CRACKING THE PRESIDENTIAL WHIP
Resorting to military administrators must be temporary – Dr. Jehan Perera
Among the main reasons that prompted the electorate to vote for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was a hope that he’d bring change to the weak governance of the past where political leaders failed to meet their commitments.
Today, Sri Lanka is facing unprecedented challenges for which the president cannot be held responsible, the foremost being the COVID-19 induced economic downturn, which has driven many into unemployment and debilitated the economy.
And the president’s harsh upbraiding of Central Bank of Sri Lanka officials was due to his recognition that the government was not being provided with solutions to revive the economy.
Among his reasons for appointing a host of serving and retired security forces personnel to positions of authority in the state administrative system is to curb corruption and promote efficiency in the state sector.
Years of heavy investment due to the war means the security forces are better trained and more used to staying within the administrative system – especially compared to their counterparts in the public service, which has been overextended due to politically motivated appointments that swelled the ranks.
Rajapaksa’s admonitions to government departments and officials will be viewed favourably by the electorate at the general election. This will benefit candidates of the ruling party and the majority that it hopes to obtain.
However, the president’s intention would also be to have a longer term impact on the future of the country. This can best come by a change of system, being mindful of how one thing interconnects with another and not only pushing the existing system to deliver better results without paying heed to its present limitations.
In two recent instances, the president’s cracking of the whip has borne immediate changes.
The new prisons commissioner launched a search and seizure operation that netted a harvest of mobile phones that had been held illicitly by prisoners. One factor that precipitated the president’s intervention was reports that prisoners were using mobile phones to continue to lead crime syndicates outside. Nonetheless, phones that were confiscated in the past have invariably reappeared later.
Following the public admonition of its management, the Central Bank immediately came up with a response to kick-start the economy. It reduced the Statutory Reserve Ratio, which provided banks more flexibility in lending to people to either launch new businesses or prop up existing ones by taking more loans.
But with international markets shrinking and the possibility that those who take loans will not use the funds effectively, success is not guaranteed.
A common factor that links the two institutions most recently addressed by the president is that they’re vulnerable to political pressure – the common factor in society as a whole. The power of these vested interests and the threat they can pose may explain the president’s reliance on security forces personnel to take his vision forward.
Drug lords who operate from the confines of prisons have previously been shown to be in league with politicians. On one occasion, an entire container load of drugs was found in the harbour and apparently approved by a ministry.
The nexus between corruption involving state institutions and politicians was also highlighted in the Central Bank bond scam under the previous regime. Rajapaksa referred to this in his comments to the Central Bank’s management. During investigations into that case, evidence also emerged that similar practices had taken place previously under successive governments.
So the foremost task for those who seek more efficient and problem solving governance is to break the hold that politicians have over the public service to do their bidding even at a cost to the country.
At present, many might believe that security forces personnel would do a better job than discredited politi-cians and public administrators. But the better solution to the infirmities of the public administrative services is to provide them better opportunities for training and incentives for recruitment.
There was a time when our civil service was regarded as second to none in terms of efficiency and commitment. The pride in the civil service was eroded by politics entering the picture and politicians interfering.
This is why the 19th Amendment to the Constitution – passed in 2015 by parliament with virtual unanimity with the motivation of keeping politicians at bay – must be further strengthened and not undone if there is constitutional reform in the future.