By Suren Sumitrarachchi –
Dr Suren Sumithrarachchi
At the time of independence, Sri Lanka was a country with a well-established democracy under a constitution based on the Westminster system. In the 71 years since independence, the political environment in Sri Lanka has been dominated by two political parties, both conservative, with Marxist, religious and communal based parties occupying a minor presence. These two main parties or coalitions based on them have ruled the country alternately for varying periods, and in the process, have let every aspect of the Sri Lankan society deteriorate. During this period the politicians changed the Westminster system of shared accountability by a Prime Minister led cabinet, to a system with vast powers concentrated in an executive president. This presidential rule, in force since 1978, has not reversed the trend in deterioration, but instead has accelerated it, and created a highly politicised climate, which has exacerbated crime, bribery and corruption, and inefficiency in the public service. The concentration of power in the President has led to greed in the incumbents to seek re-election to office over and above the period specified in the constitution. This has led to power struggles, and a host of related unethical practices. This self-seeking behaviour of the president and other politicians has created an unjust society where power and privileges are concentrated in the hands of a few, with only the crumbs left for the large majority of the people. Today, Sri Lanka is at crossroads, and in a position to decide whether to perpetuate this rot or to get rid of it.
Key issues for consideration
Even a cursory look makes clear the following: (1) Throughout the 71 years the priority of the political class has been to remain in power at any cost, with every action oriented to achieving that purpose. (2) Though seen in public to be attacking one another, the two parties protect themselves and cover up for each other’s crimes, leading to chronic corruption. (3) No politician has had a proper vision for the country. (4) Most decisions are taken based not on scientific criteria but on political expediency, leading the country to always get the second or the third best option in every project. (5) Accountability for public funds has been lacking and politicians have no fear of misusing public funds. (6) No basic standards are specified for entry to politics, resulting in uneducated and uncultured individuals, often criminals, entering politics, causing mayhem and chaos in parliament. (7) Public servants are not allowed the autonomy to carry out their functions without political interference.
Continuous rule by two political groups
The two parties or their coalitions have regularly tried to outdo one another to remain in power. Accordingly, they have resorted to placating the voter, resulting in an unnecessary burden on the state finances. Providing assistance to the needy is fine, but the issue here is the politicised nature of these decisions, having long-term ill effects on the country. Without dealing with the entire gamut of such practices, I will give two examples: (1) Making the salaries of the public-servants tax-free while the rest of the country’s workforce has to pay tax, a clear attempt to add the public servants to their vote base. (2) Giving free school uniforms and books to all students in schools, even to those who can well afford to pay. The longer we have this political class in power, the more of these irrational decisions will be foisted on us.
Fostering corruption by protecting one another
At election time, these two groups attack one another with accusations about the corruption during their tenures, but once the elections are over, they get together, forgetting all the accusations. The people, whose political group fails to get the majority, readily join the winners to form the necessary majority, forgetting all the accusations, and this see saw continues every five years. The alleged corruption, whether true or false, goes under the carpet until the next election, when the voter is once again bombarded with these harangues as part of the election campaigns. Successive governments have shown an increase in the incidences of corruption, and the voter is helpless. Should we not do something about this?
No proper vision
In the 71 years of rule by these two main parties, the country has not had a clear strategy and plans for the key areas of the economy. It is clear that the leaders have had no vision and therefore not had the ability to prepare a clear plan for the development of the country. As such, every successive government has amateurishly meddled around with key aspect of the economy and the society. This has rendered the country rudderless and visionless. Consequently our country that was ahead of all South Asian countries at the time of independence, is now lagging behind, and is in the company of the poorest economies in the world. A few illustrations are: (1) Sri Lanka which had a positive balance of payments at the time of independence, is today in debt in the range of trillions of rupees. (2) The Sri Lankan Universities whose degrees had so much recognition that our graduates could get into PhD programmes in the best universities of the world based on their first degrees, is today far down in world rankings. (3) The University system has not been properly managed to produce graduates to meet the needs of the country resulting in hundreds of unemployed graduates parading the streets, some with their kids. Also, there is a dearth of skills in key areas of the economy, requiring the country to depend on foreign experts, meaning that the resources in the education sphere have not been properly directed. (4) Of the approximately 150,000 students who pass the GCE AL examination, only 30,000 are absorbed onto the universities. This leads to frustration among the youth who are unable to pursue the subjects of their choice, and the loss of valuable foreign exchange when the well to do send their children abroad for studies. (5) The employment market has not grown to meet the needs of the more capable and better trained graduates, who are thus compelled to look for jobs overseas.
Decisions based on political expediency deny the country of the best options
One of the most recent decisions that deny the country of the best options was when the government chose coal in preference to solar as the power enhancing option. This decision has no basis in common sense. Coal is environmentally harmful. It is more costly. It has a long term recurring cost component where solar does not have any such. However, the recurring process of procuring coal provides ample room for corruption. The decision makers only had to consult experts on solar production to get the answers to the problem of how to solve the peak time demand for power using solar, and the decision preferring coal to solar could never have been justified. But political expediency and space for corruption prevailed and coal was preferred over solar, despite all its negatives.
There are many more absurd decisions that successive governments have made for these unethical reasons. One glaring example is the investment on highways as opposed to investing the funds to improve the rail transport system and converting more passengers to rail travel as opposed to using road transport. In constructing highways, the fact that the highest traffic congestion is within the city of Colombo has been overlooked, and priority given for constructions of highways for inter-city travel. As a result, a citizen living in a suburb, 10km from the city centre, still takes one and a half hours to commute to work in the morning and another one and a half hours in the evening. Another absurdity is the decision to construct a highway from Colombo to Matara, a destination with less traffic intensity than the Colombo Kandy stretch, which connects Colombo with virtually the rest of the country. Though the politicians justify these decision, the public can see the motives behind them. Should we continue with this comedy?
Lack of accountability for public funds
Politicians simply do not feel accountable for the funds they (mis) manage. There are numerous examples. I will mention a few: the hedging issue when purchasing petroleum in the world markets causing a severe loss to the country; investing in Greek bonds; The misuse of Rs. 600m to purchase ‘sil redi’ using state funds; the Central Bank bond issue. MPs being regularly granted car permits to purchase high value vehicles knowing very well that these will be sold; the former President chartering planes belonging to Air Lanka and going on jaunts with his entourage, with no concern for losses caused to the airline; and the Ministry of Agriculture renting office space at Rs. 20m per month.
Uneducated and socially unfit people, often criminals entering Politics
No basic standards are specified for entry to politics, resulting in the parliament being open to criminals and uneducated people. The role of parliament as the institution that creates policy for the nation is in the hands of these inadequate people and it is not surprising that the policy framework is in disarray. Leave alone understanding the contents of the drafts of policy documents circulated among them, many of them are not capable of even reading through them, yet they remain our policy makers. The poor attendance in Parliament, causing the frequent abandonment of proceedings for lack of a quorum is ample proof of their inability to understand their role. Even when present at parliamentary sittings, they sleep in their seats as seen in regular live coverage, confirming that they are not concerned about the proceedings. The only thing they are groomed for is to create mayhem and chaos in the chambers, which they do with great aplomb. The public had the privilege of being entertained by their live performances during the October 2018 crisis, once again a creation of this unruly group. Do we need more of this?
Interference in the work of Public servants
Interference in the work of Public servants is the next item that I wish to mention. The public servants are the administrators of the governance of the country. They are selected from the educated in the country and placed to do a job of work. The barely literate political leaders interfere in their work, giving instructions to them based on their personal or politicised agenda and obstruct their work. Unfortunately, these public servants are helpless and have to put up with the politicians. This process is an obstruction of the public servant’s work, and has a negative effect on their morale. Under these circumstances the public servant cannot perform their duties efficiently. Should this state of affairs continue?
Over to you, voter
Elections being in the horizon, the voter is once again being bombarded with choices of potential candidates to vote for. The first is the election for the position of President. Later it will be for the Provincial Councils and Parliament. Given their track record of the past 71 years and the exceptionally horrific performance of the present lot in the last five years, would it matter to the voter which politicians sits where? Should the voters once again let themselves be duped by their sugar coated promises or be reminded of the horrific past and the sad plight the country is in as a result? Should not the voter remind him/herself of the regular self- aggrandisement of the politicians and the virtual crumbs that have been the lot of the masses? Should not voters count the number of blatant lies that have been foisted on them? Should not the sirens of the car convoys of the politicians that have irritated the voters in the last several decades continue to vibrate in their heads? Should not the voters remind themselves of the harassment they go through to admit their children to schools? Should parents not worry about their son or daughter when they try hard but fail to get admission to the university? Do we need these politicians to perpetuate these sufferings on us? Can we trust them to do anything other than the abuse of their position they have excelled at in the past?
This is our time to make the necessary changes. What we need is not a change of heads or change in the colours of political parties, but instead a complete change in the system that is so seriously degenerate. By this I mean is a complete change in everything, the constitution, the method of election, the quality of the representative, their remuneration policy, the accountability mechanism for public funds, the fairness of the judicial system and the confidence that the public can have in it. I believe that no party or individual unable to provide these far reaching changes should be even considered for elevation to power. Our wish-list must be made known to the politicians and we as voters must insist that these be made the priorities of those seeking election. We must reject the parties, or individuals who are unable to promise these changes. We must also ensure that the promises such are real and tangible, and not false promises as before. It is within the power of the voter to do these.
*Suren Sumithrarachchi is a retired businessman with an earned Ph D degree from the University of Colombo. He is an activist concerned with the social and economic well being of the country.