“In the light of someone putting himself or herself forward as a representative of the public, it is crucial that the people understand the drivers behind that particular individual,” said Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere in the lead-up to the 5 August general election.
Discussing the importance of asset declarations in the democratic process, he elaborated: “This enables them to contest an election and helps build a complete picture of potential candidates who may go on to be MPs. This is why it is key to have information such as asset declarations in the public space.”
However, there are barriers to this, and Obeyesekere pointed out that Sri Lanka lacks a culture of having such information in the public domain to begin with.
As for loopholes preventing this, he stated: “There is a requirement for candidates to file asset declarations within three months. But in the event that nominations close a month before an election, candidates may have more time to file these declarations with the Election Commission of Sri Lanka.”
Additionally, he pointed out that “archaic secrecy provisions” have hampered the dissemination of such information in line with the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law, which has led to TISL making requests under the Right to Information Act.
Asserting that this also required a change in mindset, Obeyesekere stressed the need to inculcate the idea that “people are accountable to the public – elected officials in particular.”
In his view, Sri Lanka was “ahead of the curve” with the law, which was enacted in 1975, as it isn’t a global standard.
However, there have been significant changes in the movement for accountability of elected officials over the last 45 years while the island has continued to follow the standard set in the 1970s.
“There are areas that need innovation even with regard to the time frames of disclosure to ensure that if there’s an election, information is in the public domain before it takes place,” Obeyesekere urged.
When it comes to nations Sri Lanka could learn from, he noted that it need not look far as the Election Commission of India receives asset declarations with nominations, which are made available online for anyone to scrutinise.
“Among the established democracies of South Asia, we’re lagging,” he averred, emphasising that “we frequently look at ourselves almost as being a beacon of democracy in the region but in terms of areas such as accountability to the public, we remain steps behind.”
Commenting on the practice of crossing from one political party to another for monetary gain or personal political advancement, Obeyesekere observed that it was emblematic of what many people feel is a weakening of integrity in Sri Lanka’s political culture.
“It is a fundamental concern and there is no prohibition for legislators to address this,” he explained, adding that “political will may be the challenge at times.”
While recognising the need to address short-term needs in the prevailing environment across the world, Obeyesekere stressed the need for long-term planning and questioning certain aspects of life that have been considered unquestionable such as remote working or studying: “We must ensure that those voted in reflect the expectations of the people – particularly young citizens – to make sure that those coming into power match [their] aspirations for the future.”
As for the greatest governance challenge facing the nation, he highlighted the desire of young people to leave the country, noting that despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19, a global marketplace for labour remains and Sri Lanka continues to lose its best talent.
Obeyesekere summed up his interview with LMD’s Anushan Selvarajah: “How we retain young talent will be our biggest challenge irrespective of who forms the next government.”