Governance entails institutional design as well as a management dimension…. Governance takes place at different administrative levels and in various action situations….Governance in practice, then means choices about ways of governing, made at several layers within a policy process, often simultaneously. (Hupe and Hill, 2007, p 287)
The institutional design is the policy framework and management is the implementation of policy by the government. Together, they provide the people the confidence in governance to bring about prosperity to their country, within a framework of a just society.
This paper discusses a growing trend during several successive governments, both past and present, to consciously breach this confidence by the choices they make in publicising half-truths, blatant lies, showing scant respect to the law, acting in contravention to the wishes of the people and passing legislation to concentrate power in themselves, thereby denying justice to the wider society. The paper limits itself to issues, incidents and legislative enactments in the last ten to twelve-year period and attempts to focus on issues under three topics, i.e, the period after the war ended, the period of the Yahapalanaya government of 2015, and governance under the present regime, suggesting a breakdown of the democratic process and a steady descent towards anarchy.
The period after the end of the war
The end of the war saw the popularity of the government soar, along with a disproportionate rise in communal polarisation. The line of demarcation between the terrorist and the Tamil citizen began to fade, with a tendency to look at all Tamils as terrorists, with the rhetoric receiving state patronage. This distorted perception which took its toll in 1983, ruining the image of the country, and which had been subdued to a great extent since, was allowed to raise its head again. This led to a loss of confidence in governance in the eyes of the masses.
This period also saw an elated sense of power and rights on the part of the rulers. While concluding the war justified a sense of achievement, the elation that it resulted in, prevented the rulers from prioritising on the key steps necessary in an immediate post war situation. Accordingly, the all-important step of dealing with the cause of the war which devastated the country for almost thirty years, was neglected. Instead, the rulers chose to celebrate the war victory with military parades and tamashas, while the helpless people in the war torn areas, who had gone through untold suffering during the war, were forced to continue with no change to their living conditions in sight. This was an opportunity lost for speedy reconciliation with the Tamil community who comprise a substantial proportion of the country’s population. Had due priority been given to this aspect, the restoration of faith in the state by the Tamil community could have been on a better footing, probably saving the state of the regular interventions by the international community for its failure to address such issues. This is one more reason for the loss of confidence in governance in the masses.
An elated sense of power also led to meddling with legislation. The 17th amendment to the constitution, which provided for institutional control to minimise politicisation of government activity, thus providing for good governance, was over ridden by the passage of a corrosive legislation in the form of the 18th amendment. This amendment provided for a lifetime presidency, empowering the President to make all appointments and dismissals in the public sector. The dictatorial intent of this piece of legislation eroded the democratic process, leading to arbitrary decisions, and added to the further loss of public confidence in governance in the masses.
The immediate post war period saw large scale investment in infrastructure, mostly in the south of the country. Highways began to be built, sea ports and air ports came up, cricket grounds and convention halls also came up, in the deep south. Most of these projects lacked transparency and came up on unsolicited tenders awarded to Chinese companies. Finances too were from the Chinese, and always on commercial lending terms. It is unlikely that due feasibility studies were carried out for these projects, as most of them were unproductive, showing no return on investment in the near future. These projects have had an adverse impact on the environment by way of large-scale deforestation. The impact on the habitats of all protected species of wild life, particularly elephants have led to an aggravation of the human-elephant conflict. Thus it is unlikely that the environmental impact of these projects had been properly assessed. Furthermore, these investments have caused the country a heavy debt burden, which has stifled the necessary finances for more rational investments. Expenditure on health care, education and higher education, which could add value to the society in the longer term, have had to be curtailed due to constraints on finances. These investments have caused loss of confidence in the government, particularly in the area of its prudence in investment decisions.
The Yahapalanaya government of 2015
From the frying pan to the fire. A government which came into office piggy-backing on the misdeeds of its predecessor took less than two months to show its true colours. Before the ink on their letters of appointment had dried, they were involved in an insider deal when issuing treasury bonds. Not only did they try to hide the loss it caused, they even set up committees which found no malpractice, until the peace between the Prime Minister and the President breached, and bits and pieces of the deal began to leak out. However, despite the presence of incriminating evidence, no action has been taken against the alleged culprits. In fact, the yahapalanaya team, displayed their inability to be trusted as a credible alternative to their predecessors during the election campaign itself, by promising a hoax of a Volkswagen assembly plant, which never saw the light of the day. They lost the confidence of the masses very early in their government.
Apart from the deals and fake promises, the yahapalanaya government also displayed some comic characteristics for a government in office. Having a President from one ideological camp and the Prime Minister from another, they let their ideological differences be the cause of much bickering between the two. The country was forced to witness the two heads of government, enjoying all the perquisites and privileges at the tax payer’s expense, behaving like primary school kids fighting over a tennis ball. Another comic sight was the President coming on the air regularly and disclaiming knowledge of the Cabinet decisions, when he in fact was the head of the Cabinet. With this comic behaviour, the yahapalanaya government did not take long for the confidence of the masses to get eroded, but remained in office because of the constitutional provision of a minimum four and-a-half- year term.
Another hallmark of the yahapalanaya government was the President sacking the Prime Minister and appointing another. Knowing quite well his actions were unconstitutional, he used various devious tactics to consolidate his plans, until the Supreme Court declared his actions as unconstitutional. The scant regard by the President to the law of the land, earned him a further the loss of confidence of the masses.
The act that crowned the misdeeds of the yahapalanaya government was the President, who was also the Minister of Defence, leaving the country with his family, without appointing an acting minister for the duration of his absence, despite the alleged information of an imminent terrorist attack on Colombo and its suburbs. Even in the aftermath of the attack which occurred early in the day and the carnage it caused, the President only returned by a late night flight, and in his usual style tried to cover his posterior with alibies. To-date, he has not taken the responsibility, and has tried to pass the blame on officials instead. Despite several arrests and multiple inquiries, the real culprit is still at large. Is it surprising that the masses lost confidence in the government and shut them out?
In fairness to the yahapalanaya government, it passed a more sensible 19th amendment to replace the corrosive 18th amendment. This amendment though not as comprehensive as the 17th amendment, nevertheless freed the country to some extent from excessive politicisation. With the Police Commission coming into force as a consequence of the 19th amendment, the performance of the Police service showed an improvement. Another positive action of this government was its passage of the Right to Information act. This piece of legislation allows the public access to information regarding actions, omissions, decisions, behaviours or even malpractices and corrupt deals, which they were hitherto denied. However, it was a foregone conclusion that the government would not be returned to office in a future poll, certainly not the immediate one.
Settling for the unknown as an act of desperation
By the time Sri Lanka went to polls for the presidential election in 2019, the voter had no credible option to vote for. The incumbent President had proven himself to be such a clown that he on his own will, opted out of the fray. The candidates associated with the yahapalanaya were doomed due to the comedy of errors of their government during its tenure. The key option of the leading opposition candidate had the constitutional impediment of having served two terms. So, they fielded a familial candidate, one with no political exposure, proven qualifications or credible capacity to undertake the onerous task of governing a country. The candidate also faced the constitutional impediment of being a dual citizen. However, in fairness to the candidate, it is possible that he set in motion the process of dual citizen candidates renouncing their foreign citizenship.
Was it a coincidence, or was it all pre-meditated, that he announced his decision to be the next presidential candidate, immediately after the terrorist attack, which he is even accused of being tacitly aware of? Piggy-backing on the failure of the previous government to avert the terrorist attack, an iconic figure was built around him as the saviour of the nation. Playing down the dual citizenship issue, his supporters also played the next trump card of appealing to the polarised Sinhala Buddhists. A vast majority of the Buddhist clergy, quite shamelessly paraded the streets canvassing for him, in an attempt to convince the masses that he was the correct choice. The plan worked with a majority of the Sinhala Buddhists casting their vote in his favour, and the candidate winning with a comfortable majority. At the conclusion of the election he proclaimed that he had won the election on the Sinhala Buddhist vote.
The foregoing paragraph sets the stage for the events that were to follow, the consequences of which the citizens of Sri Lanka are now facing. In a highly irrational move, the President on assuming office, dismantled Rupees 519 billion worth of taxation instruments and gave its benefit to the business community. His priority being to get a pliant parliament elected, he dissolved parliament at the earliest opportunity, despite the onset of the Corona pandemic worldwide. He did not lock-down the country until nominations for the election were concluded, despite the spread of the virus, and lifted the lock-down just in time for the election. These decisions created an unfair advantage to those who had access to the electronic media, and the President’s party won the parliamentary election with a comfortable majority. Similar to the Presidential election, his party was propped up as the saviours of the Sinhala Buddhist, as well as the saviour of the nation from foreign instigated attacks. The act of forcing an election on the people in the face of a pandemic and showing scant respect, not only for the wishes of the people, but for their safety, added to the loss of confidence in the government.
As a first act of disregarding the law, a convicted criminal on the death row was allowed to take oaths in parliament. Soon after a serial murderer lingering in the death row was released on Presidential pardon. A kangaroo court was established in the guise of a Presidential Commission, which recommended the withdrawal of several court proceedings, authorised by the Attorney General and in different stages of hearing. The commission also recommended a ridiculous witch-hunt against several officials involved in investigating and bringing to justice criminals of various hues. Accordingly, the Director of the Criminal Investigations Department was arrested and held under adverse conditions exposing him to the Corona virus. Efforts were made to extract incriminating evidence against him from another police officer, and when the efforts failed, arrested him too and held him under similar adverse conditions.
Not satisfied with the two third majority in parliament, the new government pursued constitutional reforms to further enhance the powers of the President. Accordingly, the 20th amendment was passed providing more powers to the President. The amendment also removed the constraint on dual citizens in contesting for the presidency and seats in parliament. By means of these and other provisions, the 20th amendment opened the door for further politicisation of government activity and blatant breach of the law, and opened the way for anarchy.
Having sacrificed a substantial chunk of tax income to provide benefits to the business community, the government slashed the interest rate on fixed deposits in order to get access to low cost capital for their expenses. In a country that does not provide social security to its senior citizens and 90% of the national workforce being non pensionable, the only source of livelihood for these senior citizens was the income from the investment of their Provident Funds. Slashing that income by 60% has brought the senior citizens to the brink of destitution. Didn’t the hardship caused to them a perversion of justice? This action shows absolute callousness on the part of the government.
The President also resorted to militarising the public service. Military officers have been appointed as Secretaries of ministries, in positions above District Secretaries and as heads of key government departments. In another ill-conceived decision, despite having qualified medical personnel in the country, the handling of the pandemic was entrusted to the Commander of the Army. The aggression shown by military personnel initially when handling infected cases, caused a section of the community to go into hiding when infected, making quarantining impossible, and leading to un-detected growth of the virus. The opportunity was also exploited to deny the Muslim minority their religious burial rites and trumped up charges were brought against some of their political leadership. Further, key personnel disagreeing with the stated position of the government were moved out of their positions, causing fear among public servants to be explicit with their knowledge, in effect denying them their democratic right to free speech.
As a culmination of stories in the grape-wine since the inception of the government, a convicted rapist and murderer was pardoned, together with some other prisoners. Some of them being former LTTE suspects held without trial, their release earned the commendation of the international community, but pardoning the convicted rapist murderer would surely earn their wrath. This action would surely expedite the implementation of the threat by the European Union to withdraw the Generalized System of Preferences+ (GSP+) tax concession, which will cause a significant dent in the foreign exchange earning capacity of the country.
Proposing a swift and full conversion to organic from synthetic fertiliser used in domestic agriculture, the government has taken another hare-brained decision to ban the import of synthetically produced fertiliser. While the concept of moving to organic agriculture is good and worthy of pursuing, worldwide experience is that the change is a long-term process. Countries that spearheaded the conversion as far back as 40 years ago have only reached 10% to 20% conversion at best. By 2019, only 1.5 percent of the world farmland has been farmed organically (The World of Organic Agriculture – Statistics & Emerging Trends 2021), and therefore the change should be seen as a long-term prospect for the country, not one to be carried out instantly.
What the decision makers do not realise is that the issue that has been created is very serious. Before long, it is most certainly going to create a famine in the country. Knowledgeable sources have discussed the seriousness of the issue, but the authorities seem adamant not to retract. It seems those around the leaders are telling the leaders what they prefer to hear, and thereby retain their comfortable positions, rather than state the truth and risk their comfort zone. This issue clearly is interwoven with the leadership style of the present rulers, who pathetically believe that they have a right to carry through their vision, regardless of whether it is in line with the legitimate and rational expectations of the people they lead.
While leadership in general entails the creation of an inspiring vision, vision to create change is through transformational leadership, first proposed by James McGregor Burns. A leader’s vision is successful when he/she is able to inspire the followers with tangible benefits through his/ her proposal and connect them with the people’s individual needs, goals and aspirations, while readily responding to their feed-back. Direction incongruent with such inspiration and response to feed-back are in the final reckoning negative, and doomed for disaster.
This attitude of impunity by the leaders is a consequence of the political culture created with the change from governance by a Prime Minister led cabinet of ministers with shared responsibility, under the Westminster system of governance, to the centralised form of governance created through the executive presidential system. Several successive Presidents have used the powers vested in the office to act unilaterally and some even autocratically since. Therefore, it is not an issue with one leader or another, but a system generated one.
While no leader can be expected to be all-knowing and be capable of handling all issue with equal aplomb, it is only those who have the capacity to delegate and control with equal skill that can survive under this system. However, most incumbents have failed in this area. What most of them have tried to do instead is to make every decision themselves and impose them on the officials. This has led to officials taking their hands off and permitting the president to either swim or sink. As a result, the country has over the last forty years seen a continuous downward trend in all social, economic and other parameters resulting from the failure of the system. Therefore, the only viable solution for the country is to revert to the Westminster system of governance and rule through shared responsibility by a Prime Minister led cabinet. A change of coat every five years is certainly not the solution.
Hupe, Peter and Michael Hill, (2007), Street Level bureaucracy and Public Accountability, Public Administration, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp 279 – 299.
“The World of Organic Agriculture – Statistics & Emerging Trends 2021” (PDF) FiBL and IFOAM. 17 February 2021. p.19. Retrieved 17 February 2021.