26 July, 2017

Transforming The Political Culture: Illusion To Reality

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera

Asanga Abeygoonasekera

Asanga Abeygoonasekera

Everything’s fine today, that is our illusion.” ~ Voltaire

A singular significant achievement of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was the passing of the Right to Information Bill few days ago, a decade overdue. This is the scaffolding to preserve people’s democratic values and build the tower of democracy. With this in full operation the citizen will soon wake up to a nation that is transparent in its actions- to a greater extent than before. An ordinary individual could now question and ask the details of the brand and what kind of vehicle each MP imported from their permits, you could question the Ministries on what happens to the allocated funds for a project, you could strengthen crowd sourced website against corruption such as ipaidabribe and you could question a politician who has spent lavishly at an election. This is a great achievement for the entire media industry particularly for the investigative journalist. If late Lasantha Wickrematunge was alive he would have celebrated this moment. RTI is the modern day Magna Carta which channels out the power from authoritarian centered rule and pass it to ordinary individuals. RTI would have been an impossible task during the previous Rajapaksa regime who believed in a different set of values, particularly in the post war years.

Auditor General and State Institutes

With RTI, it is important also to strengthen and question the misappropriations of the state institutions that are running at major losses in this country. For this process one of the most important departments is the Auditor Generals Department. A nation with a weak political culture where the Minister’s could fire officers at their own will ,use state resources the way they want, a story common in the last few decades in our political history. The new government should focus to strengthen the auditor general’s department. In many government institutions’ financial abuse, waste and fraud are revealed by Auditor General and examined further by COPE and PAC. During a debate at SLBC with the former auditor general Mayadunne with vast experience I understood the integrity and value of this individual and the role he could play in Parliament. More than debating we agreed on most points such as importance of strengthening state institutions a core area we have neglected for many years. After the debate I wished him that he would enter Parliament as we need people of this caliber to formulate policy for our nation, but unfortunately I learned he was appointed as a Member of Parliament from national list from JVP but resigned soon after due to a party decision to accommodate another.

The central theme of Government was to introduce good governance and this involves clearly orchestrating the environment to create independent powerful commissions to conduct checks and balances of Government. Acemoglu and Robinson in their bestselling book Why Nations Fail clearly states “Countries such as Great Britain and the United States became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities.”

Few days ago at a meeting at a Government Ministry I discovered the Government officer I have come to meet has been fired by the powerful Minister at the same time. The officer was shocked to find out and was ready to leave immediately, an academic who has done great service to the industry and the institution. As it was not appropriate to have this meeting I suggested we can have this meeting another time but the officer insisted to have the meeting but mentioned “I don’t think I can do much now since I am fired”. After returning home I was really disgusted of the conduct of this powerful Minister who has fired without even mentioning a reason. If there are allegations the officer should be investigated and if there are misunderstandings they should discuss. How come the Minister has the right to fire the officer without any of this? Next morning while still thinking of this incident and I decided to complain to President Sirisena regarding this incident. Not even two hours after this the officer was reappointed to the post. I thank the President for this great deed as we have only few top academics and scholars in government institutions. Sri Lanka needs them specially to strengthen our week government institutions. Powerful Ministers should understand the message of Arahat Mahinda to the King in this Poson week “You are not the owner of the resources you are the temporary custodian only”. The people who make them powerful can also take them out of office and they are representatives of the people only. Our political culture is unfortunately immature to grasp this as the representatives think they can do whatever they want whenever they want.

Political Salon

Peoples input for policy making and decision making is essential in a representative democracy. While Prime Minister is busy implementing great initiatives such as RTI you cannot have Minister’s behaving in this manner. Even for the luxury permits to politicians which should have been discussed with the public before handing over, a discussion should be held what is the best vehicle the politicians should get during the economic crisis the country is facing. Probably it’s not the politicians who should get maybe its suitable for our paddy farmer who is eligible this year to get a tax free permit to bring farm tractors a better way to encourage and increase productivity.

Forums like “Political Salon” at World Policy Institute in New York which was conducted by fellow YGL Michele Wucker is a great example to bridge the gap between politicians and general public to collect their input when formulating policy. At the Political Salon policy makers are invited to discuss debate and explain to the public and during this process you will learn the best way to implement what you are doing as a leader. A diverse group of professionals will interact to give input in this session. Politician will already receive the support from the public when you design with the public participation and will not get criticism at the last stage where you have to spend time to answer the displeasure of the public and sometimes revisit the entire process. Public consultation is a top priority in the democratic process.

Constitution

With incidents with the sudden dismissal as above and many others in the past one could think abolition of the executive presidency is not the right path to take as the culture is still immature to pass the power to the Parliament. If you have certain Ministers behaving in a manner of their own not according to the process who will correct the path? While limiting the executive power, you will create in such environment instability. Another factor is the rate of politicians who move from one party to another especially for their own benefit not for their voters in constituents. In this situation you will have several governments formed in a short time not allowing policy consistency.

Constitutional amendments are discussed now and this should be done with careful consideration as equal to the work of a skillful brain surgeon. The process should be with public participation with several rounds of discussion. Nepal is the best example of a constitution in disorder according to Dr.Nischal Pandey “We have had 6 constitutions in the last 6 decades and 19 Prime Ministers in the last 20 years. Such gross political instability has affected our economic growth, stifled progress, brought in crime and money into our politics and impacted national life. This has to change”. Sri Lanka had stable governments with the existing constitution; it probably has week areas to fine tune but should not weaken the sovereignty of the nation at any amendment. Many external elements which have already threatened our sovereignty are evident such as the statement of Chief Minister Jayalalitha on creating Eelam and acquiring Katchatheevu Island which belongs to Sri Lanka.

Brexit

A great lesson of respecting public opinion was evident soon after the referendum. Decency of PM Cameron stepping down to hand over power in a civilized manner “to steer the ship to the next destination” after losing the idea he very much believed is a good lesson to many politicians who do not respect the public opinion. UK after 43 years of being a member of the common market a seismic eruption to regionalism was evident with the recent referendum in UK to leave EU. Some government politicians went in support of PM Cameron and one GTF member in his personal opinion said remaining in the block will facilitate on-going efforts to resolve the Tamil national question. To protect the UKs sovereignty was far more important to British citizens than anything else. A trend could be seen that Nations are moving away from regionalism to protect their inward values which has become far more valuable. Sri Lanka would have to face two global political changes the current UK transition in October and the US Presidential election outcome in November. Rather than living in an illusion that everything is fine today, it is important to think and design our own home grown foresight plan for the next 25 years as a nation.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    [Edited out]

  • 2
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    The arrogance of this “powerful minister” who fired a top public servant, is unbelievable.
    The president reverting the damage is correct, but the matter is kept a secret.
    I hope that with the new ‘Right to information’ law, such matters will be bared.

  • 1
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    Thank you for a thought provoking piece. It is everybody’s responsibility to achieve this ‘transformation’. One thing must be clear to all. If the citizenry demand and get it, the politicians are never going to deliver i. In Sri Lanka, we have been taken hostage by a clan of robbers who call them politicians, who will do everything to keep power in their hands to use it as they wish. People have to realize this demand change. Rather wrest it away from the hands of ‘politicians’. Keep it up Asanga.

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