The decision of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to nominate business tycoon Dhammika Perera to Parliament to fill the National List vacancy created by former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s resignation took most observers by surprise. Following his gazetting as an MP, Perera was named Minister of Technology and Investment Promotion in the government and the subjects under this new ministry were gazetted last week. He has not yet taken his oaths as an MP but will do so when Parliament meets on Tuesday. He is expected to assume ministerial duties thereafter. As we reported last weekend, Perera has resigned from the boards of a clutch of quoted companies where he holds substantial interests and where he served as chairman/co-chairman/director/executive director etc. He also owns unquoted entities, including casinos, and what he has done in regard to such ownership/connections is not in the public domain.
The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and its Executive Director, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, have gone to court challenging Perera’s appointment to Parliament via the SLPP National List. They have urged that such appointment in terms of Article 99A of Constitution can only be made from among those whose names were included in district nomination papers or National Lists submitted by the relevant political parties to the Elections Commission. This was not the case in the instance of Dhammika Perera’s nomination and his name was not in either list. The CPA’s human rights petition is due to be taken up this week by the Supreme Court and it will, no doubt, evoke a great deal of interest nationwide.
We are glad that the Supreme Court had decided on an early adjudication of the CPA’s petition. Two decades ago a similar petition based on Article 99A was not taken up for three years and was withdrawn when it had become irrelevant with the petitioner reserving his right to press the matter further. There was also a question of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka being on the nomination list of one party and entering Parliament through the National List of another. Whether Dhammika Perera’s swearing will await the Supreme Court decision on its Constitutionality remains to be seen.
In addition to the main plea, the petition further urges that there was “very real bias and conflict of interest” regarding Perera’s appointment to Parliament. This is because he has substantial interests in a range of businesses engaged in a wide variety of activities. The CPA pleads that Article 91(1)(e) of the Constitution disqualified a person with interest in any contract “made by or on behalf of the State or a public corporation from being a Member of Parliament.” It finally submits that Dhammika Perera’s appointment “is illegal, arbitrary, irrational, grossly unreasonable, contrary to law and will if unchecked cause grave and irremediable harm and prejudice to the People of Sri Lanka and the Rule of Law itself.”
Perera has previously served the government in various official capacities. He served as Chairman of the Board of Investment (BOI) for three years until 2010 when it was said he would meet anyone looking to invest USD 50,000 or more in the country. Thereafter he became Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, also during a Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. He did not make waves in either position although it has been alleged that as BOI Chairman, he was quick to grant investment approvals. But this was something Sri Lanka had long sought to achieve in its bid to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). BOI managers found him easy to work with, cutting red tape and listening to all points of view. He also served in the government’s Strategic Management Enterprise Agency which oversaw state enterprises; but most of these, as is very well known, continued to be the dead ducks they have long been. Dhammika had no magic wand to wave over them and make any difference.
Basil Rajapaksa ducked a question on whether Perera would take his vacant seat in Parliament when this question was posed at Basil’s farewell press conference. He looked at SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam flanking him and said it was a matter for the party. Most people would disbelieve that the successor had not been decided on when Basil threw in the towel and stepped out of Parliament though not out of politics. Namal Rajapaksa is on record telling an Indian publication that Basil had requested the president to fill his vacancy “with a capable person,” expressing the view that Dhammika was a good choice because he was a successful businessman who could bring his corporate experience to government. Namal also saw Perera as a successful Chairman of the BOI.
Although the conflict of interest theorem bothers many, there is a school of opinion that Perera’s personal achievements are an indicator of abilities that can be useful to the crisis-wracked country.
It can be argued and it is freely said that mere resignation from the boards of directors of listed companies will not obviate conflicts of interest. Given the extensive areas of Perera’s business interests, the ramifications are many and with wide implications. His connection with the gambling industry would also be a black mark in the minds of some although one ruling party MP who advocated ganja growing now urges the development of a “night economy.” While Dhammika Perera has met Ranil Wickremesinghe subsequent to his gazetting as an MP, whether the Rajapaksas had the premier’s approval to bring the tycoon into government has not been made public. If there was no consultation in a matter such as this, it would imply that the president and prime minister are not pulling together.