9th December 2001

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The Sunday Times Economic analysis

Putting economy in the forefront

By the Economist
For far too long there has not been an effective management of the economy. It is time for the new government to place the economy as a priority, even we would suggest, as a higher priority than the issue of peace. We say so in spite of our recognition that peace is a sine qua non for rapid economic growth. However to wait for peace to resuscitate the fallen economy would be suicidal.

The foremost reason why we place the economy first is that a real peace settlement is a tortuous and uncertain path. It will take considerable time, compromise and mature vision for the country's leaders to forge a settlement. The LTTE in particular has shown a lack of compromise on the impractical demand for a separate state, treacherous in its several previous discussions, and find itself unable to work within the democratic framework of the country.

In such an uncertain situation, the country cannot wait for a settlement of the conflict to get the economy moving. The economy is in dire straits and a considerable effort is needed for the reconstruction of the economy. And it must be undertaken at once.

The strength of the economy itself will be a determining factor in the peace settlement. A weak economy makes the government's capacity to fight the war, as well as negotiate for peace, far more difficult. A position of economic strength will make peace through a successful war far more feasible. A weak economy will not only make the war effort less effective, but its burdens far more difficult for the people to bear. 

On the other hand, negotiations to end the war would also be vitiated as the terrorists sensing the weakness of the government to pursue the war effectively would demand more than what could possibly be conceded by a democratic government. A government weakened in its war efforts by the economic burdens and yet unable to go against the will of the majority, would result in a stalemate.

The rationale for placing the economy at the forefront of the government's agenda arises from the situation the country is in. We have had a year of economic stagnation. All sectors of the economy have fared badly, most of them registering a decline in production. Investors have lost confidence and are pulling out. The public finances of the country are in a crisis with a mounting deficit. And the global situation makes an export dependant economy particularly vulnerable. In such an economic context the private sector, that has been repeatedly dubbed as the engine of growth, would require to be given assurances of the government's policy; the public would require to be educated on the real economic situation and the difficulties that lie ahead; public administration has to be strengthened and a new discipline enforced, Fiscal discipline has to be clearly a foremost pre-requisite for good economic management.

All these are indeed always difficult to effect in the Sri Lankan socio-political context. It is particularly difficult at the present juncture, when the economy is in a parlous state and a wrong impression of it being sound has been created in the run-up to the election. Election promises would be difficult to fulfil in the strained financial situation and the inhospitable international economic backdrop. 

Despite these difficulties there is no alternative to strong and purposeful economic governance. That is what the new government and parliament must provide. An economy first approach is essential to get the nation out of a hopeless rut it has got into. 

Without such an approach, the economy and the nation will surely fall into an abyss from which it would be near impossible to pull itself up for a long time.

Focus on Rights
By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

The right to Franchise: Eschewing the cult of personality

There are those of us - even in the highest places and occupying the highest offices in this land - who scoff at the right to franchise. For these personalities, an almost total lack of any ethical sense of what is right and wrong is masked by a thin veneer of what has been referred to as 'charismatic appeal', a highly deceptive cult of personality which, unfortunately for this country, numbers not only politicians in its ranks. 

The right to franchise and its accompanying guarantees of accountability on the part of our leaders and public officials are therefore to be contemptuously shoved aside and replaced with buffoonery or savagery, as that particular occasion demands.

This has been the tragedy of Sri Lanka in recent times. That accountability, in its manifest forms could have been co-opted by such individuals with nary a whimper by those who should have- and could have - protested. That we failed to see the dangers inherent in this cult of personality and indeed, focus on the many times where the cult has split and shown expedient arrogance beneath. That we failed to look beyond the personal to the system and ultimately to the country and recognise the quick destruction of even the remnants of what once made us proud to call ourselves Sri Lankans.

It is in this sense that Wednesday's elections is truly significant. Despite the absence of a culture of protest in this country, the 2001 General Elections demonstrated how a people can translate their protest to the vote amidst unprecedented violence and intimidation. In the manner of their doing, Wednesday's polls teaches many things, not only to our erstwhile rulers who failed us so profoundly but to all those who believed that the right to franchise of the people in this country existed only in the air. It teaches, moreover, grave lessons to those of us who thought that the people in this country had to be led in order to overthrow a government. 

For what happened on Wednesday came from the hearts of the common people, not so much our intellectuals. It came despite significant failings on the part of public officials responsible for the conducting of elections, who should have acted with greater courage. This is where the real distinction lies between the elections this month and the many that have gone before. The people saw fit to take their future into their own hands and pray to the heavens above that, this time at least, it would work out better than the monumental failures of the past. In so doing, a salutary warning was posed not only to those displaced from the seats of government but also those succeeding to the same.

The following months will see Sri Lanka's 12th Parliament coming into being and we hope, with it, some genuine law making. Its predecessor, for the period of the one year that it remained - and that too, barely- in office, saw the rather obvious predictions coming true, an "almost hung" Parliament and the country on the road to that most extreme of happenings under Proportional Representation (PR), a fragmentation of the party system and shifting coalition governments. This had its own dynamics. 

Writing immediately after the forming of the parliamentary assembly last year, this column observed that the 11th Parliament will subject the Peoples Alliance Government and its President to a crucially demanding test of statesmanship which would determine the electoral future of the Peoples Alliance in this country. In observing thus, this column was not talking of Draft Constitutions being brought in haste before confused parliamentarians or a subverted judiciary or of politically opportunistic Bills like the Bill for electoral reform that was attempted to be brought in before the life of the 10th Parliament expired. 

Opposition within and without Parliament stymied both pieces of legislation. Instead, what the Peoples Alliance and its leader Chandrika Kumaratunga was called upon to do was establish a new political culture, which, it had become clear, by that time, was imperative before any sustained initiative could have been taken on the North East conflict. Part of this culture was the establishing, on a clear political consensus and as a matter of priority, a strong Constitutional Council controlling appointments to high posts, an Elections Commission with extensive powers and its parallel Public Service Commission and Judicial Service Commission. Laws promoting an independent and responsible media culture were also called for. Above all, the people needed to see positive moves by the legislature to lift this country out of its deeply frightening environment of election violence and a complete eradication of the "Wayamba" precedent. An essential part of this process was to ensure that the government strip immunity from all those responsible for blatant election malpractices in Kandy. As the year progressed however, the 11th Parliament turned out to be the most farcical in the legislative history of this country. While the uncomfortable legislative presence of radical minority parties like the JVP resulted in a far less complacent law making, what we had was not a new political culture but political dialogues gradually deteriorating to unprecedented levels of brutality. A disastrously arrogant style of governance by the Kumaratunga administration soon propelled the dissolving of an unruly House scarcely before its time was up. Events consequently proved that the mouse that was brought out by the JVP called the 17th Amendment, despite the heavy labour preceding its passing, was woefully deficient in all that it professed to achieve, even if it had operated at its peak. We had therefore a December election that far surpassed last year's election in its brutality but a peoples' vote that astoundingly gave cause to hope again.

For Sri Lanka's 12th Parliament, the composition of which shows the system of Proportional Representation working at its most benign, the priorities that should have been addressed by its predecessor, still remain urgent concerns. They need to be brought about however by a thoughtful legislative process and not by confrontational political reasoning. Additionally, we need to see a complete overhauling of the current electoral system and electoral laws. More than ever, Wednesday's polls saw the emphasis on preferences together with the absence of an obligation to submit statements of expenditure (found in the earlier election laws) all adding up to making financial extravaganza the determinant for capturing the vote. 

In the face of these flamboyantly extravagant election campaigns carried out by most candidates, this week's elections demonstrated a clear need to enforce a ceiling on election expenditure. Current election laws in Sri Lanka do not regulate the amounts spent on canvassing and campaign excepting in specified contexts such as where such expenditures are termed an offence or a corrupt or illegal practice. Equally, well thought out amendments to the elections laws are necessary to prohibit the use of both the private and the public electronic media in a manner that favours one party over another. The misuse of the state media in favour of the Peoples Alliance in these elections was blatant and as some quip, was perhaps largely responsible for the overwhelming defeat that the government suffered.

For now, December, 2001 sees our proving - and in the nick of time - that we are not quite beyond the pale and that there are some shreds of sanity still left in us as a people. We now have a President and a Prime Minister of different political colours. Regardless, the mandate that the people have given to both of them this Wednesday to set right this tortured country is quite clear. We look to them for its fulfilment.

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