Centre for Policy Alternatives on 22 June, 2016

A Matter of Trust and Confidence

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A Matter of Trust and Confidence

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

 In the transition from the populist authoritarian recent past to government conducted with governance, public trust and confidence in institutions and processes of government is pivotal.  That trust and confidence is what provides the oxygen for the transition and the reform it entails  – a diminution of it constituting a warning sign of displeasure and disquiet and therefore one to be taken seriously. At the same time, an increase underpins and sustains optimism.

The recent survey by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) where I work is in this regard revealing.  The following responses have been thrown up in the recent (late February – March) CPA Democracy Survey on public perceptions and expectations of democracy.  True enough, survey results shift and are not carved in stone. Furthermore, the public can be notoriously fickle. Surveys do however provide an indication at least of trends in opinion and enduring concerns.  Sign posts in the storm, perhaps…..?

The recent Democracy Survey reveals amongst other responses that:

  1. Nearly 45% of respondents believe that the current economic situation is bad and of them 62.4% believe that the policies of the current government account for the situation.
  2. In October 2015, 49.6% felt that the government was committed to eradicating corruption. In February 2016, the figure dropped to 34.5. Skepticism is highest in the Sinhala community – 47.4% believing that the government is not committed to the eradication of corruption.
  3. The top three institutions that citizens have a “great deal of trust” in are the Army (46.7%), the Courts (40.1%) and the Civil Service (22.9%). When the figures for “ some trust” are added to these, the totals are approximately 80% for each institution whilst the figure for the Central Government is almost 70%– this constitutes a drop from responses in 2013 and 2015 of 84.2% and 74.5% respectively with regard to the Central Government.
  4. Nationally the figure for trust in Provincial Government is approximately 65%, with the highest figure of 80% registered with the Tamil community and the lowest figure of 61% with the Sinhala community.
  5. The Tamil community’s trust in the Army has undergone considerable change – in 2011, 32.8% from the Tamil community and 27.3% from the Up-Country Tamil community stated that they had no trust in the Army. This figure increased to 52% among the Tamil community and 47% among the Up-Country Tamil community in March 2015.  A year later, the figure is 35.7% for the Tamil community, and 13.8% for the Up-Country Tamil community.
  6. Across ethnic lines, on average some 80% of Sri Lankans repose trust in the Courts and 48% in Parliament. Some 41.5% of the Sinhala community has “no trust” in Parliament and 50.8%, likewise in respect of political parties.  Only 36.7% of Sri Lankans trust political parties.

Public perceptions of, faith, trust and confidence in politicians and political parties should be better since they are key players in ensuring the reinstitution of governance in our government.  No doubt, the experience of coalition government over the last 15 months and the fight over the heart and soul of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has had its toll on public perception and opinion. The point may well be made too, that this is a global problem, even one peculiar to long established electoral democracies, as the debate in the US presidential election attests to.  As is the case in that election, there needs to be a public debate here too as to the structure and functioning of political parties, their funding and the caliber of candidates they nominate for election.  Neither the March 12 Movement or the Speaker’s attempt to institute a Code of Conduct for MPs will necessarily succeed without the parties themselves recognizing the importance of the issue for the wellbeing of electoral democracy in the country. This is something that must follow constitutional reform.

Public perception of the government’s commitment to eradicating corruption is worrying since this is the issue that feeds and fuels the erosion of faith and trust in the institutions of electoral democracy.  Following on from my theme about communication a fortnight ago, the government must indicate the situation in respect of a number of cases on this score.  A website dedicated to this, charting progress or the lack thereof with reasons is surely possible and not detrimental to ongoing investigations? The refrain of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow in respect of decisive action on corruption will seize to have any traction with a public that is now being fed on allegations of dicey deals on bonds and housing with all the allegations that will surely attend Megapolis when it gets going, waiting to happen.

Clear movement away from populist authoritarianism towards governance will only come if transformative change comes to be welcomed, supported and institutionalized in the popular mind.  It would indeed be a tragedy if the perception of the public is to be that of change only in form and of continuity, more or less, in the content of public affairs.