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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2704

Sri Lanka: Sirisena’s experiment is bound to retard democracy, not advance it

By Raj Gonsalkorale

A new ministry with 90 ministers (48 cabinet ministers, 19 Ministers of State and 23 Deputy Ministers) has taken over the running of the government along with an Executive President who is also the head of the government.

Those who vociferously and rightly criticized previous jumbo ministries are more or less silent now and accepting of this jumbo cabinet as it is supposed to represent the cabinet of a national government, although clearly, it is not a national government and simply a coalition government between the party that received the majority of seats at the last election, and a section of the political grouping that won the next highest number of seats.

Although the UPFA garnered some 5 million votes and were 9 seats shy of the UNP, the President has effectively scuttled the Opposition, a key element and a bastion in democratic governance.

While the President calls this an experiment of initially two years to change the confrontational ethos of party politics in Sri Lanka, which he says has contributed to Sri Lanka’s inability to move forward economically and socially, has contributed to the negative perceptions about politicians in the country, and also contributed to the impasse in regard to finding a solution to the national question aka the ethnic issue revolving around the Tamil community, there is much skepticism whether his experiment is the answer to the problem he says exists.

There is also concern whether the experiment will cause a further setback to the very issues he has highlighted as contributing to the problems identified.

Before examining whether the skepticism is justified or not, it is useful to consider them in a contextual framework.

Firstly, it is true and few will deny that political confrontation has at times gone beyond democratic bounds, and beyond what one might refer to as bounds of decency.

In a country that boasts of a 2600 year history, rich in religious and cultural traditions, the behavior of some politicians and their followers has been anything but decent, let alone democratic. It has simply been despicable.

However, such indecent behavior has not been and should not be confined to the physical behavior of some, but also to the cerebral behavior of some in high positions who at times have chosen dubious and questionable means to achieve some ends which in their opinion have been “for the greater good” of the Nation.

Compromising on basic principles of decency by leaders has set precedents and has acted as examples to followers, some of who have expressed their opinions emotionally often ending in physical confrontations.

The point here is that some politicians and leaders amongst them have contributed to the physically confrontational nature of politics and this has replaced meaningful discussion and debate on policy issues, essential for good democratic governance.

Politicians who belong to various political parties should subscribe to party rules and regulations, and if such rules are weak, and they allow persons belonging to the lowest common denominator to assume senior positions within the party and bring disrepute to the party and the country, such rules and regulations should be strengthened in the first place and dubious characters weeded out before they can move to higher positions like cabinet, State or deputy ministerial positions.

The skepticism arises from the fact that some amongst the very same cabal of politicians who brought disrepute to the notion of good governance, who had been accused of corruption, have ended up as cabinet, State or as Deputy Ministers and appointed to demonstrate to the rest of the country how to conduct good governance and change the ethos of confrontational politics.

It would have been too much to ask of the President and these politicians to demonstrate even a modicum of honour and agree to a broad policy statement with the party that received the highest number of seats at the election, the UNP, and allow them to form a government, and for the party that failed to win, the UPFA, to sit in the Opposition, and hold the UNP accountable to the agreed policy statement.

After all, the voters did not give a mandate to the President or the UPFA to enter into a coalition government as no such mandate was sought at the election. The UNP won a mandate as the single largest party in Parliament to form a government, and the President should have called upon the leader of the UNP, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe to form a government with those who he wished to form a government in order to secure the absolute majority he needed, rather than forcing him to accept rejects from the UPFA.

The fact that the President took this stand leads one to speculate his own intentions and how honorable they were as what he has cobbled together is a patchwork coalition and not a national government as he chooses to call it. Irrespective of what might be the constitutional definition of a national government, what it means to the ordinary people of the country is that a national government is a government comprising of all the parties represented in the Parliament, and not a few members of one party and the party that won the majority of seats in parliament.

The President chose to offer inducements to some of his own party men and women, many voters now seeing these inducements as nothing but bribes, to carry out his experiment of cohabitation and co governance. By precipitating this cohabitation with those who he and others implicitly or explicitly alluded to as rogues at one time, makes the President dishonorable as well, and puts into question whether he has done this “for the greater good of the country” experiment for its sake or for some other reason.

As mentioned before, many also feel that in a multiparty system, the cleansing exercise has to first occur within the parties themselves, and that unless this is done, it would produce the same muck as before, and the intention of good governance becoming nothing but opportunistic self-indulgence, with more of the same and even worse.

While the progress Sri Lanka made on the economic and social front are with their warts, it cannot be denied there has been progress over the years, and it cannot be denied this progress has been considerable in the last 5 years.

Ironically much of the progress has been achieved in a period where the last regime has been accused of graft and corruption, breakdown in law and order, authoritarianism, and general lack of good governance.

While not condoning acts of bad governance, many do wonder whether lack of visionary leadership combined with the inability to address the armed conflict with the LTTE terrorists had more to do with lack of economic and social progress than confrontational politics.

If one takes the period of the armed conflict from 1980, there are only two executive Presidents still around, with one having had that opportunity for 12 years to end the conflict and chart a vision for the country, and the other, a similar opportunity for 10 years.

The latter ended the armed conflict and embarked on a visionary goal for the country, and judging by several economic indicators accepted internationally, delivered substantial progress on several fronts left to lag behind by the former who now has become the number one critic of the latter.

Skeptics do wonder whether this reeking antagonism has more to do with a personal vendetta against a person who succeeded where the other failed, than any real desire for good governance and ending confrontational politics. The recent inappropriate and vituperative comments made by this former President about the other former President to an Indian newspaper seem to prove the point that the antagonism is on account of a personal vendetta and not any other lofty goal. Washing dirty linen in public, especially internationally, is not a hallmark of a Statesperson, and does not set an example at the highest levels about ending confrontational politics.

There is much criticism about the quality and conduct of some Sri Lankan politicians. Rightly so. However, what is overlooked is that the quality of some Sri Lankan politicians in a sense represents the quality of some who vote for them. If the voters are not discerning enough to identify the decent from the indecent, the corrupt from the honest and the visionary from the stark opportunist, they will naturally get what they wish for, or as some would say, what they deserve.

The disposition, behavior and the persona of politicians could well be described as that of those who they represent, and throw open the question as to who preceded whom, the voter or the politician, a typical Chicken or the Egg question. The voters are obviously influenced by the good behavior of politicians as well as the bad behavior of politicians. The vituperative and personal vendetta politics of a former President who is now influencing or as some would say, directing all major decisions being taken by the current President, does not set an example to the voters down the chain to end confrontational politics.

They are also influenced by the inducements thrown at them, and it is an open secret that the inducements being thrown today have no bounds. The talk in town today is how much it costs to buy politicians, not whether they can be bought.

The final point made to justify the formation of a national government which is not a national government is that it is necessary to find a solution to the so called national question.

Here too it is ironic that those who had an opportunity to find a solution for 30 years are now criticising the person who eventually paved the way and created an environment to find a negotiated outcome to the issue. It is unfortunate that politicians within and without, foreign governments and international agencies have not acknowledged the advances made to address some of the issues relating to the national question in the last 5 years.

The progressive implementation of the 13th Amendment had begun and a provincial administrations elected by the people of the Northern and Eastern provinces has been put in place. While far from perfect, the fact that this had been achieved within 2 years of ending the war has to be acknowledged as progress. A trilingual language policy has been introduced and determined efforts are being made to implement the official language policy. Whatever constitutional impediments that impacted on ensuring equality of all races and religions has addressed.

The platform where communities are is different to where they were when the ethnic confrontation began. While many implementation issues need addressing, the structure within which this can be done is in place contrary to the hue and cry that there is a national question that needs addressing. Changing the goal posts of the so called national question does not help in finding ways and means to move forward, and many feel that the ongoing strategy of some Tamil activists and their national and international supporters is in fact to move the goal posts forward all the time, and as some would say, push the envelope further and further until the real goal of these activists, a separate State for Tamils in the North and East is achieved.

Even if this issue is termed a national question, it is unlikely and it is fundamentally wrong, to leave those in parliament to find a solution to it as their confrontational nature, their dubious character and their allegiance to inducement rather than what is justice and fair play for all communities, makes them ill-suited and ill equipped to address the national question. It needs to be taken out of their hands and left in the hands of civil society leaders, religious and community leaders and the general public to find a solution outside the framework of party politics.

The skepticism that is heavy in the air today is on account of all of above and even more that has not been covered here. The Presidents experiment has no fundamental basis and it can only perpetuate what is sick in the Sri Lankan society. What might work is for political parties to strengthen their internal rules so that what they produce as politicians will be of better quality and for political parties to undertake decision making processes through consultation and approval of their party membership, and not through central committees packed with cronies of the party leaders.

There is hardly any democracy in many political parties and this is what has seeped upwards to leaders and governments with the result that the country has ended up as an oxymoronic democratic authoritarian State.

The skeptics feel that the Presidents experiment is like a plaster on a wound, that it’s not going to heal the underlying reasons for the wound and that it will not advance democracy or good governance.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lanka: Sirisena’s experiment is bound to retard democracy, not advance it
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