Sajith Premadasa’s Manifesto: Strengths and weaknesses

Tuesday, 5 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A clear merit of the Sajith Premadasa Manifesto is that there is a practical roadmap or plan that he has outlined on how he is going to implement his declared policies


By Laksiri Fernando 

At last the Sajith Premadasa Manifesto (SPM) is out on behalf of the United Democratic Front (UDF), in all three languages at the same time. The English version is reviewed here. The SPM appears ‘people friendly,’ addressing the voters simply as ‘My Dear Friends’ in his personal message and saluting them with ‘Ayubowan! Vanakkam! Assalamu Alaikum! It is also futuristic, titling the Manifesto as ‘There is No Limit to What Sri Lanka Can Achieve’ and subtitling it ‘Let Us Prove It Together’. But how is the question.

Right in the second paragraph of the personal message of the presidential candidate, there is a genuine admission that people have concerns and unfulfilled expectations. Premadasa is assuring that he is committed with his political team, advisors and professionals to address each and every of them. This may be too optimistic given the Sri Lanka’s present conditions and the role and record of the government he was serving for the last almost five years. However it could be appreciated that he has come forward, out of those ambivalent conditions, to ‘promise’ a better deal and better service in the future, as the leader of the government and hopefully of the party and the alliance, if he is finally elected by the voters. 

Another natural question at this juncture is whether he is too late. His nomination was too late within the party, of course beyond his control, and now the Manifesto is rather late, three weeks after the formal nominations. There is barely two weeks left for further campaigning before the election day, and the SPM came at the brink of the two day postal voting with over 650,000 eligible voters. The TNA or the main Tamil parties have not yet taken a clear decision pending his Manifesto. While these may be some disadvantages, he has also gained a clear advantage by countering the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Manifesto (GRM) through what he has now produced to the voters. Premadasa has already conducted many multilevel campaign rallies, meetings and consultations, and if he, his supporters and the UDF manage to distribute the Manifesto far and wide, it might prove to be an effective tool in the campaign trail. 

Let me offer a quick SWOT analysis but only focusing on the first two aspects, strengths and weaknesses. 

Some strengths 

The general direction of the Manifesto is towards ‘a strong nation and a fair society’. Twenty operational areas are clearly identified in the introduction, followed in respective sections, not only for the voters but perhaps subsequently for policy implementers as well. This is double the 10 points in the Gotabaya Manifesto. These include affordable cost of living, housing, education, health care, drug control, dealing with extremism, e-governance, women’s empowerment, business promotion, renewable energy, environment, empowerment of farmers, youth, migrant workers and public transport. Therefore, the first strength of the documents as a Manifesto is its scope and delineation of clear policy areas. 

Three national scourges are correctly identified: (1) Drugs (2) Corruption and (3) Religious extremism. It is also smart to declare that there can be one or interrelated solution for these three problems. That is the swift and firm implementation of the laws. However, there can be delays because of present unclear laws and hesitation on the part of implementers even if we discount the possible political interferences. This is not taken into proper account. 

National security is correctly perceived within creating a united and a strong nation. This is not there in the GRM. This encompasses strong democratic institutions including a new constitution. Although not mentioned, the Easter carnage particularly came about within the context of a constitutional crisis not limiting to October events. When different institutions compete for power or simply do not cooperate, that affects the security, security institutions and security personnel. The State apparatuses obviously collapse or become weakened. The following two pronouncements for a new constitution may be for the interest of the Tamil and Muslim communities but the term ‘multi-religious’ is however missing! The declared policies are also scattered. There are other signs of a hurriedly-written document.  

“Our constitution must reflect the multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual and pluralistic nature of our country and must unite us not only in law, but also in our hearts.” (p. 14).

“Maximum devolution of power within an undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka, will be implemented.” (p. 18).  

A new people’s constitution is the promise. Unlike the inbuilt hesitation which was characteristic of the UNF manifesto in 2015, going before the people for a referendum is declared and determined. Nevertheless the new constitution is promised as an extension of the 19th Amendment particularly in respect of reduced presidential powers and independent commissions. A Senate is promised not as a decoration of the institutional structure, but hopefully as a proper representative council of the Provincial Councils, ensuring power sharing at the Center. This could be considered structurally a most far reaching proposal in the constitutional reform agenda.  

There is a clear promise in revising the electoral system. This includes the abolition of the present preferential voting, hopefully which would stop not only interparty but also intraparty conflicts that allows unsuitable, uneducated and even criminal personnel to move forward. The national list system is not abolished, but it says, “an increase in the participation of women in Parliament will be legislated by stipulating that at least 25% of the National List is women”. Is this sufficient is the question.

There are few more progressive pronouncements. The Manifesto under ‘Accountable Leadership’ says, “We will withdraw luxury duty-free vehicles for all 225 parliamentarians while ensuring they have the necessary facilities to carry out their duties in service of the public.” This is a welcome initiative saving considerable amounts of money for the public service. There is no doubt about Sajith Premadasa’s personal determination in implementing them. A major weakness of 2015 manifestos, both at the presidential and parliamentary elections, was the lack of much concrete proposals although a general promise of curtailing corruption and waste was given.

There is nothing much ambiguous or wrong in the tax policy declared, unlike in the GRM.  

Some weaknesses 

Although 20 policy areas are clearly identified, there are no cost estimates or appraisal of financial implications, except in some areas. For example, for encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation, Rs. 20 billion is indicated. But for free seed paddy and free fertiliser for farmers, there are no estimates given, and independent sources believe that free fertiliser alone would cost Rs. 45 billion for the government. Where would you find money? This is not explained.    

Although the proclamation on eradication of drug menace, corruption and religious extremism are praiseworthy, no clear road map is given for curtailing particularly religious extremism. There is no acknowledgement that this is more prevalent in the majority community than in minority communities. Sajith Premadasa’s determination alone would not be sufficient in curtailing any of the menaces, judging by the past five-year experience.    

Although there are appreciative declarations on national unity and a new constitution, those may be insufficient to convince the affected minority communities because of still intermittent violence, threats and xenophobia in the country most explicit during the present election campaigns.      

As I see it, the incompatibility between the pronounced socio-political policies and economic policies appears to be the main weakness. As the candidate, Sajith Premadasa has pronounced, there is a need for a Social Revolution. The reason? There is obviously a fundamental defect or flaw in the existing socio-economic system that he has admitted. Simply said, the poor and the needy are neglected. His advocated policies verbally are mostly of welfarist or social democratic orientation. However, the written economic perspectives particularly on page 26 are incompatible with the pronounced welfare measures or social democracy, giving emphasis primarily only on the private sector. It says, 

“The private sector is the engine of growth. For a strong and a prosperous nation to share its wealth with its citizens, the private sector must operate efficiently. However the private sector is shackled by archaic regulations, logistical bottlenecks, and government red tape; it is unable to achieve its true potential.” (p. 26).  

There is no question that deregulations are necessary to remove bottlenecks etc. However that is not the only reason for the inability to achieve the ‘true potential’ of the private sector. In a developing country, there are serious problems of capital accumulation and also entrepreneurship. The State in certain areas is in a better position to invest and gear development, if corruption, waste and mismanagement are eliminated. Simply said, Sri Lanka is in a better position to gear development through private and public partnership and having ‘two engines’ for growth. This does not mean nationalisations or restrictions on the private sector, but a proper and clear division of labour between private and public partnership. Both sectors can thrive and contribute. As the title of the Manifesto says, ‘there is no limit to what Sri Lanka can achieve,’ but in the right direction and combination.  

It is because of this incompatibility or lacunae particularly in the economic policy, among other things, some right thinking people might consider first voting for Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the NPP/JVP and then giving the second preference to Sajith Premadasa.     

A merit in implementation plan  

As we all know, as a result of the 19th Amendment, supported also by all the present SLPP/SLFP MPs who were in Parliament at that time, there are many limitations to power of a new President after the forthcoming election. Even the new president, whoever is elected, cannot hold the Ministry of Defence directly. Premadasa has already indicated, right or wrong, Sarath Fonseka for that position. 

A clear merit of Premadasa Manifesto is that there is a practical roadmap or plan that he has outlined on how he is going to implement his declared policies. This is completely absent in the Gotabaya Manifesto. GRM abruptly ends on page 80 after promising 10 goodies to the ‘estate connected communities’ (Wathu Arsritha Prjawa). In this GRM, the next two pages are blank, at least in the online (Sinhala only) copy, apparently left for Notes. But there are no notes! 

In the Premadasa Manifesto, under the title of ‘Implementation: Strengthening and Monitoring,’ 10 implementing measures are outlined, prefaced by the key mechanism as follows, which I have found appropriate, realistic and implementable under the circumstances. 

“A new Presidential Task Force for National Development will be created to overlook the delivery of key performance indicators in all the Ministries. All the Divisional Secretariats in the country will have a subunit of this, so that there would be a direct link between the President and the constituents when it comes to the provisions of public services and national development.” (p. 75).    

On the merit of this practical implementation plan and the road map, one even might give the first preference to Sajith Premadasa, in preventing Gotabaya Rajapaksa coming into power with several unknowns and dubious credentials.