STATE OF THE NATION
LMD OCTOBER 2017
IS IT TIME FOR A THIRD FORCE IN SRI LANKA’S POLITY?
Wijith DeChickera is dismayed by the monolith of the ‘new political culture’ and explores the options that are available to a newly oppressed polity
There are many ways to oppress an electorate. Our governors can sit on the heads of people they represent, and thus repress dissent and democracy. The previous regime succeeded abominably at it in its second term… but that’s now passé.
But there is another way. Our governors can sit on their bottoms, making folks feel they were misrepresented. And the present administration has managed admirably to master the fundamental art of saying much but meaning little and doing less.
Don’t get me wrong. Some major milestones have passed.
We’re grateful for many achievements like ridding the nation of an authoritarian and antidemocratic regime. Let’s be grateful for small mercies such as peace (even without justice) and cognisant of the small steps taken in nominal legislation that are giant steps towards national liberation.
Our gratitude is counterbalanced by our grumbling.
The government has begun to more than take us for granted. Previous administrations took rioters out by shooting them between the eyes. The incumbent coalition has taken us to the cleaners by pulling the wool over our eyes.
Shooting themselves and their late, great, anti-corruption project in the foot, ‘good’ government has shown its ‘bad’ side in fiascos such as the bond scandal and its ‘ugly’ facets in petty foibles such as the sacking of a recalcitrant justice minister.
CABINET IRRESPONSIBILITY Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was evicted from his powerful portfolio ostensibly because he abrogated cabinet responsibility. He backtracked on the government’s handing over of the Hambantota Port to China and rattled sabre about selling the family silver for a song over his dead body.
A previous regime would have gladly arranged that. The former justice minister got off lightly under the present administration – he lost his cabinet seat and not his capricious head.
There were other cantankerous characteristics that made the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) lawyer who turned into being a United National Party (UNP) champion of justice a thorn in the coalition’s side – so he had to go. But not as quietly into the night as the government would have liked. Rather, he went raging against the dying of the light on good governance, leaving the public with more questions than answers.
Was Rajapakshe shown the door because he was a bad justice minister or good for nothing in bankrolling the government’s development agenda? Or was there an uglier side – the support of chauvinists and suppression of politically explosive cases pending prosecution – that saw him dismissed?
Would bringing to book powerful bureaucrats under a previous regime compromise the presidential prospects of the major player in the coalition – if and when their alliance partner divorced his political bedmates to run free in 2020?
And would the realpolitik of bipartisan legislatures mean the UNP kept its enemy’s enemies close to use as bludgeons against an eventual contender as it’s now clear the incumbent president has executive aspirations?
TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN While this is the realm of speculation on social media, discontent grows in the ranks of the electorate, which until recently uncritically supported reformist agendas of the ‘national government’ for which they voted enthusiastically.
A plethora of factors has made the pendulum swing against the brand of coalition politics practised so pragmatically by our present governors.
These include allegations of corruption in cabinet ranks, as well as subsequent showcase transfers and resignations; perceptions of favouritism among party animals; and revelations about government ministers in backdoor deals with those who demonstrably don’t have the state’s good in mind. Those regrettable realities – and inescapable economic fundamentals and growing social unrest bruised with an iron fist – have distanced the state from its stakeholders, cooling the ardour of diehard defenders of democratic-republicanism.
It is whispered that it’s better to have a dangerous government that gets something done and does some good rather than a dull administration that does nothing but feather its nest…
There is growing sentiment against bipartisan politics because ‘these’ are the same as ‘those.’ There is no ‘new political culture’ but rather, a government and opposition monolith playing party games. While the reality is that this is part of a managed spectacle to strip the nation of its assets in the guise of serving the public.
SOME OF THE CHALLENGERS In this dismal milieu, and despite its insurgent past, I’m keeping an eye on the Janathā Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – the dark horse that never comes in, in the final furlong, but is always snapping at the field’s heels like a furious pacemaker.
Sunil Handunnetti’s sterling work for the Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE) is a case in point, and his party never misses an opportunity to highlight the bankruptcy of both the UNP and SLFP.
There’s a far less obvious challenge being mounted by the youthful spearhead of a socially active media house. And the powers that be had better begin worrying about credible contenders in the highest stakes who are actually making a difference on the ground to the electorate’s quality of life. But when you’re already swanning around like an emperor without clothes, perhaps the maharajahs of the masses mean little or nothing until they bite the hand that feeds them… or which they fed until recently.