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Sunday, 31 May 2015

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Repairing the country

President Maithripala Sirisena said it in a nutshell when, speaking at a ceremony in Hulftsdorp last week, declared that 'good governance' cannot be fully achieved overnight and, that the Government's 100-day program was just the start of what is actually a massive repair job that will take years, if not decades. This challenge of impatient public expectations is something that the entire National Unity government faces and there is little that government politicians can do when their voters begin to express frustration at what they see as the slow pace of reform.

High expectations reign when a country goes through the kind of upheaval and transition that began in Sri Lanka on January 8, after the Presidential elections. Expectations are raised when there is such a level of public dissatisfaction as the one that was mobilised in the vote in the presidential election that threw out the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It was a vote of massive public dissatisfaction with the Rajapaksa regime over what was perceived as unprecedented mis-government and, plundering of public resources on a previously un-imagined scale. When people become this dissatisfied, then the vote is cast for rapid change and the redress of the maladministration and financial misappropriation. People were tired of this mis-government and, wanted a quick change of not only the faces of those in power, but also of all the nefarious practices of maladministration.

In the past, too, there have been such moments of electoral change where high levels of disillusionment with political leaders' performance and expectations of rapid changes, have led to public frustration that the electoral change was not reflected in quick substantive transformations in the political institutions and public administration. President Chandrika Kumaratunga swept to power in 1994 with a similar mandate to redress perceived high levels of authoritarian governance coupled with a level of corruption that was, nevertheless, low in comparision with what went on under the more recent Rajapaksa regime.

Many people who enthusiastically voted for that change in regime in 1994 very soon began to be disillusioned. Within the year, unhappy with the slow pace of change, people began to feel that Chandrika Kumaratunga had not attained the promised level of performance. Despite all her many positive achievements, including, especially, the allowing of private TV and radio media to broadcast news programs, Ms. Kumaratunga was, in later years, seen as someone who 'let down' the voter due to non-fulfillment of election promises.

This time round, since there was a far greater perception by voters of the plunder, fraud and mis-governance, there is a demand, as never before, from voters for a degree of 'change' and repair that must be fast, visible and substantive.

The citizenry needs to be informed by the Government about the sheer vast scale of corruption and nepotism that needs repair, so that the schedule for the repair job can be seen as one that requires a considerable amount of time, painstaking work and a well-designed method. At the same time, those agencies addressing the mis-governance and plunder issues - be they law and order agencies or administrative institutions - need to become fully equipped with technology, staff and technical skills.

It is only when the citizenry becomes aware of the sheer scale of the repair job and also of the difficulties in doing the repairs, that they will adopt a more realistic approach to the Government's repair performance. It is by this means that popular expectations are calibrated and also no frustration sets in over the pace of implementation.

At the same time, the Government cannot be seen as neglecting some issues of governance failure while focussing on other issues, perhaps those that are closer to its political interests.

After all, governance is not only about public administration and accountability over public finances. It is also about political management, especially the management of the biggest challenge to the Sri Lankan polity - the ethnic conflict.

The vast social and spiritual damage to the country caused by the completely inadequate resort to a 'military solution' for the ethnic conflict is not second to the damage to the State system such as, administration and law and order, caused by nepotism and plundering during the previous regime. Hence, it is incumbent on the Government to give equal emphasis to the ethnic issue and also to numerous other substantive issues such as the need to return to comprehensive economic planning and management and also the rectification of human rights violations.

The recourse to a general election needs to be seen not only in terms of a (long overdue) new arrangement of political party power in the legislature, but also the means of obtaining popular mandates and direction for the resolution of these larger problems of political management.

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