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Government Gazette

'Good Governance': One year on


The Moragahakanda project.
Pic: Sudam Gunasinghe

Exactly one year ago, the people gave a historic mandate to the two major political forces in the country to work together. Actually, the process was set in motion eight months earlier, in January 2015 when Common Presidential Candidate Maithripala Sirisena emerged victorious at the Presidential Election, beating incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was seeking an unprecedented third term in office.

President Sirisena campaigned on the promise - and premise - that there would be a National Unity Government formed by the UNP and the SLFP, if he came to power.

The people endorsed this idea and by January 9, 2015, Sri Lanka had a President from one party and the Prime Minister (Ranil Wickremesinghe) from another. While this was not the first time it happened in Sri Lanka, this occasion was significant in that there was a prior understanding about power sharing in this manner.

This Government did have a 100 -day program which managed to accomplish quite a lot of promises made during the election period, though obviously not everything. Hence, the President and the Prime Minister urged the public to reaffirm their faith in the concept of a national unity Government to continue on that path.

The public indeed did reaffirm their faith in this Government of Unity and Consensus, also known as the Yahapalana (good governance) Government.

President Maithripala Sirisena with Chinese President Zi Jingping. Pic: Courtesy asiantribune.com

This name was used because the new Government had pledged to reverse the dictatorial course of the Rajapaksa Government and free the State institutions whose freedom had come under attack. The Government had also inherited one critical challenge - like the proverbial Sword of Damocles, sanctions and other restrictions were looming on the horizon through UN Resolutions inimical to Sri Lanka, as a result of the belligerent attitudes of the previous administration with regard to Human Rights issues. The Government also had to deal with the debt burden of the Rajapaksa regime.

More realistic policy

In a sense, the biggest achievement of the Good Governance Government is extricating Sri Lanka from the abyss of international isolation and sanctions. Instead of locking horns with the UN and the Western powers, the Government followed a more realistic policy of open engagement with the International community, which culminated in its co-sponsorship of the last UN Resolution. In keeping with the commitments made to the UN and the International community by the Rajapaksa administration itself, and also with the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the former President, the Government has embarked on a process of accountability, restorative justice and reconciliation. By next March, when there is likely to be another resolution on Sri Lanka, an even more comprehensive picture of this process will emerge.

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in animated conversation

As a result of these endeavours, Sri Lanka has again become a coveted member of the International community. Both, the President and the Prime Minister have been welcomed with open arms in countries that shunned leaders of the previous regime. More countries have come forward to grant aid on very favourable terms. Even on a people-to-people level, several countries have relaxed visa restrictions for Sri Lankans.

The Government has largely succeeded in restoring public confidence in State institutions, including the judiciary and the police, which were tampered with, by the previous regime.

The key to this change was the 19th Amendment, which was one of the key pledges of the new Government. It again set presidential term limits, pruned certain powers of the executive presidency and restored the independence of Government institutions. Indeed, the Courts have since then delivered several verdicts which may be interpreted as being unfavourable to the Government, but no attempt has been made to influence the judiciary in any way.

This is in sharp contrast to the previous regime which engineered the impeachment of the then Chief Justice on flimsy charges.

The Government recently delivered several of its core promises. The Right to Information Act was finally ratified into law a week ago. This will enable the public, among other things, to know how the Government is using their funds. It will take a few more months to become fully operational due to logistical and manpower challenges, but the concept itself has now got firmly entrenched in the governance process.

On the reconciliation front, the Government just last week succeeded in getting the Office of the Missing Persons Bill passed amid Opposition from the Joint Opposition. The next step is to have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which will drive inspiration from the South African reconciliation process. These are essential steps on the road to lasting peace and reconciliation.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. AFP

The Government is keen to develop infrastructure. The Megapolis Initiative in the Western Province is a major project that will see an overall resurgence in the province. After a thorough review, the Port City project initiated by the former Government with Chinese funding has been totally transformed as a Financial City to attract more investors.

Financial controversies

Reviews are mixed on the economic front. The controversy surrounding the appointment of Arjun Mahendran as Central Bank Governor and the alleged bond transactions overshadowed much of the other good things that the Government achieved on the economic front. This was finally resolved only when all concerned parties agreed to the appointment of respected economist, Indrajit Coomaraswamy to this position.

The Government is also saddled with the US$ 65 billion debt burden left behind by the previous administration, which engaged in massive projects that ultimately did not benefit the public at all, including the Mattala airport. Huge loans were obtained at commercial rates and once these debts are serviced, there is little money left for development and welfare. Thus, the Government needs to generate more funds, which in turn has led to one of the biggest financial controversies in recent times - the increase of Value Added Tax (VAT) to 15 percent from the earlier band of 11 percent.

A public burdened with an already High Cost of Living did not find favour with the idea, not to mention traders who feared that higher prices will deter consumers. However, most have conveniently forgotten that VAT was once as high as 20 percent. After resolving legal complications, the Government is set to bring a new VAT Bill in due course. If the VAT is reduced, finding new sources of revenue will prove to be a major challenge for the Government in a country where only a minor percentage of individuals pay income tax.

Most civil society representatives have also been frustrated by the seemingly slow pace of investigations into cases of corruption alleged to have been committed by prominent members of the former regime. However, the Government's stance is that the evidence must be rock solid. Manpower and logistical problems at Police and A-G's Dept too have contributed to this delay. Yet, results of the year-long process seem to be coming in - one example is the confiscation of CSN funds amounting to Rs.157 million.

Different opinions

Others want faster action on many unsolved attacks, disappearances and murders that took place during the previous regime. These include the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder, Wasim Thajudeen murder, attacks on several journalists, disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, ACF murders, Trinco 5 case and several other unsolved crimes. Just a few weeks back, Police arrested one suspect in connection with the Lasantha murder case, while CCTV footage relating to the Thajudeen case has been sent to Canada for analysis. Several suspects are in custody in connection with the Thajudeen and Ekneligoda cases.

The lack of unity in the SLFP has been a thorn on the side of the Government, with some SLFP members still in the 'Joint Opposition' led by the former President. There are however, indications that more JO members would cross over to the Government side.

Moreover, different opinions expressed by SLFP and UNP Ministers in the Government on the same subject could damage the collective responsibility of the Cabinet. However, the UNP and the SLFP MOU on the National Unity Government has now been extended for the full five year term until 2020, which is a harbinger of good things to come.


Bouquets and brickbats

Several Ministers and MPs from both sides shared their views on the national Unity Government's one year performance with the Sunday Observer. Excerpts:

SLMC Leader and City Planning and Water Supply Minister Rauff Hakeem:

"Given the difficult financial situation, a legacy of the former regime, we strove to instil public discipline and good governance principles, and change the vital sections in the Constitution to enable independent commissions to function smoothly. When it comes to the matter of governance, it is solely about implementing development work.

The Government has just completed one year. I should say many of the projects that were in the pipeline are beginning to get implemented. It took sometime for us to secure funding and then to roll out those projects through the transparent procurement process, and it is all in the interest of the nation. If there was any delay in the implementation of projects, it was mainly due to ensuring transparency in the interest of the country. There will be more transparency in our dealings and the best value for money will be achieved in the implementation of such projects.

JVP MP Sunil Handunneththi:

"We cannot be satisfied with state enterprises. The same frauds and other malpractices that occurred during the former regime are still happening in different forms. The difference now is that there is an intervention to expose them, unlike during the previous regime. As a result, there is some sort of control. Methodologies should be formulated at ministerial level to prevent such frauds. But there is no such intervention at ministerial level. Some of the recommendations made by the COPE on certain chairmen of state enterprises have not yet been implemented.

Then the question arises, Yahapalanaya has not yet been given effect under the very Yaha Palana Government. However, some of the democratic changes have been introduced during the past one year tenure of the Government. Providing opportunity to the people to air their views to the COPE is one such democratic change. In addition, the very functions of COPE should be exposed to the people by the media. Only crooks are scared to appear before the law.

Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa:

Strictly speaking, this Government is facing lots of problems inherited from successive Governments, internally as well as externally. The Government is burdened with the recovery of repayments, which is painful, in consequence of which government revenue has declined severely.

The Government's one year performance is good. Although there was a downturn of the world economic situation last year, I think we have faced it well. With regard to certain investments, such as, the Port City, the Government has been able to change most of the conditions laid down earlier and made them favourable to us. The bilateral ties with USA, UK, European countries , China and India have since been improved.

Joint Opposition Leader and UPFA Colombo District MP Dinesh Gunawardena:

The Government is failing in all fronts. It is very clear, there is a big disparity in what they had pledged and what has been achieved. What is happening today is that those who supported them beyond party loyalties are totally discontented. The Government could not in fact present the VAT Bill in Parliament on Tuesday. When the Government assumed office, they pledged so many things to the people, but they cannot deliver the goods. Perhaps they have overestimated themselves. The Government does not have a clear program. They have merely become emotional on their being voted to power. The reality is, they could not properly tackle the budget crisis which is very serious.

The Government has not started anything new during the past one year. In the future too, they have nothing new to offer to the people other than burdening them with hardships. How could one say the Government has performed well? They have not even fixed the dates for Local Government Elections

Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake:

The full benefits of our programs have been passed down to the people, while more should be given. We are making every effort to accomplish this task. In one year, we have accomplished many notable tasks that the previous Governments could not do.

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