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Searching for the “honest” politician

29 July 2019 12:57 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Citizens are helpless and their only hope is the elections
  • President says honest politicians are scarce these days
  • Corruption is the major cause for country’s woes


“Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reasons.” 
- Mark Twain 

In 1788, James Madison, the primary author of the US Constitution, wrote in the Federalist Papers: “The aim of every political constitution, is (or ought to be), first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust.”

In Sri Lanka, both these issues need serious consideration. The first one - the need to form a political class that is competent and honest enough to discharge its duties - has received scant attention. The second one that Madison identifies, the need to get legal and institutional framework right so that politicians act in the public interest, had been discussed at length by us but nothing constructive have come out. 

Since mid-1970s most of the problems of ruling parties arose because almost all the politicians used public office for self-enrichment. A “democratic” country like ours is expected to follow the global rule that the state functions within a linked group of values that restrain narrow self-interest. But such elevated ideals or conduct are not at all valued or respected in Sri Lanka.

The citizens are helpless and they have only one instrument – the elections - to compel the politicians to uphold those values. By using it intelligently they can discipline the politicians and appoint only those who are fit to serve. Whether our citizens are using their votes “intelligently” or not is another issue which needs further analysis.  

Corrupt politicians

Eleven years ago, Dulles Alahapperuma, who was the Transport Minister at that time, made a bold public statement. He said, “Both the politicians and state institutions are corrupt.” Nothing much has changed even today, and, if at all, corruption is greater than what Alahapperuma witnessed at that time. 
However, perhaps on second thoughts, he qualified his statement by adding that his comment did not mean all politicians and all state institutions corrupt. With the amendment, he may have wanted to exclude himself and his bosses from the “rogues list.”

Talking about corrupt politicians, Gamini Weerakoon - our senior versatile journalist - once said: “The statement about politicians being rogues - be it all or some - raises the dialectical question of whether politicians are rogues or that rogues are becoming politicians. This is the trend of evolutionary politics in this happy isle. But now enough and more rogues have become politicians and it is hard to tell a politician from a rogue and perhaps the professional rogues in time to come may object to being described as politicians!”


"President demanded to know how many politicians dare to come up on stage and say they are clean and have not plundered the people’s wealth"

Even President Maithripala Sirisena agrees with Weerakoon. Addressing a gathering few months ago, he demanded to know how many politicians dare to come up on stage and say they are clean and that they have not plundered the wealth of the people. He has declared that such politicians are scarce these days. He added that top officials in the government sector too are prone to following in the footsteps of politicians these days.
The President has also observed, “If we can prevent the loss of revenue due to corruption and fraudulent activities in this country, bridging the budget deficit would not be a difficult task”. The President has hit the nail on the head. He has precisely summarized the major cause for our nation’s woes. 

Three hypotheses

So, where are we – the common citizens – stand? Are we going to allow a set of politicians, most of them rogues, to guide the future of Sri Lanka? This is today’s most important question and we have to find the answer ourselves. 
But let start from the beginning. Why are we selecting the same corrupt politicians to Parliament and other legislative bodies, election after election? We can identify three hypotheses giving the reasons. The first, known as the information hypothesis, argues that voters support corrupt politicians when they lack information about a candidate’s involvement in corruption. Even if they were made aware, they wouldn’t be convinced for a number of reasons. 
The second, the trade-off hypothesis, argues that voters knowingly cast ballots for corrupt politicians because they expect that the overall benefits from a politician’s term in office will be greater than the costs associated with his corruption. The third is known as complex hypothesis. The reasons are complex. A voter might select a corrupt politician because he is “one of his own”, meaning caste, creed, religion, close relation, college mate, his party member etc. It also maybe he would have helped the voter to get a favour through his political power. In such cases, these complex reasons override integrity. 

Overlooking corruption

Sri Lanka historically has suffered from high levels of corruption. Even in mid-1950s, when Prime Minister SWRD. Bandaranaike appointed the famous Thalgodapitiya Commission, number of stalwarts in his Cabinet were found guilty of bribery. This phenomenon persisted in spite of the country’s recognition internationally as a consolidated democratic country.
In fact, corruption reached record highs after the transition to liberalisation of trade. Although corruption scandals involving politicians are common, instances of punishment have remained relatively rare. In the words of a scholar of Sri Lankan politics, “the conventional understanding of corruption in Sri Lanka suggests ‘impunity reigns.’ For the last six decades, Sri Lanka has failed to prosecute a single politician for looting the public funds.
Conventional wisdom also suggests most Sri Lankans are willing to overlook corruption when a politician carries out a lot of public works. In fact, a well-known Portuguese phrase “He robs, but he gets things done,” applies here.


"Are we going to allow a set of politicians, most of them rogues, to guide the future of Sri Lanka? This is today’s most important question and we have to find the answer ourselves"


Warped information

Some analysts believe that persistent political corruption in Sri Lanka is due to a lack of information. But can this really be the case? Although there are some limitations to Sri Lankan media, they have been instrumental in publicizing a number of major corruption scandals in recent years.
Personally, this writer believes that information is not the issue. It is the mindset of the majority of common citizens. One segment appears to think that all politicians are corrupt, whether they belong to Government or opposition. Therefore, they have no choice for selection. They will vote for politicians who will do some visible work for the country while they are bobbing. 
There is another segment who also believe corruption is prevalent among all politicians, but they are prepared to change their voting behaviour if they are given credible, specific, and cognitively available information that ties corruption to a particular politician. Unfortunately, the type of information they typically encounter about corruption may be quite different.  
MR regime, the present Government and the Joint Opposition have been accused of large-scale corruption, but still no cases have been proven or punishments enforced. In this light the question that will be raised amongst the second segment is “whom to trust” in the political landscape of Sri Lanka. So, they, too, will behave like the first segment. 


"MR regime, the present Government and the Joint Opposition have been accused of large-scale corruption, but still no cases have been proven or punishments enforced"


Final outcome

So, what is the final outcome?  Today, most of the voters are fed up with politics and politicians. They believe our politicians are beyond redemption.  When they vote, if they vote at all, they do so irrationally and for contradictory reasons. They make political decisions on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties or “which one is the better rogue?” principles. Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of democratic theory.
This writer believes that Sri Lankan democracy is a faulty form of politics. It virtually guarantees that at some point, you’ll end up with a grossly corrupt politicians and worst corrupt political leaders. And that, of course, is what we now have.

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