When public disenchantment grows over unfulfilled promises, former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stands out as a model for all politicians.
Bloomberg was confronted by a civic conscious citizen — Anthony Santa Maria — at a subway station during his 2001 campaign to become New York’s mayor. Santa Maria scoffed at the promises politicians make but the criticism did not make Bloomberg angry. Instead it inspired him to release an annual status report on his 381 campaign promises. When he completed his first term as mayor in 2005, his annual report said 87 per cent of the promises had been fulfilled. His final Campaign Accountability Report released in 2013 at the end of his third term as mayor showed 89 per cent of the 611 combined promises made during the three campaigns had been completed or were being implemented at the time of compiling the report. Bouquets to Bloomberg!
In Sri Lanka, we do not keep count of the promises politicians make and we are yet to see politicians of the calibre of Bloomberg. In 2005, when the country was in the midst of a heated campaign for a presidential election, with United People’s Freedom Alliance candidate Mahinda Rjapaksa giving all sorts of promises to everyone, a concerned viewer asked the moderator of a TV show whether there was legislation to take the politicians to court for making lofty promises and breaking them as it amounted to breach of trust. The moderator’s advice was that people should at the next election reject the politicians who broke their promises. But at every election, we are lured by new promises and the cycle of making and breaking promises and electing and rejecting politicians continues.
Going to court over the unfulfilled promises could backfire, if the judge believes the need to ensure the smooth functioning of the government is more important than meting out justice to an aggrieved party over unfulfilled campaign promises. This happened in Ontario, Canada when the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in 2004 took the state administration to court for imposing new taxes in breach of a campaign promise that no new taxes would be imposed.
In a ruling that virtually gave licence to politicians to tell any lies with impunity, the judge said that anyone who expected politicians to be accountable for their campaign promises was naive about the democratic system. If anyone who voted for a politician based on a particular promise later were to go to court alleging a breached contract, “our system of government would be rendered dysfunctional. This would hinder, if not paralyse, the parliamentary system,” judge Paul Rouleau said.
Apparently, the seriousness of moral responsibility of candidates contesting for high office and the need to form legal safeguards against false promises were lost in this judgment. The undeniable truth is that unscrupulous politicians make use of the hope that springs in voters’ breasts at times of election and lure the voters with false promises. Sri Lanka’s elections – and for that matter elections in most democratic countries – are won by false promises. In other words, promises make the difference at elections.
In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the presidential election on a promise that she would abolish the executive presidency within six months. But she went on to contest a second term. In 2005, her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa made a similar promise, but he increased the powers of the executive president at the cost of undermining democracy, and removed the two-term restriction in the Constitution to enable him to contest a third term. He lost the election on January 8, because a majority of the voters believed the promises his main rival Maithripala Sirisena made – promises to bring about good governance, provide relief to the masses, expose corruption and punish the culprits.
But the people who voted for the new president are beginning to feel betrayed because they say the key promises of the 100-day plan are yet to be fulfilled, or are partially fulfilled or fulfilled not in the way that the original promise held out. For instance, the promise was to reduce the price of a litre of petrol to Rs. 70. But the price after reduction is Rs. 117 today. The promise was to add Rs. 5,000 to the public servants’ salary from February, but what they will get is a Rs. 2,000 allowance added to the Rs. 3,000 promised in the 2015 Budget passed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. The promise was to arrest the culprits responsible for large-scale corruption, but only a few minnows have been arrested while the progress on the investigations into big cases is slow, giving rise to suspicions that the police are not doing their job or not free to do so. In fairness to the 41-day old government, some say one should not pass judgment before the 100 days are over.
The law in many countries, including vibrant democracies, is silent about holding candidates accountable for promises they make during election campaigns. But it is an undeniable fact that political accountability is an essential characteristic of democracy. To state one policy during the campaign and implement totally a different one when in power is to violate the principle of political accountability and undermine fundamental principles of democratic government.
The root of democracy is morality. From this root rise justice, equality, freedom and good governance. But the biggest paradox is that while democracy is everything moral, politics that nurtures democracy is more often than not immoral. With most politicians throwing away morality and their conscience in pursuit of their self-centred agendas and greed driven goals, the people in a democracy expect elected representatives to act in a manner upholding moral values. When the politicians once in power do not act in a morally correct way after giving promise after promise on every election platform, the people have a responsibility to remind them.
This is happening in Sri Lanka. Never in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, have the people been more enthusiastic about and attached to good governance than they are now. Good governance is the topic at every formal or informal political discussion. Evident in these discussions is the growing disenchantment over the slackening commitment to good governance and other election pledges. The Government should work out a mechanism to make politicians accountable for the promises they make. Or at least civic action groups should pursue these promises and publish a status report every year, naming and shaming the politicians who have failed to honour their word.