By Neville de Silva
Apr 23 2017 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka)
So it is May’s day. Prime Minister Theresa May who pledged that she will run her course as Prime Minister and dismissed the idea of an early election did a rather sudden u-turn. Those who remember the Margaret Thatcher era would recall her October 1980 conference speech when she told those waiting “with bated breath” for a Thatcher u-turn “You turn if you want to. The Lady’s not for turning”. She was punning on the title of the Christopher Fry play “The Lady’s Not for Burning”.
Politics in Britain as well as in Sri Lanka, until quite recently called the “Miracle of Asia” by tourist blurb writers with little imagination and no respect for facts, have come a long way since Thatcher’s words rocked the conference hall with laughter and applause that October day.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa called a presidential election two years ahead of time it was said that two persons influenced the decision. One was his favourite astrologer and the other brother Basil who made a quick exit from the country after the Mahinda lost the election pleading mea culpa or words to that effect.
Basil Rajapaksa’s call for an early election appears to have been influenced by his reading of the political developments of the time whereas the astrologer seemed to have gazed at the wrong stars.
Theresa May’s announcement last week of an election three years before the scheduled date had nothing to do with stellar movements but the political constellation at home, and possibly in the European continent, the orbit from which she is trying to detach Britain.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 passed during the time of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition led by Prime Minister David Cameron, states that from the 2015 parliamentary elections would be held every five years. However an early election could be triggered only if the government is defeated in a “no confidence” vote or if 2/3rds of MPs vote for an early election.
Theresa May who became Prime Minister following David Cameron’s resignation after losing last year’s referendum on whether to stay or leave the European Union, was determined to stay the whole term during which her government would negotiate the best terms on which to quit the EU.
Her problem however was that a small group of Tory backbenchers who are opposed to the UK pulling out of the EU could prove troublesome during the negotiations and be damaging and even dangerous when she had only a slender majority in parliament.
There was the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) calling for another referendum on Scotland’s future, sniping at the Tory’s from the flanks in Westminster. Just last month the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a second independence referendum that would have only added to May’s woes as she struggled to convince Europe over the terms of UK’s exit from the Union.
And there was the Labour Party, the main enemy, facing the May government in the Commons but in a state of disarray with a lackluster leader still mouthing socialist shibboleths and trying to win the voters with more promises that would be hard to keep.
Theresa May saw the looming political landscape and decided the time was nigh to call an election before things began to fall apart. The latest polls showed that the Conservatives were 15-20 points ahead of Labour and who could blame her if she struck first like any political party would, making use of the prevailing political circumstances to its advantage.
Most probably she would win with her call for a stronger and united nation. But would she get the kind of majority that would strengthen her hand at home and give her greater leverage in the negotiations with the EU. While that is what she is counting on, the fact is that people here are getting more and more disgusted with politics and politicians just as voters in Sri Lanka are tired of the mounds of broken promises by politicians which are climbing as high as the mountains of garbage accumulated in Meethotamulla.
If May’s broken promise on regular elections might be excused as political expediency, there is a trail of other promises in the manifesto that seem to be falling by the wayside and leaving a trail of discarded pledges as the Tory Party does what is has always done – the shift of power to the wealthy and the already powerful.
While there are several manifesto pledges that now seem to have been binned, the most recent and perhaps the most serious as far as Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s political future is concerned is the dropping of a key budget proposal concerning national insurance contributions.
One is reminded of several proposals by UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in the 2016 and 2017 budgets that ran into trouble after President Sirisena and the SLFP had second thoughts about their impact on the country.
To speak of the Conservative Party of the UK and the UNP of Sri Lanka in the same breath is not unusual. They are comrades-in-arms (well not exactly comrades) in the International Democrat Union (IDU), that grouping of centre-right parties inclined to favour the rich and the powerful who are their biggest donors.
So dumping manifesto or election pledges may seem natural to the UNP whic promised the country a whole raft of political goodies at the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015 only to betray the people before long.
The country was assured of good governance. Even if the UNP did not coin the word ‘yahapalanaya’ it certainly joined in celebrating the new form of government that was going to clean the country of corruption, nepotism, cronyism and a multitude of other sins practised by the ruling family and its associates before the yahapanites occupied the seats of power.
Why, this government was going to be cleaner than white sweeping away the abuse and misuse of power, refrain from wasting public funds, keeping the cabinet to manageable numbers and a host of other pledges that would indeed have made Sri Lanka the Wonder of Asia.
The wonder is that a desperate people, longing for change after years of abuse by the ruling clan swallowed the promises that were never intended to be fulfilled and voted for politicians who were no strangers to breaking promises.
Hardly had the new president assumed office when UNP leader Wickremesinghe’s nominee as Governor of the Central Bank was embroiled in a bond scandal which still reverberates as the report of a commission of inquiry looking into the circumstances which led to what is purported to be an unprecedented scam is anxiously awaited.
Those who were scandalized – or so it was said – by nepotism seemed unmoved when the UNP finance minister planted his brother-in-law in high office in the Insurance Corporation until one day the corporation had two CEOs.
Those who complained about the country’s fiscal deficit and promised to tighten the purse strings – at the expense of a struggling citizenry – had no qualms at all about liberally spending public money on luxury cars for MPs and some public servants and upping their allowances while burdening the people with increased VAT.
VAT, if one might say so, a tragedy the last two years has been despite a somewhat freer democratic atmosphere for dissent and criticism. After the administration of the national carrier under the previous government ran into stormy weather this government appointed a committee headed by Attorney J.C.Weliamuna to inquire into SriLankan Airlines. The Weliamuna committee’s report pinpointed maladministration, abuse of privileges, misuse of funds, and several other acts where even diplomatic vehicles were misused and unpaid for cargo space utilised to dispatch packages to the presidential secretariat.
But the current chairman of SriLankan Airlines, appointed by the UNP palanites, and some other members of the board decided to ignore allegations of sexual misconduct and other abuses made in the Weliamuna report. The promises made to bring to justice the killers of Lasantha Wickrematunge and Wasim Thajudeen and those responsible for the abduction and assault of several journalists is dragging on with political lip service paid occasionally to the victims apparently to show some concern to a public angry over the attempts to stall the investigations.
The public was told that billions of dollars of public assets were robbed and efforts were under way to bring them back to the country. Instead what we are witnessing is the FCID being told not to stick its nose into procurements made after 2015.
Why? Is it because more dirty linen will be uncovered and the yahapalanaya’s Mr. Cleans will themselves have to be sent to the cleaners?
If Theresa May broke a promise about not calling early elections, it is no great shakes. At least there are sufficient checks and balances in the British system to keep its politicians along the straight and narrow though there are instances of a few overstepping the declared limits.
But eventually they have to pay the price unlike in Sri Lanka where the public pays the price for electing representatives who hardly have a formal education and others who have taken refuge in politics fled at the first sign of a public exam.
Politics means different things to different people. To most who take to politics in Sri Lanka it is a well-paid job that rakes in more than the entitlements. Why strain yourself trying to pass exams when MPs get duty free vehicle permits which can be sold and ever-increasing perks for making promises at the behest of party leaders which one knows will be broken.
It is our politicians that make Sri Lanka the Miracle of Asia.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka