If the minority government of the United National Party was not so arrogant in its unshakeable conviction that each and every action taken by it is unreservedly right, we may not be now witnessing this agonizing ebbing away of the high moral ground on which President Maithripala Sirisena won the Presidential election in January 2015. [...]


Are we being cast in a Mad Hatter’s tea party?


If the minority government of the United National Party was not so arrogant in its unshakeable conviction that each and every action taken by it is unreservedly right, we may not be now witnessing this agonizing ebbing away of the high moral ground on which President Maithripala Sirisena won the Presidential election in January 2015.

A precedent lurking in the shadows
Thankfully the President has, by and large, managed to keep his image unsullied excepting one or two horrendously ill-advised actions such as categorizing a Chief Justice’s appointment as null and void by one stroke of the Presidential pen.

Granted, culpability in this regard must be taken in context. This occurred in the immediately tumultuous aftermath of a tense election where no one quite knew what would happen. Responsibility for urging such action indeed lies firmly on the shoulders of the Bar Association and assorted groups who waxed eloquent on observing the Rule of Law but appeared to have little compunction in urging actions outside those parameters when political expediency demanded it.

And despite the (convincing or otherwise) explanations offered as justification thereof, this dangerous precedent still remains lurking in the shadows as it were, with all the possibility of future invocation by a more malignantly inclined head of the executive for quite a different purpose than to secure the independence of the Sri Lankan judiciary.

One misstep after another
This was just one of the far too many missteps taken by the ‘yahapalanaya’ administration since that January election result regarding which we cannot but remain concerned. This column had consistently urged that the two most imperative post-election actions should have been to impeach both the pre-January 2015 ‘purported Chief Justice’ and the Chair of the Bribery and Corruption Commission with requisite due process. In the first flush of that magnificent election victory, swift and sure preemptive strokes such as these would have passed the muster of Parliament quite unlike the horse dealing and unhappy compromises that we saw in regard to the 19th Amendment. Perhaps if the Right to Information (RTI) law had been brought before the House also at that time after undergoing a quick revisionary process, it would have been met with a better fate than left hanging in limbo as it is now.

So what happened was only that the ‘purported Chief Justice’ got tossed out by his ear in a manner that left much to be desired while serious concerns about the independence of the Court were left to languish by the way. The lack of legitimate leadership of the Corruption Commission was also not addressed. Instead, this was glossed over by the appointment of a new Director General. The shortsighted nature of this action is now all too apparent as the Commission remains wracked by internal wrangling, the Director General is on record in bitterly complaining that the Commission Chairman had ‘undermined’ her and a Commissioner’s resignation has further complicated the issue.

But was all this not to be expected, one may well exclaim with reasonable bewilderment? Indeed, it seems more and more if we are cast in a veritable Alice in Wonderland saga with the Mad Hatter’s tea party being replicated before our astonished eyes.

Recalling warnings from the past
From one action to the next, it is a difficult choice to decide which acts have been more ham-handed under the hand of this Government. Is it that unholy fiasco over the alleged Central Bank bond scam? Or the establishment of a Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) under an ambiguous provision of the Police Ordinance, directed moreover to act on the advice of a Cabinet sub-committee headed by the Prime Minister? Or is it that, (reportedly), agreement on even the vastly unsatisfactory Constitutional Council as currently constituted, was held up in Parliament on the last occasion by the Government asking for more time to get written agreement by the three non-political nominees? Is this clumsiness unintentional or is it deliberate?

There are good reasons for extreme watchfulness. We must remember that the original Constitutional Council (CC) under the 17th Amendment was stymied not purely as a result of the power hungry ambitions of (then) President Mahinda Rajapaksa. On the contrary, the CC was made dysfunctional through a combination of political forces, including that of the opposition UNP and JVP at that time. The blame for that terrible betrayal of peoples’ expectations was therefore collective.

The simple point was that no political party wanted independent commissions as these bodies were perceived to threaten their political agendas. This was why the independent Police Commission could not function for more than a brief period. Its insistence on interdicting police officers indicted for offences and pursuing rampant police abuse angered politicians of all shades and hues. This was also the reason why an independent Elections Commission was not created due to (then) President Chandrika Kumaratunga refusing to abide by the recommendation of the CC. With such an unhappy history of election-fixing through the manipulation of state resources and personnel, the very idea of an authoritative and independent Elections Commission would scare silly, two-thirds of those unprepossessing characters who constitute the Parliament that we have presently. The same logic applies to an RTI law. What politician would actually want a strong RTI Commission?

Need for continued critical momentum
The 19th Amendment will certainly not miraculously fix the several ills in Sri Lanka’s body politic. We have undergone too much institutional and systemic decay for there to be one-fix solutions. Instead, the path of reform will be arduous. Constant people pressure through independent opinion standing apart from both government and the opposition is critical.

It is unfortunate however that the reform momentum evidenced five months ago has now slowed down, precisely at the point where it is needed the most. These are perilous times for Sri Lanka. The Government and the opposition must be unceasingly called to account on their post-election performances or absence thereof.

In the absence of that critical pressure, expecting political parties in this Mad Hatter’s tea party to act more responsibly is merely a forlorn hope.

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