National Democratic Alliance Candidate Sajith Premadasa in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times has assured he would bring about social justice, including poverty alleviation to restore the dignity of millions of poverty-stricken people. For that and related purposes, he would his first priority would be putting the right people in the right places, then giving them clear, time-bound targets and establishing accountability mechanisms to identify and remove obstacles, and make sure things get done.
Q: What is the thrust of your campaign and how is it going?
My campaign has been based on my fundamental political philosophy. I have taken my message and my promise to the people. Our campaign has touched remote villages and far corners of the country. In this presidential race, I am not the candidate with the most money to spend. Business moguls do not run and fund my campaign. I am not the candidate with marketing agencies choreographing my every public appearance, or TV stations at my beck and call. I have put my faith in the people. The thrust of my campaign is personally visiting as many electorates with as many meetings as possible, and letting people around the country hear my voice for themselves.
Everywhere we go, I see energy and excitement in the crowd. I hear stories about how my father’s legacy has endured, still touching lives and moving hearts. I listen to people, and I hope they are listening to me too. I am promising them a people’s president, and a leader who knows their hearts, a leader who is one of them. I hear their cries for a common man’s president. On election day, I am confident they will make the right choice, and when they do, I will devote every ounce of my energy to meet their aspirations and honour their trust.
Q: Statistically, are you not facing an uphill task when the minority vote which came wholesale in 2015 to the ‘Swan’ is now somewhat split?
I do not like the word “minorities”. It diminishes the role in our society for those who do not identify with a majority. I try to be a voice of the voiceless. You are right that there is a huge wave of people who have experienced oppression going to the polls in record numbers this election.
The poor are going to the polls. Women are going to the polls. People who have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity or religion are going to the polls. Many of these people do not have voice, which is why you don’t hear them. But they have a vote. And mark my words, they will vote to move forward together.
In 2015 the people of Sri Lanka voted for democracy, to move forward, and against dictatorship, or clinging to the past. They face the same choice today. The people of Sri Lanka are politically mature. They know that this election could be our last. I have no doubt that voters will vote for the candidate who will preserve the right to change their leaders when they feel such change is needed.
Q: You seem to be making widespread promises wherever you go. Have the financial consequences been worked out?
There is nothing fiscally irresponsible about prioritising the welfare of ordinary Sri Lankans, including women, children and youth. I understand that debt taken today has to be repaid tomorrow. I would not be a president who burdens future generations in order to live a little easier in the present day. Our plan calls for funding our pledges through thoughtful planning, accelerated growth, reduced waste and borrowing costs.
My pledges must be evaluated as the productive investments that they are. They are not empty airports, idle ports and cricket stadiums abandoned to the jungle. For example, free sanitary pads will not only safeguard the health of women and girls, but will also increase their participation and performance in school and in the workplace, resulting in an incalculable boost in economic growth.
The tax relief contained in my manifesto has been thought out with surgical precision. Currently, firms with monthly revenue of over 1 million rupees must pay VAT. This is a burden on small businesses. Not only do they have to pay VAT, but they have to comply with all the paperwork.
However, small businesses only compromise a small-share of total VAT revenue. This is why I promised to remove VAT for any firm with monthly revenue of less than 4 million rupees. Again, this will be a major fillip for growth and help small firms become big firms.
My government will also undertake an efficiency drive to cut wasteful state expenditure. The first step will be the scrapping of duty-free permits for Ministers and MPs, and auditing the use of state vehicles as a whole.
We are also laying the foundation to reduce government borrowing costs. The Monetary Law Act, which will depoliticize the Central Bank and monetary policy, will be made law, as will legislation to establish fiscal rules. These measures will increase financial market confidence in Sri Lanka’s government and enable us to borrow at lower rates.
Together these measures will ensure that I am able to fulfil my pledges to the public without straining the treasury or jeopardising the health of future generations.
Q: Both main candidates seem to have a lot of baggage with them (some questionable supporters). How can you shake them off or will you be able to manage them?
There is a difference between a candidate having ‘baggage’ and a candidate being supported by questionable people. I refute the suggestion that I come with baggage. There is no comparison between me and my main opponent. I am and have always only ever been a citizen of Sri Lanka.
There is not and has never been any question of my allegiance being divided between this country and any other country. I have never been suspected of or arrested for any crime. And I am certainly not campaigning for the presidency while being on trial for robbing public property. I have nothing to hide, which is one reason I have had no hesitation in repeatedly challenging Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa to a public debate, a challenge that has gone unheeded.
I have been very clear that no one who is facing allegations of corruption or wrongdoing from our criminal justice system will have any role to play in my government. That is set in stone. However, I find it puzzling that my opponent never seems to be asked questions of this nature, seeing as his platform is filled with politicians and public figures who have been indicted for various offences against the state, and others who wrought bedlam in Parliament and assaulted police officers on live television during the 52-day constitutional coup.
Q: In 1972, your father seconded the proposal of J.R. Jayewardene to introduce the Executive Presidency. He then became the second Executive President but the system is under fire. What is your take on the Executive Presidency?
My manifesto sets out an inclusive all-party process for constitutional reform. I expect the fate of the executive presidency to feature heavily in this process. I believe we need to continue public consultations on the issue, and figure out a system that will best serve our democracy and give peace of mind to the citizenry. We have learnt a lot through lived experience in over forty years with the current executive presidential system. There is a clear need for an effective system of checks and balances based on the rule of law in order to protect democracy and ensure accountability. I support the resolution we passed at the UNP party convention that calls for precisely such a process.
Q: As President you will have your powers clipped. You know that, don’t you?
As a Member of Parliament, I was one of an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians who voted to clip the wings of the presidency by introducing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 2015. I did so knowing full well that I may hold this office someday. We voted for a presidency that is not a dictatorial one-man show, and that calls for a strong symbiotic working relationship between an elected head of state, and the elected representatives in Parliament.
The President remains the head of state, head of Cabinet, and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, with an essential role in making appointments to key positions in consultation with the Constitutional Council. The president has sufficient powers to set this country right. Unlimited power for one man is never the answer. The President’s role is clarified. It is to focus on overall leadership and giving direction to government policy, leaving the day-to-day management of other functions to appointed cabinet ministers, just like in other advanced democracies.
Q: Your achievements are on the housing side which was your father’s forte as well. Is it that you didn’t have the opportunity to prove yourself in other departments?
Every politician has a niche. Since I entered politics, my core objectives have been providing shelter and poverty alleviation.
This is why I chose one of Sri Lanka’s poorest regions as my home district from the outset of my political career over 25 years ago. As a little child, my parents would take the family to Yala on school holidays.
We would walk among the villagers in Hambantota, playing games or navigating paddy fields. As a politician, the people of Hambantota taught me about the needs of the farming community, our irrigation needs, how climate change affects rainfall and crop production. I have seen firsthand the effects of drought and environmental destruction and its devastating effects on rural communities and environmental eco-systems. I am not sure what you mean by other departments. If you mean I have not travelled the world to attend international conferences or hobnobbed with high net worth investors, that I can accept.
But I believe few of us politicians focus on the most down-trodden and oppressed in our country. I have chosen to be their voice, their advocate. The people have taught me everything I know about politics. As President, I will ensure that the right people are in the right positions to run the economy, ensure national security and manage our foreign relations. Even as President, I will continue to walk among the people. Without them, I am nothing.
Q: Briefly what is your foreign policy? You haven’t spoken on the subject in your political career. ‘A friend of all and an enemy of none’, one would presume.
We are firmly committed to maintaining a policy of friendship with all nations, both in the region and beyond. Considering our geographic location, our foreign policy will be focused on working with all nations to evolve Sri Lanka into the trading and manufacturing hub of the Indian Ocean. For this purpose, open trade, freedom of navigation, and a rules-based world order are essential. Sri Lanka will remain firmly committed to these principles. I will personally review any international treaty or agreement and support it if, and only if, the benefits to Sri Lanka outweigh the risks.
Q: You are projecting yourself as your father’s son, as a poor man’s candidate and as someone who keeps his promises. Is that enough?
I presume you have not had a chance to read the 80 pages of detailed proposals in my manifesto. This is not the place to go into each and every proposal, but I will make one point. Even though I have been an MP for nearly 20 years, I still feel the vigour, energy and ambition of youth. I am passionate about our country’s future and I have a stake in it. I am interested in results. My team will comprise energetic, capable and educated people of integrity. Positions of responsibility will be given to those who can make things happen. Meritocracy will prevail. This will ensure that Sri Lanka achieves the breakthrough we have long been waiting for.
I am proud to be known as the son of President Premadasa. I am proud to have devoted myself, as he did, to building my country by uplifting the least privileged of our citizens. I am not just the poor man’s candidate. I am proud to be known as the poor people’s candidate. Much of the social injustice I pledge to reverse involves the struggles faced by women and girls in our society. I am also proud to be known as someone who has always kept his promises. Is that enough? Of course not. You have to look at what my promises are, and the impact on the people when my pledges are fulfilled.
The social revolution I outline in my manifesto will complete the transformation of how our government serves its people. Whether it is fortifying a national security infrastructure to keep us safe from threats known and unknown alike, putting a roof over every head, or making sure universal healthcare works for everyone. Business as usual is frustrating people and impoverishing communities. It’s time for change, and I believe I can deliver.
Q: What is your first priority should you win in the November 16 election?
The tempting answer is to say ending the scourge of corruption, eliminating the drugs menace, banishing poverty or jump starting the economy.
But in my experience in governance, I have learnt that to get anything done, the most critical step is assembling the right team and empowering them to deliver results. Therefore, my first priority will be putting the right people in the right places, then giving them clear, time-bound targets and establishing accountability mechanisms to identify and remove obstacles, and make sure things get done.
Then together, we will be able to deliver on all of our promises and priorities, rather than just cherry-picking a handful.
(Source: The Sunday Times)