The new government launched itself into action last week, with a new Cabinet, a two-thirds majority in the House of Parliament, and the President in a ‘business suit’ delivering a ‘business-like’ policy statement.
The reference to the president, I lifted off from Sunday Times editorial, which also noted that ‘how much “out of the box” thinking will go into that (a new constitution) can be disconcerting.’
As for now though, like any of its predecessors, the new government deserves a honeymoon. It has one by default, with its supra majority in the House. It is the first, under the proportional representation system, to secure a two-thirds majority in Parliament, a feat that a few expected any political party could pull off.
The SLPP won the Parliament polls fair and square, and that should put the sour grapes to the rest. Sri Lankan voters have spoken and their mandate should be respected. That also makes some bread and butter advocacy (such as by the Human Rights Watch which issued a statement raising concerns over deteriorating human rights just after the election) is not just condescending, but also damaging local activism. As much as free and fair elections, conceding defeat after losing and moving on are a prerequisite for functional electoral democracy. When political elites lack these niceties, at worst, they plunge their countries into blood drenching post-electoral mayhem, in other times, they destroy the trust in the political system.
This writer has strongly argued against the supra majority in Parliament. I continue to hold onto my reservations, hoping that the worst of them would not come real. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, anywhere. What stands against the absolutism is the constitutionally mandated safeguards against excesses of political leadership. However, in the developing world, most of which are in different phases of transition to liberal democracies, such constitutional safeguards are fragile. That is because the evolution of the institutions of the state has not kept up to the pace of the social and political mobilisation of the population in those countries. Also, the social and economic representation of the population themselves, who are overwhelmingly poor or the lower middle class is staked against the optimum function of democracy. For a democracy to succeed and consolidate, a Middle Class is a prerequisite, a Middle Class defined not just in money, but as a combination of education, economic and social and cultural factors. Effectively, even in the best of the times, independent institutions are at the mercy of all-powerful, and populist political leadership. A supra majority makes it worse.
In Sri Lanka, the 2/3 majority has historically been used to advanced personalised political projects. J.R. Jayewardene, whose government emerged with 5/6th in the House, resorted to a referendum instead of a general election to extend its term, and within its term, it passed 16 amendments out of the total of 19 amendments to the constitution.
As the new government is planning to amend the constitution, it should be mindful not to repeat history. The abolition of the 19th amendment without adequate guarantees to safeguard the independence of the independent commissions would come back to haunt. It would delegitimise the state apparatus in the eyes of the international community. The two-third parliamentary majority would have no mitigating effect.
The nationalist groups affiliated with the government are calling for the abolition of the 13th amendment, which, true to their argument is a colossal white elephant
Also, the nationalist groups affiliated with the government are calling for the abolition of the 13th amendment, which, true to their argument is a colossal white elephant.
However, it was there as a piecemeal solution to address Tamil political aspirations, though Tamil political leadership, for their own morbid political calculations, have not made use of it to provide economic development to their people. However, the unilateral abolition would be a major miscalculation of Indian position and will have drastic consequences, that Sri Lanka is not equipped to deal with.
Irrespective of my misgivings, in a dispassionate take on politics, a supra majority has its own advantages. In the recent history of political economy, successful East and South-East Asian economies had their governments firmly in control. They were not necessarily democracies, and in even those who feigned as such, had secured their outsized parliamentary representation through lopsided elections. Their outsized and near-absolute political power enabled them to make effective policy, often disregarding the popular opposition if there was any. Behind the economic success of Asian Tigers, there was a leviathan of government.
Whereas successive governments in Sri Lanka were constrained by a fragmented electorate, and horse-trading of political parties, which prevented the governments from taking effective control of policymaking.
The result was a lack of decisive governance. Three insurgencies were made possible by the limited writ of the government. Sri Lanka’s economic, education and social policies are still stuck in the 90s. The export basket has not changed since the 90s. Our children are losing out as strong go-getter states such as Vietnam forging ahead, their 14 year-olds outperform their peers in rich Germany in global competitive exams.
Vacillation at the top begets vacillation across the state structure. Sri Lanka would not be kicked out of the overwhelming sense of complacency without a dose of ‘shock therapy’ by the highest political office.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has an opportunity to break the mould. He got some of the right attributes. He has the track record as a taskmaster, and now a resounding popular mandate to make the change. He manifests a sense of urgency to reform and infuse a degree of efficiency to the state. At least for the moment, he has kept at bay the less salubrious elements that plagued a succession of previous governments, including his
elder brother Mahinda’s.
He has appointed competent individuals to run the state-owned enterprises, a salient departure from the previous practice. He shows a genuine interest in STEM education. (He has a son who works at NASA on his own merit and might have observed up-close the difference between a good education and bad one).
In his throne speech last week, he spoke all the right things- ranging from the provision of drinking water to upgrade of schools, hospitals and local industry – ‘our duty and responsibility is not to distribute job opportunities but to generate them.’ He emphasised the technical education and enhancing of the efficiency of the state institutions. Cabinet and State Ministerial portfolios, he delineated, are structured in a way to guide the national policy in each subject area.
However, Sri Lanka is too small for industries to grow their own. They need overseas markets, technology transfers and capital investment. That requires major reforms in the existing trade and investment regimes, exposure through bilateral trade agreements and liberalisation of trade and services. Some of these measures may be contentious in the short term.
However, without structural reforms, the Sri Lankan economy is unlike to leapfrog, without which, Sri Lanka is bound to be held up in the middle-income trap for a long time.
Many Sri Lankans hope that the President and the new government would deliver. The President had got many things right for a start. However as much as there is a greater deal of ruin in a nation, meaning that a state can survive a good deal of bungling, there is also a great deal of hard work to bring it up. The timing of a global pandemic is not on the government’s side. However, a two-third majority in parliament and the president are on the government’s side. That should minimise the strain on policymaking.