En­dur­ing snake-charm­ing of a po­lit­i­cal kind

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - COMMENT -

Can sheer bum­bling in­com­pe­tence bring down a Gov­ern­ment? This may be a far from rhetor­i­cal ques­tion in the months ahead. How­ever what pro­pels this query at this point is not sim­ply the arch tragi-com­edy of Sri Lanka’s fuel cri­sis this week. This had its funny mo­ments with snake charm­ers and mu­si­cians play­ing at fuel sta­tions where per­spir­ing mo­torists waited for hours for their ra­tions, be­set by equal parts fury and frus­tra­tion.

Pro­vok­ing guf­faws of laugh­ter

Cer­tainly dark mut­ter­ings of Ra­japaksa-con­spir­a­cies put for­ward by Gov­ern­ment Min­is­ters in­vites ridicule. Let us not mince our words. If the re­jec­tion of one ship-load of sub-stan­dard fuel is all that takes to bring about a na­tional cri­sis of such mag­ni­tude, that re­flects more on the id­iocy of those in charge rather than on con­spir­a­cies. And the anx­ious chart­ing of the progress on in­ter­na­tional wa­ters, of the ship bring­ing the re­place­ment fuel which al­le­vi­ated the cri­sis to­wards the end of the week, pro­voked guf­faws of laugh­ter. Is this what this coun­try is re­duced to? It is a pa­thetic state of af­fairs with­out a doubt.

And at the Cabi­net brief­ing, the only ex­cuse put for­ward by grin­ning min­is­te­rial spokes­men was to ask me­dia personnel if they pre­ferred the sit­u­a­tion that arose a few years ago where a con­sign­ment of sub-stan­dard fuel was in fact ac­cepted by the Ra­japaksa gov­ern­ment and sev­eral ve­hi­cles of con­sumers were dam­aged. But the ques­tion is not what hap­pened then. Gov­ern­ing a coun­try is not a com­pe­ti­tion to judge what is more prefer­able, the bad or the worse. And cit­ing con­spir­a­cies or past abuses has now be­come just plain tir­ing.

On all ac­counts, the re­spon­si­ble Min­ster should have re­signed or have been asked to do so forth­with. But push­ing the ac­count­abil­ity bar to that ex­tent is un­think­able. In­stead, we pa­per over the em­bar­rass­ment, ap­point an­other in­ter­minable com­mit­tee to in­quire into the sit­u­a­tion and un­steadily lurch along, un­til the next cri­sis oc­curs.

Symp­tom of a deeper malaise

The point is that this sud­den fuel emer­gency that pet­ri­fied the na­tion for a week is just one symp­tom of a deeper malaise. Laws are passed with­out ad­e­quate vet­ting or scru­tiny and de­spite airy talk of par­lia­men­tary over­sight com­mit­tees. The farce of a re­cent amend­ment to the Pro­vin­cial Coun­cils Act which promised a non-con­tro­ver­sial quota for fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion but was packed at the last minute with a host of other amend­ments that had not been put be­fore the peo­ple is just one ex­am­ple.

We are told that even the amend­ment to the lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tion laws con­tain mis­takes. On its own part, the Elec­tions Com­mis­sion has pointed out quite rightly that it is not re­spon­si­ble for the chaos that politi­cians have cre­ated in the elec­tion pro­cesses. In fact, as one of its mem­bers Rat­na­jee­van Hoole has ob­served with in­creas­ing acer­bity in re­cent months, the prob­lem is not lim­ited to flawed statutes re­lat­ing to the con­duct­ing of elec­tions. The 19th Amend­ment, which brought the con­sti­tu­tional com­mis­sions to some mea­sure of in­de­pen­dent func­tion­al­ity after the fi­asco of the 18th Amend­ment, is it­self plagued by se­ri­ous mis­takes.

Ex­am­in­ing these ob­jec­tions, it seems that there is merit in the same. Some of the mis­takes are ob­vi­ous. The orig­i­nal 17th Amend­ment es­tab­lish­ing the Elec­tions Com­mis­sion pro­vided for a mem­ber­ship of five and a quo­rum of three. The 18th Amend­ment re­duced this num­ber to three in its over­all ob­jec­tive of de­grad­ing the con­sti­tu­tional com­mis­sions. The 19th Amend­ment car­ried for­ward this same mis­take with­out re­vers­ing the 18th Amend­ment with the quixotic re­sult that the Elec­tions Com­mis­sion now has both a mem­ber­ship of three and a quo­rum of three, ren­der­ing it un­rea­son­ably fet­tered in the mak­ing of de­ci­sions. These are mis­takes that have grave im­pact in the prac­ti­cal func­tion­ing of such bod­ies and must be given se­ri­ous weight.

Set­ting up in­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sions as show-pieces

These faults in de­sign are am­pli­fied by a de­pri­va­tion of fi­nan­cial re­sources. In cer­tain cases, these prob­lems are frankly spo­ken of in pub­lic by Com­mis­sion mem­bers them­selves to the credit of those Com­mis­sion mem­bers. In other in­stances, greater rec­ti­tude is ob­served but at some point, an au­dit must be done of these pro­cesses.

What was the main ob­jec­tive, as trum­peted by the unity al­liance, in en­act­ing the 19th Amend­ment? Os­ten­si­bly, this was to re­verse the 18th Amend­ment which re­duced the in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions to a rub­ber stamp for Ra­japaksa de­ci­sions. Of course, be­fore long, it be­came ob­vi­ous that the real ‘meat’, as it were, of the 19th Amend­ment lay elsewhere in not-so-sub­tle power games be­tween the two part­ners in the unity al­liance. In the process, set­ting up in­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sions ap­pears to have been in­tended as show-pieces on dis­play, to be pa­raded be­fore the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Now it seems as if the lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions will be held in Jan­uary with the re­quired el­e­ments of youth and fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How­ever the neg­a­tive el­e­ment of this is that there will be a dou­bling of the lo­cal gov­ern­ment coun­cilors re­sult­ing in the ex­pend­ing of more funds. Ap­par­ently re­quests made by the Com­mis­sion to the Gov­ern­ment to bring in re­forms with­out ex­pand­ing the num­ber of coun­cilors have gone un­heeded.

Snake-charm­ing as our na­tional en­ter­tain­ment

In the midst of these woes, snake charm­ing may be our na­tional en­ter­tain­ment. Po­lit­i­cal snake-charm­ers in the cham­ber of Par­lia­ment how­ever do not ac­tu­ally charm any­one, given the ugly and un­couth ex­changes that have be­come mat­ter of course on the floor of the House.

But bad laws, com­plain­ing Com­mis­sions and the des­per­ate fi­nan­cial plight of the pub­lic will not pre­vent politi­cians on both sides of the di­vide fat­ten­ing their own purses. The one sil­ver lin­ing in this sea of grey is that Ra­japaksa-sup­port­ers con­tinue to en­gage in ab­sur­di­ties with their lat­est gim­mick in rid­ing bi­cy­cles to the House for the elec­tion de­bate be­ing a case in point.

That said, purely re­ly­ing on Ra­japaksa-per­fidy will not suf­fice as a guar­an­tee for the elec­tions ahead. The re­port card of this Gov­ern­ment, warts and all, must rest on stronger ground. Un­for­tu­nately, cit­i­zens need to search high and low, like Dio­genes with a lamp in broad day­light, look­ing not only for an hon­est man or woman but for ‘ya­ha­palanaya’ gov­er­nance.

Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena’s di­a­tribe against the cor­rupt, also of his own Gov­ern­ment, at the re­mem­brance cer­e­mony of the late Ven Madu­luwawe So­bitha Thero this week does not ex­cuse the sin­gu­lar re­spon­si­bil­ity that he holds as Pres­i­dent for the com­pact that he made with the peo­ple in 2015.

Sadly, much of that com­pact re­mains un­ful­filled by both ma­jor par­ties today.

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