By Ruvan Weerasinghe –
A visitor asks you how life in Sri Lanka is in 2015 compared to when they last visited in 2013. Amidst the vastly divergent pictures of reality that advocates of the previous and current regime portray, they want to know what is the real situation on the ground. Below I have tried to be as ‘disinterested an observer’ as possible, given that I have never advocated any particular party line, but as one who voted for change on the 8th of January. I have also included some views of those from different walks of life, even a few who had reservations about the feasibility of what they called an ‘achchāru coalition’.
To be quite honest, Sri Lanka in 2015 is a freer place to live in. At least for a majority of its people. Especially for those who don’t have access to persons with ‘connections’ – I repeat, the majority. You don’t have to worry who’s listening to you when you express your views in public. You can listen to almost any radio or TV channel knowing that any twist they give to their news is owing to their own take on it, and not owing to state threat. Your email is no longer diverted to a ‘file’ in the Presidential Secretariat, nor are your articles to the media collected there. Even if they are, no one appears to be reading them! When the police stop you for a minor traffic offense, you can be happy that they’d also do it to the Prado behind you, driven by a politician. Cases in the courts of the country can be relied on to make fairer judgements free of state intervention. Gradually people, yes even the miscreants of the former regime, have refuge in due process and the protection of the law. Merit plays an increasing role in fitting people to the jobs needing to get done. Tenders are more transparently given to the better bidder. You’d have to be a rabid anti-government supporter to deny any of the above.
To be sure however, this is not utopia. More than 10 years of getting used to a system that just about broke every norm of civility and ethics cannot be overturned in 100 days, 6 months or even a year. We are lucky if we can do it in the term of a new parliament. Before we get there however, we need to understand that the old guard will not let this go that easily. This is what is playing before our very eyes these days. Increasing pressure by virtually all the rank and file of the SLFP on what almost appears to be the solitary figure of its President (and the President of the country) to compromise. However, compromising at this point would be a case of two steps forward, and three steps back! The dilemma facing the President of the SLFP is that short of firing virtually the entire senior members (as well as some of the younger corrupt ones) it is impossible to stop it going back to ‘business as usual’. The issue is clear: none of the existing leadership of the party would be comfortable facing the kind of scrutiny that the law enforcement and legal institutions of the country are now dishing out, given their new found freedom from interference.
The mandate won by the new government was indeed to turn back the tides of nepotism, corruption, greed, cronyism, fraud and thuggery that had become endemic in the land. The root of the problem identified by the people through the various civil society awareness campaigns, to no small measure through social media, was the executive presidential system. In order to start reversing the vile trends in society, it was necessary to start by dismantling the presidential system. Hence 19A was a true demand of the people who had had enough of the previous corrupt regime. This stands as the single most significant achievement of the new regime, even though somewhat diluted by the old guard.
But 20A. That is a whole other story. Who demanded 20A? Not the voter who wanted the old rot out! Today’s voter, and there was a whole new generation who came out strongly thanks to the Election Commissioners commitment to get them all in, has no delusions about any ‘electoral system’ being able to keep the undesirable and criminal elements out of parliament. They are much more realistic. No particular form of ‘electoral system’ can solve that problem. This is a problem that individual political parties must tackle within their own systems of discipline. If they fail to do so, the newly enlightened voter will readily demonstrate their disgust at the upcoming election.
No, 20A is yet another gasp for air by a parliament that is living on borrowed time. Here and in much of this article by ‘parliament’ I mostly mean the SLFP old guard fighting for their lives through an attempt to bring back their old hero. Many of them, most notably the irrelevant left and their pseudo partners in the UPFA’s completely ‘broken’ alliance, sense that this could well be the end of the road for them. Hanging on a hero of a bygone age is their last hope of survival. As such, it is up to them to drum up enough noise about the ‘good ol days’, make enough false allegations about the ‘bad new ones’ and cause general confusion among the public to make them believe that they are somehow missing out on something better. Even that tactic seems to be rather stale and outdated. The modern voter’s intelligence is being insulted by assuming that they’d be gullible to believe this kind of eyewash and prone to be taken for yet another ride.
What we have today is a parliament totally disconnected with the aspirations of the people. A parliament that is obsessed with itself. One that is bent on ensuring its own future at all costs. The 20th Amendment is only one of the symptoms of this. There are many other signs that show that the present parliament has forgotten what they are there for. Having been originally elected to represent the people who voted for them, they now have assumed a life of their own. Over the past five months (since 8th January) have any of them spoken up for, or done anything in the interest of their electorate? Or have they rather been so preoccupied with themselves that all their efforts are aimed at discrediting what the new regime is doing or trying to actively block the independent functioning of the state machinery for maintaining law and order?
So, who wants to bring back the former president? Definitely not the common man who has been at the receiving end of step-motherly treatment in the face of rampant cronyism which often depended on how much money was willing to be parted with. Nor the hard working professional who wasn’t able to depend on the merit system for recognition or promotion. Its also not the honest trader who wanted to do well by sheer hard work. Even true aspirants to Sri Lankan politics would want to be elected by the people than to be ‘selected’ by ‘a king’ based on his likes and dislikes, or maybe his mood of the day. Even the business community, which benefited from the ‘stability’ of a near dictatorship, has today largely realized anew how far superior a level playing field and the fair application of the rule of law is for them to thrive in their endeavors.
But these are not important considerations for the old guard who are in real danger of total annihilation. They simply have to fight for their own survival. They have little other option. Their only hope is to ‘engineer’ an MR-resurgence, however artificial it is. And so, with each rally they organize, they are able to easily scare their colleagues who benefited from the old regime to join them or else face the dreaded FCID or the Bribery Commission. They try to pull the ‘wool over the eyes’ of the public by calling it a witch-hunt. They are hardly convincing though, even as details of transgressions kept away from the masses over the past decade begin to gradually surface. Today, it is hard to believe that any of the top brass of the old guard would not eventually have to answer some hard questions from the state agencies that are now free to administer law and order in the land.
This is the dilemma facing President Maithripala Sirisena. On the one hand, with so many facts coming to light, its hard to imagine that the person under whose rule it all transpired would not himself eventually be convicted. On the other, as President of the SLFP, he has to work with a group of MPs too who most likely have amassed more wealth for themselves than would be possible in their capacities as Parliamentarians and even Ministers. Ironically, those who likely benefited most would be exactly those who held the highest ranks in the party. This of course would mean that his own party hierarchy and Central Committee would be the most likely to be indicted if the present processes of good governance continues. No wonder then that any committee made up of such is able to return with a unanimous decision to bring back the former president as a major player just 2 or 3 days after being commissioned to make recommendations to take the party forward!
The dilemma before the President is clear: should he fulfill the mandate he was given on January 8th by people from all walks of life, or should he ensure that the party he represents wins the next election? So far, the incumbent has shown great statesmanship and is in line to be remembered as someone who changed the course of our history from an almost desperate plunge into anarchy to a civilized society. Will he be able to decide between the two choices facing him, that his primary duty is to the people, and then only to the party? Being falsely accused of being the cause for dividing the party will hardly hold any water if the alternative is being rightly held responsible for abandoning the aspirations of a people who voted him in with great hope in the January of 2015.
In fact he can go further: he can potentially not only be credited with bringing Sri Lankan politics to new heights and the country towards a true democracy, but also for cleaning up a party full of corrupt politicians by appointing fresh faces free from the implications of a corrupt regime, themselves knowing full well that they too would be held accountable by the people who elect them. In short, he would be credited with the inauguration of that ever elusive new political culture in Sri Lanka. This in turn would pave the way for the country to become known as a mature democracy and a truly civil society. While denying nominations to the top brass of the SLFP will certainly take a lot of courage and, to be sure have little support within the party, the resulting SLFP would be a formidable force to reckon with at the end of the President’s term in office.
If the President stands up to this challenge, making what are essentially the hard and unpopular choices, we can indeed have a better Sri Lanka to live in with an achchāru government!
We can, as civil society, say that we expect nothing more than this, and demand nothing less than this, from President Maithripala Sirisena.