A critical crisis: government incompetence and opposition missing in action

Rajan Philips

"No crisis in Ceylon ever becomes critical", is one-line of wisdom attributed to Francis de Zoysa, Q.C., a prominent lawyer and State Councilor in pre-independence Sri Lanka. He is now more known as the father of the well-known de Zoysa brothers who competitively excelled in law (Stanley and Bunty), in Police services (Sidney) in post-independence Sri Lanka. They were society ‘Colombians’ with southern roots and contributed to the broader Sri Lankan society without brother-bonding political ambitions, although Stanley de Zoysa was the Minister of Finance in the SWRD Bandaranaike government. They belonged to a different era. The present era belongs to the Rajapaksa brothers from the south. They are political ‘Colombians’ deriving their power, if not eminence, from the political plains that surround them.

Times were different when Sri Lanka’s political crises counter-posing faltering governments and vigorous oppositions would be resolved through periodical elections before the crises became critical. The crisis now is partly the result of a government that is incompetent in spite of constitutional omnipotence and an opposition that is missing in action and unable to provide an alternative. More substantially, the crisis is one of incompetence and paralysis of the administrative apparatus of the state. What we have is a crisis of functionally incompetent and structurally irreplaceable government that is not only critical but also worrisomely unpredictable.

`A’ Level fiasco, neither accident

nor surprise

Nothing more illustrates the severity of government incompetence and administrative paralysis than the fiasco of the `A’ Level exams. There is not a tradition that all Lankans, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers, can be more proud of than the tradition of literacy and the ethos of education. As a society all Lankans conserved and augmented this tradition remarkably well during the colonial encounter. We have been reasonably successful in meeting the modern objective of expanding equitable opportunities in education, but terribly unsuccessful delivering education effectively and efficiently and in tailoring the content of education to meet not only the productive requirements of the economy but also the socialization needs of a democratic polity. There have been avoidable blunders along the way: nationalization of schools, the swabasha-medium insistence rendered worse by swabasha-standardization, and finally the transformation of education from being an essential public good into a private good marketed at generally unaffordable prices by already established elite international schools and the proposed private universities.

Through it all, the students, teachers and parents, virtually the whole population, had one cardinal certainty: the integrity of public examinations. It is no accident that this integrity crashed under this government’s watch and it is no surprise that departmental decisions that need not involve even the subject minister ended up going all the way to the Head of State. In the end, the Heads of Department are dispensable while the Head of State and his minion ministers enjoy immunity. But left high and dry are students and parents. Their anger and anxiety cannot be overstated, for in our society the `A’ Level is the bottleneck squeeze between career aspirations and limited opportunities, and not infrequently `A’ Level results become suicide triggers for those who fail to make the grade.

The `A’ Level fiasco is an extreme exception that proves the general rule. The state’s basic responsibilities are well known: law and order, economic management, hard and soft infrastructure and social welfare. In the Lankan context, the traditional structures of social inequality and modes of production necessitated extensive state involvement in social welfare and food production and distribution. The food question has been a decisive factor in every election from 1960 to 1977. It eased later with quantum increases in locally produced rice and increasing purchasing power of the population. Earlier food crises were almost always the result of trying to juggle between affordable prices for consumers (political necessity) and high import costs (economic imperatives). But seldom did crisis arise because of political bungling such as dumping coconuts in the sea or driving vegetable vendors nuts over the imposition of the plastic crate ultimatum. Both have happened in the last one year.

The government has placed almost religious faith in making tourism the engine of Sri Lanka’s economic take-off. This is strange enough for a government that styles itself as rural-centric and progressive, totally at odds with urban elitism. But tourism was dealt a body blow in peak tourist season in the presidential backyard in Tangalle by the cowardly murder of a British tourist by drunken local politicos. That was another reminder of the collapse of law and order in the country. The shenanigans extend to the BOI, the stock market, pension funds, land and enterprise expropriation, misplaced emphasis on domestic aviation, and corruption and cost overruns in sports infrastructure.

It is not just that government incompetence is all pervasive. The real issue is if and how it can be arrested and reversed even at least in some areas of state business. The simple way of throwing a government out of power in an election and voting a new government in is no longer clear-cut not only because electoral alternating did not work earlier but also because there is no manifest alternative to the present government. There is no opposition worthy enough to provide even the illusion of an alternative. Put cynically, there is no alternative to the Rajapaksa regime except the almighty.

Critical crisis, breaking the logjam

The point of this article is that this is an unprecedented situation in our political experience, and one that is pregnant with unpredictable consequences. During the pre-presidential parliamentary era, the indicators of trouble for a government in an election year used to be student protests, worker unrest and judicial decisions against the government in power. The opposition would channel and ride these waves of protests to victory in the election. The electoral cycle went on even as people went on with their lives between elections.

Now, we are nowhere near an election but there is more than student protests and worker unrest in the country. The university teachers are riled and there are riots in the country’s main prison. Ironically, there is no opposition to take advantage of the growing disenchantment among the people. The absence of judicial dissent, on the other hand, is itself another symptom of the unprecedented situation we are in.

There is another ingredient in the mix. The political unwillingness and the structural inability to deal with the Tamil problem after the war, has placed the country in an awkward position internationally. The problem is not ‘internationalized’ in the normal sense but hardly a day goes by without the government’s limited diplomatic resources being tested on the question of accountability for what happened during the war and what has not happened after the war. The native-bonapartist impulse to play Sinhalese nationalism against western imperialism is wearing thin especially in the context of general government incompetence.

The government for all its powers is in a quandary on every front, the victim of the final fusion of an incompetent executive, an uncritical parliament, and see-no-evil and hear-no-evil judiciary. It is also the victim of the prevailing political culture of acquiescence and the disappearance of internal criticism. Even in normal times good government requires more than an active opposition and a watchful judiciary. It requires a competent civil service that is able to develop, evaluate, and recommend alternative proposals on every major file for decision by individual ministers and the cabinet. The cabinet is not meant to be a bloated gathering of ‘yes men’ but a group of upstanding leaders, with either political experience or professional excellence, and capable of vigorous internal debate before decision making and unified external responsibility after decisions are made. The cabinet ministers must use their own parliamentary group as the principal sounding board for the government’s general direction and specific policies.

Evidently, this is not the decision making flow chart that the present government is following on any of its files. Can the government reverse this trend and restore the normal order of state business? It certainly could, but there is little evidence that it will, even though internal transformation of the government would be the least disruptive way to break out of the present logjam.

Talk of an Arab Spring or a class revolution is political table talk with no connection to reality. The government is not significantly alienated from a critical mass of the society; nor is the current crisis one between contending classes with one faction benefiting from the status quo and others suffering under it. The crisis encompasses in different ways all Lankans.

But people are not going to remain quiet and this is becoming quite evident from the plethora of protests that are springing everywhere. While the protests are not politically motivated and are not coordinated as a grand assault on the government, they have proved to be effective in pushing the government back on practically every issue that is provoking the protest. It would be rational for the government to learn its lessons and change its mode of governance. But politics and power can be analyzed rationally but are hardly pursued rationally.

Rationally, the President on his own initiative can do much to arrest this crisis and prevent it from being self-sustaining. Already the President is personally intervening in every situation where someone has to put out a fire. Why not do it more pro-actively and in a preventative way? A major reason for our critical crisis is the personalization of presidential power and it is not that the President is behind every misdoing but the concentration of power in one institution of the state has vitiated the system of checks and balances everywhere else. The personalization of power is not an automatic outcome of the constitution, but rather it is the result of deliberate and mistaken actions of individual incumbents. Ironically, the worst performers in this regard have been the two SLFP Presidents who before they became Presidents vowed that they would abolish the presidency. So it should not be impossible for a President to unwind what has so far been wound in her or his own person.

Can the present President unwind? Can he voluntarily and systematically de-concentrate his own powers and restore the checks and balances in the system? He could but he likely won’t on his own initiative. On the other hand, parliament and the judiciary can play important roles in making the President do the right thing that he is not able to do on his own initiative.

The parliament has been derogated mostly by the actions of its members – their failure to jealously protect the rights and powers of the legislature, and their opportunism in switching alliances often for less than half a seat in the cabinet. The crisis situation is giving parliament and parliamentarians the opportunity to reverse their own derogation by becoming the medium between the government and disaffected populations. The leadership must come from individual MPs and even cabinet ministers, regardless of party affiliation, who could work as informal coalitions on specific issues. Equally, the judiciary has to find its voice and play its role in restoring the checks and balances that have been removed or weakened over the years.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...