Assessing the present to make the change


by Gnana Moonesinghe

The people of Sri Lanka who elected the common candidate as President agitated for change, voted for change and made the change. Now it is time to make the change meaningful.

We have today a President elected by all sections of the people of Sri Lanka – the Sinhala Buddhists, Tamils, Indian Tamils, Christians, Muslims, Burghers and others. The president is fortunate to have a unity government at hand. Now is the time for the leaders to use special skills to work out the strategies for progress, for reconciliation, for development and for restoring diplomatic nuances to our foreign policy. A national government has been formed with a cabinet reduced to 27 ministers. The country is done with a bloated cabinet of the earlier era and the inflated egos. The 100-days program that is unwinding will presumably be followed with the dissolution of parliament and the subsequent elections. From among the successful candidates elected to parliament, the permanent cabinet of ministers will be chosen.

Within the coalition partners there exists a wide variety of ideas, representing a wide variety of ideologies that form their identity. It is not a ‘motley’ mix as referred to by some commentators, but a healthy one for a mix and match of ideas, for constructive policy making. This group should not be considered a distraction or as inflammable friction causing material. They should be considered a viable option for decision making in a spirit of tolerance and compromise that will facilitate consensual policy making. None of the constituent parties can realize 100% of their targets; however accommodation among them will make way to have a significant part of their needs fulfilled.

President and the Sinhala Buddhist constituency and the minorities

It is necessary to put to rest once and for all the claim that the Sinhala Buddhist constituency had stayed with the former president and that this government is propped by the minority vote bank. That the minority vote made a major difference to the total count is not in question. What is of great significance is that the minority support given without any pre conditions had made this government a unity government. It is necessary to be reminded that the minorities are a constituent component of the demography of this country as much as the Sinhala Buddhists are.

The UNP vote is also made of Sinhala Buddhists. Maithripala has got less than 40% in only two districts while Mahinda has less than 40% in six districts. Maithripala has over 40% in nine districts while Rajapaksa has over 40% in seven districts. In 11 districts Sirisena gathered over 50%, while Rajapaksa got over 50% in nine districts. Therefore it would be totally misleading to say that President Sirisena had not had the backing of the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank. In fact the newly elected President can be happy that he had formed a nationally endorsed government voted in by a significant section of the majority as well as the ethnic and religious minorities. This certainly makes the space for a peaceful government where cordiality and cohabitation is possible.

The disquiet of autocracy replaced

The results were welcomed by many as the gateway to the freedoms that we had been deprived of in the last couple of years. What President Sirisena had promised to put to effect in the 100 days looks after much by way of demolishing most of the elements in the dysfunctional democratic system, we the people, had been compelled to live under. It is not out of place to remind those whom we have elected to be mindful of our freedom, our identity and personal dignity and our right to civil liberty while emancipating us from being victims of the use of arbitrary power.

The use of arbitrary power is the yokel under which many amongst us had to live consequent to the denial of the rule of law and the impunity with which the Judiciary was trifled with much to the detriment and consternation of the people. People at every economic level had to bear the consequences of individual and institutional violation of the constitution by the merging of the authority of one single person who multiplied and shared the exercise of this supreme power with a very small group of family and friends made possible by the failure to abide by the concept of separation of powers so vital for good governance. This gave rise to conflict of interest and dysfunctionalism within the state administration and between the state and society. In fact ministers and the public service personnel were mere cardboard figures; they had no scope to exercise their functions as laid out in the constitution. The cabinet of ministers merely gave the assent to what was placed before them. Nothing originated from the cabinet and no decision was arrived at through discussion. It became the role of the Executive to make decisions, enter into transactions and have them implemented as well. Procedures were abandoned and transparency became irrelevant as none could call the executive or his minions to account. In terms of decline of democratic systems Sri Lanka has perhaps reached its nadir in its downward trend.

Today with the new leadership change in approach appears to be possible. The president has categorically stated that he looked upon himself as the servant of the people and commented that there was no place in the system for kings. This is a humbling thought and an auspicious beginning. It is appropriate to bear a warning that policy and strategies have to be evolved through discussions and decisions to be taken by consensus. Stemming from this it follows that in a democracy to label all moves prefixed with the name of the leader is out of place, out of order. The best amongst us can be corrupted by attempts at sourcing authority from just one point, the Executive. It had happened before and it could happen again.

The main platform of the common opposition stand were the abolition of the Executive Presidential system, the re-enactment of the 17th Amendment and the withdrawal of the 18th Amendment which would permit key institutions to function independently, effectively terminating crippling politicization of the administrative machinery.

The Executive Presidential system

It is essential to do away with the Executive Presidential system altogether without attempting to modify it by merely chipping away some of the controversial powers of the president. This will not help the intent behind the need to do away with the system. If indeed it is considered necessary to have the Executive elected by the whole country, let it be that that the PM is elected thus but that he remains in Parliament, answerable to parliament as any prime minister must. This will facilitate the PM to rub shoulders with the other elected members in Parliament from his or her party or parties; this will be a leveling process although he will remain primus inter pares - first among equals by constitutional diktat. The echo of power from a distance will be discontinued.

Being in parliament also gives the opportunity to relate to the opposition not as adversaries but as colleagues. There will be occasions for interactions and for creating working relationships and to establish friendly linkages to forge an amicable environment without compromising on party positions. An editorial of January 10 states that "governments change but the politicians remain unchanged….. that they do more of what the predecessors did". If even a part of the agenda put out by the government is implemented it can be claimed that this administration has ushered a change of attitude and approach and a stand taken not to do what other predecessors had done. What the government has to be wary is of taking any of the baggage from the earlier government even if they offer support following the victory at the elections. They come with the ‘flavour and smell" of the old regime. This government is set up specifically to make a change from the old regime. Those corrupt and with evidence of corruption should not be let loose in society without apprehending them and making them accountable to the public through the judicial process. A moral society with ethical values should be the aura of this government.

The Fourth Estate failed the Nation

Much of the controversial and damaging issues for good governance of the old regime were possible, to a large extent, because the Fourth Estate failed in their role as guardians of democracy, law abiding peace loving people faded away while the drug peddlers, the casino kings, playboys and mega crime gangs took centre stage. They abandoned their position as watchdogs of the system largely because of fear and the intimidatory tactics of kidnappings, murders, disappearances, physical violence etc. that were a daily happening. Any number of anonymous players had responsibility for this.

It was also partly because the Executive set himself deliberately to woo the journalists into obeisance with innumerable temptations which in all honesty would have been difficult for most people to resist. The security factor and political patronage played a key role in depriving the country of a vigorous, investigative media whose role was to inform and expose when and where it was necessary. The wise ones remained silent (they had responsibilities of families to think of) and people’s right to information became a dead letter even before the legislation was ever considered.

To the extent the media subjected itself to political pressure, the effectiveness of a functional democracy receded from providing protection to the people or being relevant. If the fourth estate had functioned effectively it would have been possible to promote transparency, accountability and public scrutiny of the government. The openness and democratization in any country is directly linked to the degree of independence available as well as the ability to follow up on investigations pursuing it to its conclusion.

Raising an issue and dropping it when it is politically inconvenient leaves the public in ignorance; not pursuing the matter makes the public to forget or lose interest in it. White van trauma, kidnappings, killings, disappearances, grease yakka mystery were all left without too much stirring of the pot or continuity in the pursuit of truth. Such omissions worked against the best interest of governance and human rights.

James D. Wolfensohn, a former President of World Bank had commented that a free press is not a luxury but that "a free press is at the absolute core of equitable development, because if you cannot enfranchise poor people, if they do not have a right to expression, if there is no searchlight on corruption and inequitable practices, you cannot build the public consensus needed to bring about change."

For instance it is the duty of the press to explain and inform through their writings about Sri Lanka being a plural society. It is not for them to aggravate race hate or not explain the significance of a majority and a minority in a country and its co-relation. It is not for them to present them as adversaries. Issues of poverty and the poor quality of life among low income groups should be their concern to highlight. They need to be aired over TV and radio channels, in the social media and in the newspapers. No responsible media personality should allow the authorities to stifle them. The Tiger war had been won and peace made; a grateful nation is indebted to all who made this possible. But it is perhaps the duty of the journalists to empower those without access to much information that it is time to move on and consider other issues contrary to the approach of some politicians whose interest it was to keep people without access to information and thereby keep thinking stagnant.

Media in SL had skipped its ‘role of the news media as a civic forum.’ The press can raise issues about political matters, government programs highlighting the positive and the negative aspects impartially to be heard and understood. During elections, this time round too, media did not give balanced time to the candidates. It has become an unwritten convention to voice only the government position and change sides when the opposition forms the government. It is essential to follow media ethics. The deepening silence is evidence that journalists feared to speak out and consequently the whole country was the loser. Development, both economic and social, is possible only when the truth is spoken to the powers that be. Responding to local problems and overseeing slack officials and corrupt practices are the direct responsibility of the press.

It is sad to note that 65 years after Independence when a bystander was asked for his reaction to 2015 elections, the reply was that he was happy with the results but that to him it did not matter who wins as long as he can have food for himself and his family to eat. That was a pathetic situation with the aspiration being the lowest denominator – food to be alive. This government must take note of it within its 100 days agenda and help the needy without pretending as others have done that most people are above the poverty line.

Ciivl society has to work with institutions set up to support them and encourage them in their civic activities to foster equality and equality of opportunity. They have to perform an active role to strengthen democracy and moral values. Institutions such as the public service, media, law and order and civil society must be encouraged to be independent and act fearlessly. When this happens it can be deemed that the change has taken place.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...