Endemic political corruption | Sunday Observer

Endemic political corruption

A remark by parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe that Sri Lanka’s Parliament was the country’s most corrupt state institution has upset a few, but nevertheless, provides much food for thought. Rajapakshe’s comments were in the context of claiming that two hundred and twenty-five laptops donated to parliamentarians by the Chinese government were a ‘bribe’.

Interestingly, taking issue with Rajapakshe and raising a Point of Order was fellow opposition parliamentarian Nimal Lanza. Those blessed with long memories will remember Lanza: in 2011, while he was still a minister in the Western Provincial Council, his house in Negombo was raided by the Special Task Force.

The next day, Mahinda Rajapaksa, then President of the country took a special helicopter ride from Colombo to Negombo and ‘dropped in’ at the Lanza residence, no doubt to offer some words of comfort and reassurance. Setting such high standards of virtue for himself, perhaps it was justified that Lanza was peeved by Rajapakshe’s remarks!

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was another who was upset at Rajapakshe’s remarks. That though is understandable. In an environment where politicians are perceived to be corrupt unless proven otherwise, Speaker Jayasuriya hasn’t been tarred with the brush of corruption in almost a quarter century of public life. His conduct during the constitutional crisis last year was equally statesmanlike and it is a relief that such individuals, though an exception to the rule, are still in Parliament.

Jayasuriya rightly admonished Rajapakshe saying that if he believed what he said, he should not remain in Parliament. However, the Speaker’s advice to Rajapakshe would be like water off a duck’s back because Rajapakshe is the same person who, after serving many months in the Constitutional Assembly and being a Member of its Steering Committee, did an about turn and said it was unlawful.

Apparently, the learned President’s Counsel realised this only after he lost his ministerial portfolio! Sadly, corruption in politics has now become endemic in this country. No less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena is on record saying that the ‘constitutional coup’ in October 2018 failed because the asking price for a parliamentarian rose to about 500 million rupees. Had the price not been so high, Mahinda Rajapaksa would have been able to muster the support of 113 MPs and formed a government and there would have been no ‘crisis’, the President said.

In fact, in the light of the President’s observations Rajapakshe’s remarks last week are a mere storm in a tea cup. Rajapakshe was implying that our parliamentarians could be bribed by a laptop costing around a hundred and fifty thousand rupees. If it is of any consolation, President Sirisena placed a higher value on our legislators! In searching the reasons for this trend, one could point the finger at the proportional representation (PR) system of elections, which gives neither major party a sizeable majority.

Governments formed under this system in the past twenty-five years have had a majority of less than twenty seats, with the only exceptions being in 2001 and 2004. This meant, if the opposition could tempt a dozen MPs to switch loyalties, they can form a government of their own. Corruption is however not only about switching loyalties to continue enjoying the perks of power. It is about acts of commission and omission by politicians in awarding tenders, stifling investigations, facilitating school admissions and the like.

Unfortunately, this is a government that was elected on a platform of cleansing such corruption which were attributed to the previous regime. Instead of doing so, it got itself embroiled in a corruption scandal of its own involving the Central Bank which stinks to high heavens because its perpetrators are still at large and other persons of interest continue to hold powerful positions.

It is a sad indictment of our political and judicial systems that despite the multitude of complaints against our politicians and the dozen or so cases filed against them, no one has been found guilty and sent to prison. Some cases are dismissed for lack of evidence and others are stuck because the wheels of justice turn ever so slowly for them.

The fact that the only high-profile persons convicted of bribery and corruption were a President’s Secretary and a President’s Chief of Staff does not mean that our politicians are lily-white; it only means they are better versed in the fine art of evading justice. Some years ago, then Sports Minister and now opposition parliamentarian C.B. Ratnayake caused a stir when he said that Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) was the third most corrupt institution in the country, ranking next to the Education and Police departments.

Earlier this year, Sports Minister Harin Fernando suggested that those rankings may have changed, revealing that the International Cricket Council (ICC) had advised him that SLC was the most corrupt cricket body in the world. While some may take solace in the fact that we are world champions in some form of cricket, it is also no coincidence that some individuals have darkened the corridors of both Parliament and SLC!

Sadly for the Sri Lankan voter, there is no solace in sight. Even though the next general elections cannot be called for another six months, it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that the lists of candidates submitted by both major political parties will include the ‘usual suspects’ and, if elections are held on the PR system, as it is very likely, most of them will indeed return to Parliament.

Relying on these same individuals to enact laws to eliminate corruption is, as the pithy Sinhala saying goes, like seeking a soothsayer’s advice from a thief’s mother to recover stolen goods!