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Beyond policies 

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The Government will today launch a national plan to combat corruption and bribery aimed at proving its commitment to the mandate that brought it to power in 2015. But the latest Transparency Index released by international corruption watchdog Transparency International shows that Sri Lanka’s score has remained largely unchanged since 2013, indicating that despite the Government’s anti-corruption mandate, the public believe corruption is rife. 

A weekend report showed that even though billions of rupees had been spent on the Bribery and Corruption Commission, the actual cases it has lodged on large scale corruption remains minimal. 

The index, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.

The latest index reveals that the continued failure of most countries to significantly control corruption is contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world. While there are exceptions, the data shows that despite some progress, most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption.

More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI, with an average score of just 43. Sri Lanka has scored 38 on the CPI 2018 retaining the same score from 2017, which is lower than the global average and is ranked 89th in the world and third in South Asia, behind Bhutan (25th) and India (78th). 

The CPI performance of Sri Lanka underscores its stagnant anti-corruption environment, which has seen the country’s CPI score fluctuate between 36 and 38 since 2013, despite the anti-corruption mandate provided to the Government.

While there are exceptions, the data shows that despite some progress, most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption. In the last seven years, only 20 countries significantly improved their CPI scores, including Estonia, Senegal, Guyana and Côte D’Ivoire. 

Equally troubling, 16 countries significantly decreased their scores, including Australia, Chile, Malta, Hungary and Turkey. Even the US has stumbled six places in the latest rankings.

In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, the failure of democratically elected governments to crack down on corruption and hold the powerful to account has resulted in populist leaders becoming more attractive. When the public feel that their concerns are not being addressed by their political representatives, it is easy to turn to people who are viewed as authoritarian but are perceived as having the strength to crack down on corruption. This is arguably the attraction behind potential candidates like former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa as they target this public frustration very successfully. The overwhelming public sentiment is ‘they will get something done’.

Unfortunately, the rise of such leaders around the world has also shown that once elected, they undermine democratic institutions and are not immune from corruption themselves. Sri Lanka has already experienced decades during which critical democratic institutions, such as an independent Judiciary and media, have been weakened by strongman leaders and their loyalists. 

When institutions are enfeebled, they allow corruption to spread and higher levels of corruption lead to even more debilitated institutions. 

This cycle, which has already begun in Sri Lanka, requires large amounts of public engagement and vigilance to reverse. Discouraged by the slowness of the process, many people simply give up. 

Key members of the Yahapalanaya Government including President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe failing in their anti-corruption mandate has opened the door to a scary future. The public elected them in good faith and they have not just failed to stamp out corruption but also contributed to it. The only hope left is in the high profile corruption cases before the courts; if they are concluded in 2019 and institutions continue to become more independent, then Sri Lanka might finally begin moving towards the light.

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