Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
These days, it seems that President Maithripala Sirisena lights matches with relish, igniting political fireworks that go off virtually every day of the week in a dazzling display of verbal pyrotechnics. Mostly aimed at the United National Party (UNP) his squirming coalition partner in Sri Lanka’s governing ‘unity’ alliance, these onslaughts send the media scurrying in delight and cause intense discomfiture to dwindling and demoralized ‘yahapalanaya’ believers.
But the question is as to how much of this is pure showmanship aimed at the upcoming local government elections?
Challenging party leaders
On the face of it, the President’s anger is underpinned by solid factors. His challenge to party leaders on Thursday, to debate the two Presidential Commission reports detailing major financial scams implicating the country’s two political parties before the Local Government elections on 10th February this year had all the hallmarks of classic theatre to it.
One Commission of Inquiry Report related to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) treasury bond issuance in 2015 and 2016 implicated the Prime Minister’s handpicked appointee for the Governor of the Central Bank and the Governor’ son-in-law, the head of Perpetual Treasuries. Alleged fraud and corruption of a similar nature from 2008 (before the Commission’s mandated period of inquiry) causing massive losses to the Employees Provident Fund was also recommended to be investigated. The irreparable damage to the country’s premier financial watchdog by these disclosures will take a very long time to repair, if at all, regardless of any number of ‘internal actions’ or forensic audits that may be initiated.
As observed in these column spaces previously, the ‘cover-up’ of the scandal by the ruling UNP was as bad as the impugned transactions themselves. This sorry saga stands completely at odds with the Prime Minister’s (surely tongue-in-the-cheek) injunction this week that his party was like a ‘glass mirror’ in its adherence to transparency. This may be too much to swallow even for its die-hard loyalists apt to dismiss the ‘bond scam’ with flippant waves of their hands.
Systemic thievery and the public purse
Equally disquietingly, the second Report by the tongue twistingly named Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption, Abuse of Power, State Resources, and Privileges (PRESIFAC) related to several gigantic frauds of the previous regime benefitting corrupt politicians and Rajapaksa acolytes of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) including members of the entertainment industry.
The loss to the public purse from the sum total of this systemic thievery is colossal, literally boggling the imagination as it were. Both Reports were released at the same time though the President has, with some reason, dispensed with the snide allegation that the dual release was anything more than purely coincidental. So his challenge to ‘VIP robbers’ on both sides of the House called them out in right royal style. The self-styled Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been loudly demanding the Commission report on the CBSL bond scandal to be furnished to the House and a debate to follow as if their very lives depended on it.
Indeed, the political lives of utterly corrupt JO members may certainly depend on this great lifeline thrown to them by the UNP. Yet the furnishing of the second Commission of Inquiry report, which implicates all if not most of them, have rendered these once snarling parliamentarians to docile kittens.
In that background, the agreement by all party leaders to hold the parliamentary debate on these reports on February 20th and 21st 2018 after the February 10th polls is telling. The President’s acerbic barbs therefore are understandable, except for the fact that, as the UNP has expostulated in response, his own representatives at the party leaders meeting also agreed to these dates. Reportedly, his most recent broadside meanwhile is to reiterate allegations that the UNP was to blame in holding up the prosecutions against Rajapaksa frontliners, including on charges of murder and assassinations.
Political gambles that may backfire
The Presidential outbursts are to be expected. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is facing the electorate divided and torn with the Rajapaksa breakaway group exerting significant political pressure. Assessed against traditional voting tendencies in this country, these are formidable obstacles to fight against. The heady glow with which he came into power in 2015 has largely diminished. In some part, this is due to political jostling that he engaged in after a misconceived positioning as the ‘saviour’ of his party. But in larger part, it is owing to the UNP’s mortifying entanglement in a muddle of bond corruption and inefficient government.
President Sirisena’s consequent withdrawal into narrow corners of traditional conservatism, best illustrated by his sexist command to restore a long ignored excise notification banning women from buying liquor in the premises of a tavern, is a long cry from the enlightened and progressive President that he promised to be. From his viewpoint, these are liberal niceties to be sacrificed on the altar of the far more overwhelming need to stay politically relevant during the remainder of his Presidential term. That is a path that the President is now firmly on, come what may.
These are of course gambles that may badly backfire. Whatever may be the sins of the UNP, there is no doubt that there is a block vote for the party, heightened also by the cold logic to the Prime Minister’s injunction that it is the Government which holds the public purse, including spending on local government projects. Where the Rajapaksa vote is concerned, that too has solidly survived through the past three years. And with ‘floating voters’ more inclined to float away entirely from an election which has dishearteningly degenerated to a monstrous test of competing political strengths, the President’s skills in capturing public attention may not be quite enough.
From the mud to the trees
So what can Sri Lankans extract as positive factors where systemic reform and accountability is concerned?
First, the two Reports of the Presidential Commissions of Inquiry have established without a doubt, the murky and serpentine tentacles of the ‘deep state of the corrupt.’ Glimpsed in vague and indeterminate forms earlier, the precise details expose a terrifying confluence of an elite and amoral few forming privileged connections across political and establishment lines.
Second, the recommended use of Section 70 of the Bribery Act (as amended) against these crooks in the PRESIFAC report in particular, is encouraging. It may actually be that the power of the 1994 amendments to the Bribery Act, which had been dormant for decades, may now come into its own.
If so, then this ugly tumult that we see on the political stage may just about be worth it. And a President who once promised the sun, moon and stars in 2015 may conceivably be able to allow his unhappy countrymen and countrywomen to glimpse at least the top of the trees from the mud in which they are presently in.