Colombo Telegraph

A Presidency Under Threat: Money, Populism And Electoral Considerations

By Rajiva Wijesinha –

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP

When I wrote about corruption last week, I concentrated on the structural absurdities that have been introduced into the allocation of development funding. Given the blatant deployment of this for electoral purposes, many politicians have the liberty to award contracts for projects as seems most beneficial to them, rather than the people they are supposed to serve. And while of course some development will occur, and perhaps a lot in some areas, the bottom line is that the people are no longer being fooled, as the last set of election results made clear.

But I would be remiss if I did not talk too of the perceptions of corruption at the top, since the general impression seems to be that what we have now is a kleptocracy. I should note that the President himself does not figure in these rumours, though he too must know that some who do are alleged to also act as agents on his behalf. And sadly – though given his excessive indulgence of those close to him, I can see other reasons for his weakness in this regard – his failure to discipline them is attributed to worry about what they might reveal.

Given what he has achieved however, there is little anger, except amongst those who disliked him in the first place. What is serious now is the erosion of confidence in those around him, and in particular with the immediate family. Thus, when I was recently in Kandy, I was told about a new hotel that was coming up that there were rumours that it was owned by Gotabhaya – and then later I was told that it belonged to Basil.

That both stories should be circulating indicated that these were rumours, and it is quite possible that they are unfounded – or even that they are being spread by those who do own the hotel, and who think their position will be stronger for whatever planning needs they have, if it is thought that powerful people were involved. But I was saddened by this, remembering my father’s old friendship with D A Rajapaksa, one of the simplest and most honest politicians I knew, who had almost no assets when he lost his Parliamentary seat in 1965 and travelled home by bus.

The story about Gotabaya upset me particularly, because I had unhesitatingly stood up for him when criticism first started about the powers the family had. I had been impressed by the confidence he had given the forces, not least because the corruption that had reigned previously with regard to procurement had been stopped. He was clearly the best man for the job at the time, and the country must continue grateful to him for what was achieved – and not least because all accounts are that he tried to fight the war as cleanly as possible.

What has happened then to sully his reputation? On the one hand, I believe that he fell prey in an unexpected fashion to the confusion caused by the 2010 Presidential election (which I gathered from the President only he and I had tried to postpone). When the President’s electoral strategy had to change, given that he had to face Sarath Fonseka instead of Ranil Wickremesinghe, there was stress on his chauvinist credentials. This has now become a mould that has taken possession of those who make decisions on behalf of the President. And they have become the prey of those who genuinely fitted into that mould, such as Wimal Weerawansa. Such people needed another hero, instead of Sarath Fonseka, so they recalibrated Gotabhaya. Hence the flirtations with the BBS, even though the President claims that the BBS is a foreign funded conspiracy to bring him down (and likely to be successful, unless he convinces Gotabhaya to escape from the mould).

The perception that he is the chief extremist in government then has contributed to increasing unpopularity amongst the bulk of the population. But this in turn has fuelled perceptions that he is a politician like any other, which also contributes to what I find particular embarrassing, given my previous spirited defence of the man, that he too is benefiting financially from his position.

And yet, if indeed he wants to contest an election, as he has now suggested is the case (contrary to the contempt with which he treated the proposal when the President had it put to him in 2010), then it is understandable that he needs a war chest. Whereas many previous Secretaries to the Ministry of Defence, or Defence Ministers, even had family involvements in arms procurement, Gotabaya was almost certainly squeaky clean. So it is deeply depressing that now he should seem different.

But all this should make the President reflect on the deep malaise that affects our political system, and introduce reforms that would alleviate the situation. Firstly, he must realize that the current electoral system is corrosively corrupting. When you have to compete in a whole District, and fight not just one or two opponents but the entire list on your side, of course you need massive funding. The alternative is notoriety, but even the President must by now realize that the country is not served well by pretty faces or sports stars or those who have been in jail, who have no idea of what should be done in Parliament. Even worse, many of them feel they deserve executive office because they got a large number of preferences in the polls, whereas this happened because people with three votes simply cast one or two of them for names they knew. This has also contributed to the large number of family members being elected, but they too demand positions on the strength of their fathers having been individually (as opposed to collectively) popular.

Changing the electoral system then would reduce the squandering of funds that have to be obtained through corruption – which often involves skimming off large percentages from public money that should be spent on development. And it would also help to reduce pressures to fill the executive with dead wood – or rather parasites that see ministerial office too as a way of making money (or providing jobs at increasing expense to the people).

But Gotabaya’s popularity before he saw himself as a politician should also make the President reflect on how he could reconstitute the executive, to make it efficient without imposing on its members the need to achieve electoral success. Vasantha Senanayake has shown the way through his proposed constitutional amendments, which remove members of the Executive from Parliament.

This is the practice elsewhere in the world where you have Executive Presidencies. The American President can choose anyone he wants to run government departments, and in France or Russia, while politicians can be Ministers, they must leave Parliament for this purpose. And in such countries the majority of Ministers are technocrats, who fulfil the demands of their departments, not those of their electorates.

Even under the Westminster system, where Ministers have to be members of Parliament, there is room for professional talent. Most parliaments have a second chamber through which necessary expertise can be brought in, as was the case with Manmohan Singh or Arun Jaitley now. And in many Parliaments there are safe seats so that those running departments do not have to curry favour. Even while they serve the interests of their constituents, the bulk of their energies can be expended on serving the country at large, not those whose votes they desperately need.

The capabilities of Gotabaya, of P B Jayasundara, of Nivard Cabraal, of Lalith Weeratunge are obvious in comparison with those of the others who run things now on behalf of the President. And even Basil achieved much more when he was not a Minister than now, when he has to play electoral politics while also running economic development as well as constitutional and structural reforms. As for the others who currently govern the President’s policies, Namal Rajapaksa and Sajin Vas Gunawardena and GL Peiris, they also are concerned with their future positions, which affects their decision making capacities, such as they are.

I cannot then understand why the President does not institutionalize a system that would allow him to make maximum use of talent, rather than allocate ministries or developmental initiatives or international relations to people he knows are mucking things up for him. And the comparatively positive reputations of the technocrats I have mentioned suggests that perceptions of government corruption will be much less if the changes Vasantha Senanayake has proposed are implemented.

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