Features
UNP‘s new political culture — my foot!

by Amrit Muttukumaru
As an antidote to the serious allegations of crass abuse of power, rampant corruption and gross incompetence, the leaders of the alternate government — the UNP are never tiring of extolling the virtues of their new political culture. This is especially the pet theme of their supposedly squeaky clean deputy leader Karu Jayasuriya. It was just the other day when the entire opposition led by the UNP rightly articulated the indignation of the people of this country who have been consistently deprived of their cherished franchise. After all, a person’s vote is the very bedrock of a democracy. Just imagine the utter consternation and confusion of all those who were crying out for a new political culture bereft of these despairing attributes to find the UNP not only taking into its fold some of the architects of all that was supposedly evil in the PA but actually giving them pride of place and primacy. This is clearly abominable. What is more preposterous, is that it is reported that many key players in the UNP are virtually ‘eating off the hands’ of their new messiahs and do not seem to mind being upstaged by the ‘new kids on the block’!

It is comical to witness the most puerile excuses being trotted out to justify the reasons for leaving the PA government almost at the end of its tenure. It is equally farcical to note the PA’s sudden discovery of all that is evil in those who have deserted them. All this is done with utter disdain for the people of this country since our politicians are guaranteed that anything dished out, however despicable, will be tolerated by civil society — particularly its leaders. For example, it is well known that the root cause of our crisis can be attributed largely to serious allegations of abuse of power, rampant corruption and inefficiency in institutions within the finance and justice ministries. It is also a fact that the economy, judicial system as well as law and order are in shambles. The minister effectively in charge of these functions for the past 7 years until September this year has to bear his share of responsibility for this. It is totally unacceptable and absurd for this minister now in the UNP led opposition to give childish excuses for this state of affairs. If he had any misgivings or reservations as he now claims to have had, this highly academically endowed politician should have resigned forthwith instead of waiting for the full tenure of the government minus one month! The bottom line is that at best such persons in no way can form the basis of a new political culture.

The upcoming general elections present an opportunity for a new beginning. This must be grasped by the country. For this to take place, there must be a complete break from the past. The assimilation of some of those identified with all that is bad in the PA negates this. This is exacerbated by the UNP itself not having ever admitted its sordid conduct during its 17 year stint at the helm. In spite of the foregoing, the UNP can still retrieve its goal to usher in a new political culture if it sincerely adheres to the principles of good governance, equity and decency where accountability is the foundation of this endeavour. This must constitute the cornerstone of the UNP Manifesto which together with the PA Manifesto must be underwritten by leaders of civil society which must at least include the heads of the leading chamber — the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the OPA and if possible some religious dignitaries. Prior to underwriting the same, these leaders must influence the inclusion of specifics devoid of platitudes in relation to:

Good governance & Accountability

Fundamental Rights

Democracy

Ethnic Crisis

Economy

Abuse of Power & Corruption

Emoluments & Perks of Parliamentarians

Social Justice

Corporate Governance: Guiding Principles of New Company Law

Playing with fire

Our largely unprincipled politicians aided by our largely irresponsible leaders of civil society have brought this country to the brink of political, economic, social and moral collapse leading to anarchy. The tragedy is that this time around the voters will be in a dilemma as never before in terms of alternatives. The PA benefited from the unpopularity of the UNP in 1994 just as much as the UNP is potentially well positioned to reap the harvest for the same reason in December 2001. The absorption of some widely acknowledged unsavoury PA personalities into the UNP led opposition does cause confusion and cynicism in the manner ‘democracy’ is being dispensed in Sri Lanka. This has dangerous consequences.

No quick fixes

We must be alert to the reality that there are no quick fixes and that the mere substitution of a Kumaratunga administration no matter how corrupt, incompetent and undesirable with a Wickremesinghe or for that matter any other administration will not resolve our problems in the absence of the required genuine democratic and socio-economic reforms. It will be foolish to delude ourselves with the belief that a mere change of government or personalities will do the trick. If this was so, we will not be in this pathetic state after the demise of the UNP regime in 1994 and the advent of the PA government. We must appreciate that these are but symptoms or consequences of the underlying malaise which need to be identified and effectively addressed. For too long we have endured unprincipled politics by successive governments, some worse than others. Their only goal has been self enrichment and advancement. We are aware of the virtual rags to riches story of many politicians and others who have enjoyed the patronage of such politicians.

The real danger is that the sheer disillusionment with the present government due to the very parlous state of the country, could deceive us into believing that a mere changing of the guard is the panacea to all our ills. On the other hand, our present predicament must be viewed as a unique opportunity where almost the entire country will be receptive to genuine democratic and socio-economic reforms. This is where civil society, particularly the influential sections have a critical and decisive role to play. It will be suicidal to be mere spectators as events unfold due to the machinations of our self-serving politicians guided mainly by their political and individual agendas.

Social contract

Today we are witnessing a disgraceful political circus where the name of the game is raw power at any cost where the welfare of the country does not seem to even enter into reckoning. It must be recognised that the democratic reforms envisaged, no matter however well intentioned, will in the absence of meaningful measures to lessen the increasing and unacceptable economic and social inequity, not have the desired result of stability and progress.

In other words, we have to have in place all the necessary inputs which will facilitate the concept of a ‘social contract’ to not only increase the economic pie but also to ensure that it will be shared in a more equitable manner without dampening individual initiative and entrepreneurship. Social Justice will be the bedrock of the envisaged ‘social contract’. Consistent with this, the country will also have to re-think its fiscal policies inclusive of tax concessions, tax holidays, subsidies and monetary policies which not only favour the rich, but more reprehensibly results in its burden falling more heavily on the disadvantaged sections. This also means that the poor are contributing substantially to the ostentatious and vulgar lifestyles of some of the affluent. Good corporate governance and social responsibility will also be a cornerstone of the envisaged social contract.

Free & fair elections

A basic requirement in a democracy which is a fundamental right of a citizen is the guarantee of free and fair elections. This has been denied to the citizens of Sri Lanka at least for the past quarter century. During this period, election malpractice has progressively increased due to abuse of state power leading to vulgar media manipulation, electoral fraud, voter intimidation and violence inclusive of murder. The hallmark of this abuse is the impunity with which it is carried out. This is mainly due to the confidence our largely corrupt politicians have that civil society — particularly its leaders — will virtually acquiesce with anything, even repugnant, churned out by them. By the yardstick of eternal vigilance being the price of democracy, Sri Lanka certainly does not deserve to be a democracy and hence we have no right to expect one either. Of course we are masters in the craft of whispered cocktail democracy.

The political landscape within which elections will be held has radically changed for the better in the aftermath of the 17th Amendment not withstanding the non-appointment of the ‘Constitutional Council’ and the ‘independent’ commissions. As per Section 27 (2) of the 17th Amendment enacted on 24th September 2001, the Commissioner of Elections is vested with all the powers given to the Elections Commission. These powers were not available prior to the 17th Amendment.

It is the responsibility of the leaders of civil society to encourage and strengthen the hand of the Commissioner of Elections with the objective of ensuring that he uses his full authority towards holding free and fair general elections. Apart from actively supporting the work of the election monitors, our business and professional leaders must act decisively through other telling measures to obtain the desired result. It will have to go well beyond ‘joining hands’ for a few minutes on one day and squandering Rs. 20 million on a largely meaningless advertising campaign as they did recently in respect of resolving the complex ethnic crisis! It is reported that the political transfer of police personnel after the dissolution of parliament and election related violence have already commenced. The blatant abuse of the state media has also commenced. These acts must be nipped in the bud particularly by civil society.


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