By Laksiri Fernando –
Although the no-confidence motion (NCM) brought against the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesighe, has been decisively defeated largely because of those who brought it were more culpable of corruption and misuse of public funds, the moral authority and legitimacy of both the PM and the Government are largely tarnished. Perhaps this pyrrhic victory of the PM would mark the end of Yahapalanaya in various meanings and for various reasons.
Betrayal of Accountability
Yahapalanaya or good governance first and foremost means accountability. If there is no one in the government, the President, the PM or any other Minister to undertake the responsibility for what happened under their political command, then that administration does not have any legitimacy to call itself ‘Yahapalanaya.’
It is true that even prior to the NCM debate, there was opportunity for the parliamentarians to freely debate on what has been termed as the ‘Bond Scam’ and come to their conclusions. There was a Presidential Commission Report available. As usual, those debates were largely dominated by political agendas, rhetoric and political point scoring. However in respect of accountability, it should have been the task of the Cabinet, headed by the President to discuss the magnitude of the matter and determine who was politically responsible for the irregularities and in fact corruption, if the PM denies that he is innocent and not responsible. To all our knowledge, there has been no such a discussion in the Cabinet and no pronouncement by the Cabinet spokespersons like Rajitha Senaratne on the subject.
The ‘Bond Scam’ is not something that the country can easily forget about. It will haunt the PM, the government and the country for many more years to come. It is not about a petty official swindling public money. This is about Treasury Bonds auctioned by the Central Bank, the bank of the banks of the country, amounting to colossal amounts money. It is not once, but at least twice that the ‘insider trading,’ the ‘manipulation of auction amounts’ and ‘favouritism’ had happened. The end result has been the enrichment of family, kith and kin and their business interests.
It became also revealed that the main beneficiary, Arjun Aloysius, favoured the then Finance Minister, Ravi Karunanayake, with a Pent House. He had to resign after the revelations. He apparently had more gentlemanly quality than the PM. The PM may say that he was unaware of the first transaction or fraud in February 2015. But can he say the same for the fraud in March 2016?
The principle of accountability does not go by the notion of criminal or legal responsibility, but by the moral and political responsibility. Even if the PM is not criminally or legally responsible for the Bond Scam, he is politically and morally responsible. Otherwise, how could good governance or democracy operate? If he is not responsible, then who is responsible? The whole Cabinet, the President included, should be responsible. So far no one has even apologised for what has happened. There is some truth in what Kumar David wrote in his usual column to The Sunday Island on 8 April, despite showing his arrogant antipathy against non-elite groups in society.
“I believe that Ranil could not have been ignorant of Mahendran’s corruption but preferred to look askance. Political pundits think they know why. The UNP was not rich and the grama sevakaya did not have two kopeks to scratch his bottom with before January 8. It is alleged that Mahendran lent funds to match a small fraction of the Rajapaksa loot and RMB donations. It is then alleged that the scam was the way in which repayment was engineered. If this be true it does pose something of a moral dilemma.”
Swindling of public funds for party purposes is equally bad as for personal or other purposes. There are strict legal prohibitions on these matters in other democracies. Sri Lanka is also known for foreign funding, or should I say ‘international community’ funding, for election purposes! It may be true that the return of Rajapaksas would be a greater evil than the bond scam. But that cannot justify the protection of bond corruption or other corruption, if we are committed to good governance principles. There is more time for the presidential and parliamentary elections.
It is not the non-protection, but the protection of bond scammers that would lead to a possible Rajapaksa return. I am particularly saying this to the misguided civil society organizations.
Limits of ‘Regime Change’
The experience of the past three years shows that a mere ‘regime change’ is not good enough to ensure democracy and good governance in any tangible measure. The changed regime should have the commitment and competence to ensure what is expected. One may even argue that although there was a change of government, there was no change of the ‘regime.’ The regime in this sense means not only the government, but also the principles, the norms and rules governing that government. That is why the name tag Yahapalanaya or good governance came to be attached to the new government or the governmental change.
There is no doubt that the people’s expectations of the new government or change were quite high given the dramatic manner that the January 8th change came about. There are civil society activists who rightly blame and criticise the government for not fulfilling the political reform agenda of the President and the UNFGG. What is mostly forgotten however is the promises given both by the President and the UNFGG leaders, the PM in particular, in uplifting the people’s economic standards through tangible and equitable development.
Yahapalanaya or good governance was basically a concept put forward by the UNFGG (United National Front for Good Governance) which was in fact inscribed in its own title name. Therefore, most of the blame for its failures should go to its leading party, the UNP, and its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. What Sirisena promised was ‘Compassionate Government’ and a stable country. His manifesto also gave much prominence to the need of fighting against corruption and to take appropriate action against all wrong doers. Therefore, the appointment of a presidential commission on the bond scam was in line with what he had promised. What was lacking however was to appoint another or a parallel presidential commission to investigate the past corruption.
In contrast, the UNFGG manifesto while castigating past corruption of the Rajapaksa era, was conspicuously silent on the bond scam which had already taken place under the UNP’s ministerial responsibilities. It is intriguing to note what the UPFA manifesto said about corruption. While acknowledging that the previous UPFA government failed to ensure transparency in its development projects, it promised to investigate and expose baseless allegations! It was also the UPFA position that the wrongdoers should be punished under the existing law. However, there is no difficulty in deducing that the UPFA, even after the defeat of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, and now under the leadership of Maithripala Sirisena was directly and indirectly trying to safeguard the past practices.
National Unity Government?
It was in President’s manifesto that the concept of a ‘national unity government’ was first put forward. I am not aware who in fact initiated the concept. The Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also was floating the idea of a Lichchavi system for a quite some time. There must have been some consensus on the matter between the two. However, the concept of a national unity government never appeared in the UNFGG manifesto or the UPFA manifesto at the parliamentary elections. President’s prior idea was to invite all parties to form a government and not just two parties. This is the idea he is still echoing, although such a broad grand coalition is now quite unrealistic. It was also his 100 day program that said “Following that election, the Prime Minister will be appointed from the party getting the highest number of seats at such election, with a Deputy Prime Minister from the party getting the next highest number.” This however never happened.
The two manifestos of the UNFGG and the UPFA were quite apart and mostly opposed to each other except in ritualistically highlighting the need for democracy, reconciliation, constitutional reforms and anti-corruption. The three areas where the policies appeared to be diametrically opposed to each other were on national security, foreign relations and economic development. While the UPFA was giving high priority to national security, the UNFGG emphasized more on Sri Lanka’s international commitments. On foreign policy, the UPFA’s orientation was directed to the East while the UNFGG wanted to restore and strengthen the relations with the West.
The different strategies on economic development perhaps were the most conspicuous. The UNFGG committed mostly for the urban sector, the western province megapolis as the centre, emphasizing the priority for the private sector, liberalization of the economy through free trade agreements and FDI etc. In contrast, the UPFA was talking about economic development through continued infrastructure development and strengthening both the state and private sectors.
It is a known fact that both the UNFGG and the UPFA could not obtain clear majorities to govern the country on their own, and such was the need for a national unity government. This was possible under the leadership of the President and for that purpose a 10 point MOU was signed between the UNP and the SLFP (not the UNFGG and the UPFA) for two years initially, but the alliance continued fairly smoothly until it became ruptured in recent times even before the NCM. The reasons for this rupture has not properly been explained to the people and the country by the President, the PM or any other leader.
A careful analysis of this MOU shows it contains more of UPFA/SLFP or President’s policies than of the UNP/UNFGG, particularly in respect of economic development, foreign policy and even on constitutional reforms. When it talks about a social market economy, it is qualified as “one directed under the overall control of the State with the objectives of giving concessions to the people through price control and consumer protection.” Some of the propositions can be called not only welfarist, but also broadly socialist. However none of these were properly implemented. It is undoubtedly a controversial question who breached this MOU?
Without going into much details, the point 8 of the MOU can be highlighted. It is a one sentence clause that emphasises “Important economic policies and programmes should be decided by the Cabinet.” Irrespective of who was right or who was wrong, a main controversy recently between the President and the Prime Minister was about the alleged ‘kitchen cabinet’ that the PM was supposed to be running in the form of an Economic Management Committee. Therefore, it is no surprise now the national unity government is in tatters. There is no much point in now talking about a cooperative coalition after three years. The horse has already bolted.
NCM and Disarray of Yahapalanaya
The TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, has skilfully highlighted many inconsistencies and contradictions in the wording of the NCM. The purpose very clearly was to safeguard the PM and the government. Irony however is that he is the Leader of the Opposition! Overcoming many radical sounding statements by some backbenchers, the UNP and more broadly the UNFGG, except Ven Athuraliye Rathana, have manged to consolidate and defeat the NCM. The constitutional leftist, Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who secured a parliamentary seat through the UNP or probably through Ranil Wickremesighe, voted against the NCM pretending he is defending the President and the government! His murky legal arguments were most hilarious.
The most puzzling question is how did they all manage to get the moral courage to defend Ranil Wickremesighe who in simple logic of good governance principles is politically responsible for the bond irregularities, not to talk about a bond scam? How come we talk about a Yahapalanaya under such circumstances?
It is mostly the JVP who appeared to have taken a clear moral and a principled political stand on the NCM. There is no much point in talking about the dubious political motives of the JO, while they had every right to move such a motion under usual parliamentary procedures. Whatever the wavering, conflicts, indecision or discord, there was no option for the SLFP, in my opinion, other than either to vote for or abstain from the NCM. After that, they (at least the Ministers) don’t have a right or moral possibility to remain in the government, not to speak of collective responsibility of the Cabinet. Such a behaviour would be mere hypocrisy even on the part of those who abstained, unless resign from the party and join the UNFGG or the UNP. The SLFP is now again split in the middle. The winners seem to be the JO thanks to Wickremesinghe’s bond involvement.
It would have been better for the country and the people, if the President, the PM or the UNP could have managed to take an appropriate decision on the matter before allowing it to go for a showdown. The usual practice in democracy is for the politically responsible person, in this case Ranil Wickremesighe, to graciously resign. Isn’t there a person other than RW who can hold the position of the PM and the leader of the UNP? If not, it is a sad predicament. It appears that Sri Lanka or the present government is far away from Yahapalanaya. It is time for the civil society organizations and activists to think afresh other than tagging to the bond scam.