Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Regime’s 5 E’s: Economy, External Affairs, Education, Elections and Executive rule

Rajan Philips

The five E’s do not capture everything the government does or is supposed to do. But they account for most of what the present government is doing or, rather, misdoing. The first three – Economy, External Affairs and Education - are areas of dismal government failure. The last two are devices used by the government to manipulate its popularity and exercise power. The way the government is using the two devices – Elections and Executive power – are not helping the government in properly discharging any of its responsibilities. Instead, they are only pushing the government more and more away from hard realities and into the fantasy land of family bandying, mutual admiration of fools and self-satisfying but otherwise fruitless power exercises.

More than occasionally, fantasy gives way to ugly manifestations of physical violence and verbal abuse. Nixonian expletives have been forced into our political vocabulary in a more public way than ever before. Whether or not anyone at the receiving end of physical violence or verbal abuse, deserves such treatment is not the issue. Such treatment should have no place in a civilized society. But the government usually turns the table by throwing mud at those who have been harmed or abused.

But no amount of mud is enough to cover the government’s tracks when it comes to the economy, external affairs or education. Not that the government does not try. On external affairs, the government’s stock excuse is the Tiger Diaspora and their western sympathizers aided and abetted by local NGOs. When it comes to education, the government turns its misinformation guns on the university teachers. Even threats have become par for the course.

Climate of brazen criminality

Only on the economy, the government finds itself at the wrong end of one of its ubiquitous one-way streets. All criticisms are targeted at the government. The government is caught with its pants down and cannot throw mud at anyone while trying to hold up its pants. Nor can it throw mud when an elder statesman of the private sector like Charitha de Silva writes about the "present climate of brazen criminality" that has infected the economic sphere. His article in last week’s Sunday Island is a measured but eloquent indictment of the "lethargy of the SEC and Government", as a result of which "the share market is in the doldrums."

De Silva praised the efforts of Minister Amunugama to extend the Deemed Dividend Tax to all companies to end the fallacy of treating dividends and capital appreciation as mutually exclusive. But "vested interests (an euphemism for many bad elements including the criminally inclined) managed to persuade the Government to downplay the Deemed Dividend Tax." De Silva does not see an end to the continuing decline in the share market unless "the SEC prosecutes some big players and puts them behind bars."

This government has the unique distinction of fostering not only crimes of violence but also white-collar crimes of insider trading, price manipulation, and brazen embezzlement. The share market crisis is only one symptom of the economic malaise, which has been quite well diagnosed and the remedial measures have equally well been identified. But the government is showing no signs of leadership in carrying out the remedial measures. What Charitha de Silva said in regard to the SEC that "it will need a new breed of very strong and upright people to reverse the present trend" is equally applicable to the government.

But where will such people come from? They are not going to fall from the sky. Invariably, at least in the short term, they have to come from parliament and from even within the government. As I noted, Charitha de Silva singled out Minister Amunugama for praise, and it was no coincidence that it was Sarath Amunugama who gave the first honest explanation of the fiasco of the Greek bonds. There are a few like Amunugama in the government and in parliament. But they are not making any difference. To be sure, they are not allowed to make any difference. But by sitting on their hands as other government second-rates and miscreants run amok, Amunugama and his likes are open to be accused as "they also serve who only stand and wait!"

There might be no climate of white-collar criminality in the government’s two other E’s, external affairs and education, but there is a no less disturbing climate of incompetence in both spheres. As I wrote last week, the government went to the extent of conducting instructions to its emissaries in spite of its own incompetence. And it is reportedly preparing a progress report on reconciliation and the human rights for the November session of the UNHRC, even though very little, if at all, has been achieved on the ground since the March UNHRC resolution implicating Sri Lanka.

The education file is a disgrace because if a country, however resource-starved, cannot nurture and maintain its educational institutions in the most proper way possible, in what other area can the government be more efficient and achieve results? From school admissions to university admissions and to university teaching, the government has created all kinds of problems. The courts have been asked to intervene in matters where there should be no need for court involvement. To add insult to injury, even Minister Mervyn has offered to extend his formidable cerebral resources to mediate between the government and university teachers.

Elections: expensive distractions

Elections are a necessary component of democracy, but they are not the only ones. In fact, too many elections, especially premature elections, can be and are deliberate distractions to the government fulfilling the other obligations of democracy. True to form, the government prematurely dissolved the provincial councils in three Provinces: Sabragamuwa, North Central, and the Eastern Province. These elections are expensive distractions from dealing with the problems of the economy, education and external affairs. The distraction is not an accident, but fully intended. Even the Commissioner of Elections helplessly pointed this out.

In Sabragamuwa and the North Central Province, the government wants to cripple the opposition even more. It wants to distract the people of these Provinces from their daily life problems of high prices, low wages, educational stalemate and lack of housing. In short, it wants to test the voting public and ensure that it protects and builds on the support of the Sinhalese people without making serious effort to solving any of their life problems. It remains to be seen whom and how the voters in the drought-stricken North Central Province will choose to punish.

In the Eastern Province, on the other hand, the purpose of the election is to somehow register a win for the government group in that Province and secure the bragging rights to proclaim to the world that the Rajapaksa regime is making good progress in reaching the postwar goal of learning lessons and reconciling communities. But just as the Eastern Province is where the government badly needs a win, it is also the venue that gives the best chance to the opposition forces to defeat the government.

The Eastern Province is remarkable for its ethnic plurality with each of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim communities constituting about a third of the population. Any winning coalition must secure votes from all three communities. Already, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress has decided to contest on its own without joining the government’s (UPFA) slate of candidates in the Eastern Province. While the Tamil National Alliance (contesting under the ITAK symbol) might be the largest group on the opposition side, it has no chance of winning a majority of the 37 seats in the Provincial Council on its own. The only way the opposition forces could win is by entering into a united front and agreeing on a common candidate for Chief Minister. If the opposition could agree on a Muslim candidate for Chief Minister, such a move would be a telling rejoinder to the anti-Muslim campaign that has been going on for some time under the government’s noses.

I do not have to say much about the regime’s fifth E – the Executive rule. The regime depends on the executive power for its survival but has demonstrated no ability to use that power to deal with the crises in the economy, external affairs and education. The Executive also decides, without any check or balance, on the timing of dissolving elected bodies and conducting new elections for them. The premature dissolution of the Sabragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provincial Councils is the most recent example. The announcement that the Northern Province, where there is no elected Council, will have its election in September 2013 is the opposite example of executive arbitrariness, if not arrogance. In between, Sri Lankan democracy is hanging on tenterhooks.

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