Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
In the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s local government elections, a weary sense of resignation weighs heavier in the scales than lingering (if not hopeless) optimism. As President Maithripala Sirisena dons white and is back again to his accustomed role of preaching morality and the virtues of good living to the restive populace, the fire breathing persona in blue promising to spearhead a new corruption fight on the election platforms a month ago appears to have disappeared not with a bang but with the proverbial whimper.
Extraordinary failure of political competency
On their part, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his band of now not-so-merry men protest that the warnings given by the electorate earlier this month will be taken to heart. A senior ministerial committee of the United National Party will present recommendations for policy reforms which will be discussed with its coalition partner to ensure unanimity and then swiftly implemented.
These are mind numbingly familiar terms emanating from the lips of the Prime Minister, committees, policy reforms, so on and so forth. When these words are heard in the public mainstream, sardonic chuckles ensue. It is this palpable absence of public faith that the coalition Government must overcome. Both the President and the Prime Minister are put to the stern test in terms of delivering more than the endless stream of political rhetoric, now hinged apparently on the musical chair games of changing the Cabinet. Who in this Cabinet actually commands public confidence? What is the point of changing portfolios when the same discredited faces circulate in nauseatingly slow motion rather like that dreaded nightmare from which one wakes up in a petrified state?
From the cosy corners of Colombo, there is no point preaching good governance and the Rule of Law to a potato farmer in the Uva province whose family is starving or to desperate paddy cultivators in the North Central province stricken by drought. The utterly inept handling of the portfolio of Agriculture by President Sirisena’s protégé in the Cabinet says a lot for the determination (or the absence thereof) of both to redress the plight of their own constituencies. It was an extraordinary failure of political competency, more so given that public anger had been visible for months previously. So there must be concrete change in the way that the Government is run. But none of that is discernible so far. This is why the public await future action with resignation uppermost in its collective mindset and the Rajapaksa lobby salivates in the wings.
The return of the Rajapaksas
A good friend of mine who disagreed vociferously regarding the strong critiques featured in these columns after the ‘yahapalanaya’ victory was secured in 2015, based his fears on the possibility that ‘Mahinda may come back’, if public scrutiny of the coalition government was too harsh at the inception. My counter to that was that, if constant vigilance over the Government was not maintained, that would lead to precisely that same result.
Three years later, that possibility if not probability has now reared its head in a ferocious show of defiance, surprising only the supremely naïve. And let us not forget that it was precisely in the honeymoon period of ‘the inception’ that the first bond fraud occurred at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). It says much for the manipulations of those in power that this fraud was engineered scarce before the bloom had faded from the promises held out at Independence Square that Sri Lanka will take genuine steps towards ridding itself of the horrors of a murderous, corrupt past.
Cynical power games continued, aided and abetted by once strident critics of the Rajapaksas who suddenly turned to purring cheerleaders of the coalition Government despite the fact that many points of controversy had uncanny similarities. One example was the Government’s effort to bring in a new counter-terror law which was worse than the existing public security and prevention of terrorism statutes. Even now, there is apparently a new draft that has been finalized but the public is kept in the dark while in all likelihood, this has already been shared with western missions. Is this how governance is conducted? Will this Government never learn?
A grotesque subversion of the right to vote
And this allegation of a lack of accountability in governance swings both ways. There are many who are of the view that the commonly known Commission of Inquiry into the Treasury Bond issuance at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) should never have been appointed and that in doing so, the President focused public attention on the UNP for which the coalition paid a high electoral price. But that is a misapprehension of the most serious kind. The logic therein is indeed akin to saying (absurdly) that an investigation should not take place in regard to a serious crime given the danger that the robber could be identified.
However the allegation leveled against the President that he took action in respect of this scandal only at a point that it became politically expedient for him to do so and that the act of appointing the Commission was part of a deliberate scheme to gain political capital out of the fiasco remains to be answered. In any event, the result of the February elections was an unequivocal reprimand to both parties that the public is not impressed by these political games. But how many electoral lessons are to be meted out to Sri Lanka’s irrepressible politicians, which they never seem to quite grasp?
In a grotesque subversion of the right to vote, the only thing that elections seem to accomplish these days is to allow the country to get handed over from one group of crooks to yet another, both of whom take turns at robbing the public coffers but get off scot free as they are safeguarded by each other. Each so-called ‘victory’ that is seemingly won at these elections is ephemeral. In January 2015, the rainbow revolution petered out into dismal quarrels though some strides in the improvement of the Rule of Law were evidenced. In February 2018, the strong showing of the Rajapaksas can only thrill those with lamentably short memories of what happened during that ‘decade of darkness.’
Where redemption lies
Right now, effective action based on the Commission of Inquiry report in to the CBSL Treasury Bond issuance is high on the list of imperatives for this Government. Two scapegoats disappearing into the murky depths of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system does not suffice to meet the public call for justice. It is on this along with a range of other factors, that the ‘yahapalayana’ Government was rightly judged.
And it is on these legitimate points of concern that it must redeem itself, if redemption is yet achievable in the public domain.