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Monday December 5th, 2022

Basil leaves: Sri Lanka’s former finance minister quits parliament ahead of 21st amendment

File photo: SLPP national organiser Basil Rajapaksa

ECONOMYNEXT – Cash-strapped Sri Lanka’s former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa vacated his parliamentary seat on Thursday (09) downplaying his role in the country’s worst ever forex crisis, without ruling out a comeback, and likening the Rajapaksa family to India’s RSS.

Exactly one month after his older brother and then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned against a backdrop of bloody violence, the younger Rajapaksa announced his departure from the legislature Thursday morning at the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) headquarters where he fielded questions from reporters eager to press him on his part in the ongoing calamity.

Rajapaksa appeared to be in a beaten-but-not-defeated mood as he attempted to use humour to deflect questions about his responsibility and, at one point, even seemed to shift the blame to the very people who had voted for his party, the SLPP.

“No, I’m not passing the buck to the people. But yes, they do hold some responsibility for electing us to power. If, as you say, we passed the buck, then those who gave us the buck in the first place should also be responsible,” said Rajapaksa, quickly recovering from a question that had visibly agitated him

It was the one moment in the hour-long press briefing in which he lost his cool.

The former finance minister’s ouster was one of the key demands of Sri Lanka’s protesting public. Among the anti-government slogans shouted at protests islandwide was the earworm “Kaputu kaak, kaak, kaak” followed by a chorus of “Basil, Basil, Basil, Basil.” The somewhat elitist meme originated from a video in which Rajapaksa was heard using the Sinhala word for crows, “kaputas”, in the plural form, at a discussion held in English, for which he was relentlessly mocked on social media.

Asked to comment on his “new brand”, Rajapaksa claimed that he had made the singsong protest slogan his phone’s ringtone.

“I mean, it’s not a bad animal, really. I hold no grudge against any being. I do not seek vengeance.

“It’s my ringtone now. The phone goes ‘Basil Basil’ when it rings.

“The first bit is played back at a lower volume,” he added with a chuckle.

On more serious matters, Rajapaksa was no less facetious. When questioned about the erosion of Rajapaksa popularity, he said: “I think we can see that our family is better at politics than at governance.”

The former minister and architect of the SLPP said that there are such cases globally.

“India’s RSS has been around for years, but they do not govern directly. The BJP has taken on that role,” he said.

However, he does not foresee an immediate end to the Rajapaksa dynasty.

“Sri Lankans elected a Rajapaksa president three times: twice with Mahinda Rajapaksa, and once with Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he said.

As for his own plans, the youngest Rajapaksa sibling said though he has retired from governance, he will continue to play an active role in politics. His resignation from the SLPP’s national list slot, he said, was for someone the party deems suitable to take his place.

Speculation has been rife that that someone will be businessman Dhammika Perera. Rajapaksa’s answers to questions about Perera’s entry to active politics were vague, at best.

“I don’t know about that. That is a decision that’s up to the party.”

However, he did say later on that if Perera wishes to implement some of the plans he had proposed for the country, there is no reason he should not be given an opportunity to do so. The same is true, he said, for anyone from the ‘aragalaya’, Sri Lanka’s youth-led protest movement.

“I invite anyone from the Aragalaya to take my place,” he said.

Regarding the economic crisis and the immense hardships imposed on the public, apart from a hurried “apology” at the end of the press briefing for any mistakes made during his tenure as Finance Minister, there was no heart-rending mea culpa from the former MP.

He brushed aside any suggestion from the journalists present that he and the Rajapaksa administration had been the authors of the agony the people were now feeling.

“I’m no longer finance minister.

“Since 1951, this country has been run the same way, on debt. No government has tried to change this. After my appointment, I tried to some extent enable the people to stand on their own feet.

“It may or may not have worked, but if there is something this country is getting now [in terms of financing], it is only what I was able to secure as finance minister,” he said.

Pressed for more honesty, Rajapaksa claimed the crisis was already there when he came on board as finance minister. He forcefully rejected suggestions by journalists that his government was responsible for the erosion of Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves which had stood at seven billion US dollars in late 2019 when his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in.

“There was no seven billion dollars when I came on. I do not accept that reserves went down to zero under me. There were no reserves when I was appointed,” he said, adding that fertilizer and other essentials were being purchased today with loans that he had helped secure.

Rajapaksa said the government had been divided on approaching the IMF for assistance, and that reconciliation between two pro and anti-IMF camps had to be achieved.

“I sent the first letter to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It was after that that two IMF officials came and met me and President Rajapaksa,” he said.

President Rajapaksa had earlier said in a televised address to the nation that it was a mistake to not go to the IMF. Former Finance Minister Rajapaksa, however, in some apparent revisionism said that the president had in fact said the IMF should’ve assisted Sri Lanka sooner.

There has been speculation that the proposed 21st amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution is being delayed due to machinations by Basil Rajapaksa against a provision to ban duel citizens from entering parliament. Rajapaksa is a US citizen and visits that country regularly. Some former influential government ministers who now function as independent MPs in parliament famously called him the “Ugly American” and accused him of carrying out a US agenda, a claim which Rajapaksa rejects.

“Personally I’m opposed to the 21st amendment,” he said, but added quickly that it was not due to personal reasons.

A constitution must serve the public interest, he said. “We can’t take the power given by 6.9 million voters to one leader and confer that on someone who only managed over 250,000 votes,” he said, referring to Sri Lanka’s newly sworn in Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

“I definitely support certain aspects of the 21st amendment, such as the provisions on independent commissions.

“I don’t know if the amendment will pass,” he said, adding however that decentralisation of power to benefit the public is important.

If the executive presidency is to be abolished, Rajapaksa said, Sri Lana’s provincial council system – a legacy of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord – must be reformed in the interest of maintaining the island nation’s sovereignty and unitary character.

Though he would personally have voted against it, he said, the decision to vote for the amendment or not remains with the party, which he says he will continue to work with.

Basil Rajapaksa leaves parliament, which he entered as an unelected MP via the national list, with Sri Lanka’s economy freefalling around the hapless and increasingly desperate citizenry.

He, however, believes he did his best.

“I think I did [do something] to the best of my ability. But I couldn’t do everything the people had expected,” he said.

Asked if his resignation was a permanent one, Rajapaksa said: “If the people decide so, perhaps; but if they want me back, I’m ready for that too.”im

“I know it’s going to be even more difficult going forward. We must all work together. We’re ready to extend any help to the present administration and whoever may be coming next,” the former minister said.

He expressed hope that global conditions will also improve, facilitating Sri Lanka’s recovery.

“I hope the Ukraine crisis is resolved and tourism will pick up again.

As he stood up to leave the briefing he said: “I would also like to express my sincere apologies to the people if there were any mistakes made.” (Colombo/Jun09/2022)

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Time right for elections, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna ready to face any poll: Basil

File photo: SLPP national organiser Basil Rajapaksa

ECONOMYNEXT — The time has come for an election in Sri Lanka and the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is ready to face any election, SLPP national organiser Basil Rajapaksa said, dismissing claims that the party has come to fear elections in the face of growing unpopularity and increased factionalisation.

Speaking to reporters at an event held in Colombo Monday December 05 morning to mark the fourth anniversary of the party’s media centre, Rajapaksa handwaved off assertions that the SLPP has splintered in the wake of the mass protests that ousted his brother and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“No, our party hasn’t fragmented, not the way this cake was cut,” he said, pointing to the cake that was cut to celebrate the media centre’s anniversary.

“There may be some [dissenters], but we are with the people,” said Rajapaksa.

Political analysts, however, note that the once mighty SLPP has indeed fractured to at least four or five distinct factions. One group, according to party sources, is with President Ranil Wickremesinghe who is keen to involve younger SLPP legislators in his economic reform agenda. The second is with former Media Minister Dullas Alahapperuma who launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency and was roundly defeated by Wickremesinghe at the July 19 presidential vote in parliament. The third group now sits as independent MPs in parliament, while a fourth faction are with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLPP patriarch.

There is another group that remains loyal to Basil Rajapaksa, though all but one SLPP legislator voted for the 21st amendment to the constitution that prohibited dual citizens from entering parliament. Rajapaksa, a dual citizen with US passport, recently returned to the island after a private visit to his second home.

The former finance minister, who resigned after a wave of protests that demanded his departure along with that of his presidential brother, for their alleged role in Sri Lanka’s prevailing currency crisis, the worst in decades, was in a jovial mood at the anniversary event on Monday and was seen heartily indulging reporters who were throwing loaded question after loaded question at him.

Asked about future plans of the SLPP, Rajapaksa quipped that they couldn’t be revealed to the media at this stage.

“However, time has come for an election. It’s difficult to say how it will be at present, but as a party, we’re ready to face any election,” he said.

Rajapaksa’s apparent confidence in facing an election is in direct contrast to speculation that the SLPP is banking on President Wickremesinghe’s refusal to dissolve parliament anytime soon. Opposition lawmakers have accused Wickremesinghe of providing sanctuary and promising security to the deeply unpopular party by not calling early elections.

“We have won every election we faced so far. We are thankful to the Sri Lankan people for that. If we were unable to meet their expectations 100 percent, we regret that. We will correct any shortcomings and will work to fulfill the people’s aspirations,” said Rajapaksa.

Asked if he is going to remain in active politics despite the blanket ban on dual citizens, the former minister said, again with a chuckle: “Active politics… well, I’m not in governance anymore. Governance [for me] has been banned by the 21st amendment. So no, I’m not in governance, but I am in politics,” he said.

Pressed about possibly entering parliament again, he said: “How can I?”

Nor is Rajapaksa saddened by the development, he claimed. “No, I’m happy about it,” he said.

The former two-time finance minister, noted for his clash of views with Wickremesinghe when the latter was invited by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for a round of discussions on economic recovery, was cautiously complimentary when asked about the new president. It was the SLPP’s backing that guaranteed Wickremesinghe his lifelong ambition.

“I think that selection was the correct one. We have maintained from the start that all of us in government or opposition must be able to freely engage in politics,” he said, referring to assurances that the president has purportedly given SLPP parliamentarians that they will not face the kind of retaliatory mob violence that engulfed the nation on May 09 after alleged SLPP goons attacked peaceful anti-government protestors in Colombo.

A reporter asked if Rajapaksa believes the incumbent president is capable of taking the country on the right path to recovery?

“The first task was accomplished, by allowing us to engage in politics and to get on the streets. There are economic and other issues, and we have high hopes that they will be resolved,” he said. (Colombo/Dec05/2022)

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Sri Lanka proposed power tariff not to recover past losses: Minister

ECONOMYNEXT – The government has not proposed a power tariff increase to recover past losses, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera in response to a statement attributed the head of the power regulator commission.

“The proposal that was presented was for an automatic cost reflective tariff mechanism to be implemented to supply uninterrupted power & to recover the current cost of power supply,” Minister Wijesekera said in twitter.com message.

“Govt has not proposed to recover past loses of CEB from a tariff revision…”

The cabinet of ministers had given the nod tariff revisions twice a year to prevent large losses from building up as in the past.

The Public Utilities Commission has disputed costs protected for the power utility saying the petroleum utility was keeping large margins in selling fuel.

The government in a budget for 2022 also proposed to tax surcharge to recover losses.

The regulator also disputed power demand forecasts.

Also read; Sri Lanka regulator disputes CEB costs, demand projections for 2023

The PUCSL cannot increase tariffs to recover past losses, Chairman Janaka Ratnayake said. (Colombo/Dec05/2022)

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Sri Lanka’s shares gain in mid market trade

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s shares edged up in mid day trade on Monday (05), continuing the positive run for seven straight sessions on news over a possible debt restructuring from Paris Club, analysts said.

All Share Price Index gained by 0.69% or 60.10 points to 8,829, while the most liquid shares gained by 0.96% or 26.59 points to 2,801.

“The market was pushed up over the news of a potential 10 year debt moratorium,” analysts said.

The Paris Club group of creditor nations has proposed a 10-year debt moratorium on Sri Lankan debt and 15 years of debt restructuring as a formula to resolve the island nation’s prevailing currency crisis. 

Related – Paris Club proposes 10-year moratorium in 15-year Sri Lanka debt re-structure: report

The market generated a revenue of 2.1 billion rupees.

Top gainers during 1130 hours were Expolanka, Browns Investment and LOLC.  (Colombo/Dec05/2022)

 

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