The government did gain much by the way its declared commitment to fighting corruption, came with the resignation of Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake, with regard to serious issues raised about the renting of a Colombo residence, widely described as a Penthouse, when he was Minister of Finance.
The issue of his resignation, relating to alleged links to Perpetual Treasuries and thus to the Central Bank Bond Scam was certainly the subject of the political spotlight for the past week. It gathered intensity with his statements that he had not been asked to resign by the President. This response by him to media reports on the matter did make links with his own evidence at the Presidential Commission on the Central Bank Bond Scams, where he repeatedly claimed not to know anything about financial transactions by members of his family on his residence in Colombo. The issue soon became one of major political significance with the Joint Opposition (JO) handing over a No Confidence motion against him to the Speaker, and serious division within the government on support and opposition to the No Confidence move. With the media standing by their statements about the President’s request for him to resign from office, as well as clear reports that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too had made such a call to him, there was little room for any major political manoeuvre by Ravi Karunanayake.
The situation was certainly getting hotter with all members of the SLFP in government stating they would support to No Confidence motion, and some members of the UNP too going on record being supportive of the motion. The drama finally moved to the Speaker, who said the Attorney General would be consulted on certain aspects of the motion that may have been sub judice, as it related to a matter before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. This position too caused considerable criticism by some sections of the media, who asserted the position of Parliament above the Judiciary, especially referring the former Speaker Anura Bandaranaike’s ruling on a similar matter.
Mr. Karunanayake’s announcement in Parliament that he was resigning from the office of Foreign Minister, did bring considerable relief to the government, as the No Confidence motion laying before the House, whatever the legal aspects about it, was a major plus for the JO. All talk of delaying any decision until the Minister was “found guilty” of any offence, certainly did not hold water, both in the context of politics, as well as civil society and the wider public thinking on the matter. What is of importance here is not a matter of innocence or guilt. It is that of a public impression created by one’s actions – or those by members of one’s family — that is not condemned or rejected by the person concerned, which creates more than a semblance of wrong doing, and does not stand proper scrutiny in the public mind.
Minister Karunanayake’s resignation certainly gives much substance to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s statement that the government would not tolerate corruption in any form, and that all allegations of corruption would be investigated and action would be taken. While the JO may have been pushed back to some extent, with a key government minister resigning on matters related to corruption, bringing out something that could never have happened, and could not even be dreamt of during the Rajapaksa regime; this also brings back the larger issue of the government’s massive delay in fighting the corruption of the Rajapaksa years.
The publicity given to the major protest demonstration due to be held at Vihara Maha Devi Park on August 15, by the Puravesi Balaya and the National Movement for Just Society, which will be calling for government’s speedy action against corruption and activity to bring a new constitution, will be a reminder to the government of the need to move ahead with the policies against corruption that were part of its campaign for the Presidential and General Elections in 2015. The Vihara Maha Devi protest will be two days before the second anniversary of the August 2015 General Election. While the Bond Scam probes are continuing, there are also the major issues of the delayed action (if there is any action) against the fraud and corruption of the Rajapaksa Regime. The Ravi Karunanayake resignation, while helping to draw a veil over the failure to act against the corruption of the previous regime, certainly does not hide the problems caused by these delays. This brings into new focus the statement made almost three months ago by the President himself of delays in the probes into corruption of the former regime.
What we now see is a revival of the debate on fighting corruption. The JO did have a major push on the Ravi Karunanayake issue. But it must be made to understand that it has to face a great deal of exposure in the fight against corruption. The government will certainly have to meet the calls for a faster judicial process in this matter, speedy action by the several institutions involved, which includes the Attorney General’s Dept., and the need to bring before Courts the many names of the former regimes about whom the public were told much, but with little action against so far.
The government is certainly acting pleased with its plans to postpone the Provincial Council Elections due in the next two months, with the move to change the electoral laws to hold all Provincial Council elections in one day. The saving to the national exchequer by this move is certainly interesting. Similarly, it also reduces the chances of province focused electoral fraud, which was part of the reality. However, it is certainly facing a major accusation of being anti-democratic, with the PC Polls postponement coming with the huge delay in the Local Government Polls. The new change in electoral laws will certainly have to be approved by the Supreme Court. Or else, the government may even have to face a referendum on the matter. This is hardly the stuff that a government fearful of a referendum on a new constitution could readily accept.
Also, the saving on the PC Polls being held on one day, while correct, is not in sync when the government has to come to Parliament to raise 70.5 million rupees to meet the cost of foreign travel by some ministries and departments in a single month. There is the need for the government to rein in its expenses on foreign travel, as well as other official expenditure, if the public is to believe in its claims of good governance and service to the public.
The government certainly has a new opponent within its ranks with the Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe telling the Sinhala media that he is opposed to the “sale” of the public asset of the Hambantota Port to the Chinese, and that whether in the government or without, he would not rest until he regains its ownership on behalf of the people. Is this a sign of a new trend within the UNP, with those who have come there from outside, now thinking of going back to the political buddies of the past, who have similar thinking on the long term lease of the Hambantota Port to China?
The situation within the JO and its leadership strategies are making interesting moves to keep the Rajapaksa name active on one side, while there are members from within it who are thinking of other leadership possibilities, too. There is a group that is increasing in numbers who see in Dinesh Gunawardena a likely leader in the 2020 Presidential Poll, considering his long service in parliament and his political background with his father being the late Philip Gunewardena, the leftist leader and later a major leader of the Sinhalese, who brought about the MEP with the late SWRD Bandaranaike. He does have problems with the minority voters, but those within the JO who believe that the Sinhala vote will be the deciding factor see in him a good leader, who does not have the disadvantages of the Rajapaksas.
However, the Rajapaksas are not to be left out. The strategy on that side of the JO is to run the non-politician Rajapaksa – Gotabhaya – as the next presidential candidate with the image of his leadership given to the forces as the Secretary of Defence, under his brother Mahinda. This is interesting as the strategists on this line think this will give an opportunity for Mahinda, who cannot run for another term as president, to still control the office of president with his brother being there. Would Gotabhaya be ready to be a puppet Rajapaksa? These rival strategies will be getting hotter after the government completes the second year in office, later this month. But, the Rajapaksa strategy will remain with concerns about the anti-corruption strategies of the government in the coming months.