My mother, had she lived, would have been 89 today. Mahinda Rajapaksa is 69, and today is also the 9th anniversary of his election to the Presidency. Given that the Constitution prescribes 6 year terms, it seems absurd that he is thinking of cutting short his Presidency yet again, and submitting himself for election for the third time. Given how exhausted he was during the Uva Campaign, it is worrying that he keeps going on and on with such campaigns, without reflecting on how much time he has spent in the last nine years in electioneering, time that could have been spent better in actually governing the country.
Indeed Sri Lanka now seems to have turned into a sort of Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, with everyone getting up and changing their seats whenever the mood takes them. Such practices reduce considerably the time for reflection, and in the case of politicians the planning and monitoring that is essential if they are to be taken seriously. The last time I spoke to the President about reforms, he told me that it was time now to concentrate on elections. But given the frenetic timetable he sets – or which is set for him by his advisers – it has become clear that there will probably never be time to think about the reforms the country needs.
The Left parties had suggested to him that he should not think of elections now, since he has two years more to go, and Parliament too can go on for over 18 months. They asked the Liberal Party too to support this stand, and we decided at our last Executive Committee meeting that we should urge constitutional and structural reforms. Unfortunately, given domination of government policy by a few confidantes of the President, nothing has been done about many of the good ideas the President had, since they do not relate to the concerns of the dominant minority.
Thus nothing has been done about Local Government Reform, save for reform of the electoral system, a good idea in itself had it not been accompanied by foolish details which meant it had again to be amended – after having been first withdrawn and then hastily reintroduced and passed. Meanwhile the act to give greater responsibility to local authorities languishes, as does the proposed Universities Act. The new Education Act, a draft of which was ready way back in 2010, is also on the back burner, while electoral reform for Parliament and for Provincial Councils, even more urgently needed than for Local Government bodies, seems to have been forgotten.
Indeed the current approach of government seems to be to compound the waste that our electoral system necessarily involves. One amongst many of its principal drawbacks is internal competition. This means candidates have to have limitless resources, given that they are competing against everyone on their party list for preferences – hence the waste and environmental damage caused by millions of posters, with the concomitant alcoholism and violence that the pasting of posters in competition with others gives rise to.
As though to promote waste, government has now devised a method of giving control of massive amounts of money to those who will have to face a Parliamentary election. Given that in recent times, and blatantly so in Uva, handouts have been considered the best way to win elections, we can expect massive expenditure, some of it derived from the two extra decentralized budgets that have been given to some government MPs – extending in some cases to over 600 million rupees.
Does the President not realize the waste that this approach to politics engenders, and the costs that will have to be met by future generations? Does he not realize that development needs to be planned carefully, and comprehensively, instead of being left to the predilections of individuals who are primarily concerned with short term popularity?
The reason I find this particularly depressing is that I had thought of the President as someone who studied his briefs carefully and made informed decisions about his ministerial responsibilities. I had reached this conclusion after my first proper meeting with him, soon after he became a Minister in President Kumaratunga’s first cabinet. Before that I had known him simply as yet another youngster my father had advised and helped, on the basis of his deep affection for his father, whom I remembered fondly from my visits to Parliament as a child.
I had of course known of the difficulties Mahinda Rajapaksa had faced in the South during the Jayewardena years, and in particular of his being arrested in the bye-election at Beliatta in the mid-eighties. I knew too that he had been involved in the Mothers’ Front with the mother of my friend Richard de Zoysa. But I had tended to think of him as a run of the mill politician, without much grasp of policy matters, and so I had been impressed when I found informed understanding of the rather difficult portfolio he had been given, Labour and Vocational Training. In addition, when he was transferred to Fisheries, which I had assumed he knew nothing about, he was imaginative and energetic. He was the first Minister in ages to promote Inland Fisheries, and did a great job before that was stopped, for reasons that were ridiculous, but which were certainly not his fault.
He also chose an excellent Secretary, when he became Prime Minister, which I thought boded well for the future. Presidents Jayewardene and Kumaratunga had gone on with old friends quite unsuited to their new responsibilities, but Lalith Weeratunge seemed on a par with K H J Wijayadasa who had been President Premadasa’s choice. So too, when President Kumaratunga was away when the tsunami struck, he had responded efficiently – which I think is one reason for the turmoil of President Kumaratunga’s last year in office, for she reacted badly, and set up her own teams which took attention away from subjects in which she had initiated much needed reforms.
President Rajapaksa certainly lived up to expectations in his first term in office. Militarily he destroyed the Tigers, internationally he kept opponents at bay and won the support of a majority of countries. He also developed infrastructure swiftly, completing a couple of projects that had been dormant for years, such as the Southern Highway.
What then has gone wrong in the last five years? Why are we not getting as much Foreign Direct Investment as seemed likely when peace was restored? Why has Tiger propaganda succeeded internationally, which was not the case before 2009? Why have we not harnessed the energies and goodwill of the vast majority of the diaspora (over 90% according to military intelligence) who were against terrorism and would have been happy to work in a united Sri Lanka, provided only that there was no discrimination against minorities? Why do the Muslims, who were generally supportive of the fight against the LTTE, now loathe the government?
Until three months ago, I thought that the President would understand the need for change when the unpopularity the government was facing became clear. I was sympathetic when, with his usual decency, he rang to apologize for not being able to attend my father’s funeral, for I knew well the challenge he was facing. He said he had to attend four openings, and I could see that there was no one else with even half his drawing power.
But after the Uva results came in, his immediate reaction seems to have been to go for broke. This was done without consultation of the party and a measure of the worry the SLFP feels is the altercation with Basil Rajapaksa, who had set up an election office without proper consultation. When this was followed by what seemed a gratuitous insult to the Pope, inviting whom had been a master stroke in electoral terms, I realized that a siege mentality had set in.
The President who saved the country from terrorism does not deserve this. But even though the blame must go to the rest who are sitting at the tea table and helping themselves, he must also accept some responsibility for the problems that now beset him and the country.