By Jehan Perera –
The virtual non-existence of an environment of threat, especially pertinent to ethnic and religious minorities, and the non-stifling of dissent by opposition and civil society groups is continuing, much to the credit of the new government. However, the dawning of a society in which good governance alone will prevail continues to remain in question. Soon after the general election came the first blow to the new government’s credibility with the appointment of defeated candidates on the national list. This was followed by the appointment of a jumbo sized cabinet. The latest appointment to ministerial positions of politicians of dubious repute has dealt yet another blow to the government’s credibility.
Amongst the new ministers appointed to further swell the ministerial ranks of the government are those accused of having engaged in the trade of narcotics, using ethanol for alcoholic beverages and providing false evidence regarding the life of missing persons. These appointments would be particularly difficult to justify, especially to a government leadership that contested the general elections, and the presidential election before it, on a platform that was predominantly based on establishing good governance in the country. The credibility gap is made worse by the absence of serious efforts by the government leaders to justify their choices or even explain the constraints that induced them to take such a course of action.
However, in the case of the two earlier transgressions there have been explanations. When the government came in for criticism for appointing to Parliament on the national list those candidates who had been defeated in the district-level electoral contests at the general elections it had a justification. This was that many who were appointed in this manner, had lost their seats at the district-level due to the infighting within the UFPA and therefore needed to be compensated. The faction within the UPFA that supported former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the general election had actively opposed the campaigns of those who had thrown in their lot with President Maithripala Sirisena which ensured their defeat.
Another cause for public disaffection has been the large size of the cabinet amounting to 48, which rivals that of previous governments accused of not adhering to good governance, though not yet surpassing them in terms of size or wastage of resources. During their election campaign members of the present government made it known that the distribution of patronage in this manner would henceforth come to an end. In fact the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was passed shortly before the general election specified that henceforth the cabinet of ministers would be restricted to 30.
In the case of the large contingent of ministers the government has also had justifications. The 19th Amendment itself provides for a larger number of ministries in the event of the formation of a national government. The joining together of the two largest political parties in the country who have traditionally been bitter rivals can be reasonably construed to be a national government, even if all the parties in Parliament are not represented in it. A second justification would be the need to provide a sufficient number of ministerial positions to some of the chief vote getters UPFA to induce them to be loyal to President Sirisena rather than to former president Rajapaksa.
The outcome of the general election showed that former president Rajapaksa continues to be a popular figure and capable of attracting the support of a substantial proportion of the ethnic majority electorate, even though his credibility with the ethnic minorities is close to zero. As the UPFA is currently dependent on its Sinhalese voter base, the former president can potentially stage a comeback within it and become a major destabilizing factor. Therefore there is a political justification in offering ministerial positions to those members of the UPFA who are themselves able to obtain large numbers of votes from the UPFA vote base and induce them to stay away from the former president’s camp within the UPFA.
The large number of ministries is being widely criticized as both unethical and economically costly. The breakdown of some of the ministries is difficult to explain on a rational basis. The opposition has pointed out that the Ministry of Education has been linked to the Ministry of Highways through a single minister instead of to the Ministry of Higher Education. There are also cross cutting ministries such as the Ministry of National Dialogue and the Ministry of National Integration. While the number of ministries and the tasks set for them do matter, it matters more that they work in a direction that is beneficial to the country.
The number of ministries will cost less than the price of incompetent decisions taken by government leaders who are misled themselves and mislead others. The cost of a cabinet of 48 ministers may well be higher than that of a cabinet of 30. But this extra cost might be only a fraction of what was lost to the country in terms of making very bad investments, such as some of the decisions made by former president Rajapaksa’s government, including Mattala Airport which is now used to store excess paddy as there are no airlines willing to fly there, or Hambanatota Port and its associated highways, which are empty with the roads being used by farmers living there to walk their flocks and to dry their cereals.
The principle that the ends do not justify the means would suggest that the objective of keeping former president Rajapaksa from recapturing power within the UPFA is not a justification for the large number of ministerial appointments and of those who are of dubious repute. The questions of means and ends become difficult in the middle of a process of transition. It was only six years ago that the country became free from the thirty year war. It is today grappling with coming to terms with that past. Likewise it is only 9 months since Sri Lanka became free from a government in which the rule of men took precedence over the rule of law, which undermined the core of a law-governed society.
By establishing the Constitutional Council the government has taken an important step forward in re-establishing the rule of law which will ensure the better governance in the future. The Constitutional Council, comprising members from the government, opposition and civil society will select those who head those public institutions vested with the powers to check and balance the political authorities, such as the judiciary, police, human rights, bribery and audit commissions. But it also needs to find ways and public forums to explain and justify its present actions to the people who trusted and voted for them, so that we do not lose heart too early in the long marathon race for good governance in a transformed polity.