By Kamal Weeratunga –
The struggle for proper democracy in Sri Lanka and a country free of corruption has just begun, with its epicentre at the so called “#GotaGoGama” at the Galle Face Green, which appears to be largely driven by educated, middleclass youth without any obvious leader/s.
It’s overwhelmingly a peaceful protest, not surprising given the nature of the people involved – the educated youth, middle class workers and the elderly, most of whom may never have previously involved in any demonstration activity. This is also, in my view, is also the primary reason for this on-going protest to be so powerful and effective.
The Rajapaksa clan (some call it Rajapaksa mafia), which has been ruling the country with an iron grip on power, may eventually be driven out power, albeit is no certainty at all, through the sheer determination of the masses, for whom day-to-day living has become a nightmare in a country with a bankrupt national economy with near empty foreign reserves, hyperinflation, and shortage for food, medicines, fuel, electricity and other essentials. The economic destruction of the country at this scale, primarily due to utter incompetence of and mismanagement by the political leadership in power (opposition is not much different either), is unprecedented. This is exacerbated by similarly unprecedented level of corruption siphoning off a sizeable proportion of national wealth by a handful of all powerful individuals, which would have been otherwise available to be invested for the betterment of the country.
What would happen when the Rajapaksa clan is chased out, which seems to be one of the core demands, if not the primary demand, of the people? Who should then be elected to run the country?
With the possible exception of a few in the current crop of Parliamentarians in Sri Lanka, the overwhelming majority (say more than 90 percent) of the 225 sitting in the current Parliament are demonstrably corrupt, self-serving individuals with absolutely no integrity or morality whatsoever, who would do anything (including which way they vote in the Parliament) for money and personal benefit. They have no interest in the future of the country or the wellbeing of the population. While they are in power, their primary aim is to misuse the power given to them by the people, to amass ill-gotten wealth as much as they can and by any means for generations of their offspring, with total disregard for the rule of law.
I imagine that most of the Sri Lankan population would agree that the current lot of 225 Parliamentarians, who are by and large rotten to the core, deserve to be summarily “dismissed”, although it is practically an unrealistic expectation.
So, what should happen next if the Rajapaksa clan is forced out of power? The people of Sri Lanka can expect the same vicious downward political spiral to continue if the replacements are to come from the same stale lot in the current Parliament, which would be a pyrrhic victory for the people for all their sweat and blood. If a caretaker government of some sort is to be formed from the currently elected Parliamentarians, I sincerely hope it is well and truly interim, and very short lived.
Although it may be a remote possibility (close to a miracle), the best outcome, in my view, would be a new generation of leadership emerging through this struggle, who could contest and win the next election, whenever that is held (sooner the better), and if it is held transparently, fairly and without big money involved (and it’s a big “if”, if the Rajapaksa clan continues to pull the strings from somewhere). To me, it may be the only way out of for the population of Sri Lanka to dig themselves out of this abysmal pit of misery, which they have dug deeper and deeper for themselves over the last 74 years since Independence.
Most Sri Lankans of rational thinking are sick to death of all major political parties in Sri Lanka. They are crying out for a fresh political party with credible and competent leadership, who they can trust and vote into power.
So, where would this new “miracle” political movement come from. We have seen some new political movements and individuals come and go in the last couple of national elections in Sri Lanka. Some of those parties and individuals came to the scene with some credibility and riding on a lot of hope, only to fail miserably or fall by the wayside. The reasons for their lack of success may be a topic for a postgraduate thesis by a political science student. One obvious reason is that they failed to win the trust of the everyday people.
It may be wishful thinking, however, looking at the way how the #GotaGoGama movement has unfolded, I tend to think the potential leaders for a successful fresh political movement in Sri Lanka may already be amongst them, working hard – some behind the scenes and others at the coalface of the current struggle. Their strategy to be peaceful at every turn, which I imagine could be a difficult balancing act, given the raging anger of the general population against the government in general and the Rajapaksa clan in particular. Keeping the career politicians (of the Opposition), who are also detested, at bay from getting anywhere near #GotaGoGama is also a smart move. In addition, the ability to sustain the protests rolling continuously over several weeks, and attract volunteers and donors, plus the clever use of social media and technology demonstrate superior strategic thinking, leadership and organising skills of the “invisible” leadership and brain trust behind the #GotaGoGama protest movement.
I sincerely wish they coalesce into a fresh political movement comprising a diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds unaligned with any of the current political parties. Ideally, they would be a group of exceptionally talented youth excelling in their careers with the highest degree of integrity, and a deep commitment and care for the future of the country in their hearts.
Such a movement will also need a symbolic charismatic and articulate leader with a high profile, preferably both nationally and internationally, with a broader appeal to the wider community and potential to rally masses around the movement to be able to win an election. Some may not agree, but I tend to think, for example, someone like Kumar Sangakkara may be such a potential leader with the ability to galvanise a movement, although I understand he has previously turned down requests to get involved in politics. Also, I have no idea if he has been anywhere near the #GotaGoGama movement at all.
The obvious risk with such a bunch of fresh political leaders is the lack of previous experience in politics and governing. While this is a real risk, there are potential mitigation measures to minimise this risk, for example by having good advisors and mentors, and experienced senior bureaucrats with integrity for implementation of the government policy agenda. Some Sri Lankan diaspora holding senior positions across the world, who could bring in valuable knowhow and firsthand experience in good governance in the so-called first world countries, may also be able to assist. Given the country is already literally bankrupt and in a desperate situation with nothing much to lose, taking this risk may be still worthwhile. Anyway, in the unlikely event of the new leadership/party performing badly, the people will still have the opportunity to kick them out at the next election.
The next part of my article focuses on the communication strategy of our “miracle” or “dream” political party if it ever eventuates from the #GotaGoGama movement. It is important that the new alternative party should not only have charismatic and talented leadership, but they must also be able to cut through to convince the masses with a simple but penetrating message, which is critical for any political party if they are ever to win an election.
Simple but effective message is the key here. Most political parties in developed countries use a three-word slogan (sometimes four words) as the platform for their election campaigns, which when crafted cleverly could be devastatingly effective (remember “Make America Great Again”, although you may not agree with that campaign or the campaigner?). While an effective three or four-word slogan is important, my focus here is the next level, which is the summary of their plan for the country if they are to form the government. This plan is usually presented in the form of a few dot points, which is repeated at every possible opportunity (hammered home) to drive a message. More details of the plan are generally outlined in the election manifesto and other policy statements of the party.
I have outlined below a simple five-point plan to take to the people by our “miracle” or “dream” political party. At a higher level, this is what I, as an ordinary punter with a little more than a passing interest but with no political experience, think would be immediately needed to be implemented by the next government of Sri Lanka to salvage the country from the current mess. However, I accept that others, who are more politically astute and attuned to what is happening in Sri Lanka, may come up with better ideas for this plan than myself. Apart from being a well thought-out plan for rescuing the country, it is equally important that it (the high level plan) is presented in the simplest of language (in all three languages Sinhalese, Tamil and English), which the ordinary people can easily understand and relate to.
The five-point plan:
- Eliminate corruption and wastage
- New political culture with morality
- Independent judiciary and media
- Economic growth and poverty alleviation
- Peaceful, equitable and free society
Only limited by imagination and how much a government can expect to deliver in a single term, there can be numerous policies under each point of the five-point plan. Details of such policies and implementation plans can be detailed elsewhere. I have jotted down a few such potential policy headlines as examples, under each point of the five-point plan below.
Eliminate corruption and wastage
- Recover embezzled national wealth by corrupt politicians, their cronies and senior officials.
- Permanent Independent Corruption Commission with Presidential Commission powers to investigate serving and past politicians.
- Eliminate bribery, corruption and misconduct amongst politicians, in the public service and elsewhere.
- Lean and efficient public service.
- Enhance productivity.
- No more wasteful vanity projects (white elephants such as Hambantota Port and Mattala Airport) with no economic return or nothing to show for, except mountains of debt.
- Strict limits on extravagant perks for politicians including luxury vehicles, subsidised meals at Parliament.
- Limit the Cabinet to 25 (Australia with population of 26 million and much bigger economy than Sri Lanka has less than 25 in the Cabinet, while Sri Lanka is claimed to have set a Guinness world record with the world’s biggest Cabinet with 52 under Mahinda Rajapaksa).
New political culture with morality
- Only individuals with a minimum education level at Bachelors (preferably with a postgraduate) and/or with exceptional performance in their field preselected to contest elections.
- Strict, enforceable code of conduct/ethics for politicians and public servants.
- Politicians and senior officials to step aside if confronted with credible allegations of misuse of power, corruption or other misbehaviour, until investigations are completed and proven innocent.
- No political interference in public sector appointments, transfers and promotions.
- Mandatory declaration of assets of politicians and senior public servants annually in publicly available registers.
- Moderated debates between candidates for top political positions such as President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister (Treasurer) as part of election campaigns to scrutinise their policies.
- Appointment of only the most competent and suitably qualified professionals with a proven track record and highest integrity to lead all public sector agencies, overseen by a Public Sector Commission.
- Make sticking election posters on prohibited or public property a crime with appropriate penalties.
Independent judiciary and media
- All judiciary appointments by an Independent Judicial Commission based on merit with absolutely no political interference.
- Abolish the Presidential pardon system (which makes a mockery of the criminal justice in Sri Lanka by enabling convicted murderers and drug lords escape their punishment).
- Protect independence and impartiality of public broadcasting and print media through a governing charter enshrined in law.
- An advanced centre for media training (affiliated to a university or technical college) with potential help from global media leaders such as BBC and Australian Broadcasting Corporation to enhance quality of journalism in general, and investigative journalism and high quality current affairs in particular.
- Independent Communication and Media Authority to investigate complaints against media.
Economic growth and poverty alleviation
- Long-term (10-year plus) rolling National Infrastructure Investment Plan for well targeted transport, power, communication and other key infrastructure to support rapid economic development
- Reduce red tape for business investment, both local and foreign.
- Develop highly educated and skilled workforce to support a modern, vibrant economy.
- Ensure sustainable development and protection of natural environment.
- Take advantage of the critical geographic location of Sri Lanka including its proximity to some of the biggest markets in the world and its highly literate workforce to develop it as one of the most modern financial, services, manufacturing and research & development hubs in the world.
- Take advantage of the incredible natural beauty, rich history and culture of Sri Lanka to develop it as one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the world, with eco-tourism at the heart of it.
Peaceful, equitable and free society
- Everyone to be treated equal before the law, politicians included.
- Implement measures to create peaceful and harmonious society based on mutual respect.
- Eliminate police brutality.
- Merit-based appointments in all public sector agencies including promotions, through a competitive application process.
- Equal opportunity for everyone and opportunity based on merit.
- Protect free speech enshrined by law.
- Promote English as a language of education, business and globalisation, and as a bridging language between Sinhalese and Tamil speaking communities, while also promoting Sinhalese and Tamil as primary languages of culture, heritage and national expression.
- Enable and encourage every kid to take at least one sport of their ability.
- Encourage mindfulness training for kids at school, as a way to develop rightful thinking, compassion, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and skills for living in reality (present moment).
The above five-point plan is just a raw brain dump, and I am the first to admit that it needs to be rationalised, refined and prioritised. It needs to be developed through wider consultation, maybe using it as a starting point. Also, the policies under each point of the five-point plan remain no more than just headlines or slogans until developed in detail with implementation plans.
In my view, implementation of some of the above (or similar) policies by an incoming government is absolutely needed if we are to have any hope of digging the country out of this blackhole to be back on track again to become a liveable country with a decent democracy and a breathing economy.
Good governance doesn’t need to be overly complex. However, to be of any success, it needs leadership with utmost integrity and commitment. In the first instance, implementing, say, 3-5 highest priority policies/actions under each of the five points would be a solid start, creating a new pathway to a better society and country. While at the beginning who is at the helm is critically important, in the longer term what is even more important is to create a system to sustain the journey (good governance) irrespective of who is at the helm once the system has matured and become robust.
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