By Jehan Perera –
There is a popular perception that the new government’s performance so far shows that it is not a strong government. This would lead people to hedge their bets, as they are unsure how long the government will continue under its present leadership. The business community in particular requires stability to make investments in the future. They need to know that government policy would be stable and there will not be sudden reversals which can be very costly to them. The perception that the government is not strong is partly due to the fact that it is a coalition government in which the dominant party, the UNP, does not even enjoy a majority in Parliament. But the larger part of the reason for the perception of a weak government is that the government is not taking strong action against its opponents.
The unexpected defeat of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election led to high expectations amongst those who voted against him that the new government, and its anti-corruption crusaders, would soon put things right. During the election campaign they accused former members of the government of being terribly corrupt, of engaging in the trade of narcotics and the sale of illegal spirits to manufacture alcohol, among others, and of padding up contracts to build infrastructure, with massive kickbacks to themselves. However, the actions of the new government up to now have not justified these popular expectations.
More than six weeks after the change of government those accused of wrongdoing in the former government remain free of formal charges. They are also free to organize political rallies and find money to bus the crowd in from all parts of the country. The long arm of the law has not caught them, and as a result there are stories being spread that some of those in the former government are maintaining corrupt links with those in the present government. But this can be explained. The reason is that the new government pledged to bring in good governance, and key to this is to follow established procedures and the rule of law.
The government would be wary of taking precipitate action that they cannot sustain in a court of law. It is common experience that cases of fraud taken to court in ordinary circumstances will take months to start and years to conclude. This would be more so in cases where files have been destroyed, evidence tampered with and the wrongdoers are prominent in public life. In addition in situations such as the present one, in which the former government members are accused of spiriting out their ill gotten gains to foreign climes, the expertise to probe such crimes is also lacking in the country. An example of precipitate action that was counter-productive was the police raid on one of the former president’s home backfired against the government when nothing incriminating was discovered.
Those who criticize the new government for being weak fail to appreciate the positive change it has brought to the country’s politics. The fear of arbitrary governmental action that targets individuals who are critical of those in the seats of power is no more present in the country at large. Instead there is a feeling that there is freedom to express one’s opinion and not be punished for it. Indeed, this space for free expression that has opened up is being used by a vociferous minority from the opposition to create apprehension that the new government might not last long. In addition they have created a fear that the new government will take the country to division and subjugation by the international community before its demise.
However, the average citizen has heard these dire warnings before and has a different interest. Their interest is to elect a government that will improve their lives, which necessarily involves reducing corruption and ensuring the rule of law. The previous government was popularly described as a strong one. It was so strong that it could implement virtually any decision its leadership took, even though some of those decisions violated the legal and human rights of others. It took over people’s lands and properties and drove them off despite their having legal title to what they owned. It bypassed Parliament and made huge payments to foreign consultants who promised salvation from the international threat of prosecution for war crimes. There was fear to dissent against the former government due to the impunity that those who wielded power at that time enjoyed.
The new government’s main strength at the present time is that it has increased the democratic space to dissent and to speak out, and that it promises a better future through the practices of democracy and good governance. At the same time the government would seek to implement its 100 day action plan and win the support of the people by engaging in constructive actions. There is much that it has already done. It has reduced prices of several essential commodities and assuaged the strongest grievance of the masses of people regarding the rising cost of living. It is in the final stages of drafting new legislation with regard to issues of good governance, including the setting up of independent state institutions. The fear of the arbitrary power of the government is much diminished, which is seen in the degree of freedom of speech and media the country now enjoys.
With regard to the North and East, the government has also done things that were not mentioned in its 100 day plan such as appointing civilian governors for the northern and eastern provinces. Although the military presence continues, they play a less visible and direct role in the governance of the people. In addition, the government has started returning land to the civilian population in those two provinces that were taken over by the previous government. It has also removed travel restrictions on foreign citizens and media, and thereby opened up the entire country to more transparent governance. The government may be moving slowly, but it is on the right course.
The manifestation of extreme nationalism on both sides of the divide so soon after the presidential election in both the North and South of the country shows once again that the most important problem the country faces is its ethnic divide. One of the themes at the opposition rally was that the former president won more of the Sinhalese vote than did the winner of the presidential election. Another was to claim that the new government was leading to the ethnic division of the country, and that it would betray the ethnic Sinhalese majority, because of its reliance on the votes of the ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims. On the other hand, the resolution of the Northern Provincial Council which accused successive Sri Lankan governments of committing genocide against the Tamils and called upon the UN to investigate was a mirror image of this ethnic nationalism.
However, it is also relevant to note that the presidential election saw moderate opinion prevail. It was the majority of moderate voters who ensured the defeat of the former president who did his utmost to mobilize Sinhalese nationalism of the electorate. Although extremist Tamil nationalists sought to persuade the Tamil electorate to boycott the elections like the LTTE once did to help former President Rajapaksa to remain in power, Tamil voters flocked to the polling stations in huge numbers. It is plausible to believe that this moderate majority is larger today than it was before the presidential election due to the constant stream of media disclosures of corruption and abuse of power on the part of the previous government, and the problem solving actions of the new government at the level of the people.