BY Kusal Perera.
On 1 June the President once again addressed the nation on electronic media, perhaps for the fourth time I guess, since assuming office almost one year ago. The President tends to believe, addressing the nation thus, is what “transparency” in governance is.
In his address to the nation this time he said, “I am actively taking steps to regularly present information about our reform and reorganisation programs to the public. I believe that the President should make it an annual ritual to engage with the people and provide updates on our nation’s progress.” The President then says about an annual “Open Day” for the public and speaks about “transparently” sharing the progress of the “Labs” with activities of STFs related to economy “through digital media.” He believes that would “allow the public to observe” implementation of plans and “identify and resolve obstacles along the journey.”
“Transparency and Accountability”
Wonderful fantasy it is. But sadly Sir, this is not what “transparency and accountability” means in governance. The Head of State using his or her discretion to brief people through media does not define “transparency and accountability” in a democracy. “Transparency and accountability” is a living process in a “functional” democracy defined and decided by people’s direct and active participation. It is very much different to “representative democracy” in which procedures become important and leaves nothing for people’s participation in between elections, except protests.
Where does it come from?
This empty democracy is exhibited in how the “road map” announced by the President on 1 June came to be. No one knows how it came to be the official program of this Government. It was not made public for social discourse and was not presented to parliament either. Wonder whether it was discussed in detail and approved by the Cabinet of Ministers.
The “first pillar” in this road map is about “fiscal and financial reforms.” As President said, his Government has “successfully reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regarding fiscal and financial reforms, which received approval from Parliament.” But, let me stress this. Fiscal and financial reforms were not presented to parliament in detail for approval. Most importantly it was not the whole IMF agreement that was presented to parliament either. Parliament approving a summary of the IMF agreement has little to do with democracy.
“Four pillars” is a 45 old story
The “road map” announced was also never presented to the parliament, leave alone for public discourse though it is now publicly presented by the President giving it “official” recognition. Ironically in what was announced by the President with “four pillars” there is not anything different to what has been implemented during the past 45 years, except for few cosmetic proposals like labs, STFs and the Presidential Delivery Bureau (PDB).
What is South Korea?
The second pillar about an investment drive, has nothing new except the promise to call the “private sector” for “their own business proposals that align with our vision of modernisation and sustainability” as the President said. President again says he “will ensure transparency and openness by publicising this “call for proposals through mass media” in a formal manner. That again is not transparency in governance. For any semblance of transparency, business proposals received should be made public. That ignored completely, comes the promise to make Sri Lanka as prosperous as Singapore and South Korea.
Also to say, we should achieve the development that South Korea has achieved, only means we should strive for a society with massive disparities than what we already have.
Singapore is the most irrelevant model to copy for our “development”. I have said before, Lee Kuan Yew would have been a terrific failure if he was in Sri Lanka. Singapore was a “City” that was turned into a “State” for trading. It had no large and complex rural society with ancient feudal trappings as in Sri Lanka. Rural land owned by Buddhist clergy from feudal times to still active caste divisions and a plantation industry with bonded labour was unknown to Singapore. There was no Buddhist clergy that dictate political decisions as we have since colonial times and before. Such tangled complexities were wholly absent in the Singapore that Lee Kuan Yew took charge of.
Also to say, we should achieve the development that South Korea has achieved, only means we should strive for a society with massive disparities than what we already have. South Korea the fourth largest economy in Asia meant very little to 43.4% of the elderly population who suffer from “relative” poverty according to the OECD Pension Report 2021. In 2022, the top 10% of households in South Korea owned about 43% of total household net worth, while households in the lowest wealth decile owned minus 0.2%. Providing employment as “trainee apprentices” to poor neighbouring countries is “modern day slavery” in S. Korea, little different to bonded labour brought to “Ceylon” by the Britishers. It is ridiculous to even think we should achieve such status.
The third pillar on “social protection and governance” reads like a script for a “black comedy” with “lab methodology” to “address social safety net concerns,” and a “special task force established to combat corruption across all sectors” that emphasises accountability via modern techniques such as digitisation.” This is akin to promising “tabs” to schools, where thousands do not have water and toilets. We could safely assume, these “labs” and “STFs” will have political and personal loyalists packed in them with the likes of “experts and specialists” now frequenting the presidential secretariat at heavy cost for people.
The final pillar is about transformation of State Owned Enterprises (SOE). There is no denying the fact that SOEs fail due to politicising the whole management under politicos as ministers. That not accepted, there is no clear mention of the transformation process put in place. Opening the transformation process for public debate and discourse has been completely ruled out when President said, “We have already initiated the preparation of a restructuring plan for public enterprises.” Whoever this “we” would be.
No public scrutiny
Public discourse and public participation is being subtly duplicated to a “public engagement” as mentioned in the beginning to an “Open Day.” They are mere procedures with dubious labels and with no defining of responsibilities and roles. There is no mention as to who creates and constitutes these “labs” and “STFs”. Who will be responsible for collating and deciding on business proposals called for that will not be made public. Also, who would finally decide on SOE transformation, again left outside public discourse and then the PDB for co-ordination of all plans as well.
None of them will provide access for public scrutiny but would be additional expenditure in millions of Rupees for indirect and direct taxpayer. These proposals would remain as hollow procedural schemes, colourful to begin with but fading off sooner than expected. “Procedures” that deny people’s active participation in “representative democracy” do not gain anything of worth with mere rhetoric in a heavily corrupt political economy.
The best example of such failed “representative democracy” in a free market economy is this elected parliament. Though elected by the people the parliament does not remain with or retain the political representation the people decide at elections. Once elected, all MPs go on their own. They do not represent the people who elected them. Nor do political parties. Simple example of MPs and political parties ignoring the people’s mandate when elected, is their call for a “National” government in the present parliament. No political party ever promised the people they would go for a “National” government if elected.
If they believe the political context has changed that now demands a “National” government, the LSSP has left a political precedent to follow. In 1964, the LSSP went through a massive discourse within their party with three written resolutions, on the issue of coalescing with the SLFP government of Madam Bandaranaike. That led to the Edmund Samarakkody, Karalasingham and TU leader Pelis Serasinghe faction breaking off from the LSSP when their resolution was defeated at the special party convention held to decide on a “coalition”.
In a “functional” democracy the most important factor is “democratic space” for People’s direct participation in planning their own development, making decisions and monitoring.
With no such discussions in political parties, we see crossovers to the opposition and to government. Those crossing over to government immediately swearing in as ministers. It was that deformed and eroded people’s representation in parliament which voted for this summarised form of an unknown IMF agreement and also previously elected the Presidential replacement on constitutionally accepted procedure. This is precisely how “procedural representative democracy” turns out as an unexplainable yet accepted farce.
Far different to all that, in a “functional” democracy the most important factor is “democratic space” for People’s direct participation in planning their own development, making decisions and monitoring. Thus a functional democracy with structured people’s participation from bottom to top in every governing tier, does not require the Head of State to “brief people” as he or she wishes. “Plans” are not documents made somewhere else by vested interests unknown to society for the Head of State to make it a “ritual” to present a summary of what he or she would wish people to know.
Let me conclude by saying, all proposed appendages labelled as exotic procedures to this distorted and deformed procedural representative democracy would only make it more expensive to the people and less worthy than what it is today for society. Often such procedures lead to more kleptocratic regimes, again in the name of “People’s development” the people would not know.
( This article was first published in the Daily FT)