Courtesy of the Daily News, 8 January 2016 …. http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=2016/01/08/features/seeing-believing
January 8, 2015 saw the courage of one man and the bold initiative of another, triumph over a regime that was marked by corruption – President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Great expectations are placed on this new regime though only a year old. January 8, 2016 marks one year in power that has seen the faith of their voters not disappointed with certain promises kept such as implementation of the 19th Amendment. Daily News speaks to Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu on how the country is being gradually moulded by the forces at work.
Q: January 8, 2016 marks one year in power for President Maithripala Sirisena. Looking back at the past year, how do you evaluate his performance? Has Maithripala Sirisena’s leadership proven to be different from that of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa? Or is he simply another ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’?
A: Maithripala Sirisena is certainly not another Mahinda Rajapaksa in terms of his style of governance and politics and the substance of both. It has been a tremendous year for him and a challenging one and on balance I think he has done well enough to ensure that the governance agenda, though still to be realized in full, has not been replaced.
Q: Have steps been taken by the Judiciary to hold all political figures suspected of misdemeanour accountable during this new regime? What steps have been taken by the government of Maithripala Sirisena to ensure that all who have broken the law face Justice?
A: I believe that the public perception of the judiciary and of the police force has changed from the all time low of the Rajapaksa regime. I believe too that the culture of impunity no longer holds and that steps, incremental though they may be and painfully slow in the eyes of some of the public, are being taken.
What needs to be borne in mind is the extent to which every institution and process of government and what passed for governance in this country, was corrupted by the previous regime.
It is going to take time to change this and therefore what is of paramount importance is that the leadership of the current government engage in public dialogue with citizens on what is being done, can be done and will be done. Also, why it takes time to collect hard evidence that will stand up in a court of law. Communication is vital.
Q: Has the President during his tenure fought corruption satisfactorily?
A: There is a growing public disquiet and cynicism on this front. The feeling is that nothing has been done and in some quarters, that nothing is being done. The complexity and sophistication of such crimes in the twenty first century and accordingly the challenge of collecting hard evidence for indictment and conviction should not be under-estimated.
There is no quick fix here. Media reports have indicated that on certain issues the President has taken the lead on ensuring that steps are taken even in the face of political opposition and reluctance to proceed.
What is clear is that the notion of accountability demands that demonstrable action be taken and that if this is not the case after one year in power, the president and the government will pay for it electorally.
Surely there are “low hanging fruit” as far as corruption is concerned; alternatively, given the resources available does it not make sense to focus resources on certain key cases in the first instance?
What is worrying on this score are the allegations of corruption and nepotism against his government which if allowed to go unchecked and not nipped in the bud, will be its downfall.
It would indeed be a tragedy if by the end of this year, the public will be pre-occupied with the growing corruption of this government, having forgotten about the whole-scale loot and plunder of its predecessor.
Inability or unwillingness and the public perception that this is the case are all fatal to functioning democracy in this country. Were all politicians to be thought to be alike and branded as dishonest, electoral democracy will be destroyed.
Q: How good is the Ranil and Maithripala combination in running the government?
A: There have been media reports about tension and mistrust. Moreover, a coalition government is susceptible to these strains and to a multiplicity of institutions and the resulting bane of incoherence. I believe that the two realize that they need each other, and therefore a political interdependence holds them together. It is absolutely vital that they sing from the same hymn sheet or else the enterprise is doomed. I think the real tests are to come in respect of the economy, transitional justice and a political and constitutional settlement of the ethnic question. I do believe, above all else, that these two leaders and cooperation between them is crucial to ensuring that we do not return to that dark past of the Rajapaksas.
Q: During the last year we saw the implementation of the 19th Amendment. Judging by his actions do you think the president will keep his promise to the people by abolishing the Executive Presidency? In that context, what is the importance of President’s initiative to change the constitution?
A: I do believe that the promise to abolish the executive presidency is a genuine one. This is essential for the return to full functioning democracy and therefore we must ensure that it is replaced in both form and substance and not merely in name.
Q: Will the current electoral system be replaced?
A: Yes. I believe that we will get a system combining both the first-past the post systems and proportional representation.
Q: Looking back at the past year what kind of direction has the country’s foreign policy taken? What are the implications of this change of direction?
A: The perception and reality of over-dependence on China has been changed and our foreign policy is more balanced. I do not accept the argument that this has been replaced by an over-dependence on the West and India.
A more balanced foreign policy will restore the options available to the state to pursue the national interest and to exercise full membership of the community of states.
Q: How has the economy of the country fared during the past year? The country is facing staggering debts. Has this government taken the necessary steps to address this problem and repay all these debts?
A: I will tell you that it is in the process of doing so! The way I see it, we will require an IMF package in the first quarter of this year and this will ensure a certain degree of fiscal discipline, which in turn may assuage the doubts of investors. The government needs to have a national dialogue on the economy and expose to the public the full extent of the loot and plunder of the previous regime so that people will understand that there is no easy way out. Furthermore, as the Prime Minister also indicated in his statement on the economic outlook, there are serious challenges – this country has an ageing population and the demographic profile of a developed country. The bloated public sector, for example, is unsustainable and the temptation to give in to populism on this front must be resisted. The challenge is the political fall out and that is why the government needs to carry the people along with it through dialogue.
Q: If you take the Budget of 2016 how well has it served the public? How different is it from the budgets during the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa?
A: The issue with the budget is that there is still uncertainty and confusion as to what it exactly entails. This is an absurd situation and it has exposed the susceptibility of this dispensation to cave in to pressure.
Most of public policy under the Rajapaksas, if not all of it, was depressingly, desperately unique!
Q: Recently we saw some derogatory behaviour at a recent concert of Enrique Inglesias. The President was very critical of the behaviour of certain attendees. Do you feel during this regime the President has been able to rejuvenate our cultural values?
A: The president’s remarks in this respect went viral on social media. At the beginning of 2015 he hit the world’s headlines for the most sublime reasons and at the end of the year, with all due respect, for ridiculous ones.
The mere existence of this regime has rejuvenated the cultural values of democracy and governance – the ones I think that matter – and more strength to their elbow to institutionalize them once more at the heart of government and public life.
Q: One of President Sirisena’s promises was to curb or eliminate certain practices under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government such as Casinos, Ethanol usage and drug trafficking. Has this promise been kept?
A: Yes, as far as I know. Vigilance, ensuring the proper functioning of law and order, continue nevertheless to be required to ensure that these problems do not return.