The outcry against what was a four per cent increase in the Value Added Tax (VAT) which was cleverly portrayed by the opposition as a monstrous new tax, is an indication that the ‘common man’ is feeling the pinch
Running a government, at the best of times, is difficult. Governments ushered into power with enormous goodwill frequently find themselves out of favour with the masses as the burdens of incumbency descend upon them. It is also no easy task to rein in the different personalities that make up an administration and get them all to toe the line and speak in one voice.
Take all these issues and factors in the phenomenon that this is a government like no other in Sri Lanka’s post independence history: it is an alliance between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the two parties which have been arch rivals in the country’s political system for nearly six decades.
In such an unprecedented scenario, the year 2016 in retrospect could be considered a success for the National Unity government headed by the respective party leaders of the SLFP and the UNP, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
That is because the government has made significant strides in fulfilling its election pledges while at the same time surviving some notable political challenges both in domestic politics as well as in the international arena.
Among the most significant achievements of the government is the appointment of the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions that make key public sector appointments. This has given the public hope that law and order as well and justice and fair play will prevail in the country once more after the shenanigans that were witnessed during the final years of the previous regime.
The government is also earnestly engaged in the process of Constitution making, the ultimate objective being the drafting of a Constitution that will provide the framework for a lasting solution to the grievances of all ethnic communities in the island.
There have been rumblings of dissent that the process has not been speedy but then, Constitutions cannot be drafted overnight. Lawmakers should not rush in where constitutional expert fear to tread. The government’s approach of allowing as much discussion and dissent is a reflection of its commitment to the principles of good governance it espoused during its election campaign.
The proposed new Constitution is yet to be presented to the general public. There are crucial unanswered questions as well, the chief among them being whether the Executive Presidency will be retained. Also at stake is the new system of elections. While there is general consensus that the new system will be a hybrid between the Westminster ‘first past the post’ system and the much maligned proportional representation (PR) system, the complex formulae for their amalgamation have not been agreed upon yet.
The promulgation of a new Constitution will be high on the agenda- if not top priority- for the National Unity government in 2017. This requires the support a two thirds majority in Parliament and the leaderships of the UNP and the SLFP are conscious of this, as they come to terms with the various difficulties of running a coalition of rivals.
One issue which threatened to tarnish the unity of the government was the controversy surrounding the former Governor of the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendran and his perceived involvement in the sale of bonds. When Mahendran’s appointment came up for review at the end of his tenure, the government was divided as to whether he should be re-appointed, asked to stand down temporarily or not re-appointed.
In the end, the leaderships of both parties displayed great political wisdom. A respected retired banker, Indrajit Coomaraswamy was appointed as Governor by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe concurred with the appointment.
The fall out from the bond issue did not end there. The opposition- both the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) found this to be an issue they could browbeat the government with. The parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) investigated the issue. There was an expectation- at least in the opposition- that the UNP members of the committee would sabotage its proceedings. That did not happen. The UNP members agreed with the findings of the report, albeit making their own observations through footnotes. The matter is now with the Attorney General who will determine the most appropriate course of action.
One of the key slogans of the government’s election campaign was putting an end to corruption and bringing those responsible for corruption during the previous regime to justice. There is some public angst about this because no one has yet been convicted of corruption, almost two years into the end of the previous regime.
The issue is a double edged sword for the government. On the one hand, it means that inquiries are proceeding as usual without undue influence being imposed on those handling them. On the flip side however, the opposition is using the law’s delays to claim that it was not corrupt when it was not in office. The government would do well to expedite these inquiries, not by exerting influence but by providing more resources to those conducting them so that speedy outcomes and tangible results will be apparent to the public.
Even though it does not impact the average Sri Lankan on a daily basis, one of the government’s most notable achievements is restoring the country’s credibility internationally. This had taken a beating during the last years of the previous regime. It has taken much effort- and a radical change in policy- to achieve this.
Most significantly, the ritual of passing resolutions against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has ceased. Instead, Sri Lanka has co-sponsored a resolution with the United States. Of course, it also means that Colombo should keep its side of the bargain by investigating the last phase of the Eelam war but the threat of an arbitrarily set up international war crimes tribunal against the country has receded considerably.
Country’s debt burden
What does affect the average Sri Lankan on a daily basis is the economy. While the government has taken measures to reduce the country’s debt burden which it inherited from the previous regime, this has manifested in more taxes. The outcry against what was a four per cent increase in the Value Added Tax (VAT) which was cleverly portrayed by the opposition as a monstrous new tax, is an indication that the ‘common man’ is feeling the pinch.
This is another factor which the government needs to be mindful about. As former United States President Bill Clinton famously said, ‘it is the economy, you stupid’, that influences election outcomes most. Not all the commitments to good governance, the accolades from the international community and gratitude for constitutional reform will save the government if the economy is in a shambles. True, economic benefits do not accrue to the masses overnight, but voters do think with their stomachs instead of their hearts and minds.
The other concern for the government is whether its message to the public is getting through. A negative perception about the incumbent government is quite common for any government. In this age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, conveying the government’s achievements to the public is a critical factor in ensuring that it retains the support of the masses. There have been instances when the government could have clearly performed better in this regard.
As we look back on 2016 and 2017 looms ahead, the National Unity government will be looking to consolidate itself. The first test it would have to pass is the Local Government election, now scheduled for early 2017. The UNP and the SLFP will contest separately and the outcome of the election will serve as an indicator to both parties as to which way they are heading. Interesting times lie ahead. (Daily News)