Public Enterprise, Kandyan Heritage and Kandy Development Minister and Leader of the House UNP MP Lakshman Kiriella with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
The United National Party will look inwards in the search for a candidate for the upcoming Presidential Elections with Party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe considered the frontrunner, says Party senior Minister Lakshman Kiriella. Spelling out the possible winning formula to be a “genuine partnership between Wickremesinghe and Party deputy leader Sajith Premadasa”, Kiriella says UNP diehards are determined to see the partnership work.
Speaking to Daily FT about the current political status of the country, Kiriella dismissed any possibility of investigations into the political crisis in October 2018, saying the focus of all parties would be a Presidential Election.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Chathuri Dissanayake
Q: There is a lot of discussion on the Provincial Council Elections; what is the position of the United National Party (UNP) on elections?
We are for elections. The delay is not due to us, the delay is due to the conduct of the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party] and the UPFA [United People’s Freedom Alliance], because the UNP right along said Provincial Elections must be held under the PR system, it should be held that that was the UNP stand always. We said that one-and-a-half years ago; when we said that, it was the SLFP and the UPFA who said the Provincial Council Election should be held under the new system. But the SLFP Minister who was in charge of bringing the new laws couldn’t get it done. That’s what messed up the whole thing. The Provincial Council Election is half-passed, the other part has to be passed with two-thirds majority in Parliament, but he couldn’t get it through. The Delimitation side of the Provincial Council Election reforms should be passed by two-thirds majority, and Faiszer Mustapha couldn’t do it. Because they couldn’t get the laws passed, after one-and-a-half years, now they are saying we will have it under the old system.
Q: But now that the Ministry is under one of your Party Ministers, what is holding you back now?
We are willing to hold it under the old system. This has to be decided by Parliament, not any other system. It has to be Parliament that decides when the election should be, we have to bring some Amendments to Parliament. The Prime Minister has said we will have a Party Leaders’ meeting and discuss and bring the Amendments. This week we might meet in Parliament.
Q: During the 52-day period of political instability, the UNP said they will support a Parliamentary Election, if all parties agree, after the status quo as of 26 October is restored. There is a call for General Elections now: what is the UNP position?
Not all parties want an election, it is only the SLFP and the UPFA, and maybe the JVP; the majority of parties in Parliament don’t want elections because we have a mandate until August 2020.
Q: So the UNP does not want to go for a General Election? Will the UNP be willing to discuss with the Party Leaders?
For that, the majority of Parliament must decide. Just because the UPFA says, and a section of the SLFP says, and the JVP says, we can’t hold elections. If there is an impasse, and the Government cannot proceed, obviously we will have to go for elections. But I don’t think that situation will be arising at present or in the future.
Q: Two weeks ago, there was a Motion presented in Parliament to set up a National Government, but the UNP decided not to move it. Have you abandoned that plan?
We didn’t withdraw the Motion; it is in the Order Paper. We can move it this week. We are waiting for instructions on the matter from the Prime Minister.
Q: Do you have the numbers to support the Motion if moved this week? One speculation about why you postponed it was that you didn’t have the numbers in Parliament to pass the Motion.
We have the numbers. Why we postponed it last time was that when the Party Leaders met, they wanted us not to suspend the Standing Orders, and give them five days’ notice, and give them adequate notice. When I brought this to the notice of the Prime Minister, he said: “We will do that, we will give them five days’ notice, we will not suspend the Standing Orders, and we will debate the week after.” We did it mainly because of that. Sometimes suspending Standing Orders leaves a bad taste, though it is possible. We can suspend the Standing Orders and bring in any Bill; for example when India’s famous “parripu” dropping happened, when India dropped foodstuff to North , Standing Orders were suspended to discuss that. Standing Orders can be suspended, but since we don’t have a situation like that, the Prime Minister said that we can give five days’ notice.
Q: There is an argument that it is not justified to form a National Government with a party which has only one seat and increase the number of Cabinet Ministers. How do you justify such a move?
That argument is wrong. We only have to inform Parliament and get their consent to form a National Government. Once we get the approval of Parliament, we will show everybody that we have more than two parties. There are several SLFP members who are willing to cross over as a group. The only thing that is keeping them back is that they are not sure if they will get Ministries, but they are very keen to join the UNF. There are about nine or ten. People who are willing to join the National Government will have to think of their political future, whether they are willing to work with us or not, regardless of receiving a Ministerial post. Because Presidential Elections are going to be held at the end of the year, and anyone who wins the Presidential Elections will hold a Parliamentary Election immediately after; they are not going to hold on. The parties that want to join the UNF will have to take a decision taking into account their political future and the elections next year.
Q: Are you setting up the National Government to increase the number of Cabinet Ministries?
Mahinda Rajapaksa at one point had a Cabinet of 52 and it went up to 63, whereas we under the 19th Amendment limited the number to 30. We brought the 19th Amendment to limit the number genuinely, despite so many parties being involved in the formation of the new Government in 2015. Our intentions were honourable: to strengthen the Government, we feel that we should have expanded it beyond 30. We are looking at forming a national Government purely to strengthen the Government, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa also did: everyone who joined, he appointed as Ministers.
Q: But the President may refuse to appoint crossovers as Ministers, as he has done before; what will happen then?
A: Yes we are aware, and it all depends on the President. Because if the President doesn’t want to give Ministries, we can’t force him, as he is the final authority on portfolios and the subjects.
Q: How is the relationship with the President and the UNF now? He is yet to gazette some of the institutions under Ministries, for example your Ministry has been stripped away from some of the strategic State-Owned Enterprises.
A: As far as my situation is concerned, at the first Cabinet meeting after the new Ministries were gazetted, he said that the problem arising in my Ministry was due to an omission by the officials, but so far he has not done it. I think he will do it in the near future. He didn’t want to do it one by one, he will look at the whole gamut. Supposing the National Government is passed, then there will be more Ministers, so he has decided to do it all together. But frankly, at the moment I am not very concerned, because when you get a Ministry you can work only during the first two years, and the last year you are electioneering. I held these Ministries for four years, this is the last year and election year. I have built over five hundred roads in my District, every weekend I am going around opening these roads. I am not that concerned about what Ministries I am getting; I am having a well-earned rest.
Q: When you talk of the upcoming Presidential Elections, what are the options the UNP is looking at?
A: Definitely there will be a candidate from the UNP.
Q: Who is going to be the candidate?
Those things are going to be decided in the last three months; no one expected Maithripala Sirisena to be the candidate last time. At the moment, the frontrunner is the Prime Minister. He is the frontrunner, and if the Prime Minister and Sajith [Premadasa] join hands, genuinely, without trying to undercut each other, UNP victory is assured. If they join hands genuinely, that is what the party die-hards want: for these two in particular to get together.
Q: Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s name has been coming up as a possible candidate for the UNP; what is the Party response to this?
His name is mentioned by civil society groups, and he performed very admirably during the crisis. So far, the Party has not discussed this at all, but he has all the qualities you require, because during the coup he played a significant role in restoring democracy in Sri Lanka.
Q: What are the major changes to come up in the next few months in the Government?
We want to give a sunshine Budget, we want to give a good Budget to the people, mainly with regard to the cost of living and welfare. Health education and welfare, those are the key sectors.
Q: President Maithripala Sirisena has spoken about ending the moratorium on the death penalty and resuming the practice. How do the UNP view this?
We must honour our international obligations if we have signed conventions renouncing the death penalty, I think, adhere to it. We should be speaking for the international treaties we have signed.
Q: The President made a statement in Parliament as well on his intentions to carry out the death penalty. Has the UNP-led Government discussed this with the President?
The decisions taken in discussions with the President, Prime Minister and the Government must keep in line with our international obligations, because if we go against our international obligations, there will be another serious problem at the international level. We will have serious issues, particularly with regard to the GSP+. When the President or a Prime Minister of a country makes statements or formulates policy, he will have to think of the repercussions. If he does this, he will end up like Mahinda Rajapaksa, being ostracised by the international community.
Q: Have these concerns been brought to the President, discussed it at perhaps Cabinet meetings?
I must tell you, quite frankly the relationship with the President and Prime Minister are rather strained now. At the moment, there are no frank discussions as it should be. Everyone is talking alone and avoiding the issue.
Q: The ‘drug war’ seems be taking new turns. How is the Government handling the latest developments? Suddenly there are spades of arrests?
The Police should be asking the question why ‘Makadure Madhush’ was not arrested before. He was arrested in a foreign country, whereas he should have been arrested before, because everyone knew of his involvement. Police should answer why he was not arrested earlier.
Q: What are the implications of these moves for your Government, as the UNP holds power in the Government?
During the coup it was evident that the relationship has strained. But at least for the future, the President and the Prime Minister should work together, even at least at this late stage. Both have realises their pluses and minuses. When you reassess the situation, even the President thought everything was tickety-boo for him, but it was not so: without the support of Parliament he cannot do anything.
Q: When you speak of the political crisis that began on 26 October last year, which is popularly referred to as a coup, we don’t see any action being taken to investigate what happened, even though the Supreme Court has said that the decision to dissolve Parliament was against the Constitution. Yes, the decision has been reversed, and the status quo restored, but there is no investigation into what happened and who was involved. Why?
A: It’s a constitutional coup. You cannot investigate that. The President genuinely thought he can dismiss the Government and appoint as Prime Minister whom he wants. He genuinely thought so; in fact when I met him and said Ranil Wickremesinghe commands the majority of Parliament, he said, ‘No, even if that was so, I can appoint whoever I want.’ So he was wrongly advised. You cannot inquire into those things, it’s an error of judgment, for which he paid the price. It does not entail a criminal or civil liability; it was an error of judgment, because the Constitution clearly says the person who is appointed by the President as the Prime Minister must command the majority. He was told it was not so, he could appoint whomever he wants, but he cannot appoint anyone he wants. The person appointed must be able to get Bills passed in Parliament. If you appoint someone who does not command the support of the majority, no Bills will be passed; that is why that section is there.
Q: Has impeachment ever been discussed?
To be honest, everyone is getting ready for the next Presidential Election, because for an impeachment you need 50%, and for the final thrust, you need two-thirds. But we are all looking at the Presidential Elections, it has to be held before 9 December, and in another four to five months we will be discussing the candidates and policies.