The 2020 General Election will be held at a crucial juncture. The General Election was eagerly postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic when the masses were looking forward to a quick General Election to give President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a two-third majority in Parliament to implement his programs that were pledged to the masses.
Even when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to have an interim budget passed to finance the urgent needs of the people, the power-hungry, clueless and jealous Opposition prevented it, thereby completely ignoring the aspirations of 6,924,255 people who had elected a new President on November 18, 2019.
The Sunday Observer spoke to two-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is aspiring to be the Prime Minster for a record fourth time:
Q: How is the lead up to the General Election after the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) comfortably won its maiden Local Government and Presidential election?
A: The SLPP, after its emergence with a new culture, has always been the winning party. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected to steer the destinies of the nation with nearly seven million votes, he needed a strong legislature to support him. That is precisely why we hope to win with a comfortable two-thirds majority.
In contrast, all other parties contesting the General Election are in total disarray.
The main Opposition UNP has broken into two, one led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe and the breakaway group SJP by Sajith Premadasa.
They are not interested in the welfare or what would happen to the masses but only keen on who takes control of the UNP headquarters, Sirikotha after the election.
The previous Yahapalana government was only driven by political vengeance and none of the development projects were taken forward. It was only interested in selling state ventures and national resources.
Should people waste their precious vote for them or support the broader political ambition of developing our nation? On the other hand, the JVP, which has descended to the lowest political ebb by indirectly supporting the UNP and the previous Yahapalana government, is struggling at least to maintain its negligible 3% vote base it secured at the last election.
The TNA will once again try to market the aspirations of the poor people in the North and the East whereas they lead luxury lives in Colombo, thanks to the funding they get from the pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora.
Q: How do you view the role played by the TNA? Do they play an adequate role to satisfy the Tamil people who had voted for them?
A: The TNA was trying to achieve what the LTTE failed to win by firepower. We will not give in to TNA demands to divide this country on ethnic lines and there will be no room for a separate State in Sri Lanka under our Government.
Our Government succeeded in eradicating terrorism which plagued the country for over three decades. We created a new environment in the country where people of all communities can live in peace and harmony.
It is deplorable that certain people have forgotten the dark era marred by violence and terror. More than 60,000 people were killed in the insurgency of the 1980s. We should make every possible effort to thwart another uprising in the country. If the TNA is genuine towards its own people who vote for them, they must ensure the broader interests of the Tamil people here, rather than working and supporting the LTTE Diaspora overseas.
Q: What are the immediate benefits that public servants could expect?
A: We will certainly implement a series of measures which would immensely benefit the people. This includes Agrahara Insurance benefits to all state sector pensioners, separate wards for them in government hospitals and a daily wage of Rs.1,000 plus to plantation workers and a higher price for locally grown potatoes.
Cabinet approval has already been granted to extend the benefits of the Agrahara Insurance Scheme to over 600,000 state sector pensioners.
The previous Agrahara Insurance Scheme covered only 10% of the state sector pensioners who had retired after January 1, 2016. According to the latest Cabinet decision around 600,000 pensioners including those who retired before 2016 are entitled to enjoy the benefits of the Agrahara Insurance Scheme.
The Cabinet has approved the proposal to have a separate ward for public sector retirees in every Government hospital. We will provide permanent houses to plantation sector workers and solve their current housing issues.
At present, estate houses have been given only to estate workers. But we will take steps to provide houses for all those in estates who have their names registered in the Electoral Register.
Q: The plantation sector makes a significant contribution to the national economy. What are your plans to address the problems in the plantation sector as well as the agricultural sector?
A: We will increase the daily wage of estate workers to Rs.1,000. Even on the day, Minister Arumugam Thondaman passed away he was talking about this issue. Unlike the TNA leaders, the late CWC leader always voiced his interest in his estate sector workers.
Two rounds of discussions have been held with estate owners on this issue. Discussions will further continue with the estate owners and steps will be taken to increase the daily wage of estate workers.
The Government will also increase employment opportunities by setting up private and government ventures.
The brand name, Ceylon Tea will be taken to the world as the finest tea with a leading brand. In return, factory owners will receive the best price for their tea, enhancing the foreign exchange they bring to our country.
Relief will be provided to local potato farmers assuring a higher price for their produce.
To further encourage the local potato farmers, a tax of Rs. 50 was imposed on a kilogram of imported potato. We will certainly expand the local market to uplift the standard of local potato farmers.
Q: The 2019 Easter bombings were the most unfortunate incident after terrorism was eradicated. The ongoing investigations reveal that the then Sirisena-Ranil combine had prior information about this impending disaster. How do you view this situation?
A: It is the most abominable incident during the so-called Yahapalana era, the darkest period of five years. The then Government was armed with the Easter bomb attackers’ details, such as their identities and other vital information.
But they failed to take any preventive action for the sake of the votes. Unfortunately for them, votes they get from extremists were more important than the lives of the masses. As a result, precious lives of around 300 people were lost and many others were injured from the Easter bomb explosions in Colombo, Kochchikade, Negombo, Katuwapitiya and Batticaloa and two other similar attacks at five-star hotels in the metropolis.
All these happened due to the utter negligence and insatiable lust for power, inflicting nothing but agony to the masses. On the other hand, the Yahapalana Government hardly did anything worthwhile for the people. UNP’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa didn’t do anything to improve the Hambabtota district he represented for years.
Due to this dismal failure on his part Sajith, can’t face the voters there anymore. So he came running to Colombo to contest, thinking that he could hoodwink the people in his father’s former stronghold. Of course, people are far more intelligent today than he thinks.
Q: What changes will be effected in the business sector, especially those who have the ability but no right connections?
A: We will ensure equal rights to entrepreneurs to engage in business. Irrespective of their political affiliations or race and religion, they belong to, they will be guaranteed a conducive environment to do their business. We will give our utmost support to local businessmen at all times.
When I was the President, we had resolved various issues of entrepreneurs through discussion. I am always ready to discuss with them any outstanding issues.
But from 2015 to 2019, the then Yahapalana Government failed to give entrepreneurs an opportunity to discuss their issues. There is a vast difference between the two Governments as the present Government is always willing to listen to them in the larger interests of the country.
The previous Government failed miserably to implement any program that would develop the country. Their only objective was to sell out the national resources to other countries.
Q: It seems that the Opposition is trying to cover up all its sins by the unfortunate Buwaneka incident in Kurunegala?
A: Exactly. We have got the report from the committee appointed to investigate the demolition of the building with an archaeological value in Kurunegala. We will take stern action if anyone is found guilty. Unlike the previous UNP government, we will not hesitate to take action to protect any sites with archaeological value.
We have taken action to stop selling national resources of the people. No one has the right to sell what belongs to the nation.
We will relaunch all development programs we had initiated but stopped by the previous Government. They plotted to sell the Hambantota port, airport and expressways and eventually succeeded in selling the Hambantota port.
Who will lose when national assets are leased out for two hundred years. Leasing for 200 years is in fact equal to selling out. In this manner, the previous Government had always taken away the rights of the children who will be born after 200 years!
Q: What is your prediction on the elections? Do you think the turnout will be the normal pattern even after Covid-19 pandemic?
A: We are fully confident of winning the election. This will be the SLPP’s third successive election victory after LG polls and Presidential elections. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic situation, we expect at least a 70% voter turnout. After the election, we must get back to business immediately without wasting time. While developing the local infrastructure, a key priority for Sri Lanka now is to attract investors, especially after the grave impact of Covid-19. I urge the public to ensure a two-thirds majority for our Government so that the Constitution could be changed for the benefit of the nation.
The previous Government did nothing for the people when they were in power. All what they did during their time in office was battling against each other for power.
Q: Is there a need to change the Constitution?
A: What we have today is a 42-year-old Constitution introduced by the first Executive President J.R. Jayewardene in 1978. It has been amended on 19 occasions. The controversial last Amendment created the biggest blunder, when the Executive President and the Prime Minister were not from the same political party but from two different political camps. We need to bring in a Constitution which does not create divisions between the Executive and the Legislature.
We have a visionary President, but we still need to establish a stable government to ensure his goals are fulfilled. To achieve this, the public should vote for a stable and strong Government.
Although the President was elected in November last year, due to the Constitutional amendments brought by the previous Government through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, it was not possible to dissolve Parliament until it completed four and a half years. Consequently the President had to wait until early March 2020 to dissolve Parliament. Similarly, the President will have to wait until the new Parliament meets in mid-August to have the funds provided for the projects he desired despite the overwhelming mandate given by over 69 lakhs of voters in November last year.
Q: Are you happy with the manner Sri Lanka tackled the Covid-19 pandemic?
A: Yes, of course, we handled it very well. Under the illustrious leadership of the President, Sri Lanka has done that in an exemplary manner. The World Heath Organization (WHO) too has commended Sri Lanka in this connection. The President appointed a Task Force in January to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic was taking a heavy toll on the lives in other parts of the world in December, the President was far-sighted to observe that Sri Lanka would face the tragedy and took necessary action in January.
We controlled it because the President took an appropriate step to appoint a Task Force and acted promptly. It was the first time in the world that the Tri-Forces were effectively deployed to control the pandemic.
If not for the President’s prompt action to track down the infected persons and quarantine them, the situation could have become dangerous.
Q: What is your message to the voters before the General Election?
A: I call upon every citizen who loves the land of his birth to think broadly and wisely in the larger interests of the country. Your vote for the Pohottuwa will lift the country out of the turmoil caused by the previous Government and put it back on the right track.