National responsibility to form APG - Ranjith Siyambalapitiya | Sunday Observer

National responsibility to form APG - Ranjith Siyambalapitiya

18 September, 2022

State Minister of Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya said that it is the national responsibility of all to join hands irrespective of political differences and extend their support to make the All-Party Government endeavour a success.

He believes even at the next Cabinet reshuffle, all party leaders will fulfill this responsibility on behalf of the country. The State Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said of the 14 SLFP MPs, eight MPs have already become stakeholders of the Government and they have given a strong message to the SLFP.

Therefore, the party should properly realise this message given by the majority of its MPs. As a responsible party, the SLFP has a big responsibility to become stakeholders of this process. He said: “Those who want to make a system change now should get rid of political differences and join hands with the Government by accepting portfolios. I hope then we will be able to commence the first phase of the system change.”

Excerpts of the interview

Q: If the President has extended an open invitation to all parties to join hands to form an All-Party Government (APG), the Opposition parties have so far failed to reach a common consensus. What is the reason for it?

A: Still we are not in a position to say that an APG will not be formed. The dialog on the APG has not yet been concluded. It was the SLFP which first put forward this APG proposal. I also extended my fullest support within the party because we have a lot of hope on IMF proposals.

One of the major conditions of the IMF is to have a stable Government. To rebuild an economy, the first and foremost thing is there should be a stable administration. The ideal foundation for this is to form an APG. A volatile political situation emerged in the country following the resignation of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa due to the wave of public protests.

At this juncture, there is no possibility of going for an election. Therefore, a strong and stable administration should be formed through an APG mechanism. I don’t think the President has given up his hope of forming an APG. When doing politics, each political party leader thinks of the next stage such as who will be the next State Leader and who will succeed in the competition. Such issues are there in our society.

I think that is why this process is getting delayed. However, we all have a prime responsibility to overcome the current crisis situation without considering who will be the successor of the competition.

Democracy faced a severe setback due to recent incidents that occurred in the country. Somehow, the situation is being turned back to normalcy.

Q: It was the SLFP which initially put forward the APG proposal. Do you think the SLFP should become a stakeholder of an APG?

A: Definitely. Majority of the SLFP MPs have already become stakeholders of the Government. We discussed this issue within the party in a very cordial manner. As a responsible party, the SLFP has a big responsibility to become stakeholders of this process. Now the SLFP has practically realised this. Of the 14 SLFP MPs, nearly 8 MPs have already become stakeholders of the Government and they have given a strong message to the SLFP. Therefore, the party should properly realise this message given by the majority of its MPs. The day when we accepted these portfolios, we discussed with SLFP Chairman former President Maithripala Sirisena and conveyed our decision to him. We didn’t take this decision with hatred or having any issues with the party.

Q: However, the SLFP leadership has decided to take disciplinary action against the 8 SLFP MPs who accepted portfolios by going against the decision taken by the SLFP Central Committee. Would you like to comment?

A: I don’t see the comment made by Party Leader Maithripala Sirisena as wrong because no final decision was taken by the SLFP Central Committee to join an APG. However, we should not hang on these words or have unnecessary clashes. We should discuss the issue in a wider perspective. I never criticise the comments of my party leader. In politics, sometimes, the decision taken by somebody last week will have to be changed this week in keeping with the prevailing situation in the country. The decision we take today on behalf of the country will have to be changed tomorrow.

Former President Maithripala Sirisena was a very flexible leader. He was a Leader who curtailed his presidential powers by himself. At the time when the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was created, a group of our MPs requested the then President Sirisena to grant them permission to sit in the Opposition. At that time he was a very powerful President. If some other leader was in power, he should have taken a different decision.

However, the then President Sirisena allowed his MPs to sit in the Opposition. Again another, 16- group of MPs also requested to allow them to sit in the Opposition. The then President granted permission to that request as well. Those decisions were taken by him on behalf of the country and the party by preventing any rift within the party.

I believe our party Chairman, former President Sirisena would listen to the majority view of the party. When looking at his political history, I think he would take decisions pertaining to the party in a positive manner.

Q: The Opposition and various sections have raised concern on the appointment of 38 State Ministers amid the economic crisis. Your comments?

A: The facilities given to these State Ministers have been curtailed to a great extent but nobody talks about it. The second fact is the same political atmosphere in China and India is not in our country. Actually, it is a volatile political situation. A single party MP in Parliament has become the country’s President. The President has only one of his MPs in Parliament. However, the President has put forward the proposal to form an APG very seriously.

However, the majority of the Opposition parties deliberately ignore this process. Instead of giving them some responsibilities, what is the other practical mechanism the President has to seek the support of over 112 MPs in Parliament to find solutions to the burning issues in the country? It is easy to say the number of Ministers should just restrict 10 to 15. When looked at practically, there is no other option that the President and the Government can take. If there is no solution, then we will have to go for the next option available. That is to appoint State Ministers and take steps to curtail their facilities.

Q: Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has said that more than 3,500 persons have been arrested and over 1,200 have been remanded since May 9 because they intervened ideologically to change a Government. The Opposition has also alleged the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is used to crackdown on the peaceful protests. Would you like to comment?

A: It is wrong if someone is arrested by going against the existing law. Similarly, if someone acts against democracy, that is also wrong. Then the Government will have to take action regarding that. We could see the protesters storming into the President’s official residence while attempts were also made to enter Parliament. If the Parliament was forcibly captured by a certain group, was there a leader or political party among them to take any responsibility? What should have been their next step to take the country forward from the next day onwards?

Those who were at “Aragalaya” didn’t have any such action plan. However, I am not going to challenge the “Aragalaya” or public uprising that emerged at that time. I don’t say that is wrong. Various segments of the society such as farmers, labourers and students came to streets due to the pressure exerted on them. If that “Aragalaya” exceeded its limits, an unbelievable catastrophic situation would have occurred in the country. Then the Government in power has to implement the law.

Q: Those who engaged in the “Aragalaya” were clamouring for a system change. Do you think there should be a system change to get the country out of the current crisis situation?

A: Certainly. However, that system change should be made legally. Otherwise if certain groups stormed into Government institutions and took them under their control, it would lead to a catastrophe from the next day onwards.

The election is the only way which can make a system change in our country. If the Opposition also accepts portfolios in an APG without making criticism, then we can start the first change. First the Opposition should become stakeholders of the Government. Then the people at the next election have a clear room to elect their representatives and effect that system change. However, everybody admits that at this juncture, there is no environment conducive to go for an election to make a system change.

At present, inflation has reached nearly 60 percent. We hope this will come down in the next quarter. Food inflation is around 90 percent. Therefore, we have faced a very critical economic situation. In 2021, the Government’s revenue was Rs.1464 billion but the expenditure was Rs.3522 billion. Under these circumstances, there is no possibility whatsoever to go for an election to make a system change.

First we should create the basis to turn the country to normalcy. Those who want to make a system change now should get rid of political differences and join hands with the Government by accepting portfolios. I hope then we will be able to commence the first phase of the system change.

Q: The President during a recent meeting with Administrator of the USAID Samantha Power has said that if the Parliament fails to reach an agreement on electoral reforms, he will hold a referendum and ask the country which system they prefer. Your views?

A: If the political parties don’t reach a consensus, as a democratic leader the best option for the President is to go before the people. Then the people can take a clear decision on these series of matters. In a referendum, there won’t be clashes and disputes pertaining to preferential votes unlike in a general election or any other election. If any final consensus cannot be reached, I think there is nothing wrong with the President going for a referendum as the final option.

Q: UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and UN World Food Program (WFP) have warned in a report an estimated 6.3 million people in Sri Lanka are facing moderate to severe acute food insecurity, and their situation is expected to worsen if adequate life-saving assistance and livelihood support is not provided. Would you like to comment?

A: I think the Government is well aware of this situation. At present, the Government has taken steps to increase the subsidy given to 1.7 million Samurdhi beneficiary families. I don’t say this subsidy is sufficient due to the current hardships they have faced.

The Government has done the maximum it can. In addition, a decision was taken to give an allowance of Rs.10, 000 to 61,000 low income families while steps were taken to give social welfare benefits for the deserving people such as kidney and cancer patients and differently able people.

A decision has also been taken to provide Samurdhi subsidies to those who deserve to get it. All together, assistance will be given to nearly 2.5 million low income families. The Government has laid special emphasis on low income groups who have faced acute food insecurity. The Government has taken measures to provide direct benefits to them within the next four months. I am not trying to say this is sufficient. I don’t say others don’t need any relief or assistance. However, there are maximum possible measures that can be taken by a Government and it can’t go beyond that limit. It has to bridge the gap between the revenue and the expenditure. Through the proposals presented by the Interim Budget, the Government is making a genuine effort to address these issues.

Q: There are media reports that the Government will take measures to lift the ban on the import of 300 consumer items soon after resolving the foreign exchange issue. Could you explain?

A: Actually, that is not to lift the ban on all 300 consumer items. Among them, there are items which are essential for agriculture and industrial exports. Permission has already been granted to import certain items. We would further consider the essential items which don’t have any substitutes and the materials which are required for the items produced locally to earn dollars. However, this doesn’t mean the ban on the import of all 300 consumer items will be lifted.

Q: The proposal to set up a National Council has come to the Order Book of Parliament. How do you view the decision taken to form a National Council?

A: All political parties should sincerely contribute towards this task. All citizens should first think of their country, secondly their party and thirdly themselves. If we think in such a manner and work together, once again we would be able to talk about Sri Lanka proudly. Today this happens the other way around. First people think about themselves, secondly their party and thirdly the country. In order to get fruitful results from whatever council to be set up, we should think according to the order that I mentioned. Even at this critical juncture, if anybody doesn’t think in such a manner, he is not a true politician or a leader.

I am a person who immensely loves the SLFP and of the firm view that the party should be safeguarded further. I have continuously represented the SLFP over the past 23 years. Therefore, I firmly believe if we honestly dedicate ourselves, we would be able to get the country out of this crisis.