30 December 2014

Victory is a curse with many dimensions

This was first published in 'The Daily Mirror' on April 22, 2010.  I outlined some of the 'must-do' issues for Mahinda Rajapaksa.  Almost four years later, the people will judge.  They may focus on other issues when they do so, but these I believe will also factor in to their decision. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa scored three significant victories within a period of a single year.  In May 2009, under his stewardship, the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit was comprehensively defeated.  In January 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa fought off what the media and sections of the international community mis-dubbed a ‘challenge’ by General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka and was re-elected for a second six-year term by a handsome margin.  On April 8, in a decision that further strengthened the executive arm, the voter re-elected the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), taking that party within sniffing distance of a two-thirds majority in Parliament. 

All this constitutes reason to celebrate of course.  Who, after all, wants to end up on the losing side of any of the three ‘fights’ mentioned above?   Still, these victories are qualitatively different from previous ones and even the defeat of the LTTE, welcome as it is, has certain political negatives, for example, the loss of excuse for non-accomplishment of goal, non-implementation of mandate or, to put it bluntly, the ‘setback’ of a beggar who has his/her wound healed.

The 2004 election gave the UPFA a tenuous hold on power further compromised subsequently when the JVP withdrew support.  The 2010 result gives the President political stability and a comfortable number-cushion in the legislature.  The period 2005-2010 was a presidential honeymoon because it was Rajapaksa’s first term.  A lot is forgiven and the possibility of a second term (almost assured given this constitution) was ‘insurance’; things could be postponed and the promise made, ‘I will do this once re-elected’.  The down side of re-election is that this is the last term, barring constitutional amendment that can either give the President a subsequent term or extend his political life by other means, for example, by reverting to a system where executive authority is conferred on Prime Minister and cabinet. 

The three victories have robbed Mahinda Rajapaksa of one thing: excuses. 

For the last thirty two years we’ve known that a lot of our vexed issues pertaining to governance can be traced to a poorly and hurriedly written constitution.  For a long time ‘constitutional reform’ was about placating Eelamists in one guise or another.  Given the objection to the executive presidency at different time and in different intensities, abolishing it was tagged to the matter of resolving the so-called ‘ethnic conflict’.  Later it became obvious that the system of Proportional Representation (PR) had all kinds of flaws and there developed a school of thought that proposed a return to the first-past-the-post system with some provision being made for electing MPs in terms of the proportion of votes polled by the relevant parties. 

With time came the issue of the 1978 constitution making good governance impossible.  However, by the time realization struck, we were well into the PR system and Governments that were a fair distance away from the two-thirds necessary to set the amendment ball rolling.  It took a peculiar set of circumstances in 2001 for the 17th Amendment to be passed.  This is the first constitutional amendment since 1988 and the only one in the past 21 years.  That says a lot about how rigid this constitution is. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s excuse-less situation is a curse. For him. Not necessarily for the people, though. Today, he can’t say ‘we are fighting a war’. Today he can’t say ‘I don’t have the numbers’ (he is within 6 of the magic ‘150’ and for a man who managed to win over 30 plus MPs getting to this number should be child’s play). He can’t say ‘I will do it in my next term’ because he is already there, i.e. in the ‘next term’.  He can say ‘I am not going to do what Western powers or I/NGOs tell me’, but he must understand that constitutional reform is something that his constituency needs, wants and has demanded. 

There was another excuse that he used: ‘I am waiting for the APRC to submit its proposals’ (and of course other versions of this excuse).  He has said that he’s waiting for D.E.W. Gunasekera to submit the final report on the 17th Amendment, its flaws and recommendations to circumvent these. 

There was a time when the excuses readily trotted out had some truth value.  We could think, ‘yes, he has a point’ and then choose to wait.  He’s run out of excuses and therefore cannot be indulged on account of these circumstances that could early be described as ‘extenuating’.  

D.E.W. Gunasekara has provided the President with an excuse for non-action regarding the 17th Amendment: ‘The independent commissions are not responsible to the Executive, Judiciary or the Legislature and their rulings cannot be challenged in any of these forums; this is a major setback in activating the Constitutional Council and establishing the Independent Police, Public Service, Judicial Service and Elections Commissions’. 

I am of the opinion that the 17th Amendment is not without flaws.  I am of the opinion that it should be amended. I still argue for its full and immediate implementation not because I believe it is a decent document, but the constitution should not be tinkered with in the manner it is, i.e. ‘I shall implement that which I like and ignore that which I find uncomfortable’.  The same goes for the 13th Amendment.  Non-implementation makes for political anarchy. 

If, as D.E.W. Gunasekera points out, there are flaws, then correct them! That’s the logical thing to do. Non-implementation and manifest lethargy in formulating an alternative or at least amending indicates to me that the President is not interested in the stated objectives of the 17th Amendment. 

He doesn’t have to wait for this or that report to implement the clauses of the law of the land.  He must first comply and can complain later.  He doesn’t have to whine; he can bring his own amendment and get it passed.  He has an ‘out’ though: Emergency!  There is no LTTE now.  There are no bombs going off.  We have to give credit where credit is due:

‘THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT!  You have given leadership to a long and arduous process that has eliminated two things. You have removed the terrorist threat. THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT.  You have removed the need for Emergency Regulations. THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT.  You’ve removed the need, now remove the regulation!’

He won’t.  The bottom line is political will. Is Mahinda Rajapaksa interested in Good Governance outside the realm of lip-servicing, i.e. to the extent that he acknowledges there are institutional flaws and wants to correct these?  I doubt it.

Can you, Mr. President do something else, something that will not threaten your hold on power?  Could you, please, take note of the fact that out of the over 100,000 students who qualify to enter university, only 20,000 actually get the opportunity?  Could you take note of the fact that the system cannot accommodate the 80,000 ‘extras’?  Could you take note of the fact that the other 80,000 are not morons?  Could you devise a system to make sure that all those who have shown that they have what it takes to complete a degree, obtain various skills and become useful citizens are not left behind? 

We are direly in need of an occupation classification and a census of how many are needed for particular categories of employment.  We have to take steps to ensure that the mismatch between educational qualification and labour market requirement is bridged. Such things make no sense if we don’t have the graduates in the numbers we need and the mechanisms that will give us these numbers. 

There is no doubt that the State should play the lead role in delivering university education to students with requisite qualifications.  However, we have to recognise that there is a problem of capacity as well as one of funding.  The current system can be expanded and so too the Open University system, but only to a point. These cannot cater to the entire 100,000 ready to enter institutions of higher learning.  Some will go abroad, taking with them a lot of money.  The rest will stay and lose their way in the labour market and add to inefficiencies that flow from the inevitable mismatches. That’s a waste of all the money the State pumps into the education system from Grade 1 to Grade 12.

Today, whether we like it or not, the private sector has crept in.  There are quack institutes offering quack degrees.  There is a need to streamline. There is a need to bring ‘system’ into the process of awarding degrees so that quality is not suffered and so that children and parents are not taken for a ride.  There is a need for a liberalization of education in one form or another.  And all this has to be done without compromising the state-run university system in any way. 

The President does not require a two-thirds majority in Parliament to do this. He can do this with or without Emergency Regulations.

I am not going to hold my breath regarding ‘Good Governance’.  That’s the kind of faith I have in politicians.  But education is one thing where no one can be left behind.   Mr. President, thousands are being left behind.  They are the children of the nation, the jathiye daru deriyo you like to refer to frequently.  What are you going to tell them?  

Victory can be a curse to the victor. That’s small consolation for the citizen.  Mahinda Rajapaksa should understand this.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com