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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Neutralise this threat to democracy: postponing elections in Sri Lanka

(Editorial, The Island)

Reports that the Election Commission will have to hold the local government elections soon have upset government politicians beyond measure; they are delivering jeremiads against what they call unnecessary state expenditure amidst an economic crisis. Claiming that the mini polls will cost the country Rs. 10 billion, they would have the public believe that they are ready to face an election anytime, but the advisability of holding an electoral contest at this juncture is in question, and government expenditure should be rationalised! If elections are to be postponed in view of the economic crisis, as these grandees suggest, then the people will have to wait till kingdom come to exercise their franchise again. Is it that the government wants the local government authorities to go the same way as the Provincial Councils, which have been without elected members for years?

“A government that fears elections and postpones them on one pretext or another is a grave threat to democracy and must be sent packing as soon as possible for the sake of democracy.”

Nothing is scarier for the unpopular ruling party politicians than the prospect of having to go before the people, having bankrupted the economy and caused so much suffering to the latter. None of these worthies in his or her proper senses will undertake a house-to-house canvass. The people are blind with rage, and how they will react when the next power tariff hike takes effect is not difficult to imagine.

Supposing the government politicians’ call for frugal management of public finance is genuine, there are many ways in which the taxpayers’ money could be prevented from going down the gurgler. It costs the taxpayer an arm and a leg to maintain the huge parliamentary complex. Most MPs are absent when Parliament is in session, and the Speaker is hard put to hold quorate sittings. A great deal of public funds could be saved if the number of MPs is reduced constitutionally, and Parliament is shifted where it originally was, with the current parliamentary complex being utilised for an income generating project. Our honourable MPs should emulate their Swedish counterparts, who are not allowed to live high on the hog at the expense of taxpayers. In Sweden, the MPs are given bus and train passes, and even ministers have to travel by public transport, and if they use private vehicles, they have to do so at their own expense.

Neither politicians—the President and the Prime Minister included—nor public officials should be allowed to travel first/business class at the expense of taxpayers when they go overseas; they must not be allowed to stay in penthouse suites or enjoy other such luxuries. They should be given economy class tickets and put up in ordinary hotels. Those who are responsible for bankrupting the country must not be allowed to live the high life while the people are suffering. Let them be made to practise austerity. The leaders of a country that has defaulted on its debt and is begging for funds from the rest of the world must not be allowed to live like kings, must they?

Why don’t the government MPs who claim to be so concerned about how public funds are spent bring pressure to bear on the government to recover massive losses the Treasury has suffered due to the sugar tax scam? UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara told the media, at Sirikotha, on 10 March 2021, that the sugar tax scam had caused a loss of Rs. 16 billion to the state; he asked the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take action to recover the money. Today, Bandara’s boss, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is the President, and he should renew his call! In September 2019, MP Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene told Parliament that a state bank had written off a loan given to UNP financier, Daya Gamaga, who was a state minister at the time, and suffered a loss of Rs. 5 billion, as a result. The assets of the state banks belong to the public, and therefore the UNP ought to ensure that its members including Gamage pay back their loans. Besides, all MPs including ministers must pay their electricity and water bills, and stop using their gas-guzzling SUVs such as V-8s to help the country save forex.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha has reiterated that some unscrupulous Sri Lankan exporters have parked as much as USD 53 billion illegally overseas. Why don’t the government MPs urge the President to take action to ensure that at least part of this amount will be repatriated? If a fraction of the stolen public funds is traced and confiscated, the country’s pecuniary woes will disappear in next to no time.

A government that fears elections and postpones them on one pretext or another is a grave threat to democracy and must be sent packing as soon as possible for the sake of democracy.

Wednesday 28th December, 2022

 

 

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