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Poorest President of the World


I am not first talking about Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, but Jose Mujica of Uruguay. I am not talking about poverty in terms of vision, but modesty in terms of wealth or possessions. I am also not saying that Mahinda or other Rajapaksas don’t have a ‘vision’ at all, but it has become completely crooked especially after defeating the LTTE. What an opportunity they have missed to be magnanimous, reasonable or simply ‘Just’ on the question of the Tamils and other minorities in the country. The ‘vision’ on questions of social cleavages, poverty or poor people in the country also has become extremely crooked by catering to the family, the super rich and the political cronies. The Divineguma Bill is an example where in the name of the poor and uplifting their lives, the power and authority in respect of development and a large amount of budgetary allocations are kept within one ministry and one minister who is the President’s brother. In addition, the Bill disregards the fundamental tenets of the constitution and the principles of devolution. It is in this context that the example of Jose Mujica of Uruguay is relevant to Sri Lanka.

Jose Mujica

Jose Mujica, the President elect in 2010 in Uruguay, parallel to the ascendancy of President Rajapaksa for the second term the same year, is still living a frugal life. He donates 90 per cent of his official salary, equivalent to $ 12,000 to charity according to a BBC report quoted by Colombo Telegraph. Born in 1935, he is 10 years senior to President Rajapaksa and different in many respects, primarily in terms of ideology and life style. He is simply a committed socialist and a people’s President, unlike President Rajapaksa today. If there had been a semblance of ‘people’s affinity’ of the latter before, it has completely vanished. Perhaps even before, it was a fake.

Early in life, Mujica was with the National Party, very much similar to the UNP or the SLFP. But, he joined the Tupamaro National Liberation Movement (MLN-T) in 1960 – a movement in several ways similar to the JVP in Sri Lanka. He was inspired by the Cuban revolution of 1959. MLN-T was an urban guerrilla organization which was, perhaps, necessary under the dictatorial rule in Uruguay, unlike the JVP violence in Sri Lanka in that respect. He was in jail several times and was finally released in 1985 after the country’s democratic transformation. He renounced violence completely thereafter.

Tupamaro was transformed into an open organization after 1985 and joined other left organizations and the "Movement for Popular Participation (MPP)" was formed. Yet, it worked within the "Broad Front," a coalition of several democratic forces and organizations. In 1994, Mujica was elected to the House of Representatives and in 1999 and again in 2004 to the Senate. In 2005, he became the Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. There were no three ministries (or even more) for these interrelated functions, unlike in Sri Lanka.

Throughout the years, Mujica’s policies have changed a lot, but not opportunistically. In recent years, he has advocated a more ‘flexible political Left’ which can think outside the box. But he has not changed in his main philosophical principles or lifestyle. He maintains good relations with Uruguay’s big neighbour, Argentina, irrespective of some disputes. In a predominantly Catholic country, he remains secular and maintains he is an atheist. He is a radical thinker in many respects.

He lives on his wife’s farmland near Montevideo even helping her with growing flowers for a living, in his spare time. He does not believe that he has to control everything in the country. He has shunned a luxurious official residence in Montevideo in keeping with his principle of modesty. His main declared personal asset in 2010 was his Volkswagen Beetle valued $ 1,800 and he added half of his wife’s farm assets amounting to $ 215,000. We hope he was truthful unlike our Sri Lankan politicians.

No one would say that all Presidents or all politicians should live like Jose Mujica. He is only an extreme example. His lifestyle, as he admits, is personal to him but not to anyone else. But the point is the contrast between him and others, including the President of the US or Sri Lanka. The contrast is a matter of genuine public interest. Do we have to emulate the President of US?


A growing concern world over is the ‘lifestyles’ of politicians that are far removed from the ordinary people of the electorates. This is more so in the case of poor or developing countries like Sri Lanka or Uruguay. The discrepancy between the two has grown to alarming proportions in Sri Lanka in the recent past. This was not the case in 1950s or the 1960s. Things have taken a dramatic turn perhaps after the open economy (but closed polity) in 1977 and the political and the electoral systems introduced thereafter. Perhaps, this is not a result that even JR Jayewardene expected, as the architect of these changes, because he was living a modest life, even without leaving much to his only son.

The Senanayakes (DS and Dudley) or the Bandaranaikes (SWRD and Sirimavo) as pioneer leaders of this country in the good old days were modest leaders who set an example for others to emulate. The Left leaders were the same (Leslie, Bernard or Phillip in particular), while there were criticisms about some others (NM or Colvin) considering the discrepancy between their advocated principles and lifestyles. In the electorate of Moratuwa, where I grew up, Meryl Fernando or Wimalasiri de Mel from the LSSP were almost exemplary and even HEP de Mel or Ruskin Fernando from the UNP were modest in lifestyle although they came from rich backgrounds.

No one would say that rich people should not become Members of Parliament or people’s representatives in other capacities. But money- making through politics should not be allowed to themselves, family or friends. This is a cancer in the body politic in Sri Lanka today. The whole argument against ‘Western’ democracy by the present Rajapaksa regime is based on their fear of exposure through democratic processes of accountability and transparency. Otherwise, there is no democracy called Western or Eastern; democracy is democracy.

I have seen in Australia, for example, Nick Greiner (Liberal) before 1995 and Bob Carr (Labour) after 1995, walking to the NSW Parliament, alighting from the bus in Sydney when they were elected Premiers. They had modest lifestyles. Even the present Premier,is reported to travel by train very often. Of course, bus or train travel is not the final criterion of modest living. In Sri Lanka, no one would ask our MPs to travel by bus or train, given security and other considerations. Those days are gone when W Dahanayake used to come by train from Galle even as the Prime Minister. But, the exorbitant lifestyles are definitely a concern and alleged accumulation of wealth through politics constitutes a crime against the people, to put it rather mildly. Even in countries like Australia, there are politicians who abuse power for monetary or other gains, but those persons are brought to book sooner.

Our concerns

The question of lifestyle is not the only matter that arises when the example of Jose Mujica is considered. He has a clean slate, both on money matters and matters of handling authority and power.

Drawing from that experience, the main concerns for Sri Lankans, however, are (1) whether the politicians and bureaucrats are misusing public funds and (2) whether they abuse their official powers for pecuniary gain, i.e. financial favours, commissions. The second aspect, of course, has to be ascertained more systematically. But on the first matter the situation is almost naked; the misuse of public funds. In respect of bureaucrats, the auditing system and the COPE are there to deal with them, although inadequately, in my opinion, when politicians are involved with the bureaucrats.

There are no mechanisms, however, to deal with the politicians separately under the present circumstances, except the Bribery Commission and the Supreme Court. The Bribery Commission now appears to be a political tool in the President’s hand under the 18th Amendment. It is quite strange that no politician has so far been charged before the Bribery Commission, as if they are a ‘clean breed’ from all financial infirmities. The last genuine effort to investigate politicians on bribery charges was in 1959 when the Walter Thalgodapitya Commission was appointed.

In Sri Lanka, the President is arguably free from these mechanisms under the present constitution, while holding office, unless different interpretation is offered by the Supreme Court to bring the President himself before the Supreme Court to face corruption or bribery charges. He simply cannot be above all laws.

There is a growing opinion that the present impeachment charges against the Chief Justice and corruption charges against her husband are pre-emptive strikes before litigation is brought before the Supreme Court against the President or key ministers or President’s key officers on corruption and bribery. This may sound farfetched considering the unassailable numbers that the ruling coalition has in Parliament to sustain its abuse of power. That is the present predicament of Sri Lanka which needs to be broken with patience and determination.

But there is considerable truth in the previous argument that impeachment is a ‘pre-emptive strike,’ considering the growing concern among civil society over blatant corruption that is going on in the country which cannot take place without the patronage of the President or his participation. Civil society is sure to strike or rise against this abuse of power sooner than later. Then the world will know who the poorest President of the world is, in terms of ethics and principles.

~ ~ by Laksiri Fernando


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