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Whither, public trust?

Whither, public trust?

26 Nov 2023

With the second reading of the Budget sailing through Parliament as anticipated despite the shenanigans of some members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the focus, at least among the public in this information age, has shifted to some of the debates – or what passes for debates these days. The ongoing Budget 2024 debate still has a long way to go, with the third reading being scheduled for 13 December.

The President, who has a habit of popping in and out of Parliament, unlike any of his predecessors, raised a stir on Wednesday (22) when he accused the Opposition Leader of breaking public trust by failing to accept the premiership that was offered to him by the then-under-fire President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The President’s contention was that since the then Prime Minister had resigned along with the entire Cabinet, the Opposition Leader as the leader-in-waiting should have stepped in to fill the void.

While that ideally ought to have been the case under normal circumstances – such as a governing party losing its majority in Parliament – this particular instance was in fact fundamentally different for two very basic reasons: the first being no change whatsoever in the overwhelming governing party majority in Parliament, making governance a veritable nightmare; secondly, and more importantly, the sovereign storming the palaces demanding not just a change of heads within Parliament but accountability for bankruptcy and radical change in the entire political system, none of which could have been delivered, as is evident now. 

May 2022 was a time that people were emphatic in their demand for a fresh start. The only way that could have been achieved was by seeking a fresh mandate from the people. Therefore, given the dynamics of the situation at the time, there arises a fundamental question as to what constituted the concept of public trust at that decisive juncture for the simple reason that it was the people who were publicly demanding trust from the country’s leadership in a background where the Government at the time had broken that trust by causing disruption to day-to-day life. Whether the Opposition Leader qualified to reinstate that broken public trust in the absence of a public mandate, in circumstances in which the public was actively agitating for their mandate to be consulted, remains debatable. 

Besides, public trust is essentially rooted in accountability – both are two sides of the same coin. Ever since the crisis began with shortages in most basics such as food, medicine, fuel, gas, electricity, etc., ultimately leading to the country being declared bankrupt, the one thing people have consistently been demanding has been accountability. Given the lack of enthusiasm on the part of officialdom to deliver on that, it was left to a group of civic-minded citizens, entities, and the country’s main Opposition to move the country’s apex court to name those accountable for the economic carnage. That judgment came only earlier this month reinforcing public trust in the judicial system, but unfortunately, no one in Government has thought it fit to distance themselves from those found guilty. Can such conduct be perceived as building public trust?

The debate as to which course of action – exploiting an outdated mandate and flogging a dead horse Parliament to produce a successor or seeking a fresh mandate from the people demanding change – would have been better qualified in earning public trust would probably go on till the cows come home. What appears to get lost in the arguments for and against is that the concept of public trust is not only sacred and non-negotiable, but is the foundation of any functional democracy, the erosion of which in any degree must necessarily result in the people being re-consulted every time such necessity arises.

The Budget 2024 debate last week also brought into focus a somewhat-controversial fact about how the incumbent landed the presidency, dramatically contradicting the narrative hitherto of an Opposition unwilling to shoulder responsibility and the Opposition Leader specifically avoiding taking over the premiership in May 2022, leaving no other option but for the incumbent to take over.

According to MP Sumanthiran, the collective Opposition – consisting of the SJB, JVP, TNA, and other parties – had arrived at a decision to adopt the transitional framework put forward by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). This framework essentially involved specifying a timeframe for the resignation of the then President and installation of a caretaker government, followed by conducting a General Election. According to the MP, the incumbent had broken ranks and accepted the post sans any such conditions. However the President, making a special trip to Parliament the very next day, rejected MP Sumanthiran’s version of events.

Nevertheless, it is on record that neither the SJB Leader nor the JVP Leader or any other party leader for that matter wanted to accept the job other than in a manner that aligned with public consent and the mood of the people at the time, which therefore is why preconditions that reflected public demands were laid down as a necessary prerequisite. The ascendance of someone rejected by the people to the presidency, although well within constitutional provisions, casts serious questions over the quantum of public trust associated with that office.

Be that as it may, the collective Opposition has consistently alleged ‘deal’ politics between the two individuals who have exclusively shared the role of leader and opposition leader alternatively for the better part of the last two decades. Being good friends and the two senior-most politicians in the current Parliament counting nearly 100 years of combined political experience between them have been of little help in countering that allegation. What is to be noted is that if the country was doing well and thriving as a consequence of this alliance, then people may well have celebrated it and sung hosannas to the duo, but the fact of the matter is that it has been anathema to the well-being of the nation, leading to a notable erosion in the rule of law and a growing culture of impunity.

It was this political configuration that ended up being the primary cause of the birth of the current main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), consisting of what constituted the cream of the once-mighty United National Party, which failed to win a single constituency at the last election. Therefore, if that party or its leader is to rectify the situation with elections, now a certainty next year, their campaign must necessarily begin with bridging the public trust deficit.  

It is to the current Opposition Leader’s credit that he called the President’s bluff when the Opposition was accused of scuttling the appointment of the Constitutional Council. The President ultimately not only ended up being apologetic but also claiming he was unaware of facts. No doubt it was shock therapy for a politician long used to choreographed politics with least resistance, whether in Government or Opposition. 

What is disconcerting is the Executive’s seeming preoccupation with accumulation of power by encroaching into unchartered territory, even dictating terms to the Legislature on how it must conduct its business, draw up its agenda, and even hint at the appointment of select committees at the drop of a hat. This phenomenon of Executive encroachment into other branches of Government where there is clear separation of power continued on Friday, with the President arguing that the Constitutional Council was a part of the Executive, quoting provisions from the 17th Amendment as well as an order given by former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva. 

This attempt to accumulate unmitigated Executive power in the hands of one individual, contrary to long-standing public sentiment, can only lead to a further erosion of public trust.

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