A challenging year ahead | Daily News

A challenging year ahead

SLFP signing MoU with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019
SLFP signing MoU with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019

The Foreign Ministry together with the Presidential Secretariat has developed a ‘20-point Foreign Policy directive’ for the first time ever with a view to reaching out to the world with a more consistent policy to help achieve the country’s goals and confront the many contemporary challenges it faces in the international sphere.  

As explained by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the new initiative puts more emphasis on ‘economic diplomacy’ over the traditionally followed ‘political diplomacy’ in order to reap more economic benefits to the country through foreign relations.

The first point of these directives clearly states that the country should adhere to a Non-Aligned and neutral position without taking sides in the power struggles of the global superpowers. It reiterates that the country should maintain friendly relations with all countries as equal partners.      

The draft foreign policy directives titled “2020 and Beyond” are based on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, which has been adopted as the Government’s Policy Framework.

The directives underline that any agreement with foreign countries, international organizations and international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank should not endanger national interests and regional stability. The document sums up that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy approach should be reinvigorated to be always on alert to ensure national security and to reap the maximum benefits through productive interactions.    

Geopolitical realities

This 20-point directive, which is in the final stage of drafting and slated to be adopted shortly, clearly indicates the country’s determination to protect its sovereignty while actively playing its role in international affairs. This assertion of the country’s position is timely as global giants such as China, the United States (US) and India have shown heightened interest in Sri Lanka in the midst of their geopolitical rivalries.

The Government also decided not to proceed with the much-debated US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Pact as it contained disputable clauses and grey areas. It was barely three weeks ago that the MCC announced that it would not continue with the project due to the lack of “partner country engagement”.

In a new development, the US laid fresh conditions for Sri Lanka to be eligible for US funding under the Coronavirus Relief and Spending Package Bill which US President Donald Trump signed into law last month. Among the series of conditions such as increasing transparency and accountability in governance, promoting reconciliation, etc., there was a specific condition that Sri Lanka has to “assert its sovereignty against Chinese influence”. It was no doubt a stark reminder of the geopolitical challenges before the country.

Similar influences came ahead of and also during US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo (Mike Pompeo)’s official visit last October where Sri Lanka was urged to make a choice between the US and China. While Sri Lanka followed a measured approach in its response, Beijing rushed to counter those comments, showing the Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean region.    

In the meantime, Indian External Affairs Minister0 Dr. S. Jaishankar is currently in Colombo on a 48-hour visit, marking the first arrival of a high-level foreign dignitary in Sri Lanka in the New Year. He will have bilateral meetings with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The specific areas or matters on the agenda have not been disclosed. The visit was arranged through the air-bubble concept amidst COVID-19 travel restrictions in both countries.

SLFP’s woes

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was back in the news last week as its Leader former President Maithripala Sirisena and General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara went public with the growing discontentment of its Members over what they called “step-motherly treatment” to them within the coalition Government.

Frictions between sections of the SLFP and the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) were under the media spotlight starting from last month as there was a lot of noise and commotion at Local Government Bodies when their Budgets for 2021 were taken up. The Budgets in several local authorities were defeated as the SLPP–SLFP disputes remained unsettled.

According to the SLFP General Secretary, the SLFP Local Government Members and Organizers feel that they have been left out of the equation when it comes to regional development initiatives. There were also complaints that the initial agreements between the SLFP and the SLPP had not been kept.  What can be understood is that the SLFP has wanted more opportunities for their Members in the Government programmes.

Compared to its glorious past, the SLFP is now in a feeble state whereas the SLPP has almost totally dominated the political landscape. The SLFP led by former President Sirisena has been reduced to 14 MPs in Parliament – 13 out of them were elected from the SLPP ticket. Only one MP who contested from the SLFP itself was elected to the House. However, the SLFP has strategically averted an electoral debacle similar to the UNP, which has been reduced to a sole National List seat. Incidentally, the UNP has not yet been able to nominate a candidate for that seat.         

For the SLFP, a reunion with the SLPP at the last General Election was the only pragmatic option for its political survival, and for the SLPP, it was more a case of political capital. The SLPP contested the Election in a broad alliance which included the SLFP and several other parties. Following the Election, which was a clean sweep for the SLPP, two SLFP seniors, namely Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera, were accommodated in the Cabinet (Labour and Environment portfolios respectively), while several more SLFP heavyweights including Jayasekara received State Ministerial posts.

Contrary to former President Sirisena’s expectations of receiving a “higher and powerful” position in the Government, he is so far left without receiving any position other than being a Member of Parliament (MP). He was also the only MP from the Government side to dodge the decisive vote on the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, probably because he is widely perceived as being one of the prime architects of the 19th Amendment, which was repealed with the arrival of the 20th.   

Lending an ear

Last week, Former President Sirisena poured out his irritation and impatience over what he complained as unfair treatment to the SLFP by the SLPP in an interview with ‘The Hindu’, a prominent Indian daily newspaper, also dropping a bombshell that the SLFP would not hesitate to go solo if it was not given a fair quota at the Provincial Council Elections due next, though there is a debate in political and media circles over whether it should be held at all.  

“We were treated unfairly when the candidates were picked ahead of the General Election in August 2020…In the districts we are strong, we were not given a fair number of slots. We had asked for 30 candidates. Had we been given 30 slots in the last Election, we would have got at least 25 Seats in Parliament. They [the ruling party] organised political attacks on our candidates who had been nominated,” he was quoted as saying.

SLFP General Secretary and State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara bolstered his Leader’s sentiments when questioned by the local media. According to him, the SLFP had officially taken up its grievances with SLPP National Organizer and former Minister Basil Rajapaksa and had raised the same with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Responding to those comments, State Minister Dilum Amunugama minced no words saying that the SLPP would not hold back the SLFP if it wants to contest separately. Speaking at a SLPP press briefing, he said such a decision by the SLFP would only prove to be self-destructive and that it would not make any difference to the electoral fortunes of the SLPP.  

Taking a more reconciliatory approach, Water Supply Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara said the SLPP would make sure that the SLFP would not opt out of the coalition and its Members would not be sidelined. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam told the media that most of the issues between the two Parties were discussed at a recent Party Leaders’ Meeting and those could be amicably settled through negotiations. The President too, after patiently listening to the SLFP’s side of the story, has assured that the SLFP Members would be kept in the loop and included in the decision-making process of the Government. Such unity is essential for political stability at this crucial hour.