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FeaturesSri Lanka:After going round in circles in 2016, which way(s) will the government go in 2017?

Sri Lanka:After going round in circles in 2016, which way(s) will the government go in 2017?

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by Rajan Philips.

Even the most ardent supporters of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government would have been disappointed with the government’s performance in 2016, and many of them would be hoping for some positive turnarounds in the New Year that is just starting. The government’s meandering ways over the last two years are arguably the result of the mismatch between the unique expectations that were created and confirmed by the 2015 January presidential election, on the one hand, and the peculiar composition of government that took office after the election, on the other. After initially emerging as a minority government, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe (S-W) government was expanded following the August 2015 parliamentary election to include a sizable chunk of the SLFP that was defeated in both the January and the August elections. This ‘peculiar’ composition would seem to have affected the government’s ability to satisfactorily meet the people’s expectations raised at the January 2015 election.

Manifestly, there has been a lack of cohesion and unity among the government’s constituent parts and its leaders – in regard to specific commitments, their priorities and even the overall direction(s) of the government. Whether the S-W government can make positive turnarounds in 2017 and the years following will depend on whether and how the government addresses these anomalies. As I am not the first or the only person to raise and address this question, I will summarize here three seemingly representative viewpoints on the matter as backdrop to my own argument.

The first viewpoint is complacent about the prospects of the S-W government successfully muddling through not only this year but also its full term in spite of its internal contradictions, but pulled together by the apparently impregnable determination of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to hang together and see their term through, no matter what. In this view, the government will certainly not meet all of its expectations, and may not meet even many of them, but will achieve whatever that is possible while forestalling the efforts of the Rajapaksas and the Joint Opposition to topple the government.

The second viewpoint is combatively opposed to the first, predicts on a weekly basis the unravelling of the government over this or that matter, and bullishly expects the return of the Rajapaksas to power. The basis for this bullishness is not astrology, but something worse: that it is Sri Lanka’s turn for staging its own version of Brexit and Trumpism. The stupidity of this viewpoint notwithstanding, we should take note of it because it does exist and is fuelled by that most inexhaustible energy source in politics: Ignorance.

The third viewpoint falls between the first two, and is more focussed on the internal workings, or non-working, of the S-W government. Even though the President and the Prime Minister are not at all antagonistic to each other and are fully committed to preserving their personally cordial political partnership, they seem to avoid confronting difficult issues together until they become unavoidable. This creates the space for the UNP and the SLFP factions in the cabinet to pull in different directions, or work at cross-purposes, with the SLFP playing the junior partner and acting mischievously without responsibility, and leaving the UNP as the senior partner sulking and hand-wringing. It is also the apparent thinking in UNP circles that the government bureaucracy has become incorrigibly corrupt and inefficient at all levels; and hence the reliance on a cabal of individual ministers and a coterie of doddering old outside advisors to make and implement decisions, now culminating in the controversial Development (Special Provisions) Bill. Add to all this, the hidden and not so hidden links the Rajapaksas have to both the UNP and the SLFP factions in the cabinet and the government. The government as a whole is blatantly double-faced: attack the Rajapaksas politically for public consumption, but protect them legally as friends in need and friends indeed.

Expectations and Contestations

Historically, the 2015 presidential election was quite different from Sri Lanka’s earlier elections in that the economic question, usually involving unemployment and cost-of-living, was not the central issue. Absent also was the strong ideological (left vs right) divide that was the touchstone of the 1970, 1977, and even the 1994 elections. The 2015 presidential election was everything about defeating an incumbent government over its abuse of power and family bandyism, and on account of widespread allegations of government corruption. The people by and large were disgusted with the spread of crony corruption and family bandyism that the Rajapaksas had become notorious for in their last five years in office. The people wanted not only a formal change in government, but also a real change in the style and substance of governance.

This desideratum was expressed through the slogans: ‘good governance’ and ‘yahapalanaya’. The slogans were not empty rhetoric. They represented the people’s unmistakable expectation of the new government – to rapidly investigate the serious allegations of corruption against the previous government, indict those accused of corruption in accordance with the law, and to demonstrably eliminate and avoid any form of corruption in future. Encompassing these expectations was the concerted campaign to abolish the presidential system altogether or, at the least, significantly trim down the presidential powers especially those that were unconscionably grabbed by the Rajapaksa regime through the 18th Amendment.

The 2015 January election was also historic for another reason. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s electoral history, the principal Tamil political party, the TNA, and the main parties representing the Muslims were in alliance with the main political parties of the Sinhalese – the UNP, the breakaway section of the SLFP led by Maithripala Sirisena with the support of Chandrika Kumaratunga, the JVP and the JHU. They were all part of the common opposition united in spearheading the people’s desire for a change in government. This electoral unity was also symptomatic of a broad expectation that with a new government in place there would be a fundamental change in the approach to achieving national reconciliation. But beneath this overarching consensus, specific details about national reconciliation carried different meanings, emphases and endorsements in different parts of the country and among different sections of the population.

There were three broad expectations among the Tamils in regard to national reconciliation and each one of them generated a different response among others. First was the humanitarian expectation – that the new government would provide systematic humanitarian relief and set up the foundation for empowering war-affected people to restore normalcy in their own areas. The second expectation was in regard to war crimes investigation. While it is true that all accredited and self-accredited Tamil organizations in Sri Lanka and overseas have been uniformly voluble in regard to war-crimes investigation, it may not be equally true that every Tamil living in the northern and eastern provinces gives equal importance to humanitarian redress and war crimes investigation. Equally as well, the Tamil expectations over war crimes investigation are highly contested by significant sections of the Sinhalese people. And it is the question over war crimes that gave cause to western governments to slap the Rajapaksa government with a hostile UNHRC resolution in Geneva.

A third area of expectations among the Tamils, especially the TNA, was in regard to enhancing and streamlining the powers and functions of provincial governments. While the Thirteenth Amendment provided the framework for power sharing between Colombo and the provinces, its implementation in general and particularly in the northern and eastern provinces has been far from satisfactory. At the same time, there was acknowledgement that changes to the provincial system of government should address not only Tamil concerns, but also the concerns of the Muslims and the Sinhalese in the Eastern Province and those of the Plantation Tamils in the Central Province.

Another unique aspect of the January 2015 presidential election was the heightened emphasis on environmental protection and the manifestation of professional frustrations over technically amateurish and financially questionable methods used by the Rajapaksa government in identifying and selecting infrastructure/development projects and awarding contracts for their implementation. During the election campaign, specific projects such as the Port City project were singled out by environmental stakeholders for significant reconsideration or outright cancellation by the new government. Similarly, extensive information was made available by professional experts on the cost-overruns associated with highway projects.

Exposing and ending corruption, enabling good governance, eliminating the insufferable powers of the presidency, embarking on a steady path towards national reconciliation, and enforcing environmental protection and professional standards in selecting and implementing mega projects – these then were the main expectations that made the January 2015 presidential election a uniquely historic election both in regard to the circumstances in which the election was held and in regard to the consequences that have flowed and could (yet) flow from it. These expectations should now be the metrics, or yardstick, for assessing the S-W government’s performance so far and for indicating the possibilities ahead.

Government composition and performance

Before making any assessment, we should also note that just as the 2015 election was unprecedented in regard to issues and expectations it was also unlike any other in the formation of electoral alliances and in the formation of government after an election. While the common opposition parties in January 2015 were united and single minded in their goal of defeating President Rajapaksa in the presidential election, they did not by any measure constitute a political alliance – like the Common-Programme driven United Front of 1970, the banyan tree of a political organization that was the UNP in 1977, or the aspirational and charismatically led (by Chandrika Kumaratunga) People’s Alliance movement of 1994. I would note that the 1988 and 2005 presidential elections were oddities, in that they were staged successions in government (with the LTTE playing its tilting hand in both) and not electoral victories from the opposition.

There was no unanimous agreement among common opposition parties in 2015 on a number of the expectations I have been highlighting. For example, there was no agreement over the abolishment of the presidency, or the undertaking of war crimes investigation. But there was absolute unanimity in regard to exposing and ending corruption in government. The Prime Minister also went on record assuring that the Port City project will be abandoned. The 100-Day Program that was the manifesto of the Common Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena included specific initiatives for enabling good governance. Although, national reconciliation did not figure prominently in the election campaign, there was no mistaking the positive understanding the TNA had with almost every one of the opposition parties.

Compounding this lack of agreement on specific expectations was the ‘peculiar’ composition of the S-W government. Although the January 2015 election was ‘only’ a presidential election, the first act of Maithripala Sirisena as new President was to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe, the then Leader of the Opposition, as Prime Minister. Thus a new minority-UNP government was formed, quietly displacing the then existing SLFP-majority government. Although this switch involving the pre-election government and opposition parties was rather unconventional, it was very much in keeping with the people’s verdict in the presidential election. The switch would have become even more validated if the new government had kept its focus upon delivering on the specific expectations that emerged during the campaign.

Instead, the President and the Prime Minister became focussed on expanding the size of the government in parliament rather than delivering on what the people were expecting them to do. The unexpected transfer of the leadership of the SLFP from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Maithripala Sirisena created many problems for the functioning of the new government without solving any of the problems facing the SLFP. It became quite clear that this eventuality had not been anticipated or thought through by the common opposition leaders, especially the so called troika of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. The August 2015 parliamentary election, which led to the formation of the so called national-unity government of the UNP and a significant section of the SLFP, further widened the gap between the S-W government and the people’s expectations as expressed in the January presidential election. How do we explain this seemingly bizarre and surreal gap?

Missteps and Next Steps

One clue to explaining the ‘gap’ is in assessing how single minded were the President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in exposing and ending corruption in government and in laying the foundation for good governance? Looked at it this way, the gap is really between the unmistakable clarity of the people’s principal expectation and the lack of single mindedness on the part of the two leaders to keep faith with that expectation. Of the two leaders, it could be said that President Sirisena given his defection from the Rajapaksa regime had the stronger motivation to be single minded on the matter of exposing corruption and abolishing the presidential system. But after literally a flying start, the new President got bogged down in all the tomfooleries of SLFP parliamentarians who wanted to two-time between the new president and their old boss.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is more complicated for easy deciphering. Acclaimed for his personal honesty, intelligence as well as his stubborn streak, he is also known to frustrate even his admirers by his apparent reluctance to hold others in the government and cabinet to the same standards of honesty and probity that he is known for. This was a criticism against him during his Premiership of 2001-2004, and the same criticism has surfaced again now, the intervening 2015 presidential election notwithstanding. It may be that he considers government corruption a fact of Sri Lankan political life and that his energies could be better utilized to serve the people by boosting economic development rather than policing incorrigible colleagues. It would also seem that he has lost faith in the behemoth of a government bureaucracy to do anything and so his preference to rely on personals confidantes to run the government.

Whatever justification such thinking might have in normal times, I would respectfully suggest that it has no justification in the extraordinary circumstances of the January 2015 presidential election and its expectations. Even though the election was not about the ‘economy’ as I have been suggesting, the Prime Minister as is his wont, it must be said in fairness, did project his economic vision during the presidential election campaign. It was also included in the 100-Day program. The PM’s emphasis on the economy figured even more prominently in the August parliamentary election. The UNP/UNF Manifesto, “New Country in 60 Days”, projected a five-point plan: Strengthening the Economy; Eradication of Bribery and Corruption; Establishing Freedom and Democracy; Investment for Infrastructure Development; and Education.

And the PM went further and called the 60-Day promise, not a manifesto but a Development Plan presented to receive the people’s mandate. This was a problematic stretch then and it has remained problematic since. For the PM now uses this ‘mandate’, which he rhapsodizes as the ‘mandate to create a million jobs’, to lash out at even constructive critics who pick on the devilish details of government actions on every major file – free trade with every country, resurrecting the Port City, re-leasing Hambantota, launching the Megapolois, and so on.

Prof. Kumar David, if I remember right, tried to scale down the PM’s ambitious target: forget one million jobs; even 1000 of them in key productive areas would be something. To the point of this article, the people’s expectations are not so much about jobs, one million or one thousand, but about not 100, not 10, but at least one solitary case involving significant government corruption that is successfully tried in court. Everyone is still waiting, and after two years in making some of the cabinet ministers are reportedly considering Special Commissions for trying corruption cases. At the government’s snail pace on these matters, it could be another two years before any such commission came into operation.

The same goes for trying to by-pass government bureaucracy by outsourcing decision making and enacting special legislations for fast-tracking development approvals. For this approach is a clear repudiation of the good governance expectations and promises. There will be no good governance without the hard work of reforming, restructuring and streamlining the bureaucracy. What is the point in giving pay hikes and perks to government staffers and MPs if they cannot be relied upon and trained to do a job of work? Additionally, the UNP’s economic plan based on Western Province Megapolis and a plethora (89 according to the Development Plan) of regional zones, has no place in it for Provincial Councils. Why have these, if the entire development is going to be delivered through a Super Ministry in Colombo? How is this different from what Basil Rajapaksa was getting ready to do before January 2015, except the presumption that this time it would be cleaner hands?

The government’s biggest misstep, certainly in hindsight even though it may not have been apparent to many people when it started, has been its monkeying with the Central Bank. And the government does not seem to have learnt anything from that experience going by the cheap put shots the Prime Minster and the Finance Minister have been taking at the new Governor of the Central Bank after stubbornly trying to protect the disgraced former Governor from being discontinued at the end of his limited term. When the controversy started, I remember being startled by the comment of one of UNP’s promisisng young hopes, that the government was not concerned about the fuss over the then governor and the bond scam because it was only a Colombo fuss that had no reception outside the capital. Later, it apparently transpired among UNPers that the bank scandal cost them the majority government in August 2015. From the standpoint of the January 2015 election, the Central Bank fiasco was a total and absolute betrayal of what the people were expecting from the S-W government and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

The second and the third missteps together were the re-nomination of proven degenerates from among both the UNP and the SLFP MPs to run as candidates in the August 2015 election, and the appointment of more than half them to the Rajapaksa-sized cabinet after the election. In fairness, the President and the Prime Minister did offer some explanation for these shortcomings at the Ravaya anniversary celebration. But the question is whether the two leaders even jointly talked about doing things differently in light of the people’s expectations in January 2015. The unwieldy size of the cabinet is also a contributor to the widening gap between the people’s expectations and the government composition. The cabinet needs to be big enough for the government to have close to a two-thirds majority, but the government has so far passed nothing requiring the special majority except for the 19th Amendment and the two budgets, although budgets do not require special majorities.

In other areas, the constitution, electoral reform and national reconciliation, government leaders have been positive and supportive of progressive changes, but there is no certainty as to how much of these changes will eventually be legislated and implemented. On contentious issues, the government speaks through multiple voices and sends multiple signals. Even cabinet ministers cavalierly make conflicting public statements. Earlier this week, the Local Government and Provincial Council Minister made a public show of rejecting the report on the delimitation of local government constituencies because all the members of the delimitation committee apparently had not signed on to it. And on Friday, the Minister of Justice casually trashed the entire report of the Constitutional Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms on the grounds that the Task Force included NGOs. In other words, the government of National Unity has no internal unity. And there is as much to be reconciled inside the government, as there is in the country at large.

To end on the historical note that I started with, despite the lack of internal unity and cohesion, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government is not weighed down by the powerful political and personality differences that marred the 1970-77 United Front Government, or the hemorrhaging succession struggles that afflicted the 1977-1994 UNP government. President Sirsiena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have no internal challengers and have all the necessary control over government members. The question is how single-mindedly committed are they to marshal their government forces to deliver on the hopes and expectations that the people placed on them in the January 2015 presidential election.

Courtesy of the Island.

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