By Sarath de Alwis –
The new consensual alliance of national unity is now in place. Will its leaders search for consensus or mold a consensus? Conceived initially as an experiment that would last for two years, President Maithripala Sirisena has now given it a fresh lease of five years. Its composition has transformed the ‘land like no other’ from Mahinda’s soft autocracy to Maithri’s ‘cartel democracy’.
The who’s who of Cabinet Ministers, Minsters of State and Deputy Minsters betray the perils that lie ahead for the Maithri- Ranil- Chandrika troika in their strategy of forcing political change through orchestrated crisis, consent and cohesion.
Susantha Punchinilame as Deputy Minister of Public Administration demonstrably emphasizes public service values. Lakshman Wasantha Perera as Deputy Minister of Plantation epitomizes the distilled essence of our cash crop economy. Portly Nishantha Muthuhettigama as Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping will surely outperform Guy Fawkes as he has already announced that he set alight the port of Galle. Nimal Lansa Deputy Minister of Tourism Promotion and Christian Affairs and Arundika Fernando Deputy Minister of Home Affairs have exchanged their portfolios with the concurrence of President Maithripala Sirisena. That is as it should be. Arundika has the ability to locate missing Lankans in the back alleys of Paris while Mr.Lansa can detox home affairs now in ecstatic confusion.
That former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has countenanced the return of the rejected S.B. Dissanayake who wished to strip and march her in public for her spunk in opposing the Rajapaksa autocracy to parliament and cabinet is evidence of the desperation for interparty collusion to avert the spectre that is haunting the new parliament – intrigue by an adored autocrat.
The 17th of August verdict was not about good governance. It was about Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Movement for Mahinda restoration, gathered its momentum due to the failure of the UNP and its leader to grasp the spirit of the Maithri Mandate of January 8th. The ‘Nugegoda’ rising was the direct outcome of the UNP’s misapprehension of the people’s desire for change.
Ranil’s cerebral strategies were no match for the tribal instincts of Dinesh Gunawardena and Wimal Weerawansa. The duo with the support of a segment of the Sangha brilliantly succeeded in igniting the Mahinda movement in less than two months of incessant, irrational and communal posturing.
As the acknowledged ‘Pen’ of the movement has so precisely delineated ‘The Mahinda Movement hoped for, believed in and fought determinedly for a victory at the August 17th election.” They nearly succeeded. A shift of 13,000 votes in Gampaha, 10,000 votes in Kegalle, 8,000 votes in Polonnaruwa and 5,000 votes in Matale would have given the UPFA 106 seats and Mahinda the first claim in forming a government.
Even today, dismantling the Mahinda legacy is no easy task. During the ten years of his Presidency the country saw the end of a thirty year war, a rapidly burgeoning middle class driven by an insatiable consumerism and a massive upgrading of infrastructure essential, trivial and prodigal. A complacent and often collusive opposition made him so secure in his presidential perch, that the mere suggestion of toppling him was tantamount to blasphemy in many Sinhala Buddhist homes. He effectively restructured the democratic institutions with the help of a pliant legislature where the main opposition opted to walk out in token protest and implied consent. Only the three JVP and Seventeen TNA parliamentarians remained to record public discontent. He was the great unifier of the territory and the peerless divider of the Sri Lankan nation. He championed an oligarchy that still survives intact and deeply entrenched.
His work cannot be undone by mere rhetoric. He has created a new normal in our public life. Free and fair elections alone cannot bring about the changes promised in the 8th January mandate. The elections did not eliminate the rascals.
Mahinda Rajapaksa the Charismatic autocrat tamed the judiciary and the legislature. He refashioned the public service to respond to his interests. He was the benign leader who delegated authority and access to power and privileges of the government to UPFA units of his choice. By devolving his absolute power to select members of the ruling clique he offered a share of power and the spoils of office to those who invested in him as opposed to those who wished to challenge his presidency. The credibility of his power and spoils sharing proposition was never in doubt. It was too strong for President Maithripala Sirisena to persuade a majority of SLFP parliamentarians to abide by his reform agenda. In particular he could not command the allegiances of Messer’s Susil Premjayanth and Anura Yapa to exercise his prerogative as SLFP president in deciding party nominations. Having won the Presidency as the Common opposition candidate he could only hope to share his good intentions. While Mahinda could promise effective control and access to political positions in the future, President Maithri was trapped in his reforms platform.
The Cabinet now includes the two sacked secretaries of the SLFP and UPFA and Nimal Siripala the altruistic Siri Sangabo. T.B. Ekanayake who played gallant Lancelot in the Wayamba Camelot is Minster of State for Lands under M.K.D.S Gunawardene the unrepentant foe of Mahinda. These contradictions should help us understand the motives of the political actors and the depth of conflict underlying their decisions.
As for this writer, excitement on good governance is now replaced with anger and apathy. Why did the last elections that were decidedly free and fair in comparison to previous elections produce such bad choices? As the former Auditor General Sarathchandra Mayadunne who created parliamentary history by encapsulating his maiden and farewell speeches in one, corruption is not high on the public agenda of our citizenry. The nation it seems was polarized between patriots and democrats. There is an explanation. While democracy is supposedly a promise of maximum choice, the current electoral system minimizes our choice of public decision makers. The prevailing system encourages low-quality citizens to seek public office that are perceived as opportunities to extract personal rewards. In contrast candidates of stature and substance are the ones who stand to lose more by failing at elections or having little to gain even when elected. The present electoral system is tailor made for corruption, cronyism and clientelism and a guarantee of individual and collective moral failure. Dirty politicians win because the present system does not allow good politicians to either run or succeed. “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely.”