The year 2018 has begun with some fireworks alright. President Maithripala Sirisena all guns blazing, read out the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that he had appointed to go into the Central Bank Bond scams of 2015 and 2016. It was a scam of monumental proportions which shook the political firmament [...]


A New Year; more of the same politics


The year 2018 has begun with some fireworks alright. President Maithripala Sirisena all guns blazing, read out the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) that he had appointed to go into the Central Bank Bond scams of 2015 and 2016. It was a scam of monumental proportions which shook the political firmament and the national conscience of this country with the advent of the new Government in those years.

His ‘address to the nation’ last Wednesday on the findings included a negative comment on the conduct of his own Prime Minister vis-a-vis his selection of the then Governor of the Central Bank. The recommendations went as far as calling for not only a forensic audit of what was a calculated exercise in amassing wealth by a family at the expense of state institutions, but it also called for the prosecution of a former Finance Minister of this Government.

It is a scandal unprecedented in the annals of contemporary Sri Lanka. It showed the unholy nexus between the Minister, the then Governor and their friend/son-in-law, for which the UNP is paying the price. But to the credit of the Government it is also a hitherto unprecedented fact that a public inquiry was launched into high-ranking sitting politicians and officials, and that they have been found guilty of corruption and the breach of public trust.

However, President Sirisena’s motives in going public with the Commission’s report unfortunately have come into debate. The timing – on the eve of crucial local elections — is purely accidental. And people have been yearning to know the details of what the COI has been deliberating on for the past 10 months, in public. It was also far superior to what transpired at the Parliamentary Select Committee COPE year before last – in camera.

The fact that the President made public the main points of the COI report without the courtesy of showing it to his Prime Minister begs the question whether he had a different game-plan in using the report as political leverage against his coalition partner in Government with the all-island local council polls next month. In his address he said that he had already sent a copy of the report to the Attorney General – why did he not give a copy to his own Prime Minister? Does he not trust him?

That he mentioned the PM’s name in his public address without first telling him seems strange, if not politically incorrect, and especially so in a coalition partnership. Not that he should have omitted the reference. He shared the report given to him the previous Saturday with only his close confidants. Is his own PM now no longer one of them?

That signals the National Unity Government heading in an unhealthy direction. Only on the morning of this public address did the leaders of the two coalition partners, the UNP and the SLFP meet to discuss how not to go at each other’s throats in the upcoming local polls campaign. Despite the proviso from the Presidential address that this report together with the findings of the Presidential anti-corruption commission (PRECIFAC) is not aimed at witch-hunting UNPers or SLFPers, the Bond Commission report drives a dagger into the heart of the UNP – and the President knows it best.

He is also fighting an election. As Executive President he becomes a mere politician in the days ahead trying to propel his party, the SLFP, to win councils throughout the country. Split in two, the SLFP is not doing well as many with a feel for the pulse of the electorates believe. It is not just losing, but coming a poor third, even fourth, that could make him a ‘lame duck’ President post February 10 for the rest of his term in office.

In his address, the President clearly portrayed himself as the only one left standing on the political battleground above the corruption and crooked ways of mere politicians – a statesman, with the country’s interests at heart, not swayed by the cacophony of parochial politics. It is, no doubt, difficult on the pedestal he sits, not to be touched himself by accusations of nepotism, political favouritism and the like. The whole country knows how he has recruited Ministers wanted on bribery and corruption charges and let investigations against them meander along – as long as they came across to his side from the rival faction baying for his blood.

That said, it is now the onerous responsibility of the Attorney General to study the voluminous COI report before him and see if further investigations are needed to file indictments. The Prime Minister is on record saying he sent the 2016 COPE report and either that report had nothing substantial to go on, or the AG is still pouring over that brief.

There is clearly a prima-facie case in the COI report and despite its heavy workload, priority has to be given by the AG to this case of daylight robbery of the Central Bank. Thanks to the Monetary Board about Rs. 10.5 billion of the offending company’s money is frozen and can be used to reimburse the losses to the state institutions in this scam. There is much truth though in what the President said at the conclusion of his Wednesday address — that there is great public scepticism that Commissions of Inquiry are more to hide some wrongdoing and very little tangible comes out of them in the form of punishing culprits. The public feel, and quite rightly so, that this whole saga is still in its interim, and has miles to go to its final conclusion.

The UNP will have to face the brunt of the fallout from the findings of this COI report. The party’s defence was worse than the offence. The leadership originally must have genuinely been misled to a false sense of standing-by its appointees – who in turn, had no loyalty to the party. Their loyalty was only to Mammon. The party cubs were made sacrificial goats and branded as the notorious “footnote club” for their gymnastics in COPE; one or two of them taking advantage of the situation for personal gain from the looks of it.

How much of it will hurt the UNP at the forthcoming elections is a matter of conjecture. Yet, UNP leaders dismiss the damage to the image of the party and believe the elections will be fought on different issues. The remaining question is how far the National Unity Government can go on like this. The undertones between the two coalition partners we witnessed in 2016 and 2017 have matured into overtones by 2018.

A vociferous and opportunistic section of President Sirisena’s party is confident the party will reunite after the elections and form a formidable force with its own SLFP Government. Others feel, just the opposite will happen and defections to the rival faction of the SLFP (now known as the SLPP) under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the order of the day.

If President Sirisena used the report with the idea of neutralising the UNP at the polls and with an eye on uniting the SLFP post-February 10, UNPers are going to react adversely to such a strategy. Given the increasing Chinese influence in the country, the Chinese New Year being the Year of the Dog hopefully would not witness ‘dog eat dog’ in local politics in 2018.

One need not be an astrologer to predict 2018 being a year of politics; of manoeuvring and mutual mistrust at the highest levels. Whither Sri Lanka?

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