“Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than what we deserve.”
George Bernard Shaw
Coherence, coordination, consistency, communication. This government demonstrates none of it. Since coming into power, we are told two things. One, that the benchmark for judging governance today are the years between 2005 and 2015, under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Two, that the mess created in these ten years will take time to redress and recover from. This mantra is repeated by those in government at various fora – at press conferences, public gatherings, in official statements and speeches. Citizens are supposed to blindly believe and be patient. But what the government really seeks is our silence and complicity around what is now, rather clearly, a systemic breakdown in policymaking. This is serious, and impacts everything from transitional justice to investor confidence in the country.
“I was born with certain privileges and they are enshrined in the constitution. Having them honoured is not a matter for praise. It’s a question of prerogative… I will neither be co-opted nor enlisted to campaign or make excuses for this or any government. I acknowledge the advances and the positive developments–but from a position of entitlement, not indebtedness.” That’s award-winning journalist Namini Wijedasa taking to Facebook recently to express her frustration. The post went viral, suggesting that it resonated widely. And yet, the pushback against how much the government is doing wrong is muted. There is the memory of what it was like that tempers criticism – no one wants a return to what was. After the end of the war in 2009, the then government repeatedly told us to be grateful, and to never forget what Rajapaksas did for, or ‘gifted’ to, the country. There is a strange parallel at play with the general attitude towards and perception of yahapalanaya today, where an enduring relief around (the incredibly peaceful) regime change in early 2015 muffles criticism around how badly, how often and how much, this government is failing in basic governance.
This is partly the nature of coalition politics in general, and this government in particular with an infuriatingly complex constellation of power centres, each competing daily for visibility, legitimacy and favour. But aside from the friction between the President and PM, is the catastrophic failure of coherent communication and policymaking is also from within each camp. Take for example the participation of foreign judges in a judicial mechanism around accountability, based on a resolution at the United Nations that the present government co-sponsored. In September 2015, the PM said that the office of a special counsel, which will investigate major violations, “will certainly have the help of not only Sri Lankan but also Commonwealth and foreign judges and lawyers.” President Sirisena has repeatedly come out against the participation of foreign judges. In July this year, media reports noted that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that “no final decision had been taken and that everything will depend on the outcome of an on-going consultation process”. After meeting with the President and Prime Minister in February this year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that in relation to a credible mechanism in line with the UN resolution, “the President and the Prime Minister state[d] their firm conviction”. In June this year, the TNA’s Sumanthiran said that the Sri Lankan government “cannot backtrack” on implementing the UN resolution, responding to the mixed messages from the President, PM, FM and others.
Leave aside the issue of judges. Say that it is so contentious, that the very negotiation of it requires as a matter of expedient optics or political strategy the PM and President to play around with and test various ideas in the public domain before committing the government to a certain path or mechanism. Take the issue of VAT. In July, the President directly intervened in a VAT increase that was widely unpopular, and introduced almost ad hoc without any public engagement or coherent communication. The Supreme Court got into the act as well, suspending the VAT increase. The Prime Minister said the interim order would not have any adverse impact on government revenue generation. In July, Ravi Karunanayake, the country’s Finance Minister, said that the VAT increase is a temporary measure and that it will be reduced by next year. According to him, the increase was needed to pay back the loans obtained by the previous government. The fiasco continues. In October it was reported that Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure Minister Harin Fernando called on the Finance Minister to remove taxes on the purchase of smartphones. But as Dr. Rohan Samarajiva flagged in the media last week, the government has in fact increased the overall tax burden by an astonishing 80% for voice and 160% for data, and worse, goes on to pull wool over people eyes by spinning fiction around this exorbitant increase. Lest we forget, this was a conversation within government – not NGOs, the IMF or World Bank, a foreign government or private consultancy telling government what to do. That the Finance Ministry is unable or unwilling to listen to evidence based proposals of other sections of government suggests, overwhelmingly, that this government’s macroeconomic policies are made on the whims of a few individuals at best, who use the excuse of debt burden or loan repayment as a vehicle to mask their own parochial, corrupt interests.
The utterly inchoate nature of policymaking making has many other examples. In February last year Chairman of the Vehicle Importers Association of Sri Lanka said that “a powerful minister in the government” had promised to reduce taxes hybrid vehicles. By November, taxes had been increased on all vehicles, including hybrids and all electric vehicles. In May this year, the Finance Minister, again revising the tax structure, said that “new car taxes were aimed at discouraging imports until the road network improved.” At the same time, and perhaps because the road network is so bad, the government gifted itself luxury SUVs – tax exempt of course. In April this year, the IMF agreed to give us a $1.5bn bailout loan to avert a balance of payments crisis. And yet, showcasing the priority for government next to SUVs, in August media reported that the government was interested in buying, seven years after the end of the war and with no significant domestic terrorist threat even remotely in sight, around eight fighter planes, each with a tab of around twenty million US dollars.
It goes on and on and on. What the government says today, is not what the government does tomorrow. What the President says today is not what the Prime Minister agrees to do tomorrow, and vice versa. The Minister for one portfolio, openly critiques the policies of another Minister’s portfolio. The Foreign Minister promises internationally what has little to no traction domestically, and the Finance Minister enacts policies that defy all reason and logic, all the while ignoring systemic, serious issues with tax thresholds, government expenditure and revenue generation. We have a Minister for telecoms who sees a digital future, and a government that taxes the very basis of this future out of existence.
We have merely exchanged authoritarian rule and centralised corruption for what is an enduring democratic deficit, just by another name. How far and fast yahapalanaya has fallen. Our silence only strengthens the rot.
First published in The Sunday Island, 6 November 2016.