Sarath de Alwis
“End and Goal: Not every end is a goal. The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
There is a saying: Everybody is great until you get to know them. Now, we know most of them. More specifically, we know President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In the next 18 months, we will know how to define these times. We must finish what we started. The danger we have to avert is to make sure that it does not turn out to be something different from what we intended.
On January 8, 2015 a change occurred. It was sudden and surprising. It was sudden, because we did not dare think of a time when we would not feel the weight of the Mahinda Rajapaksa monolith. It was a monolith that nearly perpetuated itself. A monolith is a large, powerful organization that is not willing to change, and that does not seem interested in individual people.
The January 2015 reversal was surprising because entrenched autocrats do not step down that easy. How he stepped down, is another story for another day.
We should stop blaming Mahinda Rajapaksa. In his Theory of Justice John Rawls advises us not to expect politicians to be correct, proper and act with integrity. That is not how it works.
“Historically, one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. … the fault lies in the fact that the democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry.
It is unlikely that Mahinda has read John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. But it seems, he had a pretty good idea about regulating political rivalry.
January 8 2015 was not a seismic shift. A thin slice of the urban middle-class literate and learned, deeply resenting the surveillance state and assaults on human rights by a venal brutal security apparatus naively hoped that it would be.
Although the new order, seduced by its own rhetoric, took no notice, within 40 days of his ouster, Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrated the true state of play at Nugegoda. His Goebbelsian ideologue called it The Rising. He was uncharacteristically modest. He should have called it The Return.
Let us be pragmatic. To this day, Mahinda Rajapaksa, retains a hegemonic leadership of a vast swathe of political territory. He has a firm grip on a sizeable segment of urban and rural poor. The lower middle classes adore him. A sizeable section of organized trade unions is under his spell. A hideously vulgar class of oligarchs who were nursed into positions and wealth by brothers Basil and Gotabaya are patiently waiting to resume interrupted business.
The clumsy, contrived coalition that brought about the sudden and surprising change now stands dispersed, unravelled, scattered.
In this backdrop, the tense political climate is understandable. The government has no coherent platform. Instead of presenting a clear political agenda for the next 18 months before the Presidential elections, both sides trade blame and make abstract promises. Promises that neither can keep without the cooperation and consent of the other.
The people who elected President Maithripala Sirisena to office on January 8, 2015 had a singular expectation: He was being elected to abolish the Executive Presidency, an office that had been exploited for 40 years to perpetuate excess, abuse and brutal crackdowns on political opponents. In the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the presidency was weaponized with exceptional skill; the movement for his ouster was anchored to the idea that a single individual must never be permitted to wield such power over the citizenry again.
When he agreed to become the common opposition candidate, taking his life in his hands to quit the Rajapaksa Government in 2014, President Sirisena told the country about the dangers of the presidency and promised to abolish the office upon his election.
The recent brouhaha over the no confidence motion against the Prime Minister made us alive to the other side of politics. It told us a stray fact about the world of insects. Insects are not drawn to candle flames. They are drawn to the light on the far side of the flame. They go into the flame and sizzle to nothingness because they’re so eager to get to the light on the other side.
To function effectively and deliver, political leaders must possess political capital. Political capital is their capacity to influence political decisions. In simple terms what it means is the capacity of the leader to walk the talk. I mean walk the talk. Walking, not hopping. Talking, not preaching.
The ability, inclination and desire to keep promises and to live up to expectations are what makes a credible leader. Otherwise, disappointment and the inevitable electoral rejection would be fatal. .
The strength of a political leader is credibility. To be credible, the leader should be competent, trustworthy and must be perceived as caring for the people who elected him.
This political primer is a contemporary imperative. It has to be said here and now. The abolition of the Executive Presidency is the single issue that will determine Maithripala Sirisena’s place in history.
He started with great élan and promise. With a vibrancy that was inspiring. Then along the journey something happened. Fantasy and reality got mixed up.
On the day he was sworn in, he promised the nation that he would not seek a second term as Executive President.
On November 12, 2015, President Sirisena reiterated that promise before the funeral pyre of Ven Sobhitha thero, the architect and spiritual leader of the January 8 movement for change.
“Sobitha Thero was determined to abolish the Executive Presidency. My Presidency rests on that determination of the venerable thero and echoed by millions of Sri Lankans. With all my strength I pledge before the remains of Sobitha Thero that I will do everything possible to abolish the Executive Presidency,” President Sirisena promised before hundreds of mourners and dignitaries gathered at the grounds to pay their last respects to the monk.
“I am President and Ranil Wickremesinghe is Prime Minister today, because of the foundation laid by Sobitha Thero. He is the architect of this Presidency and this National Government based on the values of yahapalanaya,” President Sirisena said to a nation mourning the loss of the dynamic priest that day.
Nearly three years later, the barbarians are at the gate once more. The Government’s last best hope for redemption rests on whether it can muster the will – and the numbers in Parliament and a subsequent referendum – to renew its original pledge to abolish the Presidency.
If it achieves nothing else, but completes this one task, the Yahapalanaya Government would have served its purpose. The reformist constituency needs to go back to the drawing board too, downsize its expectations and force the Government to return to the single issue that defined the opposition candidacy in 2015.
In the age of big data, retrieving political promises is much easier than being drawn into polemical gymnastics on the pros and cons of the Executive Presidential system. The past three years hold a lesson. We have been bamboozled for so long with such consistency, that we are part of the bamboozle. The bamboozle has captured us.
Can we set ourselves free, this fractured coalition of dreamers, to pick up the pieces of the change movement before it’s too late?