Articles by Dr Jehan Perera

A year ago a contractor whom I spoke to rejoiced that corruption was much reduced under the new government. He said that the minister in charge of his area of work had merely asked for a donation to be made to support a public institution. Though this donation had nothing to do with the contract, he was happy to oblige, as it was for a public cause and not for the minister’s personal pocket. When I met this same contractor last week he was a disillusioned man. He said that business was good, but that corruption had gone sky high, and there was no limit to what was now demanded. Although perhaps still less than it was under the previous government, corruption is on the rise and is likely to get worse unless government policy changes and there is the political will to implement it right from the top.

The government has been dogged by negative public opinion on its failure to tackle what it promised during its election campaigns of two years ago. In the public perception it has yet to satisfactorily tackled corruption, bring about visible economic development or ensure the correction of war-related injustices. It has been losing popularity due to its inability to defend its performance on these issues. Marriages of convenience tend to get weakened in times of prolonged stress. There has been open bickering between the two main constituent parties of the government alliance. It is no surprise in this context that the government has been balking at facing local government elections. These have been postponed on various grounds for the past two years. The government’s justification with regard to not holding the local government elections has been wearing thin.

The constitutional reform process appeared to be on track with the presentation of the report of the Public Representations Committee in June last year followed by the reports of the six parliamentary subcommittees in November. However, time tables and road maps are necessarily contingent. Whether the time frames or the targets to meet are realistic will also depend on the actions of others and cannot be exactly predicted. The government’s most ambitious reform project is the drafting of a new constitution. This could change the power balance between the different branches of government, the ethnic communities and between the government and people. It would hardly be cause for surprise if the time frame for constitutional reform changes or the content of the envisaged reforms themselves should be revised.

The formation of the Government of National Unity in the aftermath of the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election of January 2015 generated hopes of a rejuvenation of the polity and the unleashing of its full post-war economic potential. However, much to the disappointment of those who believed in the new government, the rift between the UNP and SLFP, which are the two main constituent parties of the government, appears to be increasing with the passage of time. At its root is the perennial quest of politicians and political parties for power, to gain it, keep it and not to lose it.

The change of government that took place in 2015 gave rise to much hope that the new government would solve the most intractable problem that the country faces, and resolve the ethnic conflict that has been a festering sore from the time of Independence in 1948. It is not as if sincere efforts at problem solving were not made in the past. But a notable feature of past attempts at ethnic problem solving was that they were made by one of the two major political parties, while the other remained in opposition. The lesson of history is that the party in opposition always did its best to scuttle the efforts of the party in government in order to come back to power using unleashed emotions of nationalism. The failed solutions of 1957 (Banda Chelva Pact), 1965 (Dudley-Chelva Pact), 1987 (Indo Lanka Accord), 2000 (Chandrika Constitution) and 2002 (Ceasefire Agreement) provide a dismal testament to this reality.

The change of government that took place in 2015 gave rise to much hope that the new government would solve the most intractable problem that the country faces, and resolve the ethnic conflict that has been a festering sore from the time of Independence in 1948. It is not as if sincere efforts at problem solving were not made in the past. But a notable feature of past attempts at ethnic problem solving was that they were made by one of the two major political parties, while the other remained in opposition. The lesson of history is that the party in opposition always did its best to scuttle the efforts of the party in government in order to come back to power using unleashed emotions of nationalism. The failed solutions of 1957 (Banda Chelva Pact), 1965 (Dudley-Chelva Pact), 1987 (Indo Lanka Accord), 2000 (Chandrika Constitution) and 2002 (Ceasefire Agreement) provide a dismal testament to this reality.

The disquiet about the government’s commitment to deliver on its promises is now extending itself to those sections of the international community that gave their support to the government on the basis of its commitment to human rights and reconciliation. The sense of disenchantment amongst the general population is also getting more pronounced. The common factor is the failure of the government to deliver on its promises. With regard to the general population it is the continuing failure to deliver economic development that directly benefits those who depend on governmental largesse to get them out of poverty. It is also the ineffectiveness of the government’s anti-corruption programme that is reflected in the failure to take cases through to their conclusion.

The reality that Sri Lanka is a country in transition was brought to the fore once again when the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms presented its final report to the government. Task Force members expected their report to be presented to President Maithripala Sirisena in view of its importance. They delayed issuing their report for several weeks on account of the difficulty of obtaining a time when the President could be present. With the date fixed the presentation ceremony was held at the Presidential Secretariat. But unfortunately, the President failed to turn up at the last minute. The organizers informed those gathered on the occasion, that he had fallen sick. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga accepted the report on behalf of the government. Making a brief intervention she said that the present moment was an opportune one in which a solution to the protracted ethnic conflict could be found.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has predicted the collapse of the government in the New Year and his return to power. He is demonstrating the same tenacity that stood him in good stead during his long stint in politics prior to rising to become the undisputed leader of the country. He was kept down by his party leaders but prevailed in the end. After his unexpected defeat at the presidential election of January 2015 that he called prematurely he has been tenaciously struggling to stage a political come back to the centre stage of power. Together with his supporters in the Joint Opposition he has been able to demonstrate mass support among a section of the people on numerous occasions but so far has been unable to convert that into real power.

The more positive way to view the year 2016 that comes to a close this week is that it was about the government preparing for the changes to come in 2017. This period of preparation must necessarily change into one of materializing of plans if the support of those who voted to bring the government to power is to be sustained. Apart from the lifting of the thrall of fear, everything else appears to be in a preparatory stage instead of being susceptible to speedy implementation. This is leading to erosion in public confidence in the government although there is no indication as yet that the political opposition is getting substantially stronger. In the coming period there will be three areas of governance in which the government will need to show evidence of results that are tangible. These would be in the areas of corruption, economic development and political reforms that address the ethnic conflict.