Sri  Lankan government in 2017

Sri  Lankan government in 2017

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.

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.