Rejuvenating Lanka: A Good Governance Plan for 2020

SWR de “Sam” Samarasinghe, in Sunday Island, 16 September 2018, where the title reads “A strategy and programme for Yaha Paalanaya 2020″”

Many Sri Lankans are frustrated with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for having failed to deliver good governance (Yaha Paalanaya – YP) and competent economic management. But lack of success with YP2015 is not a reason to abandon the concept of Yaha Paalanaya. We need a YP2020 to make a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.


YP2020 needs a better strategy than the one in 2015. Such a strategy can consist of the following five components.

Analysis of YP2015 for lessons learned to design a better YP2020

Identify the key components of 2020 election strategy and program

Implementation of the 2020 strategy

Role of civil society in 2020.

* Transitional provisions

Part I: Lessons from Yaha Paalanaya 2015

Bribery and Corruption

In the 2015 election, about 50% of the voters considered bribery and corruption as a “major” issue with lack of law and order and bad governance coming a close second with 40%. Many Sri Lankans believe that both main political parties are very corrupt; “Degollama ekawagay horu” (Both (main parties) are equally (bad) crooks). Circumstantial evidence of widespread corruption is seen in how MPs and ministers get very wealthy very quickly after being in office for a period of time. Successive governments have failed to investigate allegations of bribery. But occasionally hard facts come to light. One is the recent revelation of a Chinese contractor paying the 2015 Mahinda Rajapaksa election campaign Rs 1,170m ($7.8m.). The Central Bank Bond scandal in which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is implicated is another. The public perception is that the Rajapaksa regime was corrupt and YP2015 is no different.

Economic Mismanagement

In every recent Sri Lankan election the top priority for voters has been the cost of living, jobs and adequate income. The second main reason for voter frustration is gross economic mismanagement. Both the Rajapaksa government as well as YP2015 have been guilty of that.

1. Budget deficits: In recent years the government has spent about 40% more than it collected in revenue, and covered about half of the deficit with foreign loans. In the last three decades all governments have failed to collect a reasonable amount in taxes from the wealthy.

2. Unproductive public investment: Public funds have been wasted on high profile projects: Examples – Mattala International Airport (cost Rs 30,000m.); Hambantota Port (cost Rs 225,000m.), and Norocholai Lakvijaya coal-fired power plant (cost Rs 200,000m.) that frequently breaks down and reportedly has outdated technology. The government handed over the Hambantota Port plus 15,000 acres of land adjacent to the port to China for 99 years and got about Rs 150,000m. ($960m.) to service the foreign debt. On top of that the government is now planning to borrow another Rs 200,000m. from China.

3. Inflation of money paid to contractors for personal gain. During the second term of the Rajapaksa administration several roads were “improved” with China’s Exim bank loans taken at a rate of Rs 120m. per km. The principal contractors were Chinese firms that were paid about Rs 70m. to Rs 80m. per km, and they in turn paid the local contractors that did the actual work Rs 45m. to Rs 60m. per km. In comparison the major “rehabilitation” (2003-2007) of Gampola-Nawalapitiya-Nuwara Eliya 71 km road on hilly terrain financed with Japanese funding cost only Rs 44.0m per km. There has been no official explanation for the massive margins that were taken by the Exim Bank and the Chinese contractors for the road projects after 2009. It is suspected that there were substantial kickbacks to many parties, local and foreign.

4. Mismanagement of State-Owned Enterprises (SOE): Both governments are guilty of this. For example, Sri Lankan Airlines under professional management earned a profit of Rs 4,400m. in 2008. After Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed his brother-in-law as the CEO of the company, it started making massive losses. In 2015 the loss was Rs 107,000m. In 2015 Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed mostly his cronies to run the airline with equally poor results. “In 2016 the company lost Rs 12,000m and in 2017 Rs 28,000m. ”

5. Weak economic growth: Sri Lanka has failed to realize its full development potential under the present system: In 1976, the per capita income of Sri Lanka was around $200, Malaysia $860, and South Korea $670. In 2016 the figures were Sri Lanka $3,840, Malaysia $9,650 and South Korea $28,380.

The public’s perception of YP2015 economic mismanagement is so strong that many openly declare that they would rather have the “competent” crooks of the pervious administration than the “incompetent” crooks of the present administration. But this is a misnomer. Stealing public funds while doing some work is not a qualification to rule the country. Under the reforms proposed below no corruption, big or small, will be tolerated

The above are not mainly “economic” problems but problems of politics and governance.


Rajapaksa democracy: Rajapaksa gets full credit for preserving universal franchise, holding a presidential election, and leaving office following the defeat. But the Rajapaksa government also made moves to undermine democracy. For example, the 18th amendment to the Constitution moved the presidency in an authoritarian direction. The Chief Justice was impeached and dismissed for political reasons. Recently a leading monk suggested that Sri Lanka needs a Gotabhaya Rajapaksa presidency that will mimic that of Hitler.

YP2015 Democracy: People have more freedom under YP2015There is no longer fear of white vans picking up critics of the government and make them disappear. But there are also serious blemishes. For example, the government has postponed elections for partisan reasons. It is yet to fully resolve the “missing persons” problem and find a lasting political solution to the ethnic problem.

Part II: 2020 Election

There is talk of a YP candidate that civil society activists wish to sponsor. Such a candidate has almost no prospect of winning, unless he or she has the support of a major political party.

If the three most likely candidates contest in 2020, Sirisena (UPFA/SLFP) would get about 10% to 15% of the total vote, Wickremesinghe or Premadasa (UNP) about 40% and a Rajapaksa (SLPP) about 45%. These calculations are based on the results of the 2015 election and the 2018 local government election. Even if this prediction is wrong and either Sirisena or the UNP candidate wins, there is no reason to believe that there would be an improvement in governance in Sri Lanka. All three parties have broken promises in the past. As the former editor of the Sinhala weekly RavayaVictor Ivan suggests, they are likely to do so again unless there are fundamental constitutional and institutional reforms accompanied by a sound strategy to improve the system of governance.

YP2020 Strategy

1. The anti-SLPP/Rajapaksa forces must unite under a NEW YP2020 Program that will genuinely fight corruption, improve economic management, make the system socially and economically more equitable, and find solutions to the grievances of the minorities.

2. Voters and civil society must insist on NEW checks and balances in the system that will make the political leaders adhere to YP2020.

3. Identify political leaders who are willing to accept, own and implement such a program.

4. The average voter has to be convinced – a difficult but not impossible task – that YP2020 will actually deliver on the promises made.

5. A mechanism outside government and functioning under civil society must be established to monitor the progress of YP2020.

Reforms for YP2020

The following can be the main components of the new YP2020 Reform Program. But compromise may be required to get the agreement of politicians who have the power to decide.

1. A Strong Executive Presidency must be retained but strictly subject to the Rule of Law. Justification: (i) A strong and clean government that strictly functions under the rule of law is the best government for the country that has to cope with a globalized and highly competitive 21stcentury world (The J R Jayewardene executive presidency gave unfettered powers to the office. The 19th amendment clipped its powers too much virtually paralyzing it. The challenge is to find a happy medium.) (ii) Choosing an executive president in a national election empowers the ethnic minorities and smaller political parties. (iii) It is false to assume that the old Westminster prime ministerial system guarantees good governance. In the period 1970-77 governance deteriorated under that system.

2. Need for a Vice President (VP) or Prime Minister (PM): Such an office will be necessary in case the president resigns or is incapacitated. The method of selecting a VP or PM – alternatives includes choosing from within parliament, directly by the people and so on – can be discussed and decided when constitutional reforms are made after the 2020 election.

3. The Executive President shall appoint his cabinet and deputy ministers from outside the parliament. This is a radical departure from the existing system. Justification: (i) 225 MPs do not constitute a good talent pool to run the executive branch of government. The president elected by the people must be able to have the best available talent in the country to govern. (ii) The proposed system gives people in the private sector a chance to serve the nation and the private sector benefits from the experience in the public sector. (iii) This system also allows the President to choose individuals across party lines.

4. Parliament shall be strengthened to make it more powerful and more efficient to perform its main tasks – making law, control public finances, and hold the executive branch – not more than 25 ministries – fully accountable. How parliament is strengthened under the proposed system: (i) Reform and strengthen the all-party parliamentary committees to supervise, investigate and hold accountable all ministers and officials: one committee for each Ministry plus sub-committees as needed. An MP from the majority party will chair the committee and the vice-chair will be an MP from the opposition. (ii) The President shall nominate ministers, and will have the power to dismiss them. But parliament has to approve appointments by a simple majority. (iii) Today the basic salary of an MP is only Rs. 54,285 plus some allowances. This is grossly inadequate. MPs who are independently wealthy can manage. Others, if even honest when they are elected, will be tempted to take bribes to survive. Under the proposed system MPs will be paid a very adequate salary to match their responsibilities and obligations and provided with offices, staff and other facilities to function effectively.

5. An independent Ministry of Justice is essential to reduce bribery and corruption and maintain rule of law. All institutions such as the Attorney General’s Department, Auditor General’s Department. Police, Judiciary, Bribery Commission, Elections Commission, Independent Procurement Commission, Office of Government Ethics (to be created), and so on should be attached to the Ministry of Justice. The Minster of Justice, once appointed by the president, should be allowed to function independently. She or he is answerable only to parliament and not to the president or prime minister. The Justice Minister will have the right to attend cabinet meetings. The Justice Minister can be removed from office only by impeachment approved by a vote of two thirds of all MPs. The Justice Minster will be accountable to the Parliamentary Committee for Justice.

6. Campaign finance reform to provide public funding, limit private funding, and ban foreign funding: Justification: (i) Public funding will make for a more level playing field for all parties and all candidates (ii) The current practice of the rich and the powerful funding campaigns and then demanding favours from politicians leading to corruption will be discouraged. (iii) Foreign funding of any type undermines democracy, encourages corruption and subverts sovereignty.

7. Prohibition of Nepotism: The President, Vice President (or Prime Minster), Cabinet Minsters and Deputy Cabinet Ministers and MPs as well as other elected officials at the provincial and local level will be prohibited by law from appointing any member of the immediate family to any public office and to any position in state-owned or state run agencies and enterprises. Justification: Such appointments lead to corruption, inefficiency and destroy integrity of the public sector.

8. Devolution will be enhanced using a formula such as Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “13th Amendment Plus” to empower provincial councils (PC) and local government authorities (LGA): Justification: (i) The Tamils in the north in particular will be more contended with enhanced devolution (ii) Devolution correctly designed and deployed can be a tool to promote national unity. (iii) Devolution can accelerate development because it will mobilize more local resources. (iv) While Colombo makes national policy, PCs and LGA can be required to impalement them adjusted to suit local conditions. This will improve efficiency and help minimize Central Government-PC clashes. (v) Devolution will help promote horizontal (geographic) equity.

YP2020 will have to handle very many other difficult problems. But those are secondary issues and not central to the YP2020 project that is proposed here.

Part III- Implementation of the YP2020 Strategy

The “New” YP2020 Coalition: A new YP program will be irrelevant if the 2020 election becomes a three-cornered contest that the SLPP is likely to win. Going by what SLPP leaders say and do today, it is doubtful that the party would accept and implement a YP2020 Program along the lines proposed above.

The essential pre-condition for a New YP Program is the formation of new YP coalition. In practice it will be a reincarnation of the 2015 coalition. UNP as the main political party will have to give leadership. Smaller parties representing ethnic minorities will have to support it. It is desirable that the JVP and other smaller parties in the South also give the coalition at least qualified support.

Politicians will Own YP2020 In 2015 the voter was given the impression that the civil society group under Rev. Sobitha had ownership of the YP agenda. This was a major strategic error. After the election both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe walked away from the program when it suited them. This mistake has to be corrected for 2020. The ownership should be with the politicians who promise the voter that they would deliver good governance. They alone have the power to do it. They, and not civil society leaders, must be held responsible.

Which Politicians?

Sri Lankan voters want new and younger leadership now. Those younger leaders must take ownership of YP2020. By 2020 twelve cabinet ministers, including Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will be 70 or above. They and other veteran politicians in the governing coalition and also in opposition parties should retire by 2020 to make way for younger leaders of which there are plenty. The tension between the UNP old guard and the younger leaders that has been evident for sometime, was again on display at 72nd anniversary celebrations of the party held last week. While Wickremesinghe was talking about a transition in 2030 some younger members who spoke to the media were talking about a transition now.

Some of the veteran politicians in the 60-69 age group may choose to remain in politics, especially to pass on their experience to the younger leaders. By 2020 the UNP will have a minimum 50 MPs under the age of 60 with Sajith Premadasa (53) as the most prominent among them that can take over. Itwould be highly desirable if younger politicians such as UPFA’s Duminda Dissanayaka (41), JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayaka (50), JHU’s Champika Ranawaka (55), Tamil Progressive Alliance’s Palany Thigambaram (53) and TNA’s N. Sumanthiran (56) from the smaller political parties and their other younger party colleagues also take part ownership of the YP2020 agenda.

Convincing the Public

The 2015 experience has made Sri Lankan voters very cynical of promises of good governance in a generic sense. To overcome that cynicism YP2020 must be a formal “People’s Agreement for Good Governance.” It can be signed by the political parties that join the coalition plus representatives of civil society in a major public event, perhaps with the blessings of the religious leaders, in a venue such as Kandy in front of the Sri Dalada Maaligawa.

Common Candidate

This is the most difficult question to answer. Only a politically powerful candidate will be able to face the SLPP/Rajapaksa challenge. The two veterans that are available are Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. The reality is that Sirisena, for all his faults, is considered as the more acceptable of the two to a broad cross section of voters. Sirisena will be in a very strong position to win if he gets the full backing of the UNP, especially the younger generation of leaders, because his (SLFP) vote base of about 10% (about 13% of the Sinhalese vote) plus the UNP’s 25% (about 33% of the Sinhalese vote) and the Tamil and Muslim minority base of about 18% (about 75% of the minority vote) add up to an unbeatable 53% and very likely a little more. In such an arrangement the younger generation of MPs will have to hold Sirisena strictly accountable to implement the YP2020 agenda in full. Failure to do so should result in impeachment of the president. The public cannot be let down again.

Part IV – Role of Civil Society

In 2015 Rev. Sobitha did not have a formal organization with a secretariat to perform the duties of civil society in YP more effectively. This was a serious shortcoming. Civil Society leaders and organizations in 2020 (Civil Society Group – CSG-2020) must have a formal organization.

Pre-election: The principal pre-election functions of CSG-2020 will include the following (i) helping the cooperating political parties in the fleshing out of the strategy and program for 2020, (ii) assist in the drafting of the People’s Agreement for Good Governance, (iii) help the political parties to organize a public signing ceremony of the Agreement in Kandy(iv) assist in choosing the Common Candidate by acting as an impartial intermediary between prospective candidates, competing political parties and factions, (v) taking the YP2020 message to the public, (vi) ensure that the campaign funding of the common candidate is accountable and transparent, and (vii) explain YP2020 to the international community. CSG-2020 should avoid competing with political parties and concentrate on questions that political parties are not very good at answering. For example, explaining to the voters the link between bad governance on the one hand and the rising cost of living or the lack of well-paying jobs on the other; the rationale for the proposed constitutional changes, and so on.

Post-election: After the election, assuming the Common Candidate wins, the main function of CSG-2020 would be to independently monitor the progress of YP2020 program and hold government accountable. CSG will be able to mobilize the support of the media and independent think tanks, local and international, for this purpose.

Part V: Transitional Provisions

1. Funding for the 2020 Campaign of the Common Candidate: In order to set an example of good governance from the start, the YP candidate will be required to be fully transparent and accountable for the funds spent on the campaign. If the common candidate is popular “small” contribution alone may be sufficient to fiancé the campaign.

2. Constitutional Amendments: The new president will receive a mandate from the people for the program of reform that was presented to the people. Parliament has to comply with the wishes of the people and make a select number of suitable amendments to the current constitution to make provision for, among other things, the cabinet to be appointed from outside parliament. The caretaker cabinet will remain in office until a new cabinet is appointed.

3. Dissolution of Parliament: It will be dissolved and fresh elections will be held as per provisions in the current constitution

4. Constitutional Assembly: The president shall request the new parliament to sit as a constitutional assembly, draft and pass a new constitution that accords with the principles of good governance for which the people gave a mandate and would be further confirmed by the people in the next parliamentary elections.

Author: Professor Samarasinghe, BA (Ceylon), Ph.D. (Cambridge) is an economist by training. He taught at Peradeniya for about 20 years before moving to USA. In USA he held several positions including that of Senior Economist at USAID Development Studies Program, Director of the Tulane Institute for International Development, and Adjunct Professor of Economics at Tulane University. He won the Khan Gold Medal for Economics at Peradeniya, was Takemi Fellow at Harvard, and Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College. He has consulted for major international institutions including several UN agencies and the World Bank. He also served as the Senior Consultant for the UNDP Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2018. He is widely published on Sri Lankan development issues.


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One response to “Rejuvenating Lanka: A Good Governance Plan for 2020

  1. San De Silva

    So very true, Michael!
    Great blog, as usual, and I look forward to reading it daily.
    I only wish your voice is heard in the right places in the Homeland too!
    Best Regards, San

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