29 September, 2020

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Crisis Of Governance: Equity & Welfare Implications

By SWR de A Samarasinghe –

Prof. S W R de A Samarasinghe

Sri Lanka’s current crisis of governance threatens to undermine the country’s democratic tradition of having periodic free and fair elections to choose a government under the provisions of the constitution. I highlight the term “provisions of the constitution” because elections that are held by rulers in an arbitrary manner in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the constitution to suit their own convenience are not democratic. From that perspective, both major political parties in Sri Lanka, UNP and the SLFP (now SLPP), have not been democratic on occasion in the past. 

Sanctity of elections

The 1975-77 SLFP administration of Sirima Bandaranaike extended the life of parliament by two years from 1975 to 1977. Mrs. Bandaranaike ended her term of office in 1977 with one of the worst electoral defeats in Sri Lankan parliamentary history.

In 1982 J R Jayewardene got the parliament to pass the fourth amendment to the constitution and misused the provision of the constitution to hold a referendum instead of the regular election. The main motive was to preserve his super-majority in parliament with the 142 seats that the UNP held. (The present author who strongly supported Jayewardene’s economic reforms at that time publicly expressed his opposition to J R Jayewardene’s move in a Letter to the Editor in The Island published two days after the Referendum was officially announced on November 14, 1982.) 

Some analysts believe that the disastrous ethnic violence that occurred in July 1983 and the set back to the progress of the country that followed including the JVP violence in the late 1980s had something to do with the referendum. That is plausible because the people were denied a parliamentary election to choose a government in 1982. That gave a plausible reason for the JVP to take to arms. It may also have  encouraged the LTTE to resort to violence. 

It is useful to recall the Anglo-Irish statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke’s saying “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  Unfortunately our politicians appear not to know much history.  Those who believe in democracy must respect the right to vote and the holding of elections in accordance with the constitution.

The Yaha Paalanaya government postponed local government elections and provincial council elections with impunity in the last three years. 

The latest manifestation of that undemocratic practice in the current crisis is president Maithripala Sirisena’s readiness to ignore the constitution and call for an election prematurely when a majority in parliament want to continue the government at least until the 4.5 year minimum period that the constitution allows/requires is reached, and Mahinda Rajapaksa-led SLPP’s readiness to support the president’s unconstitutional idea.

Equity

The right to vote is a civil liberty. It is exercised in elections. This is perhaps the only right in a democracy that is truly equal because everybody, men and women, rich and poor, educated and not so educated, has only one vote each. In a country with a relatively large population who are poor and/or low income and less privileged in access to education, health, jobs etc. this is one tool that they can use to influence the policies and strategies of rulers to distribute the nation’s income and resources more equitably. It so happens that, historically, Sri Lanka is probably the world’s best example that illustrates the truth of that proposition.

Social welfare

Access to basic food, education and health are three of the most important services that all people need to improve quality of life. It is no accident of history that Sri Lanka has had subsidized basic food – first the rice ration at a subsidized price and later the Samurdhi grant – and provided state-funded education from kindergarten to university and tax-financed healthcare to people. These are policies that have had strong support from the electorate. 

Sri Lanka caught the eye of economists and others about fifty years ago when analysts noticed that our country stood out among poor countries for its unusually high level of literacy and longevity. The World Bank published global data in 1978 for the first time that were reasonably comparable for different countries.  Data in Table 1 below shows the situation for a sample of countries including Sri Lanka.

Table 1: Comparative Data on Social Welfare – Mid 1970s

Country  Population 

mid 1976

(million)

Per capita 

GDP US $ 1976

Life expectancy 

at birth  (years)

1975

Infant 

mortality 

rate per 1000 live births 1975

Adult literacy 

rate 1974 (%)

Sri Lanka  14 200 68 57 78
Bangladesh 88 110 42 140 23
India 620 150 50 122 36
Pakistan 71 170 51 113 21
Philippines  43 410 58 72 87
Singapore  2 2700 70 14 75
UK 56 4020 72 16 98
Australia  14 6100 72 17 100
USA 215 7890 71 16 99

Source: World Bank, World Development Report, 1978. 

Sri Lanka had a per capita income of around $200 in the mid 1970s. This was a little higher in absolute terms than those of, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; about half of that of the Philippines and a very modest fraction (7.4% of that of Singapore’s and 2.5 % of USA’s) of the more developed countries. However, life expectancy at birth was 62% higher than that of Bangladesh, 36% higher than that of India and Pakistan and only about 3% to 6% lower than that of some of the world’s richest countries at that time. The infant mortality rate was less than half of the other South Asian countries cited. The adult literacy rate was double to triple the rate of other South Asian countries and exceeded that of Singapore. In the past forty to fifty years other poor countries have narrowed the gap with Sri Lanka on these basic indicators of human welfare. But the important point is Sri Lanka was so far ahead of other poor countries until about the year 2000. 

Social welfare at risk

The explanation for the large social welfare gap that existed in the mid 1970s between Sri Lanka and other low-income (per capita income less than $750 in 1976) countries and how Sri Lanka was much closer to the richest countries (Per capita income of $6200 or more) in the world is complex. However, it is very plausible to believe that universal franchise and periodic elections that made the rulers answerable to the people played a major role in improving the quality of life of ordinary people. This is a very important lesson that Sri Lankans must take into account in the current political debate. 

Just now the crisis is seen largely through partisan lenses such as UNP vs. SLPP or Wickremesinghe vs. Rajapaksa. Or who is better at building Mega Projects such as superhighways, massive harbors, international airports, and shiny high-rise buildings on land reclaimed from the sea to house financial centers. They may well be useful for the 21st century. But the lesson from our history in the past 88 years since universal franchise was introduced in 1931 is that we need a system of governance that is also responsive to the needs of ordinary people. That is at risk if we fail to resolve the current crisis to preserve constituitonal democracy and rule of law. 

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Latest comments

  • 0
    5

    Talking about social welfare is a JOKE. You can see homeleess, malnutrition and hungry in the developed west.I have heard frozen to death in the west because they were homeless. In Srilanka malnutrition is even among the rich or wealthy. In Sri lanak by giving welfare you train people to be lazy and not to work so making a need to import labourers from India or other countries. Inthe developed countries where the social injustice is formidable, in order to cut down the Crimes. so, your explanations are really stupid and fit for the filthy rich west.

  • 0
    0

    Dear Dr Samarasinhe

    I feel I must extend an apology to you after reading that you had published a letter in the Island against the holding of the Referendum.

    I had always believed that together with Prof Kingsley De Silva you were actively (at least in writing) in support of it.

    Probably your letter is too far back to be on the Web now. I wish it were possible to read a copy of it. I don’t suppose you could email one to Uvinda for me? I produced a long report on the Referendum & would like to add your position to it, especially as one who had supported JR’s economic & social measures.

    • 0
      0

      I appreciate your response. Thanks.

      Unfortunately I do not have a copy of the letter. It was the pre-computer era. I typed it on my Baby Olivetti typewriter. Although the letter is not on the web the National Archives should have a copy of The Island that carried it.

      One important correction. I and my wife Vidya discussed the issue and we agreed that we must record our protest publicly. The letter appeared under her name. It occurred to us that in publishing such a letter we ran the risk of losing our jobs. We were aware that our colleague Vikramabahu Karunaratne had lost his faculty job in Peradeniya for putting up black flags against the government. We relied on our salary to live. Hence one signature so that we could save at least one job.

      My recollection is that Professor Kingsley de Silva who was very close to JRJ also did not agree with the idea of holding a Referendum.

      When the letter appeared in The Island, one of JRJ’s close friends who held a top position in government had called Professor de Silva to check whether there actually was a lecturer at Peradeniya called Vidya Samarasighe.

      Tailpiece: Following the letter I analyzed the 1982 presidential election results where JRJ polled 3.45 million (52.9%) and his main rival Hector Kobbakaduwa 25.5 million (39.1%) of the total valid vote. The four minor candidates polled a total of about 0.5 million (8.0%); Rohana Wijeweera (JVP) 273,000, GG Ponnambalam (Tamil Congress) 174,000, Colvin R de Silva (LSSP) 58,500 and Vasudeva Nanayakkara (Nava Sama Samaaja Party) 17,000. Based on my analysis I prepared a note in which I concluded that in a general election 120 seats was within fairly easy reach of the UNP and that with a very good campaign and some luck it would be possible to get close to 130 although 140 was not feasible. I delivered the note in person JRJ’s home address in Ward Place, Colombo. My goal was to persuade him to have a general election instead of the referendum. I never had a response. I am not sure whether JRJ even saw the note let lone read it. May be nobody read it and was thrown in to the waste paper basket. But I tried. That is what scholars are expected to do.

      • 0
        0

        My apologies for the typo. Hector Kobbakaduwa polled 2.55 million.

      • 0
        0

        “We were aware that our colleague Vikramabahu Karunaratne had lost his faculty job in Peradeniya for putting up black flags against the government.”
        *
        VBK did not lose his job for putting up black flags (really against JRJ’s who was to visit Kandy).
        Two things happened to him.
        1. He was arrested and released after several months without charge.
        2. He was interdicted and the inquiry dragged on for months even after his release. The then President of the Engineering Faculty Teachers’ Union persuaded Vice Chancellor Prof. BL Pandithartatne to hold an inquiry, which the VC conducted as assured in his casual and jovial way, despite pressure from above to drag it on.
        The inquiry cleared VBK.
        He was not dismissed.
        He chose to resign to go into full time politics.
        His later claim was that he was misled into resigning .
        *
        The UNP won partly because the most powerful opponent was deprived of her civic rights, but more importantly because it blatantly indulged in electoral malpractices since 1980. (Pieter Keuneman was impersonated in his own ward.) That was democracy a la UNP.

        • 0
          0

          Contrary to what SJ says looks like Vikramabahu Karunaratne (VBK) was in fact dismissed.
          Some facts of the case presented by SJ here are
          1. VBK was arrested and released after several months without charge.
          2. VBK was interdicted and the inquiry dragged on for months even after his release.
          3. The then President of the Engineering Faculty Teachers’ Union persuaded the then Vice Chancellor Prof. BL Pandithartatne to hold an inquiry, which the VC conducted as assured in his casual and jovial way …………
          4. The inquiry cleared VBK.
          Was the interdiction withdrawn?
          .
          VBK has been subjected to ‘constructive dismissal’. If he did indeed resign, he was misled.
          .
          SJ digs “That was democracy a la UNP”.
          Political parties do change color.
          The color change in CP, LSSP, MEP, Vasu led NSSP?
          SLFP? Into a corruption factory?
          SLPP is gentle-volk’s BBS.

          • 0
            0

            KPP
            My words are based on first hand information.
            To the knowledge of any of the many that I knew at Peradeniya then, there was no pressure on him to resign. He was personally very much liked.
            At the end of the inquiry (lasting a matter of a couple of weeks) that cleared him, his salary arrears were paid, and until resignation he worked at the Engineering Faculty the way he did before.
            The story of being misled came up much later, I think during Chandrika K’s tenure as President.
            *
            My comment on the UNP was prompted by the attempt to whitewash the UNP and its academic mafia, who hailed the UNP as a bastion of democracy.
            *
            There was no need to talk about the rest whom I have always criticized.
            I have been consistently critical of members of the Left who joined the SLFP or UNP bandwagon.
            *
            Kindly produce evidence for your statement “(VBK) was in fact dismissed”.
            He has said that he was misled.
            Who misled him? It cannot be people whom he could not trust.

  • 1
    0

    “Some analysts believe that the disastrous ethnic violence that occurred in July 1983 and the set back to the progress of the country that followed including the JVP violence in the late 1980s had something to do with the referendum.”
    *
    The disaster of 1983 was for some time coming. The “analysts” do not seem to have a clue about what was happening in the North since 1977. JRJ was diliberately provoking tension; and the burning of the Jaffna Library was more than an year before the referendum.
    JVP violence in 1987-89 had nothing to do with yearn for democracy by anyone.
    The JVP very briefly adopted a conciliatory stand on the national question during the Presidential Election campaign but suddenly shifted to an “over my dead body” stand on autonomy for Tamils. The JVP’s attitude was for some time criticized by Lionel Bopage among others, who left the JVP in the face Rohana Wijeweera’s intransigence.

  • 2
    0

    True that a few UNP supporters were critical of the anti-democratic referendum.
    We are always grateful for small mercies.
    But may I know how many UNP personalities actively campaigned to frustrate JRJ’s constitutional coup?
    Jaffna was the only District that responded with a resounding NO, despite dillydallying by the TULF– thanks to the good work of Saturday Review and its sister newspaper in Tamil.

  • 0
    0

    The author begins by stating, “Elections that are held by rulers in an arbitrary manner in violation of the spirit if not the letter of the constitution to suit their own convenience are not democratic.”
    Well, he is damn right! It is very unfortunate that MS, MR, and all their party men, acolytes, supporters and even some intellectuals, lawyers and journalists do not seem to agree with this self-evident truth!

  • 0
    0

    SWR de A Samarasinghe puts it mildly in suggesting that we have a “Crisis Of Governance”.
    A voice vote taken anywhere anytime will indicate a near unanimous view that our ‘governance’ is defective. This can be attributed to trying to get short time gains without ever pausing to reflect on possible long time effects.
    .
    A very very brief statement on ‘Where we are’ follows.
    When we inherited a Westminster democracy some seventy years ago, the power went into the hands of local gentry. Probably to show that the gentry are after all ‘locals’, a language-divide was introduced. Politicians exploited the ‘divide’ and introduced the language/religion-divide which has become the issue at all elections, bar the two in 2015. Defects in governance were not addressed but band aid fixes were resorted to.
    Personal-gain factor was visible in the Srimavo Bandaranayake constitution.
    Efforts were not made to hide the intention of the JR J constitution. He introduced the Executive Presidency and ‘List’ MPs. The urge to hold the rein intensified and two teams emerged. Tinkering with the constitution and electoral system were exploited for personal gains which led to the culture of corruption/nepotism/impunity taking hold.
    We are burdened with crisis after crisis ever.
    .
    To cut a long story short: To bridle our crisis industry, we must examine as to whether our version of democracy needs an urgent clean up.

  • 0
    0

    “Tinkering with the constitution and electoral system were exploited for personal gains which led to the culture of corruption/nepotism/impunity taking hold.
    We are burdened with crisis after crisis ever.”
    KP
    Great!
    You have got it now: “democracy a la UNP”

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