By Saliya Pieris –
The enemies of good governance?
After a delectable lunch hosted by the President, new State Ministers and Deputy Ministers of the regime were sworn in at the Presidential Secretariat. Some of the new appointments from among the ranks of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have caused much consternation among the proponents of the new order, especially since they are accused of being the very antithesis of good governance.
Perhaps only the two Silvas – Duminda and Mervyn were missing from the list, for the reason that they are no longer in Parliament. Nimal Lanza, Nishantha Muthuhettigama, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Wasantha Perera, and Arundika Fernando were among the new appointees.
The appointments of some of the most reviled members of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, to the Yaha Palanaya Government have raised howls of protest from those who propelled the new government into power- not least the Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Nayake Thero who has taken high moral ground on governance issues.
At the same time, social media were abuzz with laments about the non-appointment of some of the most popular UNP Members of Parliament to the government including Ranjan Ramanayake and Sujeewa Senasinghe who failed to secure cabinet appointments. Parliamentarian Buddhika Pathirana failed to secure any place in the new government.
Clipping of wings
One could not help but wonder whether there had also been a clipping of the wings of some leading UNPers such as Minister Sajith Premadasa and Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva who was moved to the Foreign Ministry, away from his pet subject of Economics.
No doubt among the UNP Members and the rank and file there is heartburn, although many will for now, bow to political reality and put on a brave face.
Some of President Maithripala Sirisena’s appointments from the SLFP demonstrate the quality of the support he has from among the Parliamentarians of that party. Some of the younger, more popular or perhaps relatively ‘cleaner’ members of the SLFP have opted to stay out of the government knowing that the party rank and file may well punish them one day for what some might perceive to be “sleeping with the enemy”.
Still the best hope
However despite the shortcomings, political wrangling and horse-trading, the new regime continues to be the best hope that Sri Lanka and her people have had for many years. For that reason the purposes and objectives for which Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were elected must be kept in mind and must be pursued with vigour by the civil society. The new government must be made to keep the promises it made to the people.
The air of freedom
One of the best short term outcomes has been the air of freedom which exists in the country which enables even the harshest critics of the new government to criticise the President, the Prime Minister and others freely. No longer does one have to look over one’s shoulder when speaking harshly about the leaders of the regime or for that matter their relatives. The media including the national newspapers have been liberated from their own self-imposed slavery.
The judiciary has to a large extent been allowed to operate freely. The last few months have seen the higher courts issuing several orders against the new government, something not seen in several years. The Attorney General and his officers are freer than earlier to take decisions they think are right.
Side-lining of extremists
One of the most important achievements of the new government has been the ability to sideline extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide and commence rapprochement among all sides.
The positive changes that have been achieved must be consolidated to ensure that Sri Lanka will never again go back to the repressive regimes of the past. I use the word in the plural, for after all Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime was not the only repressive regime in the past forty years.
The National Question
The most urgent and vexing issue that faces the nation and its new government is the national question. The defeat of the pro-LTTE elements in the North and Sinhala extremism in the South opens the way to dialogue between parties and hopefully eventually a consensus on the national question will be reached. For this end it will be necessary for the TNA, the Muslim parties as well as both main political parties to act in the spirit of reconciliation. For the moment the leadership of the TNA has acted with responsibility. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran who has failed to display the maturity of the likes of Parliamentarians Sambanthan, Senathirajah and Sumanthiran.
Sinhala extremism and Tamil extremism are two sides of the same coin, nurturing each other. Moderate forces in both the North and South must prevail and the extremists on both sides of the divide finally defeated. On the issues of devolution, national reconciliation and accountability the government will need in the next few months to take unpopular decisions which need to be taken in the greater interests of the Sri Lankan nation. A narrow UNP led coalition supported by the TNA alone would not have been able to take such decisions without drawing flak from the opposition. On the other hand the TNA too should be ready to pursue a responsible course which is not necessarily populist.
Mustering a two-thirds
One of the main reasons for the new leaders to decide on the national government, is no doubt that together they will be able to muster the special majority that will be required to bring into effect some of the most important changes to the structure of governance. The nearly two thirds majority, the new government holds could be put to good use in the coming months to bring about key constitutional amendments. This time around the Mahinda Rajapakse camp will not be in a position to filibuster Parliament in the manner that they did at the 19th amendment.
Building the Institutions
If the dividends of change are to be made permanent, we in Sri Lanka must look towards building up and strengthening the institutions in the country. The legislature to a large extent has been a non-entity during the existence of the two republican constitutions, merely being an appendage to the executive. The quality of debate and participation has dropped drastically. Parliament as an institution must be empowered and its processes made more meaningful.
The judiciary too must be strengthened. The independence of the judiciary will be strengthened only when it also becomes accountable. Such accountability must be in respect of not only integrity but also for efficiency, for after all an efficient legal system is essential for the progress of the nation.
Greater scrutiny in making appointments
The new regime has swiftly moved to establish the Constitutional Council and consequently the Independent Commissions- one of the key demands of the good governance camp. The new members of the Constitutional Council must proceed to establish a strong framework and machinery to make its functions meaningful, especially in making recommendations for appointments to the Independent Commissions and in approving appointments to high offices including the judiciary.
In respect of all appointments to public office, it is best if a transparent process is introduced in order to enable the best people to be selected. Even if the process takes a little longer time the new Constitutional Council should establish criterion and framework for new appointments to key Commissions such as the Bribery Commission, Public Services Commission and the Elections Commission, rather than making ad-hoc selections.
The Constitutional Council must not become a mere rubber stamp of the appointing authority, approving recommendations for appointments based merely on seniority. Appointments to high office must be subject to greater scrutiny and where necessary be even subject to public discussion and debate. Seniority alone must not be the criteria for high office, since seniority is essentially obtained by the mere passage of time, whereas high office requires greater ability and competency.
The wait for a saviour
In the final analysis the new developments in the government demonstrate the existence of a greater need to strengthen the institutions established by the law and the constitution. For too long now, we have been looking for a messiah or saviour who will save us. We have attached too much importance to individuals, believing they will pull us out of the mire. Now, it is time we placed greater faith in building up the institutions of our nation and strengthen and perfect the constitution, the law and strive to change the collective attitudes of the entire nation.