President Maithripala Sirisena in his speeches at two separate occasions early this week made two politicallly important pronouncements. Addressing the May Day rally of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its ally United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the Eastern town of Chengalady near Batticaloa last Monday (7) he declared that he would not retire from politics in 2020 when his current term of office ended, that he had a mission and a vision for the people and the country beyond 2020, and would retire only after accomplishing them successfully. Next day while delivering his policy statement during the ceremonial inauguration of the Second session of the Eighth Parliament, the President said that the National Unity Government had failed to attain political maturity since it was appointed three years ago, resulting in discord being sowed between the parties in the ruling coalition. He further said that the two main political parties in the government had yet to reach a common consensus to sustain the national government to govern the country and that consensual political culture had provided the base for many states in modern day politics; but it seemed that it was still very much alien to Sri Lankans.
It is important to note that the President’s pronouncements came at a time when his National Unity government is nearing the tail end of its five year term. We cannot find fault with anybody who would interpret his speeches as a confession of his failure to deliver on his promise of good governance during the last three years of his administration.
The people of this country wouldn’t have forgotten the declaration made by Maithripala Sirisena immediately after being sworn in as the new President of Sri Lanka on January 9, 2015 at the Colombo Independence Square, from where he announced that he would not contest another presidential election. That was viewed as an honest demonstration of his determination to abolish the executive presidency, the main pledge made during the hustings. But, his approach and actions thereafter, have been contrary to the promise and the expectations of the people who voted for him. After more than three years in office, Sirisena is leading a party that has become the ardent advocate for the retention of the presidency. During the deliberations of the constitution making process, the SLFP took up the position that the abolition of the executive presidency was not prudent. At the same time a president who came to power having the abolition of the presidency as his main pledge, has been maintaining a stoic silence without making his stand known on this important issue.
Again he continued to keep silent when several ministers and senior politicians from the SLFP came out with the statement very often, that he would be the party’s presidential candidate at the 2020 presidential elections. In the fluid political situation that emerged after the local government polls three months ago, it would be unrealistic to hope that the stalled constitutional reform process would be revived and a consensus reached regarding the future of the presidency. All signs confirm that the executive presidency, post 19th amendment to the constitution will continue for the time being.
It is in this context one must see the declaration of President Sirisena that he is not going to retire in 2020 and continue to be in politics until he accomplishes his mission and vision for the people and the country.
One may wonder whether the people of this country will find any meaning in the President’s claim that he has a vision for the country, if the last three years of his administration is anything to go by. Surely in the end of his political career he will be remembered as one of the presidents who did not make good of his promises to the people. By reneging on the pledge that the executive presidency would be abolished, he is now going to join the list of presidents who came to power after promising to abolish the presidency and later forgetting it for his convenience. One is reminded of a saying by Machiavelli that the promises given were a necessity of the past; and the breaking of that promise is a necessity of the present.
When it comes to the presidential lament that the National Unity Government had failed to attain political maturity and the failure of the Sri Lankan society to grasp the importance of consensual political culture in this modern times; surely we have a pertinent question to ask him, if he is of the opinion that it is because of the failure to attain political maturity, that discord has been sowed between the parties in the ruling coalition. The president is certainly talking about continuing the entrenched political rivalry between the United National Party led by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SLFP led by him, even after the formation of the Unity Government. What has been his contribution towards nurturing a consensual political culture? Like many of the ministers and politicians of his party, he is also contributing tremendously to strengthen party politics. It went to the extreme during the recent local polls campaign where President Sirisena’s speeches were unbecoming of a head of state leading an unprecedented coalition government between historically rival parties.
This writer wishes to remind the readers of his own comment in this column a few months ago that the unprecedented coming together of the two main parties to form a government, for the first time in the country’s post independence history, was initially half a good opportunity to explore ways and means to find solutions to the country’s problems including the ethnic problem; but all too soon it began to appear as though the politicians of both parties were trying a bizarre experiment on how best to push party politics to the fore, while being partners of a government.
After all this, in his statement made in the House, President Sirisena called upon the partners of the national government to give up their struggle for power while the ruling coalition and the Opposition should end competing for supremacy, and in a joint effort contribute to overcoming the challenges which the country is facing today. While all the main parties including his terribly weakened SLFP are preparing themselves to face the next Presidential election due in less than 18 months, and are in the process of selecting their prospective candidate, the President is talking about giving up the power struggle and fulfilling the promises by continuing the Unity Government with the SLFP rump remaining with him. Further the main parties are also talking of forming a government on their own in the future.
In the background of the intensifying political and economic crises, it is doubtful that the Unity Government will be able to continue till 2020. To put it succinctly the ‘yahapalanaya’ arrangement is now past its shelf life.
(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consulting Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd)