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Sirisena Gets Cold Feet as Presidential Hot Seat Starts to Heat up , Rattle and Rumble

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Don Manu

Well, as they say, better late than never. Especially when one realises that one’s 5 year tenure on the nation’s throne has reached the half way mark, giving rise to a mid life crisis as the leaves of one’s popularity start to fall with the coming of Autumn.

Last week’s President Sirisena’s cabinet outburst against his coalition partner the UNP had all the markings of regret of a misspent presidential spring and summer. But with all due kindness to him, his presidential birth had not been a natural one: not one born with the silver spoon of a united front but one laboured with the dubious assistance of many mid wives, some of whose motives were, and still are, suspect.

Yet, in that downcast hour, it contained all the promise of a great future. Both for him and his countrymen. Alas, down the line, the rainbow that appeared after the auspicious drizzle, vanished without trace and, today, the best laid plans of the new born king seem to lie disposed by the ring of foes who await to hear the death knell rung.

Unlike a Turk who never keeps a brother near the throne, Sirisena perforce had to keep a whole host of new found friends near his to protect him from getting stabbed in the back by his own kin. It was inevitable that the day would dawn when those who had supplied the props to keep his seat safe and steady would conspire to pull the scarlet rug under his feet and aspire to occupy the throne alone.

Last Wednesday’s cabinet meeting witnessed the president coming out of his silent shell and give vent to his ire at the UNP sitting, like Mother Goose, on surrogate corruption eggs, and not gander in earnest to crack them open and cook the Rajapaksa regime’s goose in the mega fat of their sleaze in open court.

This time the President didn’t pull his punches. And, perhaps, for the first time in the coalition government’s shaky existence, unleashed a no holds barred attack on his partner in government and expressed that he didn’t care if his message to the cabinet was leaked to the media and made public. In no uncertain terms, he told his prime minister and his UNP cabinet ministers that two UNP members of his cabinet had cut deals with the Rajapaksas to soft pedal the crackdown on the regime’s corruption and water it down so much that even when the corruption whip had to be lashed it would fall lightly on them.

A visibly angry president had said that it was only persons who have been identified with him who were being dealt with. One was State Minister A.H. M. Fowzie for misusing a vehicle donated by a foreign government for tsunami related work. The other was former Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratne who has been accused of providing a job in his Ministry to his own daughter. “These, “the President said, “were the “small” cases they were going after. But the mega corruption cases were at a standstill. ”

Then Sirisena made so bold as to declare, “that if he was given the FCID and the AG’s department, he would bring to book all the mega culprits within three months of taking office. “

And then came the heart rending tear jerker. Maithripala Sirisena looked at the UNP faces around him at the cabinet table and said: “If the Rajapaksas were to come back again, you all in the UNP will be safe. Nothing will happen to the prime minister too. But for me and my family there will be no such safety. We will be hounded to the end.”

One can understand the president’s predicament. Nay, sympathize with his precarious position. If the monk Sobitha was the architect and former President Chandrika the engineer of his ascent to the presidential pinnacle, he himself was to be the master of his fate who held in his hands the choice: whether to be the draftsman of his political fortunes or the digger of his political grave.

When he accepted the invitation to become the joint opposition candidate and leave the SLFP in which he had been the longest serving general secretary, he lay his neck on the rail track knowing full well that the Rajapaksa express was hurtling toward him with its carriages two thirds full with sitting MPs. But fortune favours the brave and providence which is found in the fall of a sparrow and in the flight of an eagle manifested itself in over six million people to stop the Mihidu train in its tracks at the eleventh hour station.

Sirisena’s neck is still on the line and the wheels of the Rajapaksa locomotive has started to roll again. The worry is whether this time fortune will scoff the weak and nerdy who procrastinate to take their future into their hands and be the choreographer of their fate? Whether through inaction surrender their destiny to others to work their will? Words alone can never be an alternative to action.

True that due to the extraordinary factors that surrounded his presidential conception, Sirisena’s presidential birth had not been an easy one. He was born to become the prisoner of his own presidency. And, for political expediency, has shown a remarkable predilection to remain one. Perhaps he had no choice. Force of circumstances had, no doubt, manacled Sirisena to the UNP cross of iron and compelled him to walk the Calvary on his own to redeem the nation from the original Rajapaksa sin of corruption.

But before the nation’s redeemer is crucified with two rogues on either side even as Jesus was, perhaps the hour has dawned for Sirisena to not only cast glances at those who had sold Yahapalanaya down the river for thirty silvers but to take matters into his own hands not for his sake alone but for the nation’s sake, for the people who voted him to office solely on his promise to bring those responsible for mega corruption to justice. Not to throw in prison a father who gave his young daughter a job in his own ministry but those who ravished Lanka’s coffers and left it bare. It’s time for him to cry: Open Sesame to Ali Baba’s den of thieves and render unto the public the public’s wealth.

One can understand his frustrations in being chained to another’s agenda. One can smypathise with his fears for his own life and the lives of his wife and three children should the Rajapaksa spectre come to haunt the land again, and take residence in his household. One can even share with him his anguish that he has been unable to keep his promise to bring the mega corrupt to justice which was the cornerstone of his manifesto. But one cannot call for a round of applause when he passes the buck to the UNP side of the cabinet table and says that “if I was given the FCID and the AG’s department, I would have cracked down on the mega corrupt and brought them to justice within three months.”

After all he is the executive president of this country, armed with more than enough powers. No one can bestow upon him either the FCID or the AG’s Department. On the contrary it is he who ordains upon his supreme authority such posts on other lesser mortals and invests in them the power to discharge their duties. Even the post of prime minister is dependent upon his belief that the person so chosen holds the confidence of the majority in the House of Parliament.

Under the 19th Amendment the president Shall determine the number of ministers in his cabinet. He needs to consult the prime minister only if he considers such consultation is necessary. (Article 43 (1) )
Can appoint ministers but he can only do so on the advice of the prime minister. (Article 43 (2))
Can assign the subjects and functions of such ministers on his own. He can consult the prime minister but only if he deems it necessary. (Article 44 (2) )

Can change the composition of the cabinet on his own. He can thus reshuffle the pack of his ministers appointed on the advice of the prime minister as he chooses without reference to the prime minister (Article 43 (3) ) It is only if he wishes to bring in a new member to the cabinet already not a cabinet minister that he has to act on the prime minister’s advice. (Article 44 (1) )

Thus it is clear that President Sirisena – who declared last week that if the FCID and the AG’s Department were under his belt he would have brought to book the mega corrupt to justice within three months – is empowered with constitutional authority to assign to himself both the FCID now under Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake and the Attorney General’s Department presently under the Minister of Justice Wijayadasa Rajapakshe if he so wishes without heeding the advice of the UNP Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The question, however, is whether, in practical terms, Maithripala can do it without Ranil’s blessings?

On January 8th 2015, it was the UNP who had given the voter ammo to help Sirisena find his place in the sun. Adversity had brought both Maithripala and Ranil together in Lanka’s darkest hour and had made them both jump onto the same bed to consummate a marriage of convenience which all held, including the newly betrothed couple, would not last for long. In fact, the strange bedfellows’ own prenuptial agreement did not give it more than two years.

But if Ranil was showing signs of infidelity, Sirisena was to soon discover that his political presidential light was ever under threat of being eclipsed by the fury of one whom he had scorned after a romantic candle lit hopper dinner. Even though the nuptial agreement was extended for a further two years, it became increasingly clear it wouldn’t survive the vicissitudes of politics.

For the last two years Sirisena had to perforce tolerate the vagaries of wedlock. With a fair weather mate as his consort and his own family divided and out, with knives ready, for his scalp, Sirisena found himself in the excruciating position of an arecanut caught between the twin blades of a nut cracker.
But now after having crossed the midway mark in the river of his presidency, it seems he has realised that he has no option left but to jettison the jetsam to reach the safety of the bank and there receive spectator applause and approval to do another five year lap – this time alone – even though he promised the nation at his inauguration at Independence Square on January 9th 2015 that one lap was all he needed to keep his promises .

Of the two promises he made, constitutional changes and corruption crackdown, the constitutional issue belongs to the realm of the intellect while the corruption scandal finds habour in the belly and gut of the constituents. The intricacies of constitutional reform, its interpretations and its effects are the reserved province of Colombo’s highbrow circles and beyond the comprehension of the majority. But the concept of crime and punishment which lie at the base for the corruption crackdown is readily understood by all and familiar even as the game ‘hora police’ is familiar to all Lankans.

He himself has realised — and admitted last week — that he has miserably failed to harpoon Moby Dick and his shoal, skillfully schooled in the fine art of how to feed ravenously on the resources and wealth of Lanka’s sea of opportunity.

Now that the die is cast and cast by himself, and Sirisena has thought fit to even risk a possible parting of the ways with his coalition partner — the strange bedfellow that adversity dropped on the then hard mattress and who now wishes to usurp it with designs to claim it whole — perhaps the time has come not to procrastinate on the corruption scandal but to assume for himself both the FCID and the AG’s department, the two vital arms of the war against corruption, and make good on his boast that he can lasso the mega corrupt and cart them to the bar of justice within three months.

If he vacillates any more, if he fails to call the UNP bluff for a divorce, and fails to stand and deliver on his promise to the nation that the corrupt will be brought to justice which made 6,217,152 people repose their faith in him and vote for him to become president, he will find his neck on the block. And have only himself to blame when the masses come in their tumbrels to witness the scene when the Rajapaksa train is not stopped at the station by people power but steams ahead relentless towards its own El Dorado.

Courtesy:Sunday Times

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