Escapology, waiting game and gambling

Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya.

Vishvanath

The nail of the little finger of your left hand has grown imperceptibly over the weeks and the ugly patch of ‘indelible’ ink, applied thereon at the Feb. 10 local government election, has vanished.  A healthy finger nail is said to grow at a rate of 3 mm a month. And, a wag says this is the pace at which the government has set about getting the newly elected local government bodies to function. Some of these institutions have begun functioning nearly one and a half months after the elections thereto while in others are still in suspended animation because the winning parties have failed to secure a working majority.

The new electoral system has been blamed for causing chaos at the local government level. But, it is not the main culprit. Even those who are critical of it had a say in the process of formulating it and they should have taken up its flaws while it was still on the anvil. The National Election Commission (NEC) can’t absolve itself of the responsibility for the present situation. Nor can the government, which would perhaps have got all councils set up by now if it either the UNP or the UPFA had won the Feb. 10 polls. Issues pertaining to female representation have been sorted out, we are told. Why couldn’t the government and the NEC make a serious attempt to do so earlier?

There are about 167 hung councils. The SLFP/UPFA claims to hold the balance of power in a majority of them. UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera has bragged that the SLFP will decide the best deals for it in those LG bodies. In other words, horse trading is now on! A lot of money will change hands and souls will be sold to the devil. That is the name of the game in Sri Lanka politics, where one doesn’t scruple to cheat one’s mother if that helps one further one’s interests.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks during a news conference after the local government election in 2017.

The SLFP/UPFA is also in a dilemma. It campaigned against both the SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna)/JO (Joint Opposition) and the UNP at the Feb. 10 polls. While seeking a mandate to bring the SLPP/JO big guns to justice over corruption President Maithripala Sirisena flayed the UNP for the country’s appalling economic performance; he went so far as to promise that he would take over economic management first thing after the conclusion of the election. But, that pledge, too, has been reneged. On the one hand, the SLFP/UPFA cannot join forces with the SLPP to control the hung councils, having condemned the latter as an outfit of crooks and, on the other, it cannot coalesce with the UNP, which it painted a black picture of while promising to form an SLFP government. Above all, President Sirisena sought to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the UNP leader.

Having turned the tables on President Sirisena the SLFP rebels are confident of grabbing the reins of the party. There is very little the President can do to prevent further erosion of his support base and crossovers at the local government level. He has threatened to sack all the newly elected councillors who step out of line. But, such threats are not likely to have the desired impact; they won’t help instill fear into the councillors to the extent of preventing them from switching their allegiance to the SLPP.  For, the public perception is that the days of the current SLFP leadership are numbered.

The SLFP finds itself in an unenviable position. If it chooses to remain neutral in the hung councils it will have a hard time retaining its councillors who know which way the wind is blowing and which side their bread is buttered. They will back the SLPP or even the UNP, depending on what they will get in return. It may be recalled that among the SLFP Ministers who were expected to cross over to the UNP to form a new government in the wake of the Feb. 10 drubbing were some trusted lieutenants of President Sirisena. Minister Amaraweera has sought to put a bold face on the situation, but lost between a rock and a hard place, the SLFP leaders must be having sleepless nights.

PC polls on the horizon

There has been a call for provincial council elections to be held under the Proportional Representation system as the new electoral system has led to utter chaos at the local government level. The government is likely to heed this proposal in a bid to postpone the PC polls further. Among the critics of this proposal is Member of the National Election Commission Prof. Rathnajeevan Hoole, who has pointed out the need to retain the women’s quota of seats.

Prof. Hoole has a point. Women deserve adequate representation in political institutions. If the baby is not to be thrown out with the bathwater, some amendments have to be made to the hybrid electoral system, which is a mess in its present form. It is said that Albert Einstein, when he had to gain some knowledge of the US politics as a requirement for receiving American citizenship, racked his brains, unable to understand the process of electing the US President. He famously said he couldn’t understand the Electoral College mechanism. If he was alive today he would say the same thing about Sri Lanka’s new electoral system.

The Additional List from which councillors are appointed under the Proportional Representation system should be pruned drastically and the cut-off point reintroduced to prevent the parties which lose their deposits from securing seats. This will also solve the problem of the public being burdened with too many councillors. The number of local government members has doubled to more than 8,000 owing to the Additional List.

Assisted by family and well-wishers, Colombo’s first woman Mayor Rosy Senanayake dons the Mayoral Robe as she prepares to take office at the Colombo Municipal Council on March 22, 2018. Photo, courtesy www.CeylonToday.lk

New laws can be brought in to make it mandatory for political parties to nominate more female candidates to contest under the first-past-the-post system so that women as well as all those who are for increasing female representation will have an opportunity elect them. Most of all, provision must be made for the winning party to receive bonus seats so as to lower the possibility of councils being hung.

Rollercoaster trials

The national economy is in the doldrums. A non-academic workers’ strike has crippled the universities. The government is doing preciously little to solve the problem. The private medical college issue also remains unsolved. Many development projects are at a standstill for want of funds. The entire state sector is characterised by tardiness. But, the government has suddenly awoken to the need for expediting High Court trials as regards corruption charges. If it succeeds in its endeavour to set up special High Courts there will rollercoaster trials. The dispensation of justice should not be a form of public entertainment.

A bad workman always blames his tools. Similarly, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government is blaming the existing laws to cover up its failure to bring the corrupt politicians of the last government to justice. It has had all the time in the world since the 2015 regime change to do so. Its failure is due to several reasons, the main being that the culprits covered their tracks and the yahapalana politicians who undertook to catch thieves got involved in corruption themselves. The mega bond scam is a case in point. It is the Feb. 10 election drubbing that has jolted the government into expediting the legal process in a bid to regain public support which is on the wane and hold its opponents at bay. What the government has, out of its desperation, undertaken is akin to operating a bullet train on the ailing coastal line; the project is bound to end in disaster.

Justice delayed is also said to be justice denied. But, hurrying justice is tantamount to burying it. Anything bearing an iota of resemblance to show trials and kangaroo courts is to be avoided if the public is not to lose faith in the judicial system, which is the linchpin of the state. It is said that justice must not only be done but also manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.

All those who helped themselves to public funds and/or benefited from corrupt deals at the expense of the national interest must be made to pay for their crimes. Let there be no argument on that score. Deterrent punishment is called for. But, targeting government’s rivals while cases against other offenders like murderers, rapists and fraudsters are moving at a snail’s pace is not the way to set about the task. There is a pressing need for eliminating laws delays. What the government should do is to set up courts with necessary resources, both physical and human, to clear all the backlogs of cases including those against its opponents. This will also help counter efforts by the corrupt elements of the last regime to make themselves out to be the victims of a witch hunt and gain public sympathy.

One may recall that the Rajapaksa government subjected war-winning Army Commander and unsuccessful Opposition Presidential Candidate Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to an express trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to jail. But, the Rajapaksa government failed to convince the public that justice had been done. Fonseka became a hero of sorts. The same is true of the ‘impeachment’ of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake. She became a heroine.

Hence, the need for the government to follow proper process and procedure in dealing with all suspected offenders, especially those who are politically active and popular! For, in politics, perception matters as much as reality.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.

PM bounces back

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has once again demonstrated that he is a political escapologist par excellence. He put paid to numerous attempts to put him in a straitjacket, clip his wings and even smoke him out while he was in the Opposition. Some of his rivals even attacked the UNP headquarters, Sirikotha, in a desperate bid to get rid him. But, he stayed put and the Rajapaksas in power at that time were blamed for shielding him. Every time he got into trouble and hordes were at the Sirikotha gate, the Rajapaksas had the roads near Sirikotha repaired so that access to that place could be drastically restricted and mobs kept at bay. Now, the Rajapaksas would have us believe that they want to remove Ranil as the PM. How serious are they?

Ranil has manifestly bounced back and is reasserting himself. People were given to understand that President Sirisena had disbanded the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management, headed by the PM. But, Ranil has summoned two or three meetings of that committee thus giving the lie to the SLFP’s claim that the President is serious about taking over economic management. Or, the President’s diatribe against the UNP for poor economic management was only part of some kind of pre-election drama the SLFP staged to retain its anti-UNP votes, which would otherwise have gone to the SLPP?

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is out of power because he as well as his inner circle gambled away their electoral fortunes. Now, the Joint Opposition (JO), led by him has taken a huge gamble in undertaking to move a vote of no confidence against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

The JO is faced with the daunting task of mustering the required numbers for its passage in Parliament. It has had to swallow its pride and appeal to President Maithripala Sirisena, who leads the SLFP, for his backing for the no-faith motion. The President, true to form, is playing his usual waiting game. Even if the SLFP throws its weight behind the JO, they will have only 95 seats between them; they will still be short of 18 MPs to steer their motion to a successful conclusion. The JVP has refused to be counted in, finding fault with the contents of the motion at issue. The TNA won’t vote against the PM.

The JO’s no-faith motion is fraught with the danger of boomeranging. The PM is in a position to turn the no-faith motion into a vote of confidence in his favour by getting his MPs to defend him during the parliamentary debate thereon before voting against the motion. The JO might provide the UNP, which is currently in disarray, with a fresh rallying point; a possible defeat in Parliament will belie its claim that it is capable of forming a government. Former President Rajapaksa has, apparently acting on wrong advice, undertaken a task which is akin to running his head against a crumbling brick wall slap bang in a bid to precipitate its collapse. All signs are that the wall will withstand the head-butt.

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