The fact that the now deposed Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency set the standard so deplorably low for good governance and democracy should not deter the Sri Lankan public from demanding that the incumbent Government fulfill election pledges to the highest extent demonstrable. We should not lapse into a mindset of settling for less purely due to [...]


Taking the measure of the ‘Maithri’ presidency


The fact that the now deposed Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency set the standard so deplorably low for good governance and democracy should not deter the Sri Lankan public from demanding that the incumbent Government fulfill election pledges to the highest extent demonstrable.

We should not lapse into a mindset of settling for less purely due to the undeniably nightmarish possibility of a Rajapksa-return, with its minders now eagerly waiting and watching in the wings. Indeed, it is only if the Sirisena Government fails that this eventuality will arise in any event. There is therefore a grave need for judicious pressure to be exerted to ensure that such failure is averted.

An energetic media discourse

In 1994, when an equally exuberant democratic wave swept the Chandrika Kumaratunga government into power, many who contributed to that victory made the cardinal mistake of being co-opted into the new dispensation. The end result was inevitable. One monumental mistake after the other by the Kumaratunga Presidency was met with little resistance as critical pressure had subsided. Ultimately when highly honourable judges were bypassed for judicial appointments under her watch due to a perceived difficulty ‘to control them’, the mewling response from Colombo’s intellectual community was pitiful.

In the wake of the January 2015 elections, it is therefore encouraging to see ordinary voters contributing to an energetic media discourse on our democratic destiny. To hear songs of democracy and freedom on the national airwaves and to hear the unequivocal rejection of abusive and racist mentalities cultivated by Rajapaksa propagandists is exhilarating. The opening up of critical spaces and the shifting of the debate from elitist forums to the wider public along with citizen empowerment is therefore most significant.

The uproar at the delay in arresting UNP parliamentarian Palitha Thevarapperuma who forced a provincial Rajapaksa supporter to kneel on the ground last week is a case in point. The message is clear. Political leaders will be held to account

Somewhat unsettling trends

Yet the differences between the deposed regime and its ‘Maithri’ successor are less certain than what we would like them to be. There are undoubtedly positive features such as the disavowing of ostentation and financial wastage, the conciliatory tone taken with the North’s provincial administration, relief measures given to the people and the dismissal of a ‘war mentality’ which had paralyzed the Sri Lankan people.

Nonetheless, with the exception of the Rajapaksas and their grossly corrupt inner family, the old political guard and its supporters appear to have been absorbed into the new dispensation at various levels. This somewhat unsettling trend has serious implications for the credibility of the new administration. What perchance happened to all those documents documenting corruption which UNP parliamentarians were frantically waving around prior to the elections?

Certainly there are discernible oddities.  For example, an anti-corruption committee is appointed while the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (not the Government) and trade unions traipse to court and to the Bribery Commission. Yet corrupt heads of public corporations remain in their positions, some continuing to hold as many as three or four chairmanships. Arrests are not evidenced even though two weeks have passed since the elections. Urgent priorities are the cleansing of the public service, the higher judiciary and the Bribery or Corruption Commission, (the chair of which has himself been accused of corruption) as well as giving justice to Tamil detainees who languish in prisons without charges being filed. The new Government has yet to move firmly on all these fronts.

Concrete action needs to be taken

Specific constitutional procedures apply when unsuitability to hold the office of the Chief Justice is evidenced. Quite apart from ongoing investigations into charges of treason, judicial misbehaviour on the part of the incumbent has been alleged for some time. Rather than twiddling one’s thumbs and expecting a resignation, adherence to the law must be evidenced through amended Standing Orders ensuring due process unlike in 2013. One does not need a two-thirds majority for this. Agreeing to give diplomatic positions (as reported) to go quietly into the night sets a distasteful precedent. As repeatedly observed in these column spaces, the Bar must chart a sterner course of action. Parroting calls for resignation serves little purpose.

The same logic applies to the members of the Bribery or Corruption Commission whose removal is akin to members of the higher judiciary. Merely changing the Director General does not suffice. At the height of the post-election euphoria, Parliament should have been summoned by the President for this purpose. The House should have ceaselessly sat thereafter.

And again, wheeler dealers behind nefarious Rajapaksa politicians have yet not been dealt with. A misconception prevails that the existing legal framework is inadequate to deal with corruptors. Sri Lanka’s Commission on Bribery or Corruption (Act, No 19 of 1994) was conceived of in a similarly hopeful political era. It contains a powerful and imaginatively conceptualized definition of what constitutes corruption. Undoubtedly, an even better law may be framed in later months. At least, the Commission may be enabled to act suo moto with a dedicated investigative force, its financial independence secured and its reach expanded. But nonetheless, immediate action can be taken under the law as it exists presently. While restoration of the 17th Amendment and implementation of ‘Maithri’ pledges in regard to the Executive Presidency remain pivotal, procrastination in applying the existing law will inevitably impact on the Government’s performance within its 100 day campaign.

Due operation of the law

So early warning signals currently being issued by an ominous groundswell of public opinion needs to be hearkened to by this Government. January 2015 must not be another squandered opportunity.  While abstaining from political witch-hunts is well and good, there must be accountability demonstrated. Again, the problem is that many proverbial ‘bad eggs’ in the previous regime also form part of the current dispensation.

In the end result, the due operation of the law was the electoral lynch-pin on which the ‘Maithri’ campaign pinned its hopes. Sri Lanka’s voters heeded that call, irrespective of majority and minority ethnicity. The Sirisena Government will be assessed and judged on this measure.

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