Squaring the circle
Tuesday 11th August, 2020
The Cabinet of the newly elected SLPP government is scheduled to be appointed tomorrow. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa must be having a hard time, selecting their ministers. There are many aspirants to the Cabinet although most of them do not measure up. Various factors come into play in the selection process, which is sure to leave many ambitious elements disappointed. With the President and the PM trying to square the circle, one need not be surprised if the swearing-in of the Cabinet happens to be postponed.
Time was when governments could appoint any number of ministers, and we had jumbo Cabinets as a result. Mahinda Rajapaksa was very generous with ministerial appointments when he was the President. He made even Mervyn Silva a minister! Thankfully, the appointment of jumbo Cabinets is no longer possible owing to the 19th Amendment.
We believe that even a 30-member Cabinet is too big for a small country like Sri Lanka. Ideally, the number of Cabinet ministers should be limited to 15 with an equal number of deputies. The Provincial Councils have 45 ministers. There are so many ministers maintained with public funds, but the President, who is without a single ministerial portfolio, has to meet people and solve their problems! In the run-up to the recently concluded general election, the President had to intervene to have even school playgrounds and roads rehabilitated.
The fact that the proportional representation system has given rise to political alliances consisting of numerous parties which demand ministerial posts is no excuse for burdening the public with large Cabinets. Most parties that secure ministerial posts by contesting as constituents of coalitions cannot win a single seat each, if they go it alone at elections.
The architects of the 19th Amendment betrayed their partiality to the yahapalana government when they introduced a constitutional provision for expanding the Cabinet in case of the formation of a national government. In so doing, they facilitated the coming together of the UNP and the UPFA. A national government is not possible under the present circumstances; the SLPP and the SJB will never opt for cohabitation, but speculation is rife in political circles that the government may seek to remove constitutional hurdles in its path by scrapping the 19th Amendment. This is a worrisome proposition.
The 19 Amendment has some flaws, which need to be rectified. The Constitutional Council became an appendage of the yahapalana government. It needs to be rendered independent. The President should be able to hold the Defence portfolio so that the country can effectively face threats to its national security. No one is better suited for the post than the head of state elected directly by the people. However, the 19th Amendment must not be deep-sixed.
Meanwhile, the political parties that have secured National List (NL) slots, save the SLPP, are in a dilemma. Unsuccessful candidates are trying to enter Parliament via the NL so much so that the gazetting of the NL MPs has been delayed. The SLPP acted wisely by making the NL appointments while the process of counting preferential votes was still underway. That way it prevented unsuccessful candidates from asking for NL seats. The credit for this clever move should go to SLPP strategist Basil Rajapaksa, who finalised all NL appointments immediately after the allocation of seats by the Election Commission. Other parties should have done likewise.
The practice of appointing defeated candidates to Parliament through the NL runs counter to democracy and, therefore, must be brought to an end. If unsuccessful candidates are allowed to enter Parliament, students who fail the GCE A/L should not be denied university admission. Under the yahapalana government, so many defeated candidates were appointed NL MPs that failures became the pillars of the legislature. A constitutional amendment is called for to prevent defeated candidates from securing NL seats.
Celebration of debt
Wednesday 22nd March, 2023
The SLPP-UNP administration is cock-a-hoop at the unlocking of an IMF bailout package. What is the world coming to when a government which has bankrupted a country, defaulted on debt and visited untold miseries on more than 22 million people, paints the town red after obtaining another loan on constricting conditions?
At the height of Eelam War IV, Lakshman Kiriella, who was a UNP MP at the time, audaciously claimed that onema goenkuta yuddha karanna puluwan (‘any fool can fight a war’). Similarly, one may say ‘onema goenkuta loan ganna puluwan (’any fool can obtain loans’. The government has been able to secure the IMF bailout package because it readily agreed to all loan conditions, some of which have not been made public yet, according to the Opposition. No less a person than ex-Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has inveighed against the IMF for causing riots in the countries that have had to follow its programmes. In Sri Lanka, too, a perfect storm is brewing on the horizon with workers taking to the streets in large numbers. However, it is our failed, corrupt leaders who should be blamed for our predicament.
Ironically, the IMF happened to announce its decision to release Sri Lanka’s credit facility, on the eve of the World Puppetry Day! The grandees of the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime claim to be managing the economy themselves but they are only a set of puppets controlled by the IMF. They have to do as the IMF says, and it does not require much grey matter to do so. But care will have to be taken to ensure that they will not help themselves to the dollars to flow in. It behoves the IMF, and the nations that have been considerate enough to part with substantial amounts of their citizens’ money to help ameliorate the suffering of Sri Lankans to ensure that the government of Sri Lanka handles financial aid in a transparent manner.
It’s one thing to obtain an extended credit facility, but it’s quite another to put an ailing economy back on an even keel, and repay loans that have been defaulted on. That the IMF has agreed to provide assistance is no guarantee that Sri Lanka will achieve economic recovery. There are countries that have failed to straighten up their economies fast despite IMF help, Greece being a case in point.
Greece is vastly different from Sri Lanka in that its bailouts came from a powerful troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Still, it has been struggling to achieve realistic primary surpluses and return to investment grade. Needless to say, Sri Lanka’s task will be even more difficult, given the fact that a failed, corrupt government continues to be in power.
The failed politicians who bankrupted the economy by mismanaging it, indulging in waste and corruption and stealing public funds, are still at the levers of power. They must be salivating at the prospect of being able to line their pockets again when forex begins to flow in. Doomed will be the economy if it continues to be in the clutches of these failed, corrupt elements who have not mended their ways and are all out to gratify their insatiable appetite for power and public funds.
Now that the IMF bailout has become a reality, the people must be given an opportunity to exercise their franchise and indicate whether they have faith in the current regime, which has inflicted so much suffering on them and ruined the economy. Hence the need for the local government polls to be held without further delay. There is a massive build-up of public anger in the polity and it has to be defused if the country is to be prevented from being plunged into chaos again. Expenditure on an election is a worthwhile investment in that it helps make the irate public simmer down and bring about political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery.
Tuesday 21st March, 2023
Sri Lanka finds itself in a distressingly unprecedented and unenviable situation. All three tiers of government—Parliament, the Provincial Councils and the local government institutions—are now under the Executive President indefinitely thanks to the postponement of the Provincial Council and local government elections. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the head of government and therefore has Parliament under his direct control. The Provincial Governors appointed by the President exercise control over the Provincial Councils as well as the public officials under whom the local government (LG) institutions are to be placed.
The separation of powers has become a thing of the past to all intents and purposes. Although his party, the UNP, has only one parliamentary seat, President Wickremesinghe has the legislature under his thumb because he is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve Parliament at a time of his choosing. He can leverage this power, if he so desires, to enhance his bargaining power vis-à-vis the SLPP, upon which he is dependent for legislative support. He spends more time in Parliament than all his predecessors did while holding the presidency, and even tells the Opposition MPs to shut up and sit down when they express dissenting views! Thus, he imposes his will on the legislature!
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government, which bankrupted the economy, has turned the country’s economic woes to its advantage; it is all out to avoid a crushing electoral setback by refusing funds for the LG polls. President Wickremesinghe has rendered the Election Commission toothless by blocking funds for elections. His action has caused a severe erosion of public faith in the electoral process.
Worse, the government is now in overdrive to tame the judiciary! Some MPs are reportedly planning to question judges!
Having taken exception to a recent Supreme Court interim order that public officials refrain from blocking the release of budgetary allocations for the EC, the government claims that the judiciary has caused a breach of parliamentary privileges! There is no reason for the ruling party grandees to see red; the SC has only asked the Secretary to the Finance Ministry and others to carry out what the government has undertaken to do in Budget 2023, in respect of the EC. Having made an issue out of a non-issue, the government has decided to have it probed by a parliamentary committee. Will anyone in authority care to reveal the educational qualifications of the MPs who are to be tasked with questioning the judges and, more importantly, whether there are court cases against any of those worthies? Judges must not be insulted in this manner!
In 2017, the UNP put off the PC polls by amending the PC Elections Act in the most despicable manner with the help of the SLFP, the JVP, the SLMC and the TNA; it stuffed the amendment bill with a slew of sections sans judicial sanction at the committee stage, and secured its passage amidst protests from the then ‘Joint Opposition’ bigwigs, who have now thrown in their lot with President Wickremesinghe and are endorsing all his actions, including his refusal to make funds available for elections on some flimsy pretext.
What is unfolding on the political front reminds us of an Aesopian fable. A camel happens to move its bowels while walking along a babbling brook downstream, and sees its dung racing past it; puzzled, it wonders how on earth what should be behind it is going ahead of it. The learned judges facing the prospect of having to suffer indignities at the hands of a bunch of political dregs must be in a similar dilemma. But they can rest assured that all right-thinking people are on their side. One can only hope that the people’s struggle to exercise their franchise and knock the lowest of the low in politics off their perches will receive a judicial boost.
The police and the military are busy doing full-time political work. Senior police officers seeking promotions and political generals receiving gallantry medals in peacetime are hell-bent on cracking down on pro-democracy protests to humour the powers that be. Unidentified persons in military uniform, armed with assault rifles and iron rods, operate alongside the army and the police to crush anti-government protests. Both the army and the police have categorically said these characters are not their personnel? If so, who are they? Are they mercenaries? It is a non-bailable criminal offence for anyone to carry firearms without permission from the defence authorities. Why haven’t the police arrested those armed men? The Opposition must flog this issue aggressively in Parliament and elsewhere. But it is all at sea and too impotent to take on the government the way it should to safeguard the interests of the public. It floats like a bee and stings like a butterfly, so to speak! The country certainly can do without such a feckless Opposition, which however is an invaluable asset to any dictatorial regime.
How could it be denied that we are witnessing the rise of the Sri Lankan version of the Third Reich?
Justice and duplicity
Monday 20th March, 2023
The US and its allies are in seventh heaven over the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for their bete noire, Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the alleged deportation of Ukrainian children. The US lost no time in welcoming the ICC warrant, and so did Ukraine. Russia has sought to pooh-pooh the ICC move and called it ‘outrageous and unacceptable’. The ICC action and the reactions of the US-led western bloc, Russia and Ukraine thereto reek of partiality and duplicity.
There are allegations that thousands of Ukrainian children are being unlawfully sent to Russia, and such despicable acts no doubt amount to war crimes, which must not go unpunished. So, there is no way Russia could make light of them. But these allegations must be properly probed and the veracity thereof established before arrest warrants are issued. The ICC seems to have been in a mighty hurry to initiate action against the Russian leader, presumably at the behest of the western bloc; it has thereby left itself wide open to criticism.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has welcomed the ICC warrant as ‘historic’ and called upon the world to take action against the Russian leader. He ought to realise that he has also blundered by antagonising Russia, and providing Putin with a casus belli. He should have known better than to allow the US and other NATO members to use him as a cat’s paw to further their geostrategic interests vis-à-vis Russia, at the expense of Ukraine. True, Russia’s military response to the ‘Ukrainian threat’ has been disproportionate, but the blame for what has befallen Ukraine should be apportioned to Zelensky, the US and its NATO allies as well.
There have been numerous instances where the US also reacted, just like Russia, to threats to its security; it has invaded countries and killed thousands of people besides engineering military coups to dislodge democratically-elected foreign governments and install dictatorships.
Zelensky is receiving military assistance from the US, the UK, etc., and they also make him feel important by inviting him to address their parliaments, but he should not lose sight of the fact that it is his people who are dying and his country runs the risk of being left in the lurch like other nations that sided with the US in the past. It requires vision and experience for a leader to navigate the so-called big power rivalry, which has become the order of the day.
Interestingly, ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan has said, in a media interview, that the message from Friday’s warrant “must be that basic principles of humanity bind everybody. Nobody should feel they have a free pass. Nobody should feel they can enact with abandon. And definitely nobody should feel they can act and commit genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes with impunity.” Really? Has the ICC acted in a similar manner in respect of the US and its allies? Will it explain why it did not issue arrest warrants for US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair over hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq due to an illegal war waged on the basis of falsified intelligence reports?
There has been irrefutable evidence that the Iraq war and sanctions caused many deaths. Madeleine Albright, who became the Secretary of State, herself admitted this fact. When the CBS channel, in an interview with her, pointed out that half a million Iraqi children had died due to the war and sanctions and asked her whether the price was worth it, she promptly said, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, is worth it.” Strangely, no action was taken against either President George H. W. Bush or his son, President George W. Bush, for the war crimes in Iraq. And, President Joe Biden has welcomed the ICC arrest warrant for Putin, and taken moral high ground!
The ICC took no action against Tony Blair as well despite the Chilcot report on the Iraq war. It trotted out some lame excuses. The report, which is a damning indictment of Blair, has basically said, among other things, that there was no imminent threat from Saddam Hussein; the UK intelligence furnished ‘flawed information’ and Blair exaggerated the case for the war.
Sadly, the ICC has failed to resist pressure from some western powers and remain impartial. This, however, does not mean that what Russia is accused of doing in Ukraine should go uninvestigated. Allegations against it must be probed but in a credible manner. However, the so-called world order is governed by Rafferty’s rules or no rules at all, and the big powers do not have to worry about the consequences of their actions. There’s the rub.
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