Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Can sheer bumbling incompetence bring down a Government?
This may be a far from rhetorical question in the months ahead. However what propels this query at this point is not simply the arch tragi-comedy of Sri Lanka’s fuel crisis this week. This had its funny moments with snake charmers and musicians playing at fuel stations where perspiring motorists waited for hours for their rations, beset by equal parts fury and frustration.
Provoking guffaws of laughter
Certainly dark mutterings of Rajapaksa-conspiracies put forward by Government Ministers invites ridicule. Let us not mince our words. If the rejection of one ship-load of sub-standard fuel is all that takes to bring about a national crisis of such magnitude, that reflects more on the idiocy of those in charge rather than on conspiracies. And the anxious charting of the progress on international waters, of the ship bringing the replacement fuel which alleviated the crisis towards the end of the week, provoked guffaws of laughter. Is this what this country is reduced to? It is a pathetic state of affairs without a doubt.
And at the Cabinet briefing, the only excuse put forward by grinning ministerial spokesmen was to ask media personnel if they preferred the situation that arose a few years ago where a consignment of sub-standard fuel was in fact accepted by the Rajapaksa government and several vehicles of consumers were damaged. But the question is not what happened then. Governing a country is not a competition to judge what is more preferable, the bad or the worse. And citing conspiracies or past abuses has now become just plain tiring.
On all accounts, the responsible Minster should have resigned or have been asked to do so forthwith. But pushing the accountability bar to that extent is unthinkable. Instead, we paper over the embarrassment, appoint another interminable committee to inquire into the situation and unsteadily lurch along, until the next crisis occurs.
Symptom of a deeper malaise
The point is that this sudden fuel emergency that petrified the nation for a week is just one symptom of a deeper malaise. Laws are passed without adequate vetting or scrutiny and despite airy talk of parliamentary oversight committees. The farce of a recent amendment to the Provincial Councils Act which promised a non-controversial quota for female representation but was packed at the last minute with a host of other amendments that had not been put before the people is just one example.
We are told that even the amendment to the local government election laws contain mistakes. On its own part, the Elections Commission has pointed out quite rightly that it is not responsible for the chaos that politicians have created in the election processes. In fact, as one of its members Ratnajeevan Hoole has observed with increasing acerbity in recent months, the problem is not limited to flawed statutes relating to the conducting of elections. The 19th Amendment, which brought the constitutional commissions to some measure of independent functionality after the fiasco of the 18th Amendment, is itself plagued by serious mistakes.
Examining these objections, it seems that there is merit in the same. Some of the mistakes are obvious. The original 17th Amendment establishing the Elections Commission provided for a membership of five and a quorum of three. The 18th Amendment reduced this number to three in its overall objective of degrading the constitutional commissions. The 19th Amendment carried forward this same mistake without reversing the 18th Amendment with the quixotic result that the Elections Commission now has both a membership of three and a quorum of three, rendering it unreasonably fettered in the making of decisions. These are mistakes that have grave impact in the practical functioning of such bodies and must be given serious weight.
Setting up independent Commissions as show-pieces
These faults in design are amplified by a deprivation of financial resources. In certain cases, these problems are frankly spoken of in public by Commission members themselves to the credit of those Commission members. In other instances, greater rectitude is observed but at some point, an audit must be done of these processes.
What was the main objective, as trumpeted by the unity alliance, in enacting the 19th Amendment? Ostensibly, this was to reverse the 18th Amendment which reduced the independent commissions to a rubber stamp for Rajapaksa decisions. Of course, before long, it became obvious that the real ‘meat’, as it were, of the 19th Amendment lay elsewhere in not-so-subtle power games between the two partners in the unity alliance. In the process, setting up independent Commissions appears to have been intended as show-pieces on display, to be paraded before the international community.
Now it seems as if the local government elections will be held in January with the required elements of youth and female representation. However the negative element of this is that there will be a doubling of the local government councilors resulting in the expending of more funds. Apparently requests made by the Commission to the Government to bring in reforms without expanding the number of councilors have gone unheeded.
Snake-charming as our national entertainment
In the midst of these woes, snake charming may be our national entertainment. Political snake-charmers in the chamber of Parliament however do not actually charm anyone, given the ugly and uncouth exchanges that have become matter of course on the floor of the House.
But bad laws, complaining Commissions and the desperate financial plight of the public will not prevent politicians on both sides of the divide fattening their own purses. The one silver lining in this sea of grey is that Rajapaksa-supporters continue to engage in absurdities with their latest gimmick in riding bicycles to the House for the election debate being a case in point.
That said, purely relying on Rajapaksa-perfidy will not suffice as a guarantee for the elections ahead. The report card of this Government, warts and all, must rest on stronger ground. Unfortunately, citizens need to search high and low, like Diogenes with a lamp in broad daylight, looking not only for an honest man or woman but for ‘yahapalanaya’ governance.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s diatribe against the corrupt, also of his own Government, at the remembrance ceremony of the late Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero this week does not excuse the singular responsibility that he holds as President for the compact that he made with the people in 2015.
Sadly, much of that compact remains unfulfilled by both major parties today.