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January 8th: Another Opportunity for Change


by Arjuna and Kshama Ranawana –

For the first time since Mahinda Rajapaksa ascended the Presidency in 2006 he faces a strong threat to his office. This was not the case when he called the election two years before it was due, confident of re-election owing to a deeply fractured opposition.

But that has changed dramatically. Now his own former Health Minister and General Secretary of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena is the consensus opposition contender to the Presidency, completely blindsiding the incumbents plans and providing hope to the country’s opposition.

Regardless of the election result, the struggle for the restoration of democracy and rule of law will begin after January 8th. Many Sri Lankans feel that the country has seen the worst form of corruption and nepotism under this regime and Sirisena’s promise of good governance – under his rule is what seems to be drawing the larger crowds. But will his manifesto magically bring in the much needed reforms?

Sirisena’s candidacy is being backed by a coalition of opposition parties united on just the one issue, and that is to abolish the Presidential system of governance, or at least devolve enough to parliament so that the prime minister becomes the chief executive.

At least one recent survey indicates, that for the average Sri Lankan, the burning issues at the election are not the presidential system per se. Abolishing the presidency ranks tenth in a set of eleven options according to an on-line survey carried out by Social Indicator. For those surveyed, irrespective of ethnicity or geographical location the three most important issues are the cost of living, job opportunities and education.

That says a lot.

While critics may question the methodology of the survey, the result is backed by anecdotal evidence.

The rise of the cost of living, the opposition says is caused by economic mismanagement; massive waste of government resources and widespread corruption. The removal of the few checks and balances that remained, including the Police Commission and a term limit on the Presidency, has given this regime an unprecedented immunity that the opposition says has allowed the family and its hangers-on to pillage at will.

Reports of corruption committed under this Presidency has been trickling out for several years. However, the extent of the pillage of state and natural resources comes through the startling revelations made by members of parliament who have crossed over. According to those allegations the Rajapaksas’ and their coterie of family and close friends have gone on to amass wealth with scant regard to the ordinary man, who may have been happy to disregard those excesses, if their cost of living was at a manageable rate, and they had access to job opportunities and education.

Can the opposition convince Sri Lankans that the presidential system as set up by Mahinda Rajapaksa –has led to income inequality, the destruction of a meritocracy in all fields and high cost of living and other issues that plague ordinary Sri Lankans.

A Maithri victory on January 8th will not be a magic bullet that will cure the country’s many ills. The members of the joint opposition too will have to change their behaviour significantly to bring about much needed reform.

Call us cynical, but we have in the past seen Sri Lankan politicians of all stripes indulge in what the Rajapaksa’s have been engaging in, to various degrees. Some of the holier-than-thou cross-over artistes who have joined the common opposition have done the flip before, and always only in their own interest. Most have skeletons in their cupboards, which an honest police force and an independent judiciary could bring out and find enough material to put many of them behind bars for a long time.

Despite it being public knowledge that all our political parties have corrupt men and women in their ranks no Sri Lankan politician has ever been prosecuted and punished for bribery, corruption or murder or any other serious crime in the country’s history.

So if there is to be true reform there must be key processes.

First there has to be genuine co-operation among the joint opposition to share power. This will be crucial in enacting any meaningful legislation and the rolling back of some of the seriously damaging amendments passed by the Rajapaksa regime.

But will that be possible? Are those who are now backing the common candidate willing to place country before self?

The period 2002-2003 when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunge was president and Ranil Wickremasinghe was prime minister was an unprecedented time in Sri Lanka’s modern history. The French style cohabitation saw the economy growing without the addition of foreign debt. There was a great possibility of a negotiated end to the Eelam war. There was greater freedom of expression, and an explosion of private media. State media attempted to remain neutral most of the time and the court and the police enjoyed some independence to the benefit of the ordinary citizen.

But that did not last because the main actors in the political scene were not willing to share power. Journalists working in Sri Lanka at the time were aware that the UNP government was willing to give several portfolios to the SLFP. They were willing to share and consult on the Ambassadors sent out to various countries. In fact several political appointments made by Kumaranatunge were retained by the UNP government.

Within both parties however, there were nay-sayers. Most were members of Parliament who were used to feeding at the trough, where they could fill their pockets and reward their friends and relations. Several of those who crossed over to the UNP vehemently argued against the sharing of portfolios. One of them described Chandrika as “ the setting sun,” and did not see any need to share power.

The outcome was a return to the hostility and back-biting politics we are so used to and the further erosion of state-structures and the independence of the press, the police and the judiciary. There was a return to war and subsequently the rise of Rajapaksa and the very sorry state of affairs that is now Sri Lanka.

So can these same people learn to share now, even if the Swan wins the race?

Secondly the role of the police and the judiciary will be crucial. There has to be substantial reform. Over the years police officials who carried out the illegal bidding of their political masters have been promoted and given perks over their honest peers. Indeed, the entire government service which has been politicized throughout the years needs to be reformed.

In most cases the very same bureaucrats who sucked up to one government are the first to indicate their willingness to serve their new masters and break the law.

As journalists and activists, we have seen our colleagues assaulted and murdered, by those willing to do their master’s bidding irrespective of who was at the helm.

The judiciary must be made independent. We know from past experience that a Chief Justice who was under a cloud was allowed to continue in his position, even after a change of government.

Media, both State and private need massive reforms, and must be staffed only by professional and ethical journalists. As it stands, anyone with a smattering of good English or Sinhala have received editorships, irrespective of their journalistic capabilities. In state media sycophancy has been rewarded over ability. If democracy is to be restored, safeguards built into the system must be meticulously observed to avoid the future misuse of Rupavahini, ITN and SLBC, government controlled newspapers as well as private media.

Whatever the outcome of the poll, it is clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa has lost the confidence of a sizeable section of the people. But we know for certain that more Rajapaksa years will find the family and other assorted hangers-on believing that the people have endorsed the nepotism, corruption and rank impunity they enjoy, and will carry on as before, or even perhaps in excess of the current behavior.

The profound challenge of true reform looms ahead. January 8th brings another opportunity for that change. Only time will tell whether Sri Lanka’s politicians are genuinely willing to clean out a rotten system!

– Courtesy GroundViews

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