( The “Sunday Times” Column On Presidency
Sometimes, politics is all about being in the right place at the right time. Since Sri Lanka embraced a presidential system of government forty years ago, three of our six Presidents have been elevated to the highest office in the land by being in the right place at the right time.
Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was rewarded for his loyal service to the United National Party by being appointed as the Governor of the North Western Province where he was to spend his retirement. He was then summoned by Ranasinghe Premadasa, perhaps with an eye on the future, to contest the 1988 general election. He returned to Parliament, was appointed Prime Minister and was suddenly sworn in as President when Premadasa fell victim to a suicide bomber on May Day in 1993.
After her husband Vijaya was assassinated. Chandrika Kumaratunga fled the country and was living in Britain. Her brother, Anura Banadaranaike, was bearing the brunt of the United National Party (UNP)’s domineering tactics under Premadasa. However, by the time the next elections were called Bandaranaike had crossed over to the UNP, Kumaratunga had returned and with her charming smile, an important double-barrelled surname, was catapulted from having never held public office to being President within a short span of eighteen months.
A few months prior to November 2014, in most people’s opinion, Maithripala Sirisena was destined to be a faithful servant of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in much the same way Wijetunga was loyal to the UNP. He too could have aspired to spend his retirement as a Governor, or if he so wished, even as an ambassador overseas. However, at the insistence of Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera and Kumaratunga, he took the plunge and decided to contest Mahinda Rajapaksa. The rest is recent history.
Sri Lanka’s three other Presidents had earned their titles the hard way. J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa all toiled long and hard, endured long years in the Opposition and overcame plots and backstabbing within their own political parties to reach the top. Did this equip them better to deal with the tests and travails of a Presidency and as a result did they perform better?
JR, for all the vilification he endured, engineered economic and constitutional revolutions which survive to this day. Premadasa is still remembered as the leader who did some tangible work in the few years he presided while at the same time despatching Indian troops from the country and crushing the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection. Rajapaksa, no matter what he does in the future, will be remembered gratefully for annihilating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Their performances beg the question as to whether those who stumbled upon the Presidency by happenstance didn’t perform that well when they had the opportunity to chart the destiny of the nation. Wijetunga was more or less a caretaker President whose greatest achievement was ensuring a transition of power after over a decade and a half of UNP rule and in Kumaratunga’s 11-year Presidency it is difficult to recall a significant achievement during her tenure other than, maybe, winning back control of the North from the LTTE and some positives on the foreign policy front. Now, after completing three years at the helm last Monday, Maithripala Sirisena is in danger of being categorised under ‘mediocre’ rather than ‘great’ or “good”.
Sirisena’s election victory over Rajapaksa did not mean that Sirisena was the better politician of the two. What it meant was that the country was growing tired of the Rajapaksa oligarchy encroaching on every aspect of life in the country at the expense of law and order. They also took a dim view of some of Rajapaksa’s actions such as amending the Constitution so he could virtually ‘rule for life’, the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and the persecution of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka. Corruption in government had become the talk of the town — and the village. So, the same electorate that gave Rajapaksa a resounding endorsement in 2010, sent him packing to Medamulana in 2015.
When Sirisena assumed the high office on January 9, 2015, there were great expectations. He had pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency. The electorate had been regaled with tales of massive corruption by cronies of the Rajapaksa regime and waited with bated breath for the offenders to be prosecuted. They would have been ecstatic when Sirisena announced shortly after taking oaths that he would not run again for President, a pledge he repeated in Kandy, a day later. With great expectations come great disappointments.
Three years on, Rajapaksa loyalists are running rings around Sirisena’s SLFP instead of being behind bars. Sirisena is at loggerheads with a faction of his own party as well as the UNP. Economic hardships imposed on the general public are mounting by the day and there is a general sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it is laid at Sirisena’s doorstep or that of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP faction of the government is a moot point for the average citizen.
To be fair, Sirisena did make some significant changes in the first few months of his Presidency. Perhaps his most notable achievement to date has been enacting the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that reimposed the two-term limit on an individual holding office as President, pruned some of his own powers and provided the Constitutional Council and independent commissions more teeth. Sirisena was passionate about these changes and personally supervised negotiations with MPs in Parliament late into the night to ensure the amendment was passed in April 2015.
The August 2015 general elections saw him struggling to rein in his party stalwarts who were fighting for their political life. A glance at the electoral map showed that more southern electorates voted for Rajapaksa than Sirisena even in the presidential election that Sirisena won. The general secretaries of the SLFP and its alliance, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Susil Premajayantha were openly defiant and packing nomination lists with Rajapaksa loyalists.
Cornered by his own party men, Sirisena took the unprecedented step of broadcasting an ‘address to the nation’ to lambast Rajapaksa, declaring that even if the SLFP emerged as the single largest party at the poll, Rajapaksa would not be appointed Prime Minister. SLFP MPs were livid because with a few carefully chosen words, Sirisena had scuppered their chances of re-election.
With many Rajapaksa loyalists — and Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, along with Chamal and Namal — being returned to Parliament despite this tirade, Sirisena was becoming increasingly isolated from the SLFP. It is perhaps at this juncture that Sirisena committed a crucial mistake. Instead of detaching himself from the party politics of the SLFP, he took on the project of unifying the SLFP because, as he said, he didn’t want to be the person who presided over the division of the party. Having been elected as President on the strength of mostly UNP votes, Sirisena was trying to project himself as the undisputed leader of the SLFP.
As a first step, he purged the SLFP National List of Rajapaksa nominees and appointed his own men instead. Among them were five candidates who had swiftly switched allegiances from Rajapaksa to Sirisena, only to lose at the general election: Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane (Matara), S.B. Dissanayake (Nuwara Eliya), Mahinda Samarasinghe (Kalutara), Vijith Wijayamuni Soyza (Moneragala) and Thilanga Sumathipala (Colombo). There were questions marks over the integrity of some of these candidates and this exercise raised, for the first time, questions about Sirisena’s own integrity.
After the election, Sirisena dangled the carrot of Cabinet portfolios before SLFPers loyal to Rajapaksa. Most of them did not bite. He then committed yet another error. Having decided to unify the SLFP, he failed to wield the big stick against SLFP dissidents who were now literally taking to the streets against him, launching ‘Mahinda sulanga’ and paada yathras from Kandy to Colombo. Emboldened because the rebels faced no consequences for their actions, they have now metamorphosed into a fully-fledged political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that is taking Sirisena head on. The sheer incompetence in bringing the Rajapaksa loyalists to book was put on the delays inevitable with the Rule of Law.
Today, Sirisena may be the sixth Executive President of Sri Lanka and the leader of the SLFP but he is aware that the groundswell of support he had three years ago is diminishing fast. After years of ranting against the Rajapaksas and faced with the prospect of finishing third – if not fourth, in the forthcoming local government elections, Sirisena sought to reconcile with them, speaking personally to Basil Rajapaksa and sending emissaries to talk to Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was strung along, but firmly rebuffed at the end.
Shunned by his one-time leader and his former colleagues, Sirisena has resorted to try and do what he does best: take the moral high ground. This he has done by focussing on the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Central Bank bonds. This is a political hot potato but to his credit, Sirisena has come out on top, at least on this issue.
When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was pushing for an extension for former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, it was Sirisena who intervened and appointed Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy instead. By then, Sirisena had found his feet in the Presidency, and was prepared to put his foot down as well. When the probe into the sale of Central Bank bonds was stuck in a quagmire of lawyers’ inquiries and parliamentary committees, it was Sirisena who appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry. Having first said he would use madu-walige (a sting-ray’s tail) to whip the corrupt, he upgraded the threat recently to say he would use a sword.
Last week, Sirisena made yet another ‘address to the nation’ on the findings of the Commission. He promised to make the findings of the report public. He also promised legal action to punish the offenders — through laws passed in Parliament, if necessary — and to recover the stolen billions.
If the SLFPers were livid — and UNPers were applauding — at Sirisena’s address to the nation in 2015 prior to the general election, UNPers are livid now and the SLFPers are applauding. UNPers say the timing of Sirisena’s outburst, with weeks to go for the local government election, damages the UNP just before the poll so that the Sirisena faction of the SLFP can better its chances. On the other hand, Sirisena could not have locked the report up. That would have resulted in accusations that he was protecting the rogues. To show he was not making use of the report for political advantage he could have avoided the virtual ‘address to the nation’.
UNPers are in a dilemma. Defending the Central Bank bond scam is to argue a ‘black brief’. But they see in Sirisena a definitive move to embarrass the UNP on whose votes he rode to the high office he holds. And all this when those who were allegedly corrupt in the Rajapaksa regime have not been prosecuted and still roam free, some of them are sitting SLFP ministers as Sirisena desperately tried to cosy up to Rajapaksas and the SLPP for the local government election?
At last Sunday’s 70th anniversary celebrations of the UNP, it went on the offensive, in what was obviously a response to Sirisena. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said he would request Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to convene Parliament to debate the Commission’s report and wanted Central Bank transactions during the Rajapaksa era probed.
Former Finance Minister Karunanayake was defiant saying that those who did not have the experience of operating a ‘bulath kadey’ are trying to implicate him. On Tuesday, Karunanayake was at the Presidential Secretariat requesting a copy of the Commission report under the Right to Information Act, which was promised to Parliament this week has now been promised next week.
Sirisena cannot be faulted for what he has done with the bond scam. He has done what he should be doing. He promised ‘yahapaalanaya’ and a county free of corruption and he has succeeded in unearthing a scam running into billions of rupees and draining the country’s economy dry. It was daylight robbery after all. He deserves all the kudos he gets for it and the UNPers should not be complaining. Instead, it is their fault that ‘their people’ — those handpicked for top jobs — indulged in unethical if not illegal activities and that the Minister who is responsible for managing the country’s finances is ‘unaware’ that something so bad happened in the economy.
Still, Sirisena’s Presidency is one under siege. There is fire from within and fire from the outside. The fire from within comes from two flanks, the UNP and the SLFP. The UNP is annoyed that the President who made it to where he is because of their party’s votes is now trying to prosecute UNPers. They feel Sirisena, given half a chance would ditch them and embrace the Rajapaksas at any time, if only the latter agrees.
SLFPers are not a happy lot as well. They feel that their own political prospects could be better with Rajapaksa and some ministers repeatedly and openly speak of forming a ‘purely SLFP’ government. Others, such as Minister Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, W.D.J. Seneviratne and many others are with one foot in the Rajapaksa camp and the SLPP on key issues though remaining within the government. They are the one’s pushing a hapless Sirisena to break his moorings with the UNP.
The fire from without comes from the SLPP. They have stuck to a winning strategy: marketing the Rajapaksa brand. It didn’t work in 2015 but now, with a government high on promises but low on performance, they are rekindling the memories of the Rajapaksa era where highways, ports, airports and stadia — most of them named after Rajapaksa — were built, the garbage was collected on time, Colombo and the main towns looked spick and span. In as much as the SLPP targets the UNP there is no coyness about their ultimate objective: oust the UNP, reinstall the Rajapaksas in power, an equation where it would be difficult to fit Sirisena in.
To Sirisena’s credit, all this is possible because he opened the floodgates of democracy. The fear of white vans is no more and the private media, particularly the electronic media, appears to pander more to the Opposition’s cause. True, the ‘war’ is over and threats to journalists subsided thereafter, but journalists don’t fear an abduction nowadays — just a slap from the former Navy Commander or their notes confiscated by a court sergeant for doing their job. The culture of impunity and intimidation that pervaded life in this country during the later years of Rajapaksa rule has vanished. Unfortunately for Sirisena, the memories of Sri Lankans are notoriously short; they now take this freedom for granted and complain about the rising price of coconuts, some foodstuffs competing with the rising dollar, and how disorganised the government is.
Disorganised is an understatement to describe the state of the ‘yahapaalanaya’ government. It is true that it is difficult to govern when the partners in the coalition are two political parties which have been at loggerheads with each other for more than sixty five years and have different philosophies, policies and political agendas. The biggest critics of one another are the converts – S.B. Dissanayake (SLFP-UNP-SLFP); Dayasiri Jayasekera (UNP-SLFP), Mahinda Samarasinghe (UNP-SLFP), Mangala Samaraweera (SLFP-UNP), Lakshman Kiriella (SLFP-UNP), Gamini Lokuge (UNP-SLPP), Keheliya Rambukwella (UNP-SLPP) and the like.
The constant sniping, backbiting and public bickering has reached a level where its performance suffers as a result. The controversies over the Value Added Tax (VAT), the Port City in Colombo, the appointment of the Central Bank Governor, SriLankan Airlines and the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) are examples where the two parties have differed in policy and most of these issues are still festering, with no solution in sight.
Contrast this with the Rajapaksa era. The nation owed its freedom to Rajapaksa who delivered the final blow to the scourge of terrorism and his acolytes ensured that the masses marched to a single drum, the tune of which was composed by a Rajapaksa, be it Mahinda, Gotabaya or Basil.
No minister dared to utter a whimper of protest and organisations such as the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) which now yowl at the slightest hint of authority were kept kittens, purring in admiration.
Sri Lankans are therefore faced with a difficult choice: do they opt for Sirisena, committed as he is to democratic freedoms but who is sluggish on efficient government, economic growth and even constitutional reform. Or, do they revert to the Rajapaksas where there was visible development and much less chaos in government but at the cost of the right to dissent?
That will depend, to a large extent, on what Sirisena himself decides to do. A cornerstone of his 2015 campaign was constitutional reform but progress on this front has been painstakingly slow. A Parliamentary Select Committee is formulating those changes but, with all political parties having an eye on their prospects under a new Constitution and a new system of elections, discussions are nowhere near a consensus.
If matters progress at the same pace as it has done for the past three years, it would be a supreme optimist who will expect a new Constitution by 2020, when the next national elections are due. The contours of the next Constitution will obviously have an impact on the political direction of the country: will the Executive Presidency as we know it be abolished and will he or she be elected by Parliament? Sirisena loyalists in the Cabinet keep announcing from time to time that he will be their candidate at the next presidential election. Sirisena remains silent on this issue and has neither confirmed nor denied his intention to run for President again.
However, a distinct insight into Sirisena’s thinking emerged this week. On Tuesday, Sirisena wrote to the Supreme Court, requesting an opinion on whether he can stay in office as President for six years – till January 2021. The question as to whether Sirisena’s term ends in 2020 0r 2021 arises because of the 19th Amendment. Section 3 of the 19th Amendment dictated a reduction in the President’s period of office from six years to five years. The issue now is whether this applies to Sirisena as well. The Supreme Court will make a determination about this shortly.
So, it appears that Sirisena wishes to remain in office for as long as he can, at least for his first term. That is a volte-face for someone who railed against the Executive Presidency and made it the central issue of his election campaign. Television stations have begun broadcasting his 2014 campaign promise to abolish the Executive Presidency in 100 days, if elected. But then, politicians have skins of Rhinos. Had Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera — who coaxed Sirisena into running for President — been alive today, he wouldn’t have been impressed and would probably have told Sirisena that he would rather have the Presidency abolished than have the Rajagiriya flyover named after him — which was a directive Sirisena issued on Monday.
There is also a sense of déjà vu about this. Even Chandrika Kumaratunga who labelled the Jayewardene Constitution a ‘bahubootha viyawasthaawa’ and pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency tried to extend her second term of office by one year, only to be told by the Supreme Court she could not do so. The instigator for the Supreme Court action then was Mahinda Rajapaksa and Rajapaksa is up to his old tricks again, because he had already flagged the issue in a recent statement, stating that the next presidential election is due to be called in November 2019, so a President could be elected in January 2020.
Apart from dealing with these constitutional intricacies, Sirisena has to decide, once and for all, what political stance he would be taking. Does he act neutral and leave the UNP and the SLFP to fight it out or does he involve himself in the cesspit of party politics, from where he won’t emerge smelling of roses? What is his policy vis-à-vis the UNP? Will he sacrifice the party that propelled him from mundane minister to powerful President, if that ensures his political survival in the face of the re-emerging Rajapaksas?
In the past three years, Sirisena’s singular weakness has been his lack of consistency and his vacillation when taking political decisions. If he dealt with SLFP dissidents when their rebellion began, the SLPP might not be the force to reckon with that it is today. Had he stuck to the SLFP faction loyal to him instead of pandering to the SLPP — as he did a few weeks ago — he would have projected the image of a strong leader.
Underlying these politically flawed actions is a lack of understanding of the reason he was elected to office: he won not because of his charisma but simply because the electorate thought the time was right for a change from the Rajapaksas.
That does not mean that Sirisena cannot still succeed. Before him, D.B. Wijetunga, an unlikely President if ever there was one, left office with much goodwill, even though he had little to show in terms of achievements in his short eighteen month stint. Those who initially lampooned him as ‘Deaf and Blind’ and ‘Dunnoth Baaragannam’ playing on his initials, later called him ‘Doing Bloody Well’.
Among his predecessors, Sirisena is closest to Wijetunga in terms of his personality. Wijetunga was a cooperative inspector before taking to politics and remained a self-effacing modest man who identified himself as a simple villager throughout his political career. It is a description that would fit Sirisena too, except that he was a Grama Niladhari before transitioning to politics.
If Sirisena is to be remembered for ‘doing bloody well’ during his Presidency, he will have to do much more in the remaining years of his presidency than what he has done in the past three — and keep his promises to the nation. The time has come for Maithripala Sirisena to transition from politician to statesman — and that time is right now.