President Sirisena’s options
Posted on February 17th, 2019

By C. A. Chandraprema Courtesy The Island

President Maithripala Sirisena seems to be showing signs of wanting to contest for the presidency, once again, this year even though he came into power, pledging to abolish the executive presidency. There is nothing surprising in that because except for the first two presidents, everyone else came into power, pledging to abolish the position to which they were seeking to get elected. The aggressive initiative he has taken against drugs and corruption and environmental degradation seems to be aimed at making himself popular among the people in preparation for his bid for re-election.

There is no doubt that President Sirisena has won some acceptance for himself by turning against the UNP and ramping up the war on drugs and environmental degradation. However, this is mostly a ‘lone ranger’ style operation, where he performs on his own. While his stock may have gone up, the prospects of the SLFP parliamentarians who took positions in the national government at his behest, now lie in tatters. The 15 MPs who resigned from the national government may have some chance because they were seen by the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) constituency to be exerting themselves to break up the national government, and their efforts, in fact, did bear fruit. But the 23 who stood with Sirisena to the last, are in dire straits and that is why a number of them have been negotiating with the UNP to join the UNF.

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If the members of this group of 23 contests on the SLPP ticket, they will get a substantial number of votes because they, too, were once members of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government but they will not get the required number of votes to win. When an election is declared, there is the possibility that the majority of this group of 23 will join the UNF as a separate group. That will be an act of desperation because the prospect of them being able to win even on the UNF ticket is pretty slim because it is very unlikely that their constituents will join them in shifting to the UNF. The political balance of power in the country according to the results of the local government elections held in February last year, is as follows.

The SLPP obtained 5,006,827 votes, which works out to 40.3% of the valid votes cast. The total number of votes won by SLPP backed independent groups in Maharagama, Tirappane, Mahiyangana, Beruwela and Bandarawela is 89,360 or 0.7% of the valid votes cast. Thus the SLPP percentage at the last elections is a maximum of 41%. President Maithripala Sirisena’s UPFA contested some districts as the SLFP and others as the UPFA at the last local government elections. The combined UPFA/SLFP vote at the local government elections was 1,497,234 which works out to 12.10% of the valid votes cast. The district wise breakdown of the UPFA/SLFP vote at the last LG elections is as follows:

Votes received by UPFA/SLFP at the local government elections held in February 2018

 

 

 

If an election is held today and the SLFP/UPFA contests separately, it is highly unlikely that they will get as many votes as at the 2018 local government election. There is not a snowflake’s chance in hell that President Sirisena will be able to improve upon this performance or even hold steady at any future election. The contest is now between the SLPP and the UNP and their respective allies. Some of the allies from the north and east and the Nuwara Eliya district like Douglas Devananda, Arumugam Thondaman, M.L.A.M.Hisbulla, A.L.M.Athaulla, who contested under the UPFA banner or with an understanding with them, will most probably link up with the SLPP for the next election.

The voting patterns will also not remain the same at a local government election and a presidential election. At a local government election, the supporters of ethnic and religious political parties actually vote for their own candidates contesting on a list with other parties. But at a presidential election they have no candidate of their own to vote for and they will be voting for whoever is seen to be most amenable to their parochial demands. So, at a presidential election, the SLPP’s near 5.1 million votes and the UPFA’s near 1.5 million votes obtained at the local government elections will not necessarily translate mechanically into 53% of the votes for the candidate fielded by the SLPP/UPFA combine. Since the voting pattern in the whole country changes at a presidential election, the number of votes received by the SLPP/UPFA candidate could be lower or even higher than their combined vote bank according to the results of the local government election.

However, the coming together of the SLPP and the UPFA is both arithmetically and psychologically important. This arithmetic will be crucial at a presidential election. Back in 2004, the reason why the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga took the calculated risk of dissolving Parliament just two and a half years into the UNP government, elected to power in December 2001, was because according to the results of the 2001 parliamentary election, the votes of the people’s Alliance and the JVP, when combined exceeded that of the UNP. So, once an agreement was reached with the JVP to combine forces and contest on the same list at the forthcoming parliamentary election, it was fairly safe to dissolve parliament. Hence the electoral arithmetic as revealed by the preceding elections is vitally important in deciding on elections strategy. In this case, a linkage between the SLPP and the UPFA/SLFP is vital if the opposition candidate is to win.

Sirisena mistrusted by SLPP constituency

If no presidential candidate succeeds in getting over 50% of the vote as required by Article 94(2) of the Constitution, Article 94(3) will then become operational. Under Article 94(3), the candidates other than the two candidates who received the highest and second highest number of votes will be eliminated from the contest. Thereafter, the second preferences of all the candidates who have been eliminated from the race will be counted and those cast in favour of the remaining candidates will be added to their votes.

The ballot papers of the eliminated candidates whose second preferences have been counted in that manner will then be set aside. Thereafter, the remaining ballot papers of the eliminated candidates will be checked for their third preferences. If the third preferences have been cast in favour of the two candidates still remaining in the race, they will be added to their votes. After this counting process is over, whoever has got the highest number of votes will be declared the winner.

It will be noticed that what kicks in with Article 94(3) is actually a first-past-the-post contest. Under the provisions of Article 94(3), there is no need to obtain 50% of the vote to become President. Technically, even a candidate who polls much less than that can be declared President. If for example there are ten candidates at a presidential election and the two leading candidates get 25% and 20% of the valid votes cast and the other 55% of the valid votes gets distributed among the remaining eight candidates, what will happen under Article 94(3) is that the eight candidates who collectively got 55% of the valid votes cast will be eliminated from the race, and after counting the second and third preferences of the eliminated candidates, one of the two remaining candidates will be declared the winner if he ends up with just one vote more than his rival.

Even though voters can indicate up to three preferences on their presidential election ballot paper, very few people actually indicate their second or third preferences and they vote only for one candidate. Furthermore, at the past three presidential elections, the votes obtained by candidates other than the two main candidates have been less than 2% of the valid votes cast. So, there will not be many second and third preference votes to be counted. Thus, even if no candidate gets 50% of the valid votes cast in the first round, there is the possibility of him or her being elected President under Article 94(3).

Even though some say that Maithripala Sirisena is angling for the SLPP/UPFA presidential candidacy, the bulk of the opposition voters are SLPP supporters who do not trust Sirisena. Even though Sirisena has made a clean break with Ranil Wickremesinghe, many in the SLPP have serious doubts as to whether he has severed links with the UNP. At the first combined public rally of the SLPP/UPFA, held in Battaramulla on the 5th November last year, President Sirisena told the assembled crowd that he had offered the Prime Ministership first to Karu Jayasuriya and then to Sajith Premadasa but they had both declined and that was why he had settled for Mahinda Rajapaksa. So, getting back with Mahinda Rajapaksa was the last resort. Had Karu Jayasuriya or Sajith Premadasa agreed to accept the Prime ministership, Sirisena would never have made Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister. If either Karu or Sajith had become the prime minister we would still have been under a UNP/UPFA national government.

Hence the problem that Sirisena has is not with the UNP but with Ranil Wickremesinghe. If not for Wickremesinghe’s presence, Sirisena would prefer to work with the UNP than with the SLPP. Even after the UNP government was restored to power after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned on 15 December last year, President Sirisena was heard to publicly praise Sajith Premadasa and the latter reciprocated. Given all that has happened after January 2015, one can be certain that only a very few members of the SLPP will have an appetite to vote for a president that they cannot trust. So, it is very unlikely that President Sirisena will become the candidate of the combined SLPP/UPFA. Even if the SLPP and Joint Opposition high command decides to make Sirisena the candidate of the opposition, there will be a revolt from below with someone from the SLPP coming forward as a candidate.

If Sirisena tries to force himself into the ring, it is almost certain that the SLPP will field its own candidate and in such an eventuality there both th SLPP and the SLFP may lose and the UNP win. On the other hand, if Sirisena takes a step backwards and allows the SLPP and the Joint Opposition to field its candidate and he supports that candidacy, there is a distinct likelihood that the opposition candidate will win and Sirisena himself will have a continued role to play in politics. The key is for both Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa to endorse a candidate. If both of them throw their weight behind one candidate, there is a distinct possibility of being able to win the presidential election this year and that will be to the mutual benefit of both parties.

Auditor General’s controversial claim

Speaking of President Sirisena, it will be recalled that on the day that campaigning was to end before polling began at last year’s local government election, the Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe held a special press conference and said that no one knew how much the country owed and that the previous government (the Rajapaksa government) was to blame for that situation. At that time, this writer described this as a ‘Polonnaru gundu’ to discredit the previous leaders on the eve of the local government election because the Auditor General was echoing the views that had been expressed earlier by President Sirisena at a meeting with media heads. Last Tuesday, the Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe once again came on TV at a  talk show made the controversial claim that he did not know how much the country owed. In answer to a question raised by the host, Mr Wijesinghe said that he, too, hailed from Polonnaruwa and knew President Maithripala Sirisena well.

When a Polonnaruwa President makes a statement before the media heads and the Auditor General, who also hails from Polonnaruwa, calls a press conference on the day that campaigning closed for the local government polls and then confirms what the President has said without giving the other side a chance to reply.

What Gamini Wijesinghe said on the eve of the last LG elections was as follows:

“If anybody asks me what the debt of the country is, I will have to tell him to ask Vaima (the son of God Sakra). I can’t say what our national debt is because the management of public debt has been turned into such a mess over the past ten years … There has been excessive recourse to debt and the debt limits set by parliament have been exceeded. Debt has been shifted to other places to conceal the excessive debt … The former Secretary to the Treasury referred to by some as an ‘economic assassin’ has done much to destroy the financial discipline of the country …The debt figures compiled by the finance ministry include only transactions that go through the consolidated fund. The debt of the provincial councils, local authorities and state enterprises have not been included in the public debt figures of the finance ministry, resulting in a situation where there are piles of debt everywhere …

“Over the past five years, a lot of loans were taken and we are now in the grace period before the repayment of these loans commence … All this happened because the Treasury Secretary began to work under the President with his powers …. If the Kapuwa defecates inside the devale, the God does not make an issue of it….”

According to Article 154 of our Constitution, the Auditor General’s assigned task is to audit all departments and agencies of the central government, each and every public enterprise where the shareholding of the government is 50% or above, and all provincial councils and all local authorities – each taken separately. Article 154(5) of the Constitution vests the Auditor-General with sweeping powers to enable him to carry out his duties, making it mandatory for information to be provided to him and giving him as access to all books, records, returns and other documents, stores and other property belonging to the institutions that come under his jurisdiction.

According to Article 154 (6) of the Constitution, the Auditor-General is mandatorily required to report to Parliament within ten months after the close of each financial year and as and when he deems it necessary, on the performance and, discharge of his duties and functions under the Constitution. It should be noted that the Auditor General’s responsibility according to the Constitution is not just to audit the yearly accounts but to make interventions “as and when he deems it necessary”. Moreover the position of Auditor General is an independent office answerable only to Parliament. Since it is the Auditor General’s responsibility to audit each and every agency and department in the central government, and each public enterprise, each provincial council and each local authority separately, he is the last person in this country who can say that he is unaware of how much money each such body owes and to whom.

When the Auditor General says that the debt owed by the public enterprises, the provincial councils and the local authorities have remained unaccounted for the past ten years, that raises the question as to how the four or five Auditor Generals over the past ten years including Gamini Wijesinghe himself had been signing the audit reports of these bodies all this while. Furthermore, there are only a limited number of state owned enterprises, a limited number of provincial councils and a limited number local authorities all of which fall under the direct jurisdiction of the Auditor General and if he comes before the public and claims that he does not know how much these bodies owe and to whom, that means that the Auditor General has not been doing the only task assigned to him. Furthermore, our local authorities and provincial councils cannot borrow money from overseas and they would borrow money only from local banks. Even our state owned enterprises will borrow only from local banks.

Only one or two of the best state owned enterprises like the National Savings Bank will have the clout to be able to raise money in international financial markets and that, too, only with a Treasury guarantee. So even the local banks will be able to provide the Auditor General comprehensive breakdowns of how much they have lent to what government body. Thus, the Auditor General can collect the debt data from each public enterprise, provincial council and local authority and combine it with the debt passing through the consolidated fund and announce the sum total of public debt to the public.

2 Responses to “President Sirisena’s options”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Agree with Chandraprema on the 2019 presidential election scenarios.

    I totally disagree with him on the Auditor General.

    Most likely the contest will go into counting second preferences. However, mathematically, counting second and third preferences is very unlikely to change the winner.

    E.g. If A wins 46%, B wins 43% and other including Sirisena win 11%, the second and third preferences of that 11% is unlikely to give B the win. A will still win.

    So getting the largest chunk of votes is the key to win this time. There is no need to get 50%.

    Sirisena will contest the presidential election. He will make sure Gotabaya and Basil cannot contest by punishing them for their alleged crimes. Chamal has no chance of winning. Namal and Mahinda cannot contest. It is very unlikely Mahinda will allow anyone outside the clan to contest from the SLPP ticket. So Sirisena only has to take care of Gotabaya and Basil to have a fighting chance of winning.

    It gets worse if Namal, Sriranthi and others are also targeted by the Special Courts. Mahinda will be forced to support Sirisena or suffer.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    The Auditor General is right. Since 2009 state entities started to borrow directly from foreign sources. So no one can say how much Sri Lanka owes. It is a true comment.

    What was he doing? In fact, a number of audit reports had emphasis of matter and even qualifications on stated net assets. Very bold of him. An auditor would not know if a loan is not presented to him. It is management’s responsibility to disclose these to the auditor. Besides the Treasury has underwritten all these direct borrowings. Even if CEB or CPC for instance fails to repay, the Treasury will repay. So the impact on the individual enterprise is not that great. This is how CEB still survives! If worked on commercial terms CEB would have been closed down in 2010.

    The overall debt management is the task of the Treasury, not the Auditor General. Even the Treasury is clueless about the total debt!

    For these reasons the Debt to GDP percentage is misleading. It must never be used. Instead debt service ratio must be used. All debt must be repaid with interest. How much government revenue goes to repay loans and interest? This is the real thing. Since 2012 more than 95% of state revenue went for debt servicing.

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