By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise: Dopey 2
Another consequence of the electoral system from which we now suffer is that simple name recognition is generally enough to ensure election. Often voters, having selected the candidate from their constituency, use their other two preferences on those whose names they know. Obviously posters put up all over the electoral catchment area help in getting one’s name known, but there are other easier reasons too for some individuals to get votes. So film or sports stars do very well at elections, as do those who obtain publicity for other reasons, through eccentric behavior, or even by being jailed, as happened with a relatively unknown character from the opposition in the 2010 General Election.
And of course if one’s father or mother or brother or uncle is already an established politician, then one is more likely to pick up the loose preferences of a large number of the voters. In short, the children of well known politicians start with a built in advantage. Contrariwise, in the past, when candidates were chosen for particular electorates, they had to establish themselves in that area, as individuals with some connection with the constituency they wanted to represent. Now however they simply have to command patronage in order to get their names on the electoral lists. So in recent years there have been increasing numbers of children standing for election, and many of them have done very well. Whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had to prove that he was the most able of his siblings to step into his father’s seat, and whereas he lost elections under the first past the post system and was not in Parliament for several years, Namal had no difficulty in getting nomination for the Hambantota District, and in topping the list there on preferences at the election. And he will surely be able to get enough preferences in any future election to stay in Parliament, even if the SLFP becomes less popular in the District than another party.
Namal then is here to stay, and with the passing of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that removed term limits, his father would obviously be able to stay on as President, or to be precise as the Presidential candidate of his party, until Namal were ready to take his place. This was of course understood by other members of Parliament, and many saw friendship with Namal as their route to political advancement. Sensibly, Mahinda Rajapaksa did not give Namal a ministerial position, though this too had adverse consequences, since it meant he did not give any new entrant to parliament executive office (the only exception initially being the former LTTE military wing leader, Karuna, whose support had been invaluable in dealing with his intransigent former comrades, after he left the LTTE when it was clear they were not interested in a negotiated solution).
So the President had to leave out people of proven ability since, had he appointed them, the pressure from sycophants to promote Namal, which had in any case arisen, would have been irresistible – and Namal too would have had stronger claims to a position. Indeed, when the President first gave Deputy Minister positions to new entrants, he gave a couple to those who had done best in their Districts, which would facilitate Namal’s appointment at the next reshuffle – or rather, at the next accession of Ministers, since in Sri Lanka no one is left out when changes are made.
But there were other ways to provide Namal with the opportunities for patronage for which ordinary politicians needed executive office. He headed a youth movement called Tharunayata Hetak, a Future for the Young, which engaged in a range of activities that brought him prestige and publicity. He was invited to preside over ceremonial occasions, and given credit for what was done. And when the government settled people from the south in some areas in the North, he even had a new village named after him, Namalgama.
The forces indeed gave him much prominence. He had to be present when former LTTE cadres were released after rehabilitation. I came across one particularly sad example of the unnecessary problems caused by this rage for recognition – or perhaps the rage to bestow recognition, since Namal probably would not have minded if he had not been invited to all such occasions – with regard to the restoration to their owners of some boutiques in Kilinochchi which the army had occupied. I was asked about these at a Reconciliation meeting, and I suggested the community organization that raised the question meet the Civil Affairs Office of the military, and find out what was planned. I always noted that the military had a right to take over lands if essential, but they had to ensure that this was indeed essential, and that owners were properly compensated.
The officer who came to the meeting promised to look into the matter, but as we went out he said they had already decided to give back the boutiques. When I asked why this had not been done, he said that they were waiting for Namal to be present to restore the deeds at a formal ceremony. This struck me as ridiculous, since it caused unnecessary suffering to the owners, and in any case it was the army that needed to win hearts and minds, not politicians from the south. But the system of sycophancy rather than practicality was too well entrenched for my argument to have any effect, even though the officer concerned understood the point.
Underlying the promotion of Namal by the forces was his association with Gotabaya who, without any obvious ambitions of his own as it seemed early on, clearly far preferred Namal to Basil as the putative heir apparent. Though he never evinced, and probably did not feel, hostility towards Basil, he made no bones about his commitment to Namal, and the forces accordingly pushed the latter forward.
What seems to have been Gotabaya’s indulgence of Namal contributed to the erosion of the reputation he had previously enjoyed for honesty. In 2011, when it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs was dysfunctional, the President took the decision to appoint what he termed Monitoring Members of Parliament to a few Ministries, to overlook their work. This was an outrageous idea, because it suggested that Members of Parliament should in effect supervise the work of Ministers, but in fact it was applied to very few Ministries, and in most of them the Monitoring Member did very little. The exception was External Affairs, where Sajin Vass Gunawardena, confidante of both Namal and the President, built an empire for himself, but obviously there were special circumstances there.
Indeed the plan seemed to have been designed only for that Ministry but, perhaps since that might have looked inordinately absurd, it was made slightly less so by being extended to a few others. Later the President claimed that he had asked Members of Parliament to apply for these positions, but that was not the case, and the honour, such as it was, had been extended to just half a dozen of the new MPs.
Amongst these, apart from Sajin, the most prominent were two very close friends of Namal, who were appointed as Monitoring Members for the Ministry of Defence. One was Uditha Lokubandara, who was almost as young as Namal, and was the son of the former UNP Minister and Speaker, who had in effect supported Mahinda Rajapaksa after he became President, and had been appointed as Governor of Sabaragamuwa Province after the 2010 election.
Uditha was an enthusiastic young man, who did not present any problems. Nor perhaps did the other Monitoring Member, given the tight hold Gotabaya had on his Ministry. But this was Duminda Silva, who was alleged to be involved in drug dealing. Whether or not this was true, it did not redound to Gotabaya’s credit, which had previously been unsullied with regard to shady activities.
Matters became worse when Duminda, who had come over to the government from the UNP, was involved in a shootout during a local election with a long standing SLFP politician, Bharatha Premachandra, for the reasons of electoral rivalry recorded above. The latter died, and Duminda received a wound to the head which required protracted treatment, and seemed to have resulted in some sort of brain damage.
Gotabaya had rushed to hospital when Duminda was taken there, which may just have been basic decency for someone supposedly involved with his Ministry, but it highlighted the association and led to speculation about the exact nature of the connection. Given the extent of the fortune the Silva family commanded, which included also a media empire, it was naturally assumed that the Rajapaksa regime had benefited from their largesse. But to find it connected closely to the Secretary of Defence was a surprise that for the first time raised doubts about Gotabaya’s commitment to the ideals he professed.
This was particularly ironic, since he had recently launched a forceful campaign against drug dealers, and indeed Mervyn Silva, a maverick member of Parliament who was one of Basil’s chief supporters in the Gampaha District, was reported to have been amongst those whose activities was under suspicion. Since common parlance had it that his associates were different from those of Duminda Silva, the public revelation of Gotabaya’s closeness to the latter was especially worrying.
Namal meanwhile, given the need for aspiring politicians to have access to enormous amounts of money for the electoral reasons detailed above, was actively involved in business. He had set up a media organization called the Carlton Sports Network, Carlton being the name of one of the family houses in the south, and this soon obtained a monopoly on the telecasting of popular sports programmes. The profits the network could make from advertising were of course colossal.
Namal was also able to command sponsorship for any activities he undertook. He had a penchant for fast cars, so he set up an annual car race in Colombo for which sandbags had to be set up to allow for daredevil motorists, at least those able to drive expensive racing cars, to career around. Early on in his parliamentary career, he arranged a massive tamasha in this regard for which popular Indian film stars came down.
Initially this gave his career an impetus, especially when some of the stars participated in programmes for former LTTE cadres being rehabilitated. But as time passed, these events seemed very much the preserve of privileged youngsters, and served to alienate him from the vast majority of Sri Lankan youngsters. Thus Sri Lanka seemed to be playing out the tragedy of some many other third world countries, where the scions of powerful and apparently unassailably entrenched political families, such as Gaddafi’s children, whose amusements were distinctly international in orientation, held unchallenged sway. And unfortunately for the President, this was the more marked because Sri Lanka had not suffered from such excesses before. Dudley Senanayake had been a thorough and very simple gentleman, so his father’s indulgence had caused no problems, while he himself was unmarried and had no children; Jayewardene’s son had been quite old when his father finally came to power, and both Bandaranaikes as well as Premadasa had maintained discipline amongst their children and not given them political prominence.
As time passed, Namal’s business activities also took on different forms. When in 2013 a scandal broke about a plan for the Packer dynasty to set up a casino in Colombo, initially the assumption was that this was yet another of Basil’s business deals, in terms of what he saw as priorities for economic development. But Basil was critical of the enterprise, and it was then rumoured that it was Namal who had established connections with James Packer. Certainly he felt himself entitled to negotiate about investment opportunities, with both local and foreign businessmen, and the rumours spread that all deals involved substantial commissions.