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Ex-state ministers using official vehicles: JVP cries foul, govt remains vague

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is committed to seeing a controversial cabinet memorandum repealed.

Former JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti filed a formal complaint at the Election Commission (NEC) on Sunday (10) against an alleged decision to allow state ministers to use their official vehicles for campaign activities in the upcoming parliamentary election – for a fee.

Speaking to EconomyNext, Handunnetti said the EC must intervene in this “total violation” of its recommendations. The fact that this development comes against a backdrop of a state official requesting public servants to forego at least a day’s worth of pay, in the midst of a global pandemic, has served to further highlight the seriousness of the allegation.

The JVP’s position is that the title of state minister has ceased to exist since the eighth parliament was dissolved on March 2 and, therefore, those who held that office can no longer use their official vehicles. While cabinet members may use their ministry-issued vehicles, according to a clarification made by Deshapriya himself on March 1, state ministers are no longer entitled to their official vehicles on the grounds that they are now mere ex-MPs.

With a document signed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa dated March 6 – the same day the EC issued its 2165-70 gazette notification pertaining to the use of state vehicles among other things – and a cabinet paper subsequently approved on March 26, Handunetti said the government has effectively allowed state ministers to use their official vehicles for campaigning purposes, in gross violation of election law.

According to the cabinet paper, however, the use of vehicles for election work comes with some conditions, one of which is a requirement to pay the relevant ministry a fee of Rs 100,000 per vehicle – a stipulation that the JVP believes has been imposed in bad faith.

“One minister uses about three vehicles. How much is the rent for a BMW or V8 per month? The allowance alone is Rs 240,000, which can easily cover that 100,000 fee,” Handunnettti told EconomyNext.

The former MP’s contention is focused on the state ministers’ use of their vehicles, but on principle, he is opposed to cabinet ministers’ using official vehicles for campaigning too.

“There is no such thing as a state minister anymore, since the dissolution of parliament; nor are there any deputy ministers. Only the cabinet exists. Technically there is nothing legally wrong with cabinet ministers using their official vehicles, but even there, there is an ethical question since they’re obviously not going to drive their cars just to and from their ministry. They will be driving them to election rallies too,” he said.

The government’s response to the allegation has been less than clear.

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Co-cabinet spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena told the BBC earlier this week that state ministers’ being permitted to use official vehicles for a fee was a continuation of a practice that had its origins in the Yahapalana government, in 2015.

Asked about this, Handunnetti said the 2015 cabinet memorandum had made no reference to state ministers.

“We don’t agree with that decision either, but it applied only to cabinet ministers. There was no mention of state ministers,” he said.

Meanwhile, speaking to EconomyNext, former state minister Anura Priyadarshan Yapa denied any knowledge of his government’s alleged decision.

“I don’t know anything about that. I personally handed over my vehicles once the portfolio ceased to exist after the dissolution. The very next day, I handed over everything to the ministry,” he said.

Yapa said that on principle he has never used his official vehicles for election campaigning, not even when he was entitled to as a cabinet minister.

Asked again if he was not aware of it, the former state minister said: “I’m not aware of it. No one informed me. What I can say is, once parliament is dissolved, state ministers also vacate their positions. After that they will have to hand over their vehicles unless otherwise decided by the cabinet or the election commissioner.”

He reiterated that as a state minister, he was not privy to a cabinet decision pertaining to the use of official vehicles for election work.

Asked if he was aware of any other former state ministers still using their official vehicles, Yapa said: “I don’t know. Most of them, when I spoke to them, also said they have already handed over their vehicles.”

Handunnetti said it is now up to the election commissioner.

“If the commission does not intervene, we’ll have to figure out what to do next,” he said.

“What we can do is inform the people. If the people don’t listen either, then that’s a whole other problem,” he added, in a lighter vein.

EC Chairman Deshapriya was unavailable for comment. (Colombo/May12/2020)

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