Sajith Premadasa needs to get his act together


Cutesy mask gimmickry is not exactly enthralling to a people struggling to keep their jobs and businesses open in a time of shut downs, closures and layoffs.

Sajith Premadasa took over the mantle of the Leader of Opposition in January of 2020. At the time, Premadasa had been an MP for just under 20 years. Premadasa has been a Cabinet Minister, a deputy minister and the deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP). Premadasa grew up in a political household. His father had served as a cabinet minister, Prime Minister and the President of Sri Lanka. By any account, Sajith Premadasa had the background and experience to waltz smoothly into the role. Yet, Premadasa has not.

Sajith Premadasa’s ten-month tenure has been one marked by vacillation, appeasement of the Rajapaksa government and political gimmickry. In spite of all his experience, Premadasa is still groping his way as the leader of the parliamentary opposition. He has failed to live up to the obligations of the office, an obligation that demands clear and precise guidance to an opposition facing a government with a 2/3 majority.

Premadasa’s attention has been diverted by internal squabbles of his political party (SJB) and the need to walk the fine line between opposing and supporting the government’s pandemic policies. Unfortunately, when not dousing internal party fires, it seems as if Premadasa is most interested in matching protest shawls, masks and badges to his national dress. 

Cutesy mask gimmickry is not exactly enthralling to a people struggling to keep their jobs and businesses open in a time of shut downs, closures and layoffs. Premadasa is traipsing on the national political catwalk like a man without a clue.

While Premadasa’s ability to manoeuvre political headwinds has been hampered by the pandemic, that does not mean Premadasa must play political possum.

Let’s take a look at the Government of Sri Lanka’s (GOSL) handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. At best, the approach is disjointed. GOSL was precise in its early approach but with a second and possibly a third wave in progress, that approach is showing signs of confusion and lack of clarity. GOSL, instead of targeted action designed to limit the spread and limit economic damage, is still following draconian and restrictive pandemic protocols. Yet, Premadasa has been slow to respond. When he has, it has been piece meal responses that fail to address the core issue.

What is the goal of GOSL’s pandemic policy (other than controlling the spread), who is formulating the policy (epidemiologists, virologists and health care professionals or politicians and the military) and why isn’t there a single point person handling the flow of information to the public?  

Pavithra Wanniarchchi, the Minister for Health, answering a query from Premadasa whether the government has made arrangements to obtain a vaccine, is on record as saying that the government is waiting on the World Health Organization (WHO) to approve a vaccine and that initially 20% of the public will be inoculated initially and the rest to be followed. In spite of that explanation, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, a fellow minister says that the government does not believe the country needs the vaccine now (there is no now since a vaccine has not been approved yet). An incredibly bewildering statement from a senior minister who is the Minister for Water Resources contradicting the Minister responsible for health.   

It is obvious that the government has failed to provide clear and precise details to any of the above and is also speaking in various tongues on the matter. Still, Sajith Premadasa has failed to highlight these obvious and serious shortcomings. The opposition has failed to hold the government accountable for safeguarding the public’s health.

Then, there is the government’s 2021 proposed budget for 2021. The speech is of great concern for many reasons. Here are a few.

1.      Projects funded through $ 6 billion worth of foreign loans have slowed and may require further loans and may result in higher debt financing. If that is not a red flag for economists like SJB MP Harsha de Silva, PhD, then I do not know what would be.

2.      The government has secured more loans from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Japan worth $1.4 billion. Where is this amount going to be spent?

3.      There is a mention of $400 million bilateral foreign investment. Is this a reference to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant?

4.      Will the paltry sum of Rs.5,000 currently allocated per person as pandemic relief be increased? If yes, by how much? If not, why?

5.      Vocational education is allocated a total of Rs.3 billion for an additional intake of 100,000 students but walking paths and bidding for 2032 Olympics is allocated Rs 4 billion. How can such anomalies be justified?

6.      When will the import embargo end? How much has been saved through the embargo?

Time has come for Sajith Premadasa to organize his group into an efficient political group. Premadasa should start by assigning critics for key sectors. For instance, economy, health, education, national security, sports and youth affairs should each have an opposition critic. The current state of confusion and lack of purpose in his ranks cannot continue.

The opposition is failing the people of Sri Lanka by their inability to hold the government responsible for its actions and inaction.

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