Getting country out of its present economic crisis, more important - Prasanna Ranatunga | Sunday Observer

Getting country out of its present economic crisis, more important - Prasanna Ranatunga

26 February, 2023

Chief Government Whip and Minister of Urban Development and Housing Prasanna Ranatunga said when attempts are being made by the Government to provide basic amenities to the people amid the economic crisis, we should consider whether conducting the Local Government (LG) election is necessary at this juncture.

The Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer said if there is a program to overcome the current economic crisis, assistance should be given to that program irrespective of political differences. Minister Ranatunga said he believes that the President and the Government have implemented a program to get the country out of the current crisis situation. He said, “If President Ranil Wickremesinghe succeeds in this attempt, it would be similar to how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa put an end to the 30- year war against terrorism.”

Excerpts of the interview

Q: The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) on Tuesday held a protest in Parliament demanding the Government to hold the Local Government elections. Would you like to comment?

A: We are also of the view that the LG election should be held. However, we should realise there was no gas and fuel in the market in February and March last year and the people had to stay in lengthy queues. In addition, the people couldn’t find their essential food commodities and medicine. The country had faced a massive economic crisis. As a result, we had to seek IMF assistance. At present the people have to face hardships due to certain conditions put forward by the IMF. However, the country has progressed economically to some extent and a situation where the people can somehow continue their livelihoods has been created. Today the people have forgotten the acute shortage of fuel and gas in the market last year. Those days, certain sections put the blame on us alleging that tax concessions were given during the tenure of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Now those very same people say the percentage of the increase of taxes is higher. Having looked into all these view points, we have to manage the situation.

When the attempts are being made by the Government to provide basic amenities to the people amid the economic crisis, we should consider whether conducting the Local Government election is so important at this juncture. If that is so, the Provincial Council election should have also been held. When this very same group was in the former Yahapalana Government, they created a situation where the Provincial Council election cannot be held. It is very obvious they acted according to a political agenda.

A State cannot be toppled or destabilised. If any attempts are made to do so, it would set a bad precedent and it would affect the entire country and its people. The incumbent President is not a member of the Government. He is the leader who appears on behalf of the entire people of the country. Constitutionally, he has been given power to fulfill that task. Therefore, the President is fulfilling that task and the Election Commission acts to conduct elections. The Parliament has the responsibility of public finance. If there is any financial issue of conducting the LG election, that can be discussed in Parliament.

Q: Commenting on the recent controversies surrounding the upcoming LG election, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told the media that the SLPP is of the strong opinion that the LG polls must be held as scheduled. What is your view in this regard?

A: Whatever the stance maintained by the Government, that is the stance of our party.

Q: At present the Government has split into several factions and nearly 35 SLPP Parliamentarians have quit the Government. How will this impact on the SLPP led coalition at future elections?

A: We have a challenge. The houses of 76 SLPP Parliamentarians were set on fire due to the riot incidents that broke out on May 9 last year. The houses of a large number Government MPs had also been attacked. In addition, the houses of some Provincial Council and Local Government members were also set on fire. Under these circumstances, some Local Government members are reluctant to contest the upcoming LG election. A group of people from the NPP and the SJB had taken part in those violence incidents. We can recognise those who set fire to our houses and harass our supporters who are contesting the upcoming LG polls from the SJB and NPP. It is very clear those May 9 riot incidents last year had been planned in an organised manner. Actually, they wanted to politically silence us as they were aware that the LG election was going to be held.

However, our Parliamentarians, Local Government members and supporters are getting ready for the LG election at grassroot level. We would have not been able to talk about democracy if we lost the President’s House, Presidential Secretariat, Prime Minister’s office and subsequently Parliament due to violence that erupted on May 9 last year. Those who clamour for democracy today were the very same people who gave voice cuts to the media those days inciting the people to storm into Parliament. It is regrettable to note no action has been taken against them so far. First, law and order should be established in the country. If there is a program to get the country out of the current economic crisis, assistance should be given to that program irrespective of political differences.

Q: Political analysts and certain sections have dismissed the SLPP and the UNP and they are of the view that real competition for the upcoming LG election and any other future elections is going to be between the SJB and the NPP. Your comments?

A: That is true. The competition for the second and third is between the SJB and NPP but that is not an issue for us. Normally, the power of the majority of the Local Government bodies is captured by the party which has the control of the Government and the Provincial Councils. The country cannot be developed through the Local Government bodies. Local Government institutions should cater to the requirements of the people at grass root level.

That can only be done by those who have the backing of the President and the Government. We also faced a similar situation in 2015. After the SLPP won the LG election in 2015, we couldn’t do any work for about two and half years. Once we were going to start the work, we had to face the Covid-19 pandemic and couldn’t fulfill the work as we planned. Today the people are intelligent and they know that if they want to get some work done through the Local Government institutions, they should extend their support to the party in power led by the President.

Q: The Government Printer has said that if funds are not provided, it would not be able to print the ballot papers. The Opposition parties have said that it is unacceptable for authorities to claim they have no funds to print the ballot papers required for the upcoming LG election. Could you explain?

A: It is these same parties which deliberately attempted to destabilise the country by asking not to send money to the country. The Government Printer says if she is given money, she can print ballot papers. As I said earlier, the Parliament is held responsible for the public finance and if the issue is taken up in Parliament, we can discuss it.

Q: Some Government lawmakers including you have said that the LG election is not an election that can topple the Government or change the President. However, National People’s Power Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has said that upcoming LG polls will be a turning point in Sri Lankan history. Would you like to air your views?

A: When some Leaders in the Opposition were hiding and some Leaders who were not capable enough to accept challenges, Ranil Wickremesinghe was the leader who accepted the challenge without any hesitation. Therefore, the people have placed confidence in the President but they don’t have any such confidence in incapable leaders who cannot accept challenges.

Q: The professionals representing several trade unions protest against the recent tax revision. Is there any genuine reason behind the issues raised by them?

A: An amendment was introduced by the Prime Minister in Parliament for this recently.

After doing that also, some professionals are acting according to a political agenda. The Opposition should engage in politics and that is what they are doing now.

Q: President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently said the present economic difficulties faced by the people will ease before the end of the year as he is working to improve the country’s economy. Would you like to comment on this?

A: As members of the Cabinet, we know the attempts made by the President to rebuild the economy. Actually, this is similar to how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa put an end to the 30-year-war against terrorism. At present, the President is trying his level best to rebuild the economy which suffered a huge setback due to the violent incidents that took place in 1971 and 1988-1989 as well as the natural disasters that occurred. If the President succeeds in his attempt, it would be similar to winning the 30-year-war against terrorism.

Q: The President delivering the Government’s Policy Statement in Parliament recently requested everyone to unite consensually and move forward democratically to support the recovery of the nation from the current crisis. However, it seems the Opposition is not sincere on their part to make this endeavour a success. How do you view the present conduct of the Opposition?

A: When members are appointed to Parliament committees, the present Opposition Leader and the Opposition have failed even to provide justice to MPs who are in the Opposition. So, it is questionable what proposals they will agree to get the country out of the current crisis situation.

They have engaged in an attempt to destabilise the country and capture power by putting the people into hardships. When the people realise the actual situation, they will not extend any support to them.

Q: How do you view the allegation levelled by the Opposition including the NPP that an alarming number of professionals are leaving the country due to increased taxation?

A: I don’t see any such trend. The professionals are intelligent and they have realised the situation and act accordingly.

They have also extended their support to overcome the situation. These kinds of comments are made by some professionals who are selfish and think only about themselves by acting according to their political agendas.

Q: The President has recently pledged to implement the 13th Amendment in full. What is the view of the SLPP regarding the 13th Amendment?

A: The SLPP position on the 13th Amendment will be notified later. As a former Chief Minister, I would like to say the 13th Amendment has already been implemented. When I acted as the Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council, I always believed the administrative power should be devolved. The necessary amendments on Police powers should be brought and those should be operated via the National Police Commission. From history, the land powers were under the supervision of kings and State leaders. Those powers should be implemented in the same manner. However, these powers should be implemented in a fair manner to all those who live in the North and East and plantation areas.

Q: At present various divisions have been made among the Tamil political parties in the North. How will this affect when attempts are being made to find a solution to the current crisis with the consensus of all political parties?

A: I hope the people in the North will understand the prevailing situation. They couldn’t send their children to schools for so many years in the past. They faced severe hardships to continue their livelihood. After the end of the war, the situation in the North is being turned into normalcy. The schools have reopened, youth are engaged in their sports activities and the hospitals are functioning. If some injustice is made to the people, this division would further aggravate and the people will lose their confidence in the leaders in the North. At present most of the Tamil political leaders in the North and the East talk to the Tamil Diaspora. If they do this only, they will get benefits. However, the innocent people in the North and the East and plantation areas want to create an environment to continue their livelihood successfully. If the people lose confidence in their leaders, they will have to face serious consequences.

Q: Street food stalls in Kimbulawala have been given a conditional go ahead after the matter was raised in Parliament. What are the steps taken to sort out this issue?

A: We had a meeting with food stalls owners at the Urban Development Authority on Tuesday. Then it was discussed about a methodology to regulate street food stalls and they pledged to extend their support to that. I am of the view that these street food stalls should not be removed from that place as most of the countries in the world have introduced similar street food stalls.

Sometimes, roads are blocked when such food stalls are on the streets. Therefore, it was discussed about a methodology to regulate these food stalls.