A Road Map for change


by Gnana Moonesinghe

The presidential election on Jan. 8 is crucial for Sri Lanka. After a long time a multi -party opposition is in place and the people are given the opportunity to make their choice between the strategies the Government and the Opposition. The policies of the contending parties must be clear and not be overtaken by pettiness, bickering and irresponsible bouts of violence as displayed by enthusiastic supporters vying for attention by their respective leaders. This type of dramatic antics can be stopped by the Elections Commission, by the law enforcement officers and above all by the political party leaders themselves. But it seems an impossible hope that this comedy of errors that’s being unsheathed is facilitated and shrouded through the webbing with the Sinhala Buddhist ethos, the anchor being their numerical strength. Many, unfortunately, for the nation, tend to forget that the need of the hour is unity and the reconstruction of the spirit and wellbeing of the people in the entirety of the country.

This election is about the quality of life available to the people, about law and order, about a robust and independent Judiciary, about the Constitution and constitutionalism, about the empowerment of civil society, about transparent and accountable administrative procedures free from political patronage and the present level of pervasive corruption within the system. These are matters that call for serious response from the government, the opposition and from civil society. Civil society must finally arbitrate between the incumbent government and the men and women who intend to replace them. The policy options available to the people must be presented with clarity and not be confused by raising irrelevant matters for short term advantage. It would be sterile to confine the dialogue at this moment to emotive issues by which to influence the thinking of the people.

The victory over the Tigers made a grateful nation give the incumbent President a resounding victory last time round. With the passage of time other matters needing urgent attention for corrective measures to be taken had come to the foreground. With its 2/3 parliamentary majority and a strong presidency the administration had become increasingly authoritarian and totally indifferent to public opinion. Democracy has become an empty concept; no longer are the elected members responsive to the needs of their constituencies; their role marginalized by a cabal that had absorbed much of the decision making. The violation of the articles of the constitution was acceptable often for security reason or for urgency to accelerate the development program of the government. The momentum that called for the abolition of the Executive system had gone into full throttle since the declaration of elections.

The other most important issue is that of corruption that has spread its tentacles to every sphere in the conduct of public and private affairs. The twin organs, the law enforcement officers and the judiciary should have been able to arrest the malaise from spreading but they could not because of the high degree of politicization in these institutions. The spokesperson for the Government claimed that in the Global Corruption and perception index in the year 2002 Sri Lanka was ranked 51% and in 2014 it was down to 49%. However the perception in the country is that corruption has become the culture of politicians. This is given credence by the comments made by a government politician as reported in the press. In an appeal to the public to support the incumbent president he exhorted that the present government should be voted in as they have made all the money they need while a new government will have to start this process of undesirable, unethical accumulation of wealth. That he had made such a comment and lives to fight another election is indeed a sad reckoning of the present political and moral environment. What must be the reaction of the electorate?

Another shameful admission as commented upon in a newspaper report is that corruption amongst the public servants is rampant and therefore the consequence had been the tardy collection of taxes from the rich and powerful. The shortfall in revenue was made with the levy of indirect taxes. This obviously affected adversely the middle and low income groups of people. The already burdened sectors had to deal with further incremental levies that sent the cost of living further spiraling upwards.

In an interview with one of the President’s men, the latter stated that politicians cannot be held responsible for poor governance because it is "the public service is the centerpiece of good governance". Continuing he said that if there is no good governance "the finger should be pointed to the public service more than the politicians, because public service should be able to withstand any pressure". It would seem that this spokesperson is thinking of another period when the PSC was in place and discipline and integrity were the order of the day. This is an area that needs change and the removal of the 17th Amendment which reintroduced the separation of powers to prevent politicization was hastily repealed and the 18th Amendment was put in place. The politicization continued and the individuals who could resist the political pressure became a rare phenomenon. The government stands condemned for replacing a significant Amendment that reasserted democratic principles.

Recently however a constable gathered sufficient courage to resist his superiors. He could not cope with the excessive level of political interference and decided to tender his resignation. Now this cop is facing charges of insubordination from his superiors!! Where is the pressure possible from the public service?

The Fear syndrome and some misperceptions

It obviously makes no sense to run an administration or the election on a fear syndrome. People are being ‘coached’ to fear a serious threat to national security, fear Tiger revival, fear international players destabilizing the nation, fear the minorities both ethnic and religious positing them not as equal stakeholders in the country but as contenders and opponents of the Sinhala Buddhists. There is the perception and perhaps a little bit of simulated fear that the Western world is interfering in Sri Lankan Affairs and as a result the government has moved towards an inward looking position, to make unwarranted undiplomatic accusations at the Western world. A great deal of credit had been given to the President for fighting for our sovereignty. This is at a time when the worldwide overview is firmly towards a loose knit global community!

The clarification must be made that this election is not about the LTTE and its confrontation with the State. On the President’s admission since the end of the war there had not been any terrorist incidents in the country. This election should be about building confidence building among the minorities both the Tamils and the Muslims and reduce the gap between the majority and the minority area of suspicions. It is also necessary to remember that there was a period when negotiation with the Tigers was considered the way to resolve the conflict. It was at a later date that the partial war was transformed into an all-out offensive against the Tigers and the 2009 victory over the LTTE put an end to the three decade war. Accusing political leaders and governments that worked towards negotiated peace as lackeys of foreign governments and as unpatriotic persons does not make sense.

This election is not about the diaspora either. They are an enigma in the hype the government is raising, about them, and their potential to create political turmoil within the country. In fact the actual relevance of the diaspora is to the constituencies in which they are domiciled where their votes can be won by the men and women who contest elections in UK by sympathizing with their cause. The Government unfortunately uses the diaspora as a red herring of immense explosive presence. Since the people do not have the necessary information to make independent assessment of this (diaspora) phenomenon it is unethical to spread misinformation meant to make mischief to stage one-upmanship in the power struggle. If the economic environment in Sri Lanka can be made sufficiently attractive and safe for investment in the North and the East, the profile of the diaspora can be made to become more benign and constructive. It is not a bad idea to experiment with it.

JVP 1987-89

The 1987-89 southern rebellion waged against person and property both public and private, was as virulent as the Tiger war. The JVP had the capacity to bring the government as well as the public and private institutions to a complete standstill. They also used extremely violent methods to secure acceptance for their ideology. That revolt was brought to a close with much violence. It is no secret that the JVP too has a strong international front. But this has not been picked up by the media for constant surveillance. The government and those that followed did not persist in creating and continuing a pathological interest in looking for conspiracies to destabilize society. In fact the JVP was encouraged to come into mainstream politics which they did and today they are one of the most critical observers of the political situation. The approach has been different in dealing with post war North. It is time to shed the artificially infused sense of insecurity in the North and lead the country towards serious reconciliation. It is unethical and unwise to raise the security card to further polarize the communities merely to manipulate the electorate. The issues raised by the Northern Provincial Council must be investigated and a serious attempt made to depoliticize the problem and amicably resolve them in the larger interest of the country.

Extremist Organizations and insecurity

The dramatically visualized and expounded phobias are not confined to the international arena alone. Narrow chauvinist organizations like the BBS have been given the go ahead to create anti -Muslim, anti- Christian sentiment and incite people to violence. They fuelled racial animosities and created envy for the economic progress of the Muslim minority. When riots broke out the law enforcement personnel looked the other way. Even video clippings with clear evidence of the identity of the perpetrators were ignored. The government to date had not condemned the actions of this group. In fact the latter organization had pledged its support to the President. How does the public read the proposal of extremist monks pledging support to the UPFA?

Political High Jumpers seek greener pastures

From the time of independence there had been crossings from the government to the opposition and vice versa. Most of the time the crossings were on the basis of political differences and a few instances were over personal concerns. Today it is prompted largely by the opportunities available for personal aggrandizement of wealth, power and privileges. Ideological considerations play no part. Even when the seats in the opposition were all but emptied by the numbers that crossed over to become Ministers and Deputy Ministers none was convinced that the moves were fired by patriotic fervor to support the government against the Tigers. That they no longer had to vacate their seats and stand for fresh elections seeking endorsement from their constituencies made it easy to shift positions. The lure for ministerial positions made it possible for the government to accumulate a 2/3 majority from those elected by the UNP constituency. This entire play of luring crossovers is not only immoral but it has worked to be the single most important factor in destroying some of the important features of democracy. The 17th Amendment was passed by Parliament to ensure that independence of some of the important organs of Government. Having a 2/3 majority, the Government facilitated the passage of the controversial 18th Amendment which gave power to the President to politicize the main institutions responsible to uphold democratic practices such as the Elections Commission, Auditor General, judiciary, the Public Service. The 18th Amendment also removed the two term limit for the presidency. This Amendment was endorsed by the Supreme Court which exposed the political intrusions made by the government into the judiciary as well. Many of the MPs have sold their souls not for a mere mess of potage but for many pots of potage (of gold?) for generations to come. It would be interesting to see how the electorate looks upon these chameleons and which of them will manage to hoodwink the people and get re-elected.

In this election at least there is a fairly formidable opposition that can help to make a change to a system that to date seemed concretized. Change is in the national interest. But as of now the opposition has not given a credible transfer details that would follow the overhaul of the Executive Presidential system. The suspicion is that there is a desire to hold back without spelling out details on a variety of subjects for fear that it can be distorted by the government to make it appear that the proposed strategies appear unpatriotic.

There is an absolute urgency to restore the confidence for fairness in justice. National interest must override narrow personal and political party advantage. The people must speak. Obviously the Muslims had made it clear to their political leaders from their community that they should move out from the government that failed to protect them when they were attacked by extremists. The alternative presented to them was political exile. Within the last few days TNA has also extended its support to the common candidate.

CBK, RW et all

To confuse the electors the question is raised as to why people should vote for Maithripala and unleash on the political scene CBK and RW. To raise the bogey of CBK is unfair as the ex-president’s intention and role are limited to the ‘cobbling’ of the opposition in the initial stages as well as to win part of the SLFP vote base for the elections. CBK has clearly declared her limited interest in the proceedings. She is not even contesting elections. What is the relevance of dragging CBK in?

Ranil, the leader of the UNP will get the UNP votes to the opposition. He has proven credential of efficiency as Prime Minister and as Minister when he had to officiate at these offices. It is even today the UNP vote that sustains this government to date and gave it the vital 2/3 majority in Parliament. The government no longer has this majority.

Maithripala , the dark horse that emerged

It is also necessary to attribute more character to Maithripala. Having crossed over and become the leader of the movement for the opposition he will be the last one to let anyone walk over him. He did not give up his ministry and the perks that go with it including the future potential for further rise in the political spectrum merely to be led on a leash by other interested parties. Such an approach would be to underestimate the character of the indigenous sons of the soil in this country. They come tougher and shrewder than given credit in such speculation. Maithripala took time to stage his coup. He did not cry foul at the first sighting of signs of poor governance. Reluctantly or otherwise he was part of the system, as Secretary to the Party and as Minister, a docile if not an assertive accomplice to the Rajapaksa government. The critics need have no fear that he will be subsumed by others. A well crafted system of sharing power and responsibilities should in all probability be the order of the day.

Nothing and no one can go on forever. Change is the one inviolable reality. Change there must be. What must be ensured is that in the event of change those who take over will be prevented from personalizing politics and political power. Government and governance is for the people, of the people and by the people. This long tested maxim must be the key to the future.

Let there be an awakening to realism and truthfulness. It is the moral responsibility of leadership to make an objective presentation of facts to the nation. Instead of creating divisions, building relationships amongst the people must constitute a part of the strategy for the future. Both the government and the Opposition must make a clear stand on these matters.

Pandit Nehru "…..encouraged parliamentary debate, maintained internal democracy within the… party….. a politically neutral civil service, fostered judicial independence, encouraged press freedom, boosted secularism, and firmly entrenched civilian control over the military".

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