Good governance, bad governance and no governance
By Basil Fernando
Good governance means a system of governance that ensures economic efficiency guaranteeing economic stability throughout a nation. This economic efficiency can only be brought about by the observance of transparency, accountability and integrity in all areas of public life. That situation could be brought about only when the system is founded on the basis of the rule of law. The rule of law is the foundation of good governance. When all these factors are present to a relatively satisfactory degree, it becomes possible to improve the wellbeing of the people. By people it means people of all groups such as entrepreneurs, working people, women, minority groups and children and other vulnerable groups. A healthy way of life is guaranteed in this manner to everyone. This does not mean a perfect society or an extraordinarily prosperous society. While aspiring to greater heights may remain a major goal, the most important achievements of good governance is to ensure an acceptable way of life to everyone without undue disturbances. Even if some imbalances happen now and then, it is possible for a system of good governance to deal with some situations and return to normal within the shortest possible time.
Bad governance is when any one of the aspects of good governance is absent. Then there is the gradual development of conflicts and confusion, which slowly undermines the basic aspects of economic and social stability. The most marked features of bad governance are the increase of corruption and the abuse of power. However, at this stage of the degeneration of the system of governance, there is still room and space for fighting back and to overcome the causes that created bad governance and gradually returning to a functional system of good governance. The stage of bad governance is a stage in between a stable form of governance and the total absence of governance.
No governance means where only the mask of a governing system exists but in fact the substance has completely disappeared. The test of no governance is the extent to which the principles of the rule of law have ceased to exist. If the most fundamental aspects of the rule of law have deteriorated to an extent that it is no longer workable, then what exists is no governance. No governance means that no one takes responsibility in real terms for things that go wrong including within the economy itself. Corruption and the abuse of power are no longer treated as abnormalities; they become a normal way of life within such a context. The administration of justice and enforcement of law happens only in the most superficial way. The appearance of public institutions remains but public institutions fail to perform the duties that they are entrusted with.
When people are confronted with economic collapse deprivations of all sorts, even threat to food and basic necessities such as education and health, their first reaction is to demand that the existing government correct the situation. However, if it has deteriorated to the stage of no governance, there is no possibility that whatever exists in the name of governance is able to respond positively to the demand. There will be constant protests and loud cries that take place on the streets while those who behave as if they are still the rulers can only make artificial gestures but cannot really do anything about it.
No governance in Sri Lanka
The situation in Sri Lanka has reached the stage of no governance. This is why there are demands such as that the entire Parliament should resign. While these are just slogans, the mere fact that they have received wide approval from society shows that people are talking about a profound change that has taken place within their country, which they find difficult to accept and even the most vocal protestors find it hard to articulate.
A no governance situation is one that poses grave problems in terms of how to solve it. If what exists is a situation of bad governance, some changes can be brought about by way of pressures such as large scale protests and strikes. However, when there is no governance, then it is not possible to resolve the problems by merely putting pressure in a conventional form.
1978 Constitution and displacement of rule of law
The major cause for the development of no governance in Sri Lanka is the 1978 Constitution. It attempted an impossible form of governance. The entire concept and structure of the 1978 Constitution is based on the idea that the state institutions themselves are an obstacle to good governance. As institutions are based on the foundational principle of the rule of law, the rule of law itself was considered an obstacle for pursuing the kind of aims that the 1978 Constitution wanted to pursue.
What the 1978 Constitution wanted to pursue has hardly ever been tried except under some of the world’s craziest rulers such Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the former president of the Central African Republic. The 1978 Constitution was created with the idea that one man can rule the country. It was thought that one man, at the time President J. R. Jayewardene, was clever enough to make the decisions and that Parliament, judiciary and public institutions should be shaped in a way to adjust to whatever he wanted to do. Although this system had been described as the Executive Presidential system, it is not an Executive Presidential system but a one man system, which by the very definition is a contradiction. One man cannot be a system.
That one man can be a government was an absurd conception from the point of view of the concepts of governance and from the point of view of constitutional law. What was called a constitution was not in fact a constitution but the abrogation of the most fundamental notions of constitutionalism.
Therefore it was not a surprise that the country gradually descended to a situation of no governance, which is what the current situation is. The highest expression of the no governance situation is the total collapse of the economy due to the inability of the state to even pay back its loans. The loan taking and the expenditure of the funds obtained from the loans have been done without following any rules of governance. The no governance style of ruling has created the present economic catastrophe.
It is this no governance problem that needs to be addressed when talking about how to find a solution out of the present situation.
– Basil Fernando, is a Hong Kong based Sri Lankan jurist, author, poet, human rights activist, editor of Article 2 and Ethics in Action, and a prolific writer, associated with Asian Human Rights Commission and Asian Legal Resource Centre