President Maithripala Sirisena is in the headlines again for pardoning the former Warakapola Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman after he was sentenced to prison by the Supreme Court for bribery. The 18-year sentence, which was to be served in six years, had already been upheld by the Court of Appeal but President Sirisena’s pardon raises fresh questions of how Sri Lanka can have a credible anti-corruption policy that has public faith.
The present administration was swept into power in 2015 on a platform of good governance. While that mandate has largely fallen by the wayside, it cannot be completely disregarded as it is a core need of the country. Despite many statements, policy launches and oath-taking ceremonies, the reality is that the public have little or no faith in the politically powerful being held accountable.
The Transparency Index released by international corruption watchdog Transparency International earlier this year 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.
The index, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople, 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.
As Executive President, Sirisena has the right to pardon people but there are larger connotations to such an action. Of late the pardons of Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara and the former Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman can be viewed as the Executive undermining the power of the Judiciary. The Judiciary should be allowed to remain independent. Pardoning someone for bribery while saying they support anti-corruption is an inconsistency that does not foster confidence.
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. Sri Lanka is in danger of having reached this point. Political leadership, in an ideal world, would work to counter this and increase people’s confidence in independent law and order, which is at the core of a genuine democracy. Sri Lanka has to find a way to ensure that all people are equal before the law before it is too late.