By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
The recent political events have left a large proportion of the population confused as to where Sri Lanka is heading. But if the situation is observed more closely, one can construe that with smart thinking, the people can indeed use the scenario to their advantage.
A forum in Colombo last week saw a leading economist in the country interpreting Sri Lanka’s current political-economic setting using a different approach.
Building his argument within the notion of political economy—the interplay between politics and economics—Verité Research Executive Director and Head of Research Dr. Nishan de Mel presented an interesting idea to the audience by way of an equally interesting question: “Are weak governments good for people?”
At the outset, the answer for it would be a fat ‘no’, but looking at it from Dr. de Mel’s perspective, one would think again in answering the question.
Centres of gravity
Building his argument, Dr. de Mel moved on to the visually present political reality the country is faced with, where he identified three ‘centres of gravity’ with smaller centres of forces in their orbits.
The centres of gravity are President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe, and Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whereas the centres of forces are the members of parliament most loyal to each of them.
While the people believe that a parliament is established for debate, discussion and sound decision-making, Dr. de Mel noted that much to the disappointment of the public, it was often found that as long as a government controlled a significant majority of the House, the parliament cannot become very effective.
“With the majority controlling the House, the parliament does not act as an adequate check on executive power and decision-making. Despite holding elections every six years, between that period, governments feel that they could do whatever they like and somehow recover popularity in the election year by busting Budgets, which in-turn would increase deficits. The responsive function of democracy is not working very well,” he asserted.
Strong or weak government: What’s better?
What is interesting about today’s political balance is that the Cabinet itself has two centres of gravity that are invariably in competition with each other, which brings about a sense of weak government, according to Dr. de Mel.
Although a section of business personalities and political theorists would dismiss the notion deeming it bad, it is not so, he opined.
“The majority believe a weak government cannot take decisions and deliver. A lot of people in Sri Lanka want a Lee Kuan Yew-like powerful authoritarian executive to lead the country.
“I would suggest an alternative way of looking at politics; a weak government is better for democracy and better for long-term decision,” averred Dr. de Mel.
Not so strong after all
Dr. de Mel noted that although many may be of the view that the new national unity government controls two-thirds of the parliament, in reality it doesn’t.
“They might hold a majority but the centres of gravity are vulnerable since the forces that orbit can well move and join another gravity tipping the balance.”
Post-1977 political scenario
Providing a snapshot of the country’s political setting since 1977, Dr. de Mel pointed out that when the governments were strong, the policies and constitutions that passed mostly favoured the government and not the people.
As post-1977 Constitutional Amendment mostly reduced the scope of democracy, Dr. de Mel explained that when the governments were weak, there were significant changes in the amendments that created leeway for long-term positive structural reforms.
Recalling how change was brought about, he reollected how the 17th Amendment, which contained the setting up of independent commissions, was passed when the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was at her weakest. Struggling to hold on to parliament majority she passed the 17th Amendment.
In contrast, the 18th Amendment, which bolstered the executive’s power, came when the government was at its strongest point.
The 19th Amendment that reduced the powers of the executive presidency came when the United National Party (UNP) didn’t even have a majority in parliament.
“When a government is weak, the competition between different factions in parliament and within the government force them to legitimize themselves in the public domain in a way that they are not forced to legitimise themselves apart from an election year.
The fact that a weak government has to be sensitive and responsive to public concern is the opportunity for democracy that is created by the government,” he pointed out.
The Magna Carta
To further establish his point Dr. de Mel took the audience back to 1215s, the year the ‘Magna Carta’, which translates to ‘the Great Charter’ in Latin, was signed in England and saw the formation of its parliament.
Historically, the concept of a ‘king’ has always had two traditional concepts. One is that the king is a sovereign, a God. He literally sets the rules and the subjects follow without questioning.
The other competing concept is that the king is a steward and the rules that exist apply to him too, just as to his subjects.
Having presented the two notions, de Mel noted that strong governments and too much political authority have always facilitated the direction of kings taking the place of God.
In 1215, King John, at his weakest at that time, was pressed by his nobles to ink the Magna Carta, which is now known as the foundation of British parliamentary democracy.
“It is really a way of binding the king, not just to be the subject to the laws, but also subject to consultation and consensus building in society. He must consult the nobles and those affected before he increased the taxes or declared war,” Dr. de Mel said.
King John however agreed to this proposition but promptly called for the Pope soon after to abrogate the Magna Carter with the motive of reasserting power.
Strangely enough, the Pope and king both passed away within a year and the new king, who was just nine years old, was extremely weak and had to solidify support in society. This led to the Magna Carta being reissued.
De Mel pointed out that all throughout the history of England, the Magna Carta got reissued because the weak king needed to get public support, thus having it entrenched in the parliament.
Lessons for business
“When you have a strong king or government, all you need is to have a good relation with the key decision-makers. In the case of Sri Lanka, there were five. If you get them on your side, then it is easy.
“This is how you will get policy changed and incentives to support your industry. In the modern world, this is the cheap way of succeeding business,” Dr. de Mel pointed out.
However, he noted that the ability to work within the rules and regulations that is fair by all will give businesses global competitiveness and by doing that, businesses can contribute to change by creating public dialogue, professed de Mel.
New heads, old instincts
Coming back to Sri Lanka, de Mel noted that a number of individuals across a number of business sectors in the country have said that specially with the 2016 Budget, the matters had become confusing and highly uncertain.
“The old mindset as to how business could be done and how policy can be influenced still prevails. The new situation in which the ability to change public consciousness to champion matters publicly, and to create a good discussion about important policy changes to the country can become a leverage point,” he opined.
Looking at how successive governments in Sri Lanka have carried out planning exercises over the years, de Mel observed that even the new regime is acting under older instincts when drafting national documents.
For example, as no public discussion was held as to why public servants should lose permits and why the nation should move from a provident fund to a pension system, even though the latter might be a good idea, disagreement is what the government has received.
“Obviously there is huge resistance shown towards a number of Budget proposals (Budget 2016) since it was looked at as elite decision-making by the king who is unable to engage through discussion and convince the public.”
Assuring that the day the Sri Lankan people believe public servants don’t deserve permits, the public servants certainly will not get the permits, de Mel said. “They certainly deserve higher salaries but you can’t simply decide in a closed room that this (cancelling permits) is a jolly good idea to go ahead with. That doesn’t fit the democracy.”