26 January 2015

To seize or not seize the moment…

Parties? What parties?
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) enjoys a Parliamentary majority.  The party has all but elected the new President as its leader, the very same individual who ran against the candidate fielded by the SLFP.  The United National Party (UNP) has the second largest number of MPs (second by a large margin, note).  The Prime Minister of the Country is Ranil Wickremesinghe (Leader of the UNP) whereas the Opposition Leader is Nimal Siripala Silva of the SLFP.  Both were hand-picked by President Maithripala Sirisena, the former consequent to an electoral pact and the latter in view of a changed political order and people adjusting to new realities. 

So we have a President who was backed by the UNP and who is also the leader of those who backed the man who ran against him.  The UNP has the numbers in the Cabinet but the SLFP has the numbers in Parliament.  The office of the President is endowed with close to absolute power.   ‘Balance’ in this context is totally dependent on the good will of a single individual, Maithripala Sirisena; for 100 days, if the man and his merry men and women of pre-election support and post-election embrace deliver on the promise of constitutional and electoral reform. 

Right now it’s all a scramble.  The SLFP recovered quickly from the rude shock it received from the voters and after a quick cost-benefit analysis backed the winner.  The UNP received a shock of its own because all of a sudden the party finds itself besieged in Parliament by greater numbers that are Sirisena’s to play with.  Everyone is busy getting ready for a General Election or so it seems, for all actions seem to flow from an acute consciousness of this rather than engagement with (or for) the 100 Days Program Sirisena pledged to implement. 

Given the fact that this country has been saddled with the J.R. Jayewardene Constitution for 37 years, the people are likely to forgive the government if all this takes longer than 100 days to implement.  However, the political will to see it through as well as action that matches the good governance rhetoric of the President during his campaign, will and must be assessed.  Meaningless foot-dragging will be noted as will the mindless embrace of whatever is marginal to the program.  It is not unnatural to be distracted but the people will note over-indulgence.

There are two broad areas where intervention was promised and is expected: a) the investigation of wrongdoing allegations and punishment of wrongdoer, and b) correction of system anomalies.  We have seen expected zeal with respect to naming names with respect to ‘a’ above.  What’s come out so far is ‘allegation’ with little fact-support and even less will to prosecute.  It’s in the area of ‘b’ above that the Government is showing a lot of sloth.

Two things need to be addressed when changing systems: personnel and structures.  The first is relatively easy and here the appointments to key positions have been disappointing.  While acknowledging that there is a massive human resources problem in the country where it is hard to find decent and honest people in the relatively small pool of the skilled, the Government could have done better.   Track records are not easy to hide these days and yet whoever shortlisted the choices have demonstrated unpardonable myopia. 

The more difficult and also the more important task is that of addressing structural flaws and correcting them.  This requires reform of the constitution and the overall institutional arrangement.  It is early days, yes, but the Government is not showing signs of getting cracking in this regard.  The issue of electoral reform has been debated to the point of exasperation.  Broad consensus was obtained in the Parliamentary Select Committee on this subject, headed by Dinesh Gunawardena.  With respect to the Executive Presidency and its flaws, Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto is a good ‘working document’.  The work need not drag though.  So far we’ve got solemn promises and the appointment of committees to set up good-conduct norms, necessary of course but woefully insufficient. 

Reducing fuel prices, raising salaries and tossing out other election-goodies is all well and good, but this was a President who came to reform structures and not the nature of state-largesse.  It is high time that both major parties understood that in the year 2015 ‘parties’ are less important than particular configuration of political forces.  People come and go.  Moments pass.  Things don’t look the same.  

Fixation with party (as opposed to program – forget ‘ideology’, that particular creature died some years ago as far as the UNP and SLFP are concerned) is ‘old hat’.  The ‘new hat’ demands seizing the moment, this window of opportunity, not because it will help the politician (it will reduce the creature) but it is what the people demand and political fortunes require that they be sensitive to this demand.