THE resignation of minister Ravi Karunanayake due to a disclosure of conflict of interest in the issue concerning the central bank bon scam appears to have galvanised the government to take action against its political opponents whom it accused of far worse wrongs, including murder. Much to its chagrin the government has found that the reforms it has instituted, in particular to empower state institutions to act independently, are being used more resolutely by those who wish to undermine it than by the government itself. Two examples would be the protests against the lease of the Hambantota port to China and the SAITM private medical school, the grounds for both of which were laid by the previous government.
When the electorate voted at the presidential and general elections for change of government, they did so because the promises that the new government leaders made were ones they could identify with. The pledges to bring those accused of vast corruption and abuse of power under the former government, and to institute good governance by reinstating the rule of law took centre stage in the government’s election campaign. Today the disillusionment of the electorate is primarily due to these promises not being delivered on. Their disillusionment is increased by the failure of the government to deliver economic benefits to the masses who are struggling to keep afloat amidst the rising cost of living.
Despite the failures of the government its continuing strength comes in two ways. The first is that people continue to hope that it will deliver on its promises, as they have no alternative to go to if good governance and the protection of human rights are to be their goals. The second is that the government has delivered on the most important aspect of governance, which is to give them a sense of security that their human right will not be subjected to arbitrary violation. During the period of the last government this latter fear was widely prevalent. Even people in business, and those at the grassroots, who were far from the centres of power, feared for their lives on this count. They felt that there was impunity in the system and those at lower levels too could take the law into their own hands.
THE opposition continues to pay a high political price due to its inability to convince the masses of people that if they come back to power the abuses of the past will not come back with them. Due to the opposition’s failure to provide an alternative vision of good governance it is the vision of the present government that continues to prevail. So far the opposition is only able to show the government’s failure to do what it promised. The opposition leadership takes satisfaction in calling the government’s performance to be ‘yamapalanaya’ (rule of dark forces) as against ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance). The problem with this critique is that the opposition has not yet made a serious attempt to admit its violations in the past, and promise not to repeat them. This is the opposition’s biggest liability.
The memory of Rathupaswela, where crack troops of the army were ordered by the previous government to attack villagers engaging in non-violent protest against their drinking water being poisoned by industrial waste still remains in the mind of people. This is one of several such incidents. Although the present government is criticised for being too weak to put an end to the continuous protests against it, there is recognition that it is not suppressing protests by means of terror tactics as in the past. As a result most people are willing to look to the government to implement its promises regarding good governance and when it does there is satisfaction about the progress.
The progress of the presidential commission to investigate the central bank bond scandal is a strong point in the government’s favour. It is generally acknowledged that such a commission could not have functioned under the previous government. The manner in which the commissioners have conducted themselves and the willingness of the attorney general’s department to cross examine senior government leaders as they would any other person is a testament to the improved independence of state institutions. The resignation of the former foreign minister due to the existence of a situation of conflict of interest is an outcome of the government being held accountable. The sacking of the minister of justice due to his non-cooperative attitude on the prosecution of corruption cases against members of the former government is another indication that the government is getting serious about delivering results to the people.
THE government is pledging to speed up the corruption cases against members of the former government who have been continuing to behave and speak as if they have nothing in the world to be worried about. The government’s new decisiveness is also shown in the manner in which it passed the local government election amendment law. Previously the complaint of independent monitors and the opposition was that the government was dragging out the amendment process to stall local government elections as long as it could. The local government elections are over two years overdue. The government seemed to be in no hurry to expedite the passage of the law. It was universally criticised for this failure.
The passage of the local government election amendment law now suggests that the government has decided to take the bull by the horns and hold the elections and prove its mettle. It may be with this in mind that it reduced taxes on a number of items, including internet usage and small motorcycles, which would benefit a larger number of people, although in a limited manner. In addition, the government has allocated Rs 20 million to each parliamentarian to do development work in their electorates by improving the rural infrastructure under the supervision of former minister Karunanayake. These are all indication that the government is getting itself prepared to hold the long delayed local government elections.
The reluctance of the government to hold those elections earlier was generally attributed to the problem that the government would encounter when its two main coalition partners, the UNP and the SLFP, had to contest each other. It was believed that in the heat of the electoral contest, the working relationship between members of these two parties would get further weakened as they would have to treat each other as rivals to the detriment of the government of national unity. The sudden willingness of the government to go in for the local government elections gives rise to the possibility that the government may be thinking of replicating its successful strategy adopted at the presidential election. On that occasion it contested as a united front under the common symbol of the swan.
Jehan Perera is the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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