In a speech last week to the Rotary Club, I was asked to speak on Good Governance for Building a Nation. I based my speech on five principles which I can see are now being ignored. The lack of attention to two of them on the part of those supposed to be in charge of taking the business of government forward came home to me graphically last week, with regard to the mess over responding to the concerns I had put forward.
But I will leave these for the moment, and instead look at principles which are challenged because of the electoral system we have. I find it appalling that we seem to have neglected the promise in our manifesto to change the electoral system, since that lies at the heart of much prevalent abuse. I think Rev Sobitha was absolutely right to point out that we should not rush into elections without fulfilling our promises, and in particular the promise regarding electoral system change.
The 100 days programme is a means to an end, and I hope it will not end up being only propaganda that was used for the Presidential election. If we cannot do important things in 100 days, there will be nothing wrong in taking some time more to do them, as the Prime Minister himself said in Parliament in justifying some delays. But to see early elections as a necessity, and indeed to cry ‘Wolf’ and call for even earlier elections when challenges arise, is not a mature way to proceed.
One of the main reasons the present electoral system needs to be changed is that it promotes corruption. Honesty is one of the basic principles of Good Governance, but the system we have demands funds on a level that is almost impossible to command. Several years back, the editor of a leading newspaper told me that there were only 3 honest members of the then UNP Cabinet (and I have no doubt things were not much better in previous and in subsequent Cabinets). When the next election was held, one of them lost, and it seemed this was because he could not match his rivals within the party with regard to propaganda material.
This was Karunasena Kodituwakku, and the two others characterized as honest were able to get in because they did not need personal funds for propaganda. Ranil Wickremesinghe had the entire party machinery at his disposal, while Karu Jayasuriya had decided not to have posters, and was prominent enough to not need them. What happened to him at the next election, though, when he came lower than those with greater name recognition and the means to promote this, makes clear the need for personal propaganda based on one’s own resources.
J R Jayewardene recognized the need to provide politicians with additional funds, which was one excuse for the wheeze of providing parliamentarians and others with duty free vehicles. The last government went one step further and allowed for these vehicles to be transferred, but perhaps that was only to avoid hypocrisy, since everyone knew that most politicians were selling their permits. Indeed, when it became known that I had not made use of my permit – I have now, I should note, done so – several politicians, doubtless assuming I was naïve and wanting to be kind, offered to sell it on my behalf.
But money from the permit alone is not enough, for costs of winning election in a District have escalated since Jayewardene’s time. Rivalry between members of the same party is bitterer, as is obvious from the fact that most complaints about elections are intra-party. Also the stakes are higher, with family members now seeing it almost as a right to be on party lists, and knowing that their name recognition is higher and their claims to office will be the greater, simply because of blood lines, with no attention to merit
And I fear former President Mahinda Rajapaksa set the seal on ruination when he chose as his first Ministers from new entrants to Parliament two individuals who had topped Districts in elections, including Nishantha Muttuhettigama. Sadly, those with no understanding of the way representative democracy should work encourage such behavior by affecting to think that doing well in elections under the present system is a reason to assume executive responsibilities.
So the current system of election not only makes dishonesty almost a precondition of electoral success, it also militates against another principle of Good Governance, which is efficiency. When the Executive is selected on the basis of the performance of individuals in elections under this system, one is practically entrenching dishonesty and a propensity for violence. And we have made no effort to introduce with regard to elections another principle of Good Governance which might at least help with reducing some of the abuse.
This is transparency, but we seem loathe to introduce this with regard to elections, and to make use of what we do have to monitor the assets of those seeking and winning election. The meal we are making about dealing with corruption is symptomatic of a leadership that is aware that its own claims to supremacy are supported by those who will need to be corrupt to remain influential.
I had suggested instituting legislation to have mandatory monitoring of assets, and this could easily be done for Members of Parliament and those in positions of Executive Authority. Anyone with large increases should be questioned, and also those about whose assets information is received, whereas these have not been declared. Then, I am sure, something on the lines of the Thai investigations of those who are discovered to be ‘unusually rich’ would reap a productive harvest.
Similar legislation should be introduced with regard to those seeking election. Their assets acquired both before and after election should be subject to public scrutiny and they should also make declarations about what they spend in electioneering.
Forceful legislation in this area is desirable. But, I also think both politicians and the country could be saved a lot of trouble and expense if we moved swiftly on electoral reform.