Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne speaks to Dailymirror about plans for the next presidential elections and the reasons for antagonism between the President and the Prime Minister. He shared the following views:-
Q The government has reached the tail end of its term. German Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jorn Rohde insisted that the government should implement the reform agenda. How do you see the government’s performance in retrospect?
Of course, the government has done a lot. No other government has delivered on its campaign promises than us. The problem is that there is scant publicity for what we did. We established democracy in terms of appointing independent commissions and enacting the Right to Information Act. There is no white van culture now. We ensured judicial independence. Today, there are so many court rulings against the government even. The court case on the move to arrest former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has dragged on for two years. He has become a legally immune person in the virtual sense. People are under the impression that the judiciary is in connivance with the opposition. That is because we have given judicial independence to such an extent.
The President’s SLFP got 14% of votes. These are voters who cast their ballots against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 as well. All these parties stood for a common candidate - President Sirisena
Today, even the Ministers’ relatives are not spared by the law enforcement authorities. Even they are arrested if they are involved in criminal acts. We increased the salaries of public servants. We did a lot of development work. The previous government, during its ten years, built only 162 km of expressways. Our government has already undertaken to construct 192 km.
Q You said there was scant publicity for what your government did. You are the Cabinet spokesperson. Isn’t that your failure then?
The government got only the publicity I gave during my weekly Cabinet briefings. I countered allegations against the government. Yet, only limited airtime is allocated to us in the electronic media. The Media Ministry should carry out a consistent publicity campaign. That Ministry is meant to do it. But, there is dereliction of duty on the part of the Media Ministry.
Q You said you did so much for people. But, for the first time in history, the ruling party lost the local government elections. Why did it happen?
The conduct of free and fair elections is one reason. The Elections Commission conducted the election exercising its power over the government institutions in the run up to the polls. Everything was under scrutiny. There was no way for anyone to offer inducements for vote catching.
However, the number of votes polled by the government in 2015 is still intact. The parties that were together in 2015 contested separately this time. When the votes polled by each of them are added up, we still have 51% of votes.
Q Actually, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena campaigned against the United National Party (UNP). Therefore, how do you put together the votes polled by these two parties, for example, into a common basket?
The President’s SLFP got 14% of votes. These are voters who cast their ballots against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 as well. All these parties stood for a common candidate - President Sirisena.
Q How feasible is it to bring all these parties together under a common front under the current developments in view of the next presidential elections?
I had talks with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on the need to unite all these parties and forces in respect of the next election. Both the leaders agreed to it. Yet, it is not an easy task. The SLFP questions the possibility of getting votes if they stick together with the UNP. If we form a common alliance under a new symbol and contest, we can get the required percentage of votes for victory again. I strive for it now. That is to form a front under a new symbol.
Q Yet, there is antagonism between the President and the Prime Minister. In fact, they take on each other openly. Is it possible to unite them again?
The President behaves in such a manner to hold his vote base. Otherwise, it will slide towards the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The President acts to prevent that.
Q Does it mean that the President is engaged in a political gimmick?
The President is trying to prevent the anti-UNP voters from joining another political force. Instead, he is trying to attract them to his party.
Q The UNP MPs say that they have made a mistake by supporting a common candidate on the two previous occasions. How can you prevail upon them to agree to a common candidate once again?
Such ideas prevailed within the UNP even at that time. They insisted that party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should contest even in 2015. Yet, we fielded a common candidate who won eventually. Those who crow over today enjoy their perks because we fielded a common candidate who could win. Otherwise, the UNP would never ever have come to power.
In the UNP, we find those with extremist views. Also, in the SLFP, we find some persons who are overly traditional in their political views. They flaunt their anti-UNP rhetoric. It is empty rhetoric. In the past, we used to view those against capitalism as ant-UNPers. At that time, the SLFP supported the nationalist bourgeoisie. The leftist parties gave leadership to the proletaria
Q Whom do you hold responsible for disunity between the two leaders?
Anyone speaking against this unity is held responsible. People want unity. They see those working against the unity government as traitors, be they ministers or MPs.
Q Which party is held more responsible for disunity?
In the UNP, we find those with extremist views. Also, in the SLFP, we find some persons who are overly traditional in their political views. They flaunt their anti-UNP rhetoric. It is empty rhetoric. In the past, we used to view those against capitalism as ant-UNPers. At that time, the SLFP supported the nationalist bourgeoisie. The leftist parties gave leadership to the proletariat. The UNP was identified with the capitalist class. It was the enemy of the leftist leaning camp as a result. Today, the context is different. The SLFP also embraced capitalist ideas after Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Q Who is the next presidential candidate in your mind?
We will announce just prior to the elections.
Q Some within the government say that President Sirisena should be the candidate, while UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam says the PM Wickremesinghe would be the candidate. What are your views on this?
At the last presidential election, there were different names mentioned as presidential candidates. Finally, we fielded someone media never guessed.
Q You mean to say that someone will be nominated in a similar fashion this time too?
Yes, it could happen.
Q In that sense, is it possible for someone to defect from the SLPP and contest as the candidate?
We cannot rule it out either.
Q Last time, you had a manifesto to implement the 100-day programme, dealing with the UNHRC process etc. What are you going to tell people next time?
We have a lot to say this time. We resurrected the country from an international trap. We gave concessions to people and established democracy. We will tell people how we are going to build on them.
Q The German Ambassador raised concerns about the failure to implement Constitutional Reforms. How do you react to it?
We will seek a mandate to form a stable government to implement what we could not do this time.
Q What do you mean by ‘them’?
There are matters related to Constitution-making, reconciliation etc. If not for the change in 2015, the Rajapaksa government would have faced economic sanctions. That is the very reason for Mahinda Rajapaksa to advance the presidential election at that time. Our government forges ahead today without any international interference.
If those involved in terrorism in the South can be commemorated, the same would apply for those in the North. That was what I said. We cannot differentiate between the two races on this issue. If we ban such events, we have to do it for all. It was a commemoration of war-dead. It was confirmed even by former parliamentarian M.K. Sivajilingam
Q Today, there are changes in the international context. The United States has pulled out from the UNHRC. Your comments on this...
The UNHRC will be weakened in the absence of the US. The UNHRC influence on the countries likes ours would begin to fade.
Q So you say it is a positive development...
Rather than talking about its pros and cons, it is better to improve the human rights record of our country in conformity with international covenants we have ratified. We cannot deviate from it.
Q As for the next presidential election again, how do you view Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as a candidate from the other side?
They are at a loss to identify the candidate. It has become a tussle within the Rajapaksa camp. The country was stuck in the hands of the Bandaranaike family in the past. We resurrected it from that family. Now, the country is getting stuck in the hands of the Rajapaksa family. There is a tug-of-war among the Rajapaksa brothers to become the next candidate.
Q Recently, you came under attack in the social media over some remarks made by you on the commemoration of terrorists killed during the war. What did you mean actually?
If those involved in terrorism in the South can be commemorated, the same would apply for those in the North. That was what I said. We cannot differentiate between the Tamils and Sinhalese on this issue. If we ban such events, we have to do it for all. In this instance, it is a commemoration of war-dead. It was confirmed even by former MP M.K. Sivajilingam. My critics were silenced by the act of hospitality by the military personnel stationed at Nanthikkadal. They offered thirst quenching beverages to those returning from the commemorative event in Mullivaikkal. That was a meritorious act by war heroes in the real sense. Still there are shrapnel embedded in my body.
If not for the change in 2015, the Rajapaksa government would have faced economic sanctions. That is the very reason for Mahinda Rajapaksa to advance the presidential election at that time. Our government forges ahead today without any international interference