Government aims for political stability and economic sustainability

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A Few political developments have dominated the headlines over the past week as the government has been busy trying to restore a sense of normalcy to the economy. These changes could prove significant for the country in the long run as it attempts to achieve political stability and economic sustainability.

In a major move, former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has resigned from his seat on the national list representing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in Parliament. Previously, the former minister and brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned from his finance portfolio on April 3.

The resignation of Basil Rajapaksa is important because he is recognized, even by his detractors, as a fine political strategist. The movements he initiated have repeatedly brought about lasting changes in the country’s political orientation, as recent history has shown.

As an MP and minister, Basil Rajapaksa had a relatively brief career. In 2010, during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term, he was appointed Minister of Economic Development, with many key institutions under his watch.

However, once the Eelam War was over, it was as political adviser to President Mahinda Rajapaksa that he played his most critical role. Indeed, in the general elections of April 2010, the victorious United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 144 seats, six seats less than a two-thirds majority.

Former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was at the time on the crest of a wave of popularity following victory in the Eelam War. The UPFA hierarchy believed that President Mahinda Rajapaksa could win a third term if an 18th Amendment to the Constitution could be passed.

The UPFA was six seats short of the two-thirds majority required to enact the 18th Amendment which removed the two-term limit for an elected president. It was Basil Rajapaksa who was entrusted with the task of securing these seats to ensure the passage of the two-thirds majority.

Basil Rajapaksa did not disappoint. Conducting a series of negotiations with parliamentarians from the opposition United National Party (UNP), he was responsible for passing the 18th Amendment with 161 votes in favor and 17 against. In the end, the UNP itself abstained from voting.

The UNPers who voted for the 18th Amendment were Abdul Cader, Earl Gunasekara, Lakshman Seneviratne, Manusha Nanayakkara, Upeksha Swaranamali and Nimal Wijesinghe. Nanayakkara made headlines recently, after challenging Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) to join the Cabinet.

While this was seen as an achievement for Basil Rajapaksa, his achievements after Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena in the January 2015 presidential election were of even greater significance. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat was completely unexpected and surprised many.

Rajapaksa returned to his ancestral home in Medamulana and envisioned a quiet retirement. This seemed all the more likely as the newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, wrested control from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was the main coalition partner of the UPFA.

For this reason, preparations for the August 2015 general elections were acrimonious. Although Mahinda Rajapaksa was offered the UPFA nomination for Kurunegala District, President Sirisena addressed the nation saying that he would not appoint him Prime Minister even if the UPFA won.

While the UPFA cohabited with the UNP in a “good governance” government led by President Sirisena and some SLFP members holding Cabinet portfolios, Basil Rajapaska’s strategy was to form a new political party, loyal to former President Rajapaksa being invited to join.

As a concept, it emerged as a prospect with little chance of success. In nearly seventy years of independence, Sri Lanka has alternated between being ruled by the UNP or the SLFP or by coalitions where one of these parties was the dominant partner. Many dismissed the idea at the time.

The SLPP idea

However, Basil Rajapaksa realized that although Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election, he still got the majority of votes in the south of the country. Sirisena’s victory over him was made possible because he got a massive vote share in the North and East and in some cities.

Basil Rajapaksa correctly assumed that in a general election this would translate differently from the winner’s presidential election. Given the proportional representation (PR) voting system, he believed that if Mahinda Rajapaksa led a political party, he could still be a force to be reckoned with.

This is what he set out to do with the formation of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in 2016. Using the charisma and status of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a leader who led the victory of the war, he put established a grassroots organization that has gained momentum and support. even as the SLFP-UNP alliance stumbled.

The SLPP’s first test came in the 2018 local government elections held in February 2018. Surprising even the new party’s founder, it swept the board in those polls, winning 231 out of 340 local councils nominated. The UNP only won 34 councils.

What was even more surprising was the share of the popular vote, 40%, that the SLPP recorded when it first came out. The UNP won only 29% of the vote and the SLFP came far behind with only 12%. In its first contest, the SLPP set the tone for the upcoming elections.

These results undoubtedly encouraged Basil Rajapaksa to plan the SLPP’s participation and win the presidential elections scheduled for 2019. By then, the 19th Amendment had been passed by the government of President Sirisena. This prevented former President Mahinda Rajapaksa from running.

Again, Basil Rajapaksa is credited with identifying Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the party’s potential candidate. This involved some preparation as Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to start the process of renouncing his citizenship in the United States, which would have hampered his candidacy.

The rest, as they say, is history. Basil Rajapaksa himself retains his dual citizenship with the United States to this day. It was for this reason that he was unable to run in the August 2020 general election, as the 19th Amendment banning the election of dual citizens had been signed into law at that time.

Following the nearly two-thirds majority of the SLPP in the August 2020 general election, the 20th Amendment was passed into law without much difficulty, allowing Basil Rajapaksa to return to parliament. This he did, on the party’s National List, when he returned to Parliament in July 2021.

Since then, Basil Rajapaksa has had mixed fortunes during his brief tenure as finance minister. He has been blamed by his critics and the opposition for the economic crisis in which Sri Lanka currently finds itself. It was following this that he tendered his resignation as finance minister on 3 April.

Even within the ruling SLPP alliance, Basil Rajapaksa was a divisive figure. His Cabinet colleagues Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila left the Cabinet saying they could not agree with the policies he was pursuing and therefore were unable to serve in the same Cabinet with him.

Following his resignation from the key post of finance minister, Basil Rajapaksa has kept a low profile. He was the subject of many mockeries on social networks. His detractors were quick to ridicule him, former presidential secretary PB Jayasundera and former central bank governor Nivard Cabraal.

However, Basil Rajapaksa held a press conference to announce his resignation. He said he had two goals when he returned to politics in 2016. These were to absolve himself of the charges against him and to reinstall Mahinda Rajapaksa in power. He achieved both goals, he said.

Economic downturn

Basil Rajapaksa was provocative and said many had to share the blame for the current crisis in the country and denied that he was responsible for the dwindling foreign exchange reserves. He even played down the insults directed at him, saying his cellphone ringtone was one of those songs.

Former minister Rajapaksa gave no indication of his future plans. However, he said that while he would stay out of parliament, he would continue to be involved in politics. Many interpret this as an indication that he would devote his energies to the reorganization of the SLPP.

The SLPP has already nominated businessman Dhammika Perera to replace Basil Rajapaksa on the national list vacated by Rajapaksa. Perera will also be appointed Minister of Technology and Investment Promotion with a range of vital government institutions under his responsibility.

These include the Board of Investments, the Economic Commission of the Port City of Colombo, the Department of Registration of Persons, the Department of Immigration and Emigration, the Technology Agency of Communication and Information and Telecommunications Regulatory Commission.

Perera has a reputation as a businessman who has transformed many businesses from a loss-making business into a profitable business. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is keen to channel his business acumen to turn around the country’s economy which is going through a tough time.

The government is therefore continuing with its program of restoring economic stability, making key policy changes in the process while advancing policy reforms such as the 21st Amendment to the Constitution in consultation with all political parties represented in Parliament.


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