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President’s Corruption Conundrum

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Monday, 21 December 2009 11:32 No Comment]

focu-1-300x190 In the run up to the elections in 2005, not many would have given Mahinda Rajapaksa a fighting chance of being elected. The voting public were quite aghast at the misdeeds perpetrated by the Kumaratunga regime, her taking over of key ministries from Ranil Wickremesinghe and then calling for an election were all very much in the foreground of matters as was of course the war effort.

Indeed Ranil Wickremesinghe had every chance of being elected the president – his strengths were perceived correctly — his connections with the international fora, his well planned economic policies as well as of course, his manoeuvring of the LTTE towards a peaceful settlement. As we all now know, the LTTE had no inclination at all of reaching a peaceful solution and preferred the defeat of the Sri Lankan armed forces instead. In that backdrop the world’s most ruthless terror organisation found it expedient to stymie the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency attempt. They did so – now obviously – without taking into full account the resolve of the Tangalle-based Rajapaksa household to defeat the LTTE.

That Mahinda Rajapaksa would have the temerity to actually take the LTTE on fully was considered quite a joke: it was, it was said at the time, simply another statement emanating from President’s House. For a whole year while the President pandered to the CFA signed by Wickremesinghe and the LTTE, the Sri Lankan armed forces were taking a beating like never before. It was not long before his Marxist partners were forcing the President towards annulling the CFA and taking the LTTE full on.

Reluctant participant

That the President was a reluctant participant to engage in a military solution seemed obvious to every one. In actual fact of course, the President and his team were putting in place the mechanism that would engage the LTTE militarily. Behind the scene discussions went on with China, India, Pakistan and Russia too. A plan that was almost audacious was in the making. The Army Commander was changed and an officer who was senior but sidelined by the previous President and her Prime Minister, Sarath Fonseka, was brought in and charged with defeating the LTTE. No expense was spared.

In essence, the armed forces got whatever they wanted. Equipment, personnel, ammunition and political will and a pogrom to silence the media on all matters militaristic – which was little different from what the allied forces engaged in the Iraq war – albeit there were no reported cases such as the assassination of journalists of the stature and popularity of Lasantha Wickrematunge. That political will was crucial as a number of leaders before Rajapaksa, had failed in their will to carry forward a military solution – either falling for pressure applied by the international fora or from misconceived local analysis.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has always said that he lacks the ‘right’ people to carry forward his vision for Sri Lanka. Indeed, speaking about SriLankan Airlines, prior to the take over of its management from Emirates Airlines, the President was of the view that if it was given to the private sector it would make money from the next day but that if the same person was asked to run it for the government then the losses would mount from the next day. It was evident that the President was frustrated that the people he had a call on could not deliver the goods quite the way the private sector would.

Same problem

The President currently faces the same problem at Sri Lanka Insurance. The insurance giant was returned to the ownership of the Treasury by an order of the Supreme Court. The company really was a veritable ‘jewel in the crown’ of the state. He appointed an academic – Dr. Nalaka Godahewa — who had previously run the company for the private sector but who stepped down when he realised the enormity of the charges being brought in the Supreme Court against his employer. While the President was absolutely spot-on in his choice of the senior management to steer Sri Lanka Insurance to greater heights and towards becoming a beacon of success of which the state and the private sector, could be justifiably proud of, unfortunately, there are some bad apples on board too. This has negated the effect of having a strong board consisting of capable and experienced men and has resulted in Sri Lanka Insurance continually losing ground.

At the last count Sri Lanka Insurance sales were down 4% year on year and was running at an astonishing 18% below target. Much of this has been placed at the doorstep of the ‘powers that be’ at board level, who for no apparent reason have encouraged the unions and flirted with the company cheque book – and the appointment of the Chairman is said to emanate from the Presidential Secretariat. SLI has lost so much of ground that the former private sector owner has been prompted to consider setting up his own rival insurance firm, which, with the corporate information within his knowledge and the refund due, will be a cakewalk.

There are numerous other instances of these situations where the President has been let down by his appointees – and the President frequently finds himself in a position of having to cover up. The President’s Men it seems have a collective penchant for shooting progress in the foot. Their short-termism and their personal agendas appear to be utterly at odds with the political programmes envisaged for the country at large.

The entry of Sarath Fonseka who is projected as a credible candidate has sought to create an alternative out of virtually nothing. In fact, the President does enjoy widespread popularity but the famed manoeuvring of Mangala Samaraweera and Ranil Wickremesinghe has seen the creation of some Presidential palpitation. They have brought to the foreground popular concerns like corruption. The problem of corruption is perennial in these parts of the world but what is even more galling in this instance is that the allegations hit on those around the Presidential family and not directly at the President himself. Unlike with previous occupants of Presidential House, there are no specific allegations of fraud against the President. A number of allegations have been exposed against those within his inner circle.

Combined effort

What the combined efforts of Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera have achieved is that they have contrived in their collective effort to rock the boat sufficiently to almost derail the Presidential plans for a post war renaissance period.

For example, wastage is high on the list just as high as corruption. The opposition highlights many an instance but is significantly silent on the issue of the size of its own cabinet of ministers for example. That President Rajapaksa has been unable to address this issue in his first term is clearly because he was stymied in that area: with the slim margin and collective effort that brought him into power, there was little option but to engage in the highly risky business of giving all and sundry ministerial positions in order to keep the uneasy alliance at bay.

The President, if he was to chart a victory for himself and later for his party with minimal involvement from alliances, will be able to truly call the shots. That much is clear on paper when one considers the overall vote the SLFP has garnered in the last and most recent provincial elections. This would permit the President the luxury of ensuring that the cabinet is kept small and manageable and that he would be in a position to enforce discipline and moderation at the highest levels of government.

This is a luxury that the alliance led by Sarath Fonseka and his experienced political allies will most certainly not have. For, theirs is an alliance of a number of disparate alliances, all of whom will inevitably jockey for positions and recognition in the event of a victory for their alliance – it would be utterly wishful thinking to believe otherwise.

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