After a month-long exhaustive election campaign, United National Party leader and Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not look tired when The Hindu met him at his official residence, Temple Trees, on Saturday morning. He was quite cheerful and relaxed. Answering questions on a range of topics, Mr Wickremesinghe is hopeful of his party getting a majority this time even though only on two occasions (1989 and 2010), a party or a pre-poll alliance of parties could get a majority. In conversation with T. Ramakrishnan.
Q: You have been contesting parliamentary elections since 1977. How significant is the present election and do you see any trend emerging now?
Ranil Wickremesinghe: This is one of the crucial elections like 1977. There is a definite trend against [former President Mahinda] Rajapaksa and the type of autocratic government they had. People are for open, good governance, transparency. They also like to see rapid economic progress.
Q: Only twice in the last 26 years did Sri Lanka see decisive verdict. Is it because of the proportional representation (PR) system ?
Wickremesinghe: We had brought in the PR system to ensure that there was no unwarranted swing of two-thirds majority. I would say that even, most elections, except in 2000 and 2004, have given a sufficient majority for the government to function.
Q: How do you view the President, in his letter to Mahinda, has referred to the possibility of the UPFA getting a majority ?
Wickremesinghe: It is only a statement that if the UPFA gets a majority, who he will consider for appointment [for the post of Prime Minister]. It is an internal document. The governing word for us is “if’ because we know it is not “when.” And the UPFA will not be able to get a majority. The UNP will get a majority.
Q: Is this election less costly for politicians?
Wickremesinghe: Yes. There were no cutouts, posters. On the other hand, the print and electronic media jacked up their targets.
Q: Less liquor this time?
Wickremesinghe: I think people have consumed liquor. But, there was no large gathering where you had to give liquor to people. That has come down to the normal level of consumption.
Q: Would you support any move to make election laws and rules more stringent.
Wickremesinghe: Yes. We are looking into it.
Q: Would you say that the entry of [Mr] Mahinda [Rajapaksa] has made the contest more exciting ?
Wickremesinghe: Well, a part of the media in the highest echelons has been backing him. They try to make out [that] Mahinda is the winner. But, except for the media hypes, we cannot say. They had thought that people were going to make up their mind in the last few weeks. But, nothing is working.
Has the Central Bank’s bond controversy created an adverse impact on the party and his government?
Wickremesinghe: No. They [the Opposition] have been attacking the UNP. I can see that. We have done everything possible. [We have done] three inquiries. [An] internal inquiry. They went to Supreme Court. I cannot be more transparent. We’ll continue with the inquiry in Parliament.
You have been talking of the need for a new Constitution. Why do you think that the present Constitution is no good?
Wickremesinghe: The existing Constitution is based on the executive Presidency. That was interpreted in a way different from the original intentions. [This means that] the Presidency must remain stronger at the expense of parliament. As we agreed to limit the powers of the President, we find that head is of one type and the body is of another. So, you once make all the amendments needed for that, you might as well streamline and bring it out as a new Constitution. It is difficult for people to read. As a lawyer, you must have a very clear document. We will reproduce many things from the present Constitution and make it in a way that people can understand and we will ensure those provisions which show that power is not focused on a single person.
You have referred to social market economy. Will it be similar to the German model?
Wickremesinghe: We have always been following that in certain areas. If you see in the last decade or so, how the market economy went [through]… The social market economy always had the emphasis on looking after the poor, the working class, middle class and you could see it in the [directive] principles of state policy. But, it is a restatement because in the last 10 years of [Mahinda] Rajapaksa’s rule and his policies, you had a system of crony capitalism. We want to distinguish ourselves from this crony capitalism.
Is it because you want to live down the UNP’s “pro rich” image?
Wickremesinghe: No. It [The country] has always been pro market economy, If you read the [directive] principles of state policy put in by us, you could see it.
Finally, what has emerged here is crony capitalism and family nepotism, which has to go. [This was] At the expense of reducing free education and free health, which all parties, whether they have socialist policies or [they are] for open market economy, always have safeguarded and developed further…. We are focusing on education and health care.
There is a perception that Sri Lanka does not have a solid manufacturing base.
Wickremesinghe: You must remember that we have a very competitive value added economy. We have no raw material. We have to get them and do value addition. We are far more competitive. But, we are catering to niche domestic market. Instead, we should be looking at niche international market.
Would you be inviting foreign investors [for various proposed economic development zones]?
Wickremesinghe: Yes. We are saying that openly. We have to join global value chain
Your party once supported federalism?
Wickremesinghe: No, we did not support federalism. We had brought in 13th Amendment. We supported devolution.
In the 2002 Oslo communiqué… [referring to an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for exploring “a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka”.]
Wickremesinghe: The Oslo communiqué was to explore…
We had to explore the proposals given [by the other side]. [In talks], we cannot say ‘no.’ We did not say we agreed [to federalism] But, we had said we would explore it during the talks.
Is the idea being opposed because of the fear of losing votes?
Wickremesinghe: We have always been for a unitary State. Ours is a small country. Devolution is the best way to take away barriers that have been constructed by the [previous] Rajapaksa regime for provincial councils to operate. We will give powers down to the level of villages.
You are referring to the system of cluster of villages…
Wickremesinghe: Unlike in your panchayat model where people are elected on party lines, this would be heads of grassroot organisations at the village and heads of religious institutions in a cluster. The politicians will come at the next stage – at the level of local authority.
Will it not lead to more tension between villages and provincial council administration?
Wickremesinghe: No. We, the government and provincial councils, are trying to get a coordinated plan which will have cluster level programmes that will be looked into and committed by “Gram Rajya” committees. We had operated this system – “Gramodaya Mandalas” – for a few years when [R.] Premadasa was Minister for Local Government. That was scrapped when provincial councils came.
On the issue of accountability, there were statements from the government earlier that by June, domestic mechanism of enquiry [on alleged war crimes] would be in place. Why the delay?
Wickremesinghe: Discussions are going on.
The delay is not deliberate?
Wickremesinghe: What we agreed finally is that let the report [of the UNHRC] be tabled and brought out to the public in September. Within the adequate time agreed by both sides, we will give our response.
What is your party’s stand on issues and grievances of upcountry Tamils have various grievances such as nomenclature change from Indian Tamils to Upcountry Tamils, a proper and comprehensive census and bringing in their areas of habitation under ‘Pradesiya Sabhas.’
Wickremesinghe: We are creating basic amenities for them. They are already under local authorities. The main issue is education. We are tackling it.
How do you propose to resolve the issue of problem of fishermen? What is your stand?
Wickremesinghe: Our stand is that it is our waters. But, if the Indian government agrees, we can give a bit of time if bottom trawling stops.
Given your emphasis on development, would you like India to play a big role in various development projects?
Wickremesinghe: Certainly. Their investors are free to come.
What about China?
Wickremesinghe: Chinese are also free to come and invest here.
Are Chinese loans being re-negotiated?
Wickremesinghe: We are renegotiating some of the loans.
Would you go for more loans from China?
Wickremesinghe: We [want to] get loans from anyone on a competitive basis and on concessional basis.
How do you plan to improve your relationship with the West which had hit a low during the presidency of Rajapaksa?
Wickremesinghe: I had been having good relations [with the West]. We are restoring [the ties with the West].
Given your deep interest in matters concerning archaeology, heritage history and heritage, are you contemplating collaborative projects?
Wickremesinghe: We will work something out. We are doing a lot of prehistory [projects involving] Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. I want to give more [attention] on the relationship between Kerala and Sri Lanka, especially on the southwest coast.(Hindu)