By Kalinga Seneviratne
The U.S., UK and the international media have hailed the August 18 election results in Sri Lanka as a victory for democracy, but the looser may well turn out to be the voters of Sri Lanka. The political comedy that has taken place in the island republic in the aftermath of the election, exposes yet again the deficiencies of the democracy gospel that is unable to stamp out embedded corruption in the system.
“The administration (of President Maitripala Sirisena) came to power promising good governance, but the reins of government has shifted from a family to a cabal of cronies,” claimed the opposition party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in a statement on September 13. It pointed out that the government got a mandate to reduce the Cabinet to 35 after criticising former President Mahinda Rajapakse world-record 106 ministers.
“This government has already appointed 93 cabinet, state and deputy ministers. It is expected to have 22 district ministers and then we will have 115 ministers breaking the record of the previous regime,” noted the JVP.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have embarked on a mission to prop up a minority government to one that would enjoy two-thirds majority in parliament to help pass planned constitutional amendments. This is being done by breaking up the Rajapakse-aligned United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that has 95 members in the 225-member parliament.
While basic principles of democracy and good governance are being undermined by the new government that came to power by promising to restore precisely those two, the U.S. and its Western allies, who have strongly backed Sirisena and Wickremasinghe, are praising the new government for heralding a new democratic era in Sri Lanka.
Former President Mahinda Rajapakse was hated by the West – both the political leaders and the media – mainly because he ignored appeals from western leaders, especially from the UK, France and Norway, in 2009 to call for a ceasefire in the war against the terror movement Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and went on to crush them militarily with diplomatic and military support from China, Russia and a number of Middle Eastern regimes, especially Gaddafi’s Libya and Iran.
After crushing the LTTE, with huge investments and aid from China, he went onto rebuild the war-devastated areas of the north and the east of the island, and aligned Sri Lanka firmly behind China’s Maritime Silk Routes project, that the West see as threatening trade routes in the Indian Ocean.
While Sri Lanka was galloping on happily with a growth rate of 6-7 percent and the country was at peace after 30 long years, Rajapakse boasted that he would make Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia’.
Rajapakse, who won a landslide victory in 2010 as the war hero, gradually began to loose the peoples’ trust because of rising corruption within the country allegedly perpetuated by his family and his political cronies.
Movement led by a Buddhist monk
A peoples movement began to take shape in 2013 under the leadership of an outspoken Buddhist monk Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, who set up a civil society movement called the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ).
It was this movement that was able to bring together disparate opposition groups to finally topple Rajapakse in presidential elections of January 8 this year and narrowly thwart his comeback bid in the parliamentary elections on August 17. The slogan of this movement was ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) a cliché borrowed from the West.
President Sirisena, whom they brought to power in January, campaigned under this slogan. It included a pledge to stamp out corruption from the political system, appoint a small Cabinet of Ministers, and introduce independent public service commissions as well as a whole raft of other anti-corruption measures.
Since Sirisena came to power, there are clear signs that repression of political dissent has disappeared, the media is freer to criticize the government and the courts seem to be acting with more independence. Yet, the corrupt and corruption in the political system remain, and the people of Sri Lanka are now beginning to realize that all these democratic freedoms would come to naught, if corrupt politicians cannot be removed from the legislatures.
Immediately after Sirisena won the presidency, in an ironic twist, he claimed the presidency of Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) because he was its former general secretary, and did not resign from the party to challenge Rajapakse for the country’s presidency.
Thus he remained a party member and under the party’s constitution, if the elected president of the country comes from the party he will automatically get the party presidency as well. But, he allowed Rajapakse to lead the party’s parliamentary election campaign, which he narrowly lost.
Forming a ‘national government’
Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, who leads SLFP’s rival party, the United National Party (UNP), is heading a minority government, because he only has 106 seats in a 225-member legislature. Thus, Sirisena has embarked on forming what he calls a “national government” with Wickremasinghe’s UNP by splitting the SLFP and appointing to Cabinet his party loyalists, three of them were voted out by the people.
Sirisena brought them back to parliament and Cabinet as nominated MPs. He has even offered Cabinet posts to Rajapakse loyalists from the party. Some of his Cabinet appointments include people who are accused of corruption, drug trading or even murder.
As part of Sirisena’s “yahapalanaya’ pledge in January, he was able to get an amendment to the constitution passed in July which limited the Cabinet to 30, but early September the parliament passed a motion that this does not apply to a national government.
Even government supporters are now calling this a “political fraud” because what Sirisena and Wickremasinghe are forming is a ‘coalition government’ and not a ‘national government’ as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and left-wing JVP are not included in it. They argue under the constitution a coalition government could share the 30 Cabinet positions and not increase it.
An agitated Sobitha Thera told the Colombo Telegraph on September 9 that the Cabinet appointments have made a farce of the good governance pledge made before the January presidential elections by Sirisena. He said those who criticized the former president Rajapakse were treading the same path. “If this continues, soon we will see all 225 parliamentarians become ministers,” he added. Rumours are that the outspoken monk has been admitted to hospital with a suspected heart attack after making this public statement.
A fundamental rights petition
Communist Party leader and former Cabinet minister DEW Gunasekare has filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court against the appointment of defeated candidates to parliament and ministerial position, by both Sirisena and Wickremasinghe.
The U.S. meanwhile is busily roping in Sri Lanka into its sphere of influence in Asia. Just two days after the August 17 elections, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal visited Sri Lanka (she also visited Sri Lanka immediately after Sirisena won the presidency) and indicated that the U.S. will move a resolution at the UNHRC session later in September to support the new government domestic inquiry into war crimes allegation in the final stages of the battle against LTTE in 2009.
The U.S. is backtracking on resolutions they sponsored during the Rajapakse regime calling for an international investigation. The new Washington policy is upsetting the Tamils, who are demanding an international inquiry.
Former parliamentarian Prof Rajiva Wijesingha told the Island newspaper that the U.S. policy shift was not at all surprising because the Obama administration had, in no uncertain terms, made known its desire to effect a regime change in Sri Lanka. “Western powers would go out of their way to bolster the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration,” he added.
Even staunch Rajapakse critics from the NGO sector, whom the former president regularly accused of being part of a western conspiracy to topple him, are having second thoughts about the Sirisena revolution.
“Following the initial relief amongst those who wanted to see the change of government that took place in January sustained,” noted Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council in a commentary in Island newspaper, “the aftermath of last month’s general election is not generating the euphoria that accompanied that of the presidential election earlier in the year.”
Pointing out that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe campaigned on a platform of good governance, which included a small Cabinet, he added, that in order to keep the former president out of the political limelight, the new government is “employing the same means of providing their own set of incentives to parliamentarians to join them in forming a government”.
“They may call it whatever they like,” argues JVP’s secretary and MP Vijitha Herat. “But, what we have should be branded cartel democracy. The country is now run by a coalition cartel to safeguard its own interests rather than the people’s.”
*Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore.