By Rajan Philips –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Policy Statement that was presented to Parliament on August 19, is more a validation of his nine months in office than a road map for the rest of his mandate. Remarkable for its lack of rhetorical flourish, at least in its English version, the statement has about nine themes to it. The statement is not at all incoherent, but there are internal contradictions and tensions between priorities, which are indicative of the multiple pressures that the President has to accommodate and become more like a ‘traditional politician’ than an outsider doing politics differently. What is glaringly lacking, however, is any indication of the government’s, or the President’s, honest understanding of the twin challenges facing the country – Covid-19 and the economic doldrums; and any indication of some urgency of purpose in guiding the country through the two challenges.
One would have thought that focusing on these two challenges would be consistent with the President’s strengths and his cultivated reputation as a no-nonsense doer. Instead, as the Policy Statement indicates the President seems to be either constrained to be drawn, or willingly wade into cultural and constitutional distractions. The Statement opens with the satisfaction of two back-to-back victories (in November and in August), and the not unjustifiable assertion that the people are satisfied with what the President and the government have done over the last nine months.
The people “are impressed with the way,” the statement says, that the country has been “governed during the past nine months despite various obstacles.” And they “appreciate the change taking place in the political culture of this country,” the statement adds. What is this change in the political culture? The term comes up again briefly (as theme #5) in the Statement, with the assertion that the SLPP government is “working towards a significant transformation of the political culture of this country.” And the Statement goes on to say:
“After I assumed office as the President, changing the existing system, a methodical procedure was introduced to appoint heads of Government institutions whereby qualifications of prospective appointees were examined through a panel of experts. A well-experienced team of professionals, entrepreneurs and academics was appointed instead of relatives, acquaintances, and followers. This policy will continue in the future as well.”
The COVID shuffle
This change of culture is certainly not evident in the manner in which Dr. Anil Jasinghe was shuffled from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of the Environment. As Director-General of Health Services (DGHS), Dr. Jasinghe had become the face of Sri Lanka’s response to Covid-19 not only within Sri Lanka, but also internationally as a Vice Chair of the World Health Organization. Why pull him out of his professional job and post him as Secretary to the Ministry of the Environment, in the middle of a global pandemic whose future trajectory is still as uncertain as it has been from the time it began nine months ago?
Dr. Jasinghe seems to be taking the kick upstairs in his stride without missing a step. All the best to him, and there is no point in praising him too much and causing him unnecessary problems with his political masters. But the point here is about the government’s thinking and its claim about a new political culture. Reliable news reports have alluded to corridor whispers in the Health Ministry that Dr. Jasinghe may have run afoul of powerful people who do not like breaking routines and hierarchy even in a public health emergency. The story also raises doubt if the next in line to fill Dr. Jasinghe’s void, Dr. Amal Harsha De Silva, will be given the promotion for which he is well qualified. The million dollar question in the ministry circles apparently is whether Dr. Harsha de Silva “will be given what he deserves.” So far, there has been no appointment to Dr. Jasinghe’s old position.
These bureaucratic shenanigans were expected to disappear once Gotabaya Rajapaksa became President. But they have not. And they fly in the face of the President’s assurance that the government is working towards transforming the country’s old political culture. What was the “methodical procedure” that was followed before transferring Dr. Jasinghe? And which panel of experts reviewed and recommended the transfer of Dr. Jasinghe?
And there is a different panel – the very ecclesiastical, if not otherworldly, “advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks to (seek) advice on governance,” that the President has set up along with the establishment of the Archaeological Task Force. The President (theme #2) describes these appointments as furtherance of the constitutional duty of the State “to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.” I am not aware of any former President making such a linkage. The President’s rationale is that – by “ensuring priority for Buddhism, it is now made clear to the people that freedom of any citizen to practice the religion of his or her choice is better secured.” And further that “as representatives of the people, we always respect the aspirations of the majority. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people can be safeguarded.”
There is nothing wrong, or objectionable (who is to object anyway), about the President acting to protect and foster Buddhist thought and teaching, especially if that is the only way in Sri Lanka to secure the religious freedoms of others. And there is no point in quibbling about the incongruence between the aspirations of the majority, on the one hand, and the sovereignty of the people, on the other. What is pertinent to ask is whether what is done to foster Buddhism or further the aspirations of the majority – should overlap and interfere with the mundane tasks of governance, and rational decision making on matters of public health, national economy, and the constitution?
Soon after assuming office the President won copious kudos for his appointments to government institutions, Banks, Boards and Corporations – from the Central Bank to the Jaffna Provincial Council, and a host of them in between. Those good early starts would seem to have got derailed now. And the derailment is not going unnoticed. A recent satirical letter to the media entitled, “An unsolicited manifesto for ‘Viyathmaga’ State Ministers”, is indicative of early frustrations among those who may have been expecting a different style of politics. In the old days, it used to be said that rural masses vote governments into power and working classes throw them out. Periodical elections and government changes were the norm in Sri Lanka. The fundamental terms of the political dynamic have not changed, even though the terms of government have got extended under the presidential system. It is one thing to win elections based on the aspirations of the majority, but it is quite a different challenge for a government to satisfy the material needs of the same and however aspiring majority. The material needs cannot get anymore basic than they are today: protection from the pandemic and the protection of jobs.
The Statement (themes 3 & 4) highlights how the government has restored national security to secure levels after the 2019 Easter debacle, and its “launch of the methodical mechanism to protect the people against social evils” such as underworld crime and drug mafia rule. Sri Lankans are assured that “a virtuous and a law-abiding society is emerging as (we) promised.” The emergence of a virtuous and law-abiding society will be welcomed by everyone. The rub, however, is whether everyone will equally abide by the law, and whether everyone, even those who have died or disappeared, will receive equal protection from it. And whether those who have been wronged before, in the so called emblematic cases, will ever receive justice? The new Minister of Justice has inherited a judicial minefield, and one can only wish him well without throwing critical grenades at him.
As for the emerging new political culture, it is becoming apparent that anyone can do anything and get away with it so long as they can obtain a spot on the party nomination list and win a seat in parliament under proportional representation. In the old first-past-the-post system, the voters would have dealt with a criminal candidate even if the courts did not.
The bulk of the statement and the middle themes are all about the economy – but narrated in a rather personalized way using the President’s encounters with the people during the August election campaign. It is known that the President took full ownership of the parliamentary election campaign after early indications that he would stay out of it. He campaigned for a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, and he has now made it his and his governments priority. That is also the final theme of the Policy Statement. There might be a political addition problem involving the 14 or 15 SLFP MPs who will be needed to make up the two-thirds majority, including Maithripala Sirisena, now the MP for Polonnaruwa and rebuffed of a cabinet position. But the Rajapaksas are quite adept at whipping up majorities and they may not be losing any sleep over Sirisena.
The real question is whether President Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs any or all of the constitutional distraction that he is being drawn into, when he has to lead the country through two challenges that no previous President, or government, has had to face. Granted, he won the war against the LTTE, but he did not require a constitutional change or even a two-thirds majority for that. The infamous 18th Amendment came after the war and the Rajapaksas lost the 2015 elections mostly because of the 18th Amendment. The 19th Amendment was the result of that defeat and was approved by the whole of parliament minus one dissent. Now the SLPP seems bent on repeating history. Whether the repeat act will be a farce or a tragedy, time will tell.