[Leading the leader]
◾ Applause for almost every answer from Common Presidential Candidate Maithripala Sirisena at packed business leaders forum
◾UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe with witty and hilarious comments drives home the point at forum that the country is lost without the elephant!
◾ Maithri and Ranil say structural economic reforms; doubling of GDP needed to save country from debt and middle income trap
◾ Promise good governance, law and order, widespread public consultation from day one of the new political culture
◾ Punishment in the offing against those involved in shady deals
◾ Will review ongoing controversial mega projects; Say feasibility and environmental impact studies must for future ones
◾ New laws to make Monetary Board, Central Bank, SEC more independent
◾ Confident of free and fair polls; dismiss allegations of secret pact as baseless; allege bankruptcy of President Rajapaksa camp
◾ Maithri renews call for open debate with Mahinda
The applauses which both the Opposition’s Common Presidential Candidate and UNP Leader received at a packed business forum yesterday sounded like early celebrations of a thumping victory.
That was the scene during the nearly two-hour engagement between Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickre-mesinghe and the business community yesterday at the Cinnamon Lakeside.
The applause was sweet music for pro-Maithri or pro-UNP participants at the forum while the majority of those present were impressed by the answers and presentations of both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
The UNP Leader’s opening remarks set the stage for a lively discussion. The start of Wickremesinghe’s speech was tongue in cheek. Referring to President Rajapaksa’s first-ever synchronised ‘Momentum’ Forum, attended by business and professional leaders, he said: “Last week you listened to Moses, who didn’t come down from the mountain but he came over the satellite. And he told you that money is the god of our times and that Rajapaksa is its prophet.”
Then Wickremesinghe outlined his idea of filling Magampura port with ships and Mattala airport with planes to “help my friend Mahinda Rajapaksa after his retirement to fulfill his dreams”, which triggered a round of laughter.
Other responses which elicited laughter from the audience included Wickremesinghe saying that the head of the second largest party (in terms of electoral wins) under the future national government would not be named Opposition Leader but Deputy Prime Minister since he has held the former post for too long and that the lack of law and order was not the elephant in the room but because there was no elephant in the room
Witty remarks aside, Wickremesinghe spoke on several pressing and longstanding issues affecting good governance and sustainable and equitable growth in the country.
Both he and Sirisena promised good governance, law and order from day one of the new political culture which they are confident of, following victory at the 8 January presidential poll. They also assured favourable relations with the West as well as India and other Asian nations.
Sirisena warned that inquiries were in the offing against those involved in shady deals. It was also mentioned that all controversial projects would be put under review while all such deals would be under review and going forward feasibility and environmental impact studies would be insisted upon for future mega projects.
The duo also hinted at new laws to make the Monetary Board, Central Bank, SEC and other regulatory bodies as well as state institutions more independent. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe expressed confidence in a free and fair poll taking place. They also dismissed allegations of a secret pact detailing relaxation of high security zones, etc. between the UNP and the Common Candidate as baseless. Maithripala said that such allegations, with more to come, only confirm the level of bankruptcy within President Rajapaksa’s camp. He also renewed his call for an open debate with the President.
With regard to intimidation at polls, Wickremesinghe expressed doubt that the military would play any part in such activity and if attempted it would be foolish since the Opposition Leader said that Colombo was a UNP city and overall the public at large would be vigilant.
He said that any inquiry into shady deals of the past will not disrupt businesses but urged those present at the forum to rush to Inland Revenue and pay up if they have ill-gained income. He also emphasised that converting expensive short-term debt into more favourable long-term debt was an immediate priority as well as boosting investments and domestic demand.
Noting that the re-fleeting of SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka had cost $ 330 million in the first half of 2014, Wickremesinghe warned that this had to be met without burdening the people with higher direct and indirect taxation.
It was in this context that Wckremesinghe suggested that perhaps the Rajapaksas should buy SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka since, he alleged, the two airlines are being used lavishly by them.
Boosting Government revenue and eliminating wasteful expenditure were two specific measures both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe highlighted.
Wickremesighe added that the doubling of GDP in the next eight years and again in the next five years was the answer to save Sri Lanka from the debt trap and middle income trap.
He said the economy will be boosted through higher produce and services exports and rejuvenated agriculture and manufacturing. For this competitiveness will be improved, apart from investing in skills development, productivity and efficiency improvement.
By Marisa Wikramanayake and Waruni Paranagamage, FT