By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The recent TV Show ‘Face the Nation’, presented and moderated by Shameer Rasooldeen and broadcast over MTV discussed several current contentious issues.
Panelists associated with the program were former National List MP and State Minister Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Executive Director of Center for Policy Alternatives Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Senior Attorney-at-Law Gomin Dayasiri and Journalist and Political Commentator Malinda Seneviratne.
The discussion centered around politics, governance, corruption and role of the judiciary.
Commencing the discussion, Prof Wijesinha (RW) voiced his dissatisfaction with the current good governance government. He was one of its initial members. He was critical of the departure from President Sirisena’s election manifesto beginning with Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn in as Prime Minister a few minutes after Maithripala Sirisena’s own swearing, with a sitting Prime Minister still in office. It also differed with what was previously agreed. He contends, thereafter, it has been a regular case of contradicting the good governance manifesto and broken promises. He opines, the Yahapalanaya administration has since lost all interest in structural reforms and was dishonest. RW concluded, in the event of a general election, he would vote for people opposed to the current government.
Dr Saravanamuttu (PS) pointed out, a lot has not been done in terms promises made and expectations raised of voters in 2015. The commitments made to those promises and reforms has been seriously diluted and even cast aside. He further stated, what currently holds the government together was their desire to cling to power and not relinquish it to someone else. While conceding of some progress made, he spoke of the need for the present government to regroup and come up with a minimum consensus and program of action for the remaining period in office. PS emphasized, failures of the two main political parties currently in government voluntarily, to deliver on promises and expectations they raised would bring into disrepute, the institutions of representative democracy. On the subject of those resigning from high office reappearing in various other government positions as witnessed recently, he opined, notwithstanding the concept of ‘presumed innocent till proven guilty’, the political consequences of what was currently happening was important and expressed the need for “wrong doers to realize what they have done and go rather than wait to be pushed.”
Gomin Dayasiri (GD), in response to the moderator’s question “do you think Sri Lanka right now needs a new constitution, do you think we need the 20th Amendment to the constitution, what are the priorities of Sri Lanka right now” stated “we have got all our priorities mixed up”. He spoke of 20th Amendment being necessary to change certain very important aspects such as return of police powers to the central government and the need to change the electoral system as it was the live wire for much of the corruption taking place. Electorates were too big and MPs need to look for money before and after elections. He expressed his doubts if current constitution making efforts include those very important aspects. He highlighted the eradication of terrorism as the one single major achievement during last ten years but criticized the lack of effort, especially by the Rajapaksa regime in the reconciliation process thereafter. GD opined, even though structural development had been addressed, ‘People Development’ in the North had been overlooked. He further stated, the government had held out very high expectations, but had failed to fulfill many of the promises made. President Sirisena was praised on two issues, for appointing the three-man Commission of Inquiry to investigate the Central Bank bond scam which had resulted in bringing out “a lot of dirt and filth” not uncovered till the appointment of the CoI and for his declaration, foreign judges would not be permitted in Sri Lanka.
Malinda Seneviratne (MS) commenced by praising Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development Dr Harsha de Silva for his recent lament “the entire system is corrupt. I am sick of it”. While conceding to availability of “greater media freedom and breathing space” compared to pre-January 09, 2015 era, he stated “these are still early days” and referred to a senior government minister who had recently telephoned an editor of a newspaper and demanded “this column has to come off”. While praising some of the positive developments such as Right to Information act (RTI), 19th Amendment with independent commissions which corrected the faults of the 17th and repealed the 18th Amendments, he also highlighted the clauses in the 19th Amendment which permitted the government to “go around” the promise of limiting the number of ministers
52 year old Malinda Seneviratne declared his candidacy for 2020 Presidential elections.
GD also opined, corruption was prevalent among most politicians. Dishonest politicians “was one club and a dishonest club”, a view endorsed by MS.
The general consensus was, whereas the good governance government can be credited for delivering on a few promises made, a large number of promises remain unfulfilled leading to anger, frustration and disillusionment among the populace. A further consensus was, bribery, corruption, nepotism and dishonesty was taking place in a massive scale.
It would not be wrong to state, Sri Lanka since independence in 1948, in terms of governance (let us leave the good part aside) has moved only in one direction. Backward. We have had three constitutions, namely the Soulbury, First and Second Republican constitutions with numerous amendments.
Since independence, all types of politicians, some more corrupt and self-serving than others, have played the field of national politics. One of the earliest cases of nepotism would be DS Senanayake’s choice of his son Dudley as his successor, overlooking the more competent and party senior SWRD Bandaranaike which led to the later leaving the UNP. Appointing spouses as Private Secretaries of Ministers paid by the state gradually became the norm. During nationalization under land reforms, the first to be paid compensation was the then head of government whereas many others had to wait a decade or more. A senior minister and spouse, during days of exchange control restrictions, when less than Pounds Sterling 3.00 was permitted for overseas travel, obtained eye surgery in United Kingdom, instructed the High Commission to settle both bills and reimbursed the rupee value to the Treasury in Colombo, a facility not permitted to the common man (today, such bills are settled through the President’s Fund). A head of government demanded an invitation to a royal wedding (only head of state and spouse was invited) and the state paid the bill. A head of state, after leaving office, was found guilty by the Supreme Court of corruption over a transaction during the individual’s term of office and was fined Rs 3 mil. Another head of state turned the state machinery into a virtual family corporation. The present president who made noises of eradicating corruption and nepotism prior to being elected set the trend by appointing his brother to the chair of the nation’s telephone company, during his first week in office. This is but a sample of happenings at the very top. The setup is rotten to the core, top down.
A common lament within civil society is “all politicians are corrupt”. Gomin Dayasiri termed it a ‘dishonest club’. This writer whole heartedly endorses Dr Saravanamuttu’s theory “politicians are not a breed apart. They did not drop from the sky. They are us”. Corruption is a disease commonly found in our society. The disease worsens as opportunities increase.
Issues that commonly impact lives of many citizens are; admission of children to preferred schools, employment and promotions / transfers of state sector employees. The state is the single largest employer in the country. In all these key issues, bribes and political patronage play a major role. Many parents who succeed in obtaining admission for their children to their preferred schools, would in most instances have paid bribes to politicians. Employment in state sector is not based on qualifications and skills but by doing the bidding of politicians. Once employed, such employees have a corrosive effect on staff morale and administration of institutions. Many such employees indulge in politics once employed. Unplanned promotions and transfers at the whim and fancy of political stooges and facilitated by politicians, cause disruptions. Shortage of doctors and teachers in rural areas is an example.
There is a tendency to categorize corruption into petty and mega segments. An often raised question is, when politicians are fleecing the nation by the millions or billions, is it justified to prosecute a person fleecing a few thousand rupees or misusing a government vehicle. It need be highlighted, issue is not the quantum of money but the culture of financial impropriety and dishonesty. It is but natural, a person fleecing small amounts of money would graduate to larger amounts and increased abuse of state property with the improvement of his or her position.
Constitutions can only be as good or bad as its guardians, namely the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary. The 1978 Republican Constitution, notwithstanding the concentration of power in the office of the President, had many positive factors. The authority vested with the President was meant to be used judiciously for good governance and the benefit of the nation and its people. It also provided a certain degree of authority which was necessary to facilitate the newly introduced open economy and keep trade unions in check. It began to go wrong with the replacement of scheduled Parliamentary elections in 1982 with a referendum. There onwards, powers vested with the President was used (or misused) in order to consolidate his position and curb political dissent. Therefore, the problem lay not with the Constitution but with its custodians. There is no guarantee, a new Constitution with current leaders in government and opposition will achieve a different result. Constitutions can only provide guidelines and checks & balances for governance. It cannot address the lack of principled individuals with moral integrity and traits of honesty, integrity, decency, rectitude and financial probity ingrained in them.
The last Sunday Island carried a commemorative appreciation of veteran advertising guru, politician, former speaker and minister Anandatissa de Alwis by his nephew, of his uncle’s insistence, the family advertising company should not accept any advertising work from government institutions in view of his position in the government. Persons with such noble qualities are virtually non- existent in society today.
The need for a leader with a different mindset is often mooted at public and private gatherings. Names currently bandied are those of Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva and State Minister Eran Wickremaratne. Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva is known for his periodic outbursts against corruption. It must be stated, young politicians who think and act differently are needed to counter old school corrupt politicians. However, consistency in condemning and fighting corruption is vital and cannot be selective as observed during the COPE investigation of the Central Bank bond scam.
Same old political parties and politicians with a new Constitution would be similar to same old wine in same old bottles with a new label and will take this country nowhere. The need of the hour is for the emergence of an individual with the moral integrity and requisite traits to lead the nation by example and forge a new political culture.
39 years old Emmanuel Macron was elected as the youngest elected President of the French Republic on May 14, 2017. Prior to holding ministerial office for two years from August 2014 to 2016 in former President François Hollande’s cabinet, he had been a civil servant and an investment banker. In November 2016, he declared he would run in the election under the banner of En Marche, a centrist political movement he founded in April 2016. He galvanized an electorate, sick of traditional political parties, high unemployment, a stagnant economy and rampant corruption among politicians which enabled him to win the presidential run off with a landslide 66.1% of the popular vote. A few weeks later, in the June 2017 legislative elections, Macron’s party, renamed “La République En Marche!”, together with its ally the Democratic Movement (MoDem), secured a comfortable majority, winning 350 seats out of 577, with his party alone winning an outright majority of 308 seats.
Can Sri Lanka produce a Macron?