics. That’s who Ranil Wickremesinghe is.
It is said that former President Maithripala Sirisena offered you the Prime Minister post 51 times?
A: Yes, he put forward such a suggestion.
Don’t you think turning down that offer was an unwise decision?
A: More than anything, what’s important is ethics and principles. I always work in accordance with ethics and morality principles. Like you said, I could’ve become the Prime Minister on 26 October very easily. But, where’s ethics and principles in that? Had I done so, it would’ve been tantamount to a political conspiracy because it wasn’t given by the people. If I had done that, there’s no difference between Mahinda Rajapaksa and me. That’s the difference between him and me.
Where did the Yahapalana Government and former President Sirisena go wrong?
A: We were unable to work in harmony and work for the country because of internal disputes.
In the event you become the Prime Minister with majority power, would you be able to work together with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa?
A: It’s not a problem, I can do that. We’re people who think of the country with a broad-minded attitude. People choose us, to work. We’re prepared to perform our duties in a transparent and genuine manner.
Do you think the resignation of Mangala Samaraweera, who supported you politically, could be disadvantageous?
A: I was upset about that. Up to this date I can’t understand why he left. I wasn’t able to discuss that with him. But he will always be a friend. He has done a great deal of work for me. We are upset about his departure.
Your party keeps talking about a UNP-SLPP deal. What is this deal?
A: We can see very clearly what this deal is. It’s very obvious.
Are you satisfied about rural and estate communities’ knowledge about the SJB symbol?
A: Yes, there is no problem about that. This country’s literacy rate stands at 92 per cent. Party supporters are familiar with my symbol.
Will the UNP and SJB join hands following the election?
A: We have a great deal of work to do after the election. We expect to provide the best service for all 22 million people of this country.
You’re saying that national security will be given the foremost priority?
A: Yes, undoubtedly.
Your Government failed to avert the Easter Sunday attacks. How are you planning to ensure national security?
A: There is no problem. We have a good plan for that. I did my best to ensure national security, and I did what I did without regard to party politics. Even today I will do the same. If you want to know more about what I have done for national security, you can speak to the Army Commander, or incumbent Intelligence Service Chief Suresh Sallay.
Some say that thus far, victims of the Easter Sunday attack, Salawa Army camp blast and Meethotamulla garbage dump collapse have not received compensations?
A: That’s not true. Most of them received it. There may have been shortcomings; I’m not denying that. We did a lot of work for the Katuwapitiya, Kochchikade and Zion churches. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith can tell you about the work we have done.
It has been impossible to give compensation to those people, but you claim you can give Rs 20,000 for poverty-stricken families?
A: You can go to Salawa and ask whether they received compensations. You’re questioning about the money that I’m planning to give, but you don’t question how much the Government has given.
I’m asking how you are planning to give this Rs 20,000?
A: We’re building a cricket ground in Homagama spending USD 40 million; we launched sea sand projects spending USD 890 million. By stopping futile projects like this that increase the country’s debt burden, a lot of good things can be done for the country. I’m doing this in collaboration with a group of experts and it has an economy background.
You’re also proposing to repay the increased electricity bill, slash fuel prices and amend tax system?
A: Giving Rs 20,000 allowance, repaying electricity bill and decreasing fuel prices – all these three proposals are aimed at giving people more money. That’s why I’m saying that these decisions were taken after thinking long and hard.
Won’t these moves result in loss of national income and cause further economic decline?
A: I told you, these are well-planned ideas. We have a good plan. All three proposals I mentioned are aimed at giving people more money. When they have more money, three things will happen – consumption, investment and saving. This is the economic stimulation package. When these three things take place, the economy will automatically grow. Also note that we’re not giving this Rs 20,000 allowance to wealthy people like this Government.
Who will be the target beneficiaries?
A: Daily wage workers, labourers, working class people, and poor people in rural and city areas.
What strategies would you propose in order to build a strong and stable economy in the face of post-COVID-19 challenges?
A: There was a depression in the 1929-1939 period. World renowned economist John Maynard Keynes devised a plan to save from The Great World Depression. It is applicable to today as well, and that’s what I mentioned earlier. The USA gave USD 2.3 trillion to the economy. In England, 80 per cent of private sector employees’ salaries are paid though a program called Furlough. Only 20 per cent are paid by employers. In Bangladesh, it’s 100 per cent. Even in India there is a package scheme to give money to people who lost their daily wage. These types of programs financially strengthen the inactive economy.
The price of a barrel of crude in the world market is at rock bottom. However, the Government has taken a decision to refrain from changing fuel prices for 12 months. It’s not fair. To rake in some kind of income, first of all, the economy has to be active. The economy is currently inactive. If we are to change that, we must do what I mentioned. I don’t understand what this Government is doing instead of following principles accepted by the world.
You also mentioned a housing project?
A: Yes. Under that program, we will continue the Gam Udawa program. Also we will amend archaic laws that hinder housing development activities. Under this we will build 50,000 houses for Colombo-based people who’re in need of houses. We will also build houses for people in the North and East.
What are you planning to do for the farming community?
A: I will take steps to give free fertiliser throughout the year without any scarcity.
What is your opinion about the Government’s programs involving bringing back Sri Lankans stranded in other countries due to COVID-19?
A: What are these embassies doing! Look how the embassies of Bangladesh, Philippines and India look after their people. Our embassies and the Government are asleep.
You stated that you have a plan for the country’s youth?
A: We need youth’s contribution in Parliament, Provincial Councils and Local Government Institutions. We will take steps to ensure 25 per cent youth representation in those institutions. We also need to assist young entrepreneurs, and to do that, we will establish a national youth development financial institution. To prevent young players from facing injustice in sports, we will introduce an Independent Sports Act.
The Government is against the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. But you’re saying it should be protected. Why is that?
A: It should be protected. Institutions established through this Amendment are very important. Shortcomings may arise when these institutions are functioning. But we will rectify those shortcomings and will ensure transparency. I’m of the opinion that this should be enforced with amendments. Also it should happen without political interferences.
The Government alleges that you and your group attempted to get the Election Commission to postpone the election?
A: I spoke for the people taking into consideration the COVID-19 risk in the country. I suggested that the election be postponed due to COVID-19. Any person has a right to speak. It is up to the Election Commission to decide whether to entertain our request. It’s the Government that placed the country under lockdown a day after the nominations were handed over.
Do you still think the election should be postponed?
A: I suggested that because of the situation at that time. But the Government dreamt of holding the election in order to form a Government with 2/3 majority power. Had the Government listened to us, the situation would’ve been better and there would be no fear of a second wave.
The Government says that this is not a second wave?
A: We have to perform PCR tests properly, in order to see if there is a second wave. We need to conduct more PCR tests.