Canker of clientelism

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Progress eludes countries where populist politics has taken precedence over economics, Sri Lanka being a glaring example. Politicians, unlike statespersons, do not care much about the long-term interests of a country, and never hesitate to subjugate macroeconomic fundamentals to political expediency. But for some ill-conceived economic decisions the incumbent dispensation made for reasons of political patronage, the current economic crisis would not have come about. If only it had refrained from slashing taxes and throwing public funds around by way of pandemic relief, etc., to win the 2020 general election. So, it is only natural that Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe has reportedly frowned on patronage politics or clientelism, which, he says, has stood in the way of proper management of public finance.

Some political scientists have argued that patronage politics thrives under the first-past-the-post system, which places a premium on electors’ assessment of individual candidates, who make various promises to secure public support, as a result, and that under the Proportional Representation system, people tend to go by the policies of the political parties in the fray, instead. But Sri Lanka could be considered the exception that proves the rule.

Speaking at the National Law Conference on Sunday, Dr. Weerasinghe urged the Sri Lankan public to be wary of seeking patronage from politicians lest that practice should aggravate the country’s economic woes further. Easier said than done; the dependency culture has become deep-rooted in this country. Patronage politics including the so-called spoils system, which basically benefits government supporters, involves an implicit or explicit quid pro quo with people voting for candidates or political parties in return for goods and services and not the public good.

Sri Lankan politicians have mastered the art of bribing voters with public funds and having themselves returned! Not even the country’s worst-ever economic crisis has deterred them from offering patronage to the public in a bid to recover lost ground on the political front.

The government is upbeat about the prospect of the IMF throwing the much-awaited lifeline soon, but no amount of foreign aid will help the country achieve economic stability much less progress unless public finance is frugally managed. The current economic reform programme basically aims to restructure/privatise loss-making or underperforming public enterprises but much more needs to be done to relieve the Treasury and the public of unbearable economic burdens.

The ever-burgeoning state service, which is a drain on the public purse, is attributable to patronage politics. There are said to be about 1.7 million state employees in this country, which does not need more than a half of them. Most of these jobs are sinecures that successive governments have created for their supporters. State employees’ salaries and pensions account for about two-thirds of total state revenue, but the government has not disclosed how it proposes to downsize the public sector without hurting the workers therein.

Besides patronage politics that prevents electors from taking rational decisions at elections, and makes politicians waste public funds to secure votes, there are several other negative factors that have adversely impacted Sri Lanka’s economic performance, some of them being caste, ethnicity and religion. Caste-based politics has stood many crooks in good stead, and led to the presence of so many semi-literate politicians in Parliament, which has control over public finance. Some of these characters such as former chain snatchers, pickpockets, hooch dealers and cattle rustlers also claw their way to the Cabinet, and control vital sectors. The caste-factor is so dominant in Sri Lankan politics that it is well-nigh impossible to get rid of these unsavoury elements at elections owing huge block votes at their disposal; political parties are dependent on them to win elections. Religion and ethnicity also blind electors to reality and tribal instincts drive them to vote for some misfits.

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and political culture are joined at the hip, as the Central Bank Governor has pointed out albeit obliquely. He however has commented only on the economic aspects of patronage politics, which has eaten into the vitals of the nation. Sadly, the focus of the ongoing efforts to resolve the present crisis is only on the economic problems the country is beset with. The rotten political culture remains intact; it is a stinking swamp that has to be drained as a national priority.

courtesy The Island

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