Colombo Telegraph

A President’s Embarrassments: Budget Brawls, Corruption Stinks, Northern Stalemate

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The last few weeks have been particularly remarkable for a harvest of embarrassments for the President.  It began with a string of budget upsets in quite a few Pradeshiya Sabhas throughout the South.  In the North, the TNA provincial government presented its first budget to Council with due decorum, but not much by away of revenues and allocations.  Devolution is a shell game, only the NPC is exposing it.  Worse, the President was severely let down by his Leader of the Opposition in the NPC.  K. Kamalendran, who led the UPFA list in the NPC elections, and is now Leader of the Opposition, could not attend the budget speech because he is in police custody over murder charges.  So the new Northern Provincial Council has quite a cross-floor contrast: a former Supreme Court Judge as (TNA) Chief Minister and an accused murderer as Leader of the (Sri Lankan government) Opposition!  Regardless, the unelected Governor of the Province is administratively handcuffing the elected Provincial government.  He is under a public hallucination that he is the sole custodian of the Constitution in Jaffna, if not the whole country.  So much for the peripheries!

At the political centre in Colombo, salacious news stories have been going viral and no doubt shaming the President in their wake.  There was the story about the sexual peccadillos of Lakshman Hulugalle, for long the government’s media face on National Security.  Now he has been fired for his sins and, curiously, or not so curiously, with retroactive effect.  The second story was about the purchase of a Chinese phosphate grinding machine at Rs. 560 million by Lanka Phosphate Ltd., under the chairmanship of Retired Navy Admiral Daya Sandagiri.  He too was fired according to The Island, although the Admiral later tried to split hairs as to whether he was fired or got kicked sideways.

The bitter icing on the scandalous week was the news about a political pipsqueak in the Prime Minister’s office asking customs to clear a ship of grease cans from Pakistan carrying 268 kilograms of hidden heroin.  There is no firing as yet over this, but there is pressure mounting for the firing of not just the pipsqueak but of his PM boss as well.  There have been rumours that DM Jayaratne will be removed and replaced by GL Peiris as Prime Minister.  To confound matters, the beleaguered Prime Minister has drawn support from an unlikely source: former SLFP Minister and now UNP opposition member, Mangala Samaraweera.  While no government minister, or the President, appears to have said anything in support of Mr. Jayaratne, Mangala Samraweera made a spirited intervention in parliament, defending the Prime Minister and accusing of a conspiracy hatched by JHU and BBS with blessings from the regime, to get rid of senior SLFPers in the government.

Teflon President

The downside of having all the powers is that when things start going wrong the blame for everything will also be directed towards the fount of all powers.  As the fount of all powers in Sri Lanka is the President, it is the President who should be the target of blame as well.  This was so with every President from JR Jayewardene, though R. Premadasa, to Chandrika Kumaratunga. It was so with every Prime Minister before JRJ.  But it is not so with President Rajapaksa as nothing ever sticks to him.  Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Teflon politician.  Even those who should know better blame the presidency and cheer the President.  This is the feature of a staid monarchy, and not of a vibrant republican polity.  It was not like this before, in Sri Lanka.  It used to be different.

From the time of independence, if not earlier, a clever, strong and informed opposition constantly held the government’s feet to the fire within and without parliament.  At times, the verbal fire could be scorching.  Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was once at the receiving end of this voluble Colvin (R. de Silva) blast: “The Prime Minister is not worth the rope from which he should be hanged!”  Obviously, Dr. Colvin was on one of his rhetorical flights; he was delivering a political castigation and not a moral indictment of the Prime Minister.  And there could be no such indictment against a man like SWRD Bandaranaike.  His office would have been utterly unapproachable to business crooks and custom cheats.  He was killed by crooks and cheats whom he would not tolerate trying to buy influence in his government for their shady import deals.  How things have changed.

In today’s parliament, the government is a band of presidential cheer leaders, the official opposition is a party of political eunuchs, and TNA’s Sumanthiran occasionally stands tall among the dwarfs that surround him.  Put another way, it is the genuflecting political culture and role abdication by the opposition that has made Mahinda Rajapaksa the Teflon man he is.  It is not that nothing will stick to him, but there is no one in parliament who can make blame and criticism stick to the President.

But while he might be avoiding blame, the President is not escaping embarrassment.  None of this should be surprising to anyone who has been following with concern the goings on in the present government, but their coming together and being exposed one after the other during the budget season is something exceptional, and hugely embarrassing for the President.  Why single out the President for embarrassment?  Shouldn’t the whole government be embarrassed? May be, but what we have in Sri Lanka after 1988, is government of the President, by the President, and for the President.  Lincoln has been upended and home-grown.

Budget fracases and political fallouts

The budget season ran into some rough weather in, of all places, the Pradeshiya Sabhas (PS).  Budgets were defeated in 16 UPFA controlled Pradeshiya Sabhas, namely, Alawa, Bentota, Boppe Podalla, Embilipitiya, Hanguranketa, Homagama, Imbulpe, Kesbewa, Matara, Medawachchiya, Mirigama, Peliyagoda, Rajangana, Ududumbara, Wattala, Wattegama, with UPFA members revolting against their Chairmen appointed directly or indirectly by the President.  In most instances, the budget upsets were orchestrated by Vice Chairmen to get rid of the Chairmen and step into the vacancy.  The Chairmen apparently were guilty on two counts: not only were they corrupt, but they also failed to “share the booty” with their fellow SLFP Councillors.  In Homagama, the Chairman was assaulted and had to be hospitalized.  Even in Moratuwa Municipal Council, the budget is being challenged as having been passed fraudulently. The PS upsets created alarms in Colombo, with the SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Srisena, moving to crack the whip on SLFP MPs and instructing them to be in attendance in parliament all through the budget debates until the votes are over.

The MPs in Colombo are far more docile and submissive to whipping than the hotheaded Pradeshyia Sbaha members who are more at home throwing punches than making arguments.  So the government does not need to fear a national budget revolt and defeat in parliament.  That will be too easy for Ranil Wickremasinghe and the Leadership Council of the UNP.  But the troubles at the local level and the concern in Colombo are indicative of the creeping cracks not only within the UPFA, but also within the SLFP.  As Opposition parliamentarian Harin Fernando pointed out, “We can see that the government seems to be falling apart, by looking at the position of Pradeshiya Sabhas. … When we attend Parliament, all the ministers and parliamentarians urge us to speak against the government because they have had enough.”  In other words, government ministers and MPs are asking opposition MPs, to attack the government in Parliament.

The President held a special cabinet meeting last Monday, despite it being a Poya Day, at the auspicious hour of seven in the morning, to discuss the budget crisis in local bodies and the heroin scandal in the Prime Minister’s office.  He followed up two days later with another meeting, at Temple Trees, with the SLFP Chairmen/Mayors or SLFP Leaders of Opposition of Pradeshiya Sabhas, Urban Councils and Municipal Councils.  These are meetings to rally the troops and tide over the crises, and they cannot, nor are they intended to, address the fundamental problems of devolution and local administration, on the one hand, and the epidemic of corruption and abuse of resources, on the other.

Given the state of local and provincial administrations in the country, the Central Government has a duty to provide ‘education and training’ in administration and financial management to elected officials in local bodies and provincial councils.  It has an even greater duty in setting a national example of zero tolerance for corruption in the public administration.  But these are not tasks that preoccupy the Rajapaksa Administration.  To the Administration, local bodies and Provincial Councils are no more than SLFP/UPFA branches.  The sticky exception is the Northern Provincial Council.

Beyond the Palmyra curtain: devolution vs branch plant operation

What obtains in Sri Lanka is not devolution based on a system of provincial and local governments, but branch plant operations in the provinces and local bodies by the Rajapaksa government in Colombo.  The centralized political party control over local bodies began after 1977, when the UNP government, taking advantage of its national landslide victory and an opposition in disarray, virtually swept the board in local government elections, outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces.  Local councilors became party operators and local government was reduced to ‘branch plant’ operation.

The introduction of Provincial Councils as an intermediate layer of government did not change the branch-plant mode of governance. Rather the Provincial Councils became new branch plants. The SLFP’s turn came after 1994 and there is no turning back as far as the Rajapaksa regime is concerned, but for the new irritant of a Provincial Council in the North, on the other side of the Palmyra curtain.

The President has his hands full in dealing with the situation in the North.  There is a continuing humanitarian situation that requires a different kind of treatment than building roads or creating tourist attractions.  The army is still on the prowl, checking and scaring the local people in the name of some abstract national security.  International spotlight is incessantly on the North.  The government’s political representatives there are a lowlife disgrace.  The Governor of the Province is behaving worse than the worst British governor in colonial Ceylon.  Yet, there is an easy way out for the President.  And it is no different from what the good Catholic Bishops in their collective wisdom have already indicated: Just talk and work with the TNA, sincerely and honestly.  The President gets loads of good advice from far and near, but only he can decide as to what to do with good advice.

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