Corruption and good governance dominated the political space in recent years, yet in the span of just six months the cause célèbre has become an orphan with no major political party or indeed even a significant candidate using anti-corruption as their main policy platform.
The absence of corruption as a political issue has created an interesting dilemma in local politics because it still resonates among the masses, but it is questionable whether there is any politician important and credible enough to take on the charge in a way that resonates with the public.
Political analysts agree that the issue and perception of corruption was instrumental in the defeat of the pre-2015 Government. However, the Government that replaced it in January 2015 were unworthy custodians of the good governance mandate and continued to blunder along in the belief that business as usual was sufficient. Things were not helped by an already overburdened, under-resourced and over-stretched judicial system that was easy to manipulate and discredit.
Mired in multiple scandals, the sheer level of incompetence, infighting and inefficiency resulted in the public shifting away from the key stakeholders of the former Government. The Easter attacks essentially sealed their fate at the last presidential election as a frustrated and disillusioned vote base returned to what has been marketed as a modified return of the Rajapaksas. It would seem that since the fateful Easter Sunday attacks, the twin issues of security and economic development have returned to dominate political discourse but a recent survey suggests that corruption remains an important subject among voters. The survey conducted by Colombo based think tank Verite Research and Vanguard indicates that the public still considers fighting corruption to be an important aspect of governance for Sri Lanka’s development and the access of essential services by the public.
This is further borne out by events such as the reaction that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa received, especially on social media, when he visited the Registrar of Motor Vehicles (RMV) and called on public sector officials to provide seamless services. Whether it is the washing out of sand filled at Mt. Lavinia beach or the call for new parliamentarians, at the core of these discussion points is corruption and the desire to see it effectively dealt with. Sri Lanka’s score on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index released earlier this year remained unchanged, showing that the public’s view of State sector governance remains stagnant despite policy and political promises. Sri Lanka ranked 93rd out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2019, which is compiled by Transparency International. Sri Lanka received a score of 38 out of 100, the same as in 2018 and 2017. In 2016, Sri Lanka received a score of 36. However, the country went from being ranked 95th out of 176 countries in 2016 to 91st out of 180 countries in 2017 and 89th out of 180 countries in 2018. Regionally India and Bhutan have fared better than Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, after decades of ignoring governance in Sri Lanka, weakening of key institutions, and promoting power imbalances, there is also a sense of deep hopelessness and, perhaps more dangerous, a normalisation of corruption to contend with. Even political parties such as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that has consistently attempted to engage on corruption has not been able to attract the public to their banners in sizeable numbers. All signs so far point to this vacuum continuing to exist in the near term.