The election of President Maithripala Sirisena four years ago on January 8 was a watershed moment in Sri Lankan politics. However, since then, it has lost its allure. This year’s anniversary was, by and large, abandoned by its early supporters. As he enters into his final year, the president himself looks as if he is destined to a single term. Yet, by any account, President Sirisena’s first four years count as one of the most transformative; in terms of building independent institutions, restoring fundamental rights and rolling back the authoritarianism of the past. Those developments were also not possible without the President’s actual commitment — and now his detractors, sizable number of whom are partisan acolytes, might want to ride roughshod over this assertion.
President Maithripala Sirisena was not the only president who promised a greater democratization as a key election pledge. Chandrika Kumaratunga rode to power on the promise of abolishing executive presidency, and completed her two terms and retired, and was subsequently forced out of active politics by her successor Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is nothing much to crow about her ten years in power, which were, by and large, a lost decade, economically, politically and militarily. The worst military casualties of the Eelam war were reported during that time along the highway of death as she sought, in a politically influenced ploy, to open a Main Supply Route (MSR) via Tiger infested Wanni.
MR also promised to abolish the executive presidency during his first run for the presidency. Having been elected, he abolished the mandatory term limits for presidency. MR during his second term watered down independent oversight over his office, and concentrated the powers of the state into his office and his family. He effectively turned presidency into a Sultanistic dictatorship.
Sarath Fonseka promised a whole lot of things during his aborted run for presidency. Given the temperament of the man, many of even his supporters are now relieved that he did not win.
President Sirisena could have followed suit. Neither the political culture in this country, nor the institutions did compel him to stick to his promises. However he did, and delivered the 19th Amendment. That is probably the most consequential and empowering constitutional amendment in this country since the independence. All previous efforts at churning out new constitutions and tinkering existing ones were done to advance the personal-political ambitions of the political leaders. Instead, the 19A clipped the powers of the President who advocated for it. Of course, President Sirisena went back on his adulation of these institutions lately, as he pulled off a constitutional coup. He was checkmated by the independent judiciary, empowered by the 19A.
That was a low point in his political career, but a high point in the success of institutional building in the country. Constitutional states do not rely on political leaders to defend the rights of their people, instead they entrust that responsibility with independent institutions that defend these rights and arbitrate in disputes between organs of the state.
However, countries need forthright leaders to build these political structures, which over time effect their own course of action. Maithripala Sirisena was one of the rare lot who, knowingly or unknowingly made an active contribution to constitutional government. In that sense, he would have a special place in Sri Lankan politics. If one is to rank, Sri Lankan political leaders in their contribution to the democratic institutions, he could probably share a joint first with Dudley Senanayake.
However, like Dudley, President Sirisena failed to communicate his achievements to the grassroots. Also, he failed in many other areas, which effectively blunted the allure of his achievements in institutional building. Two areas stand out: Fighting corruption and leapfrogging the economy. The failure in both was not exclusively of President Sirisena’s. Rather he was forced to shoulder the burden of mishandling of his constituent partner, UNP. That UNP leader and PM Ranil Wickremesinghe could not see the looming failure until they explode right before eyes made it hard to rectify those mistakes, while it was still possible to do so without incurring a hefty cost. In the absence of remedial measures, a disgruntled electorate voted overwhelmingly to the MR acolytes of Pohottuwa at the local government elections. That was the beginning of an end.
Overall failure in economy and fighting corruption are now threatening the reversal of significant achievements in democratization. Those were also reasons why the prospect of Maithripala’s re-election looks dim.
In retrospect, the President could have avoided this fall out had he kept a degree of the control on his government- as any president of a country of our socio-economic standards ought to have done. But, the personal disposition of the President, let PM Wickremesinghe run the show. When, President Sirisena tried to wrestle back some of the control, later, that was proved futile. Nor is he a good economic manager either.
However, the composition of Yahapalanaya was such that the failure on these bigger dynamics was destined. The UNP which suffers from a deficit of populist legitimacy do not have the political will to implement drastic policy decisions ( be it on land acquisition, labour reforms or simply evicting squatters to make room for development). Nor was it an efficient entity as it was projected. It deliberately sat on major economic decisions.
It also failed to provide political leadership to fast-track the investigations into the regime leaders of the former government. That could well have been a cynically calculated move on the part of the UNP. However, it has has now backfired both on the President and the UNP.
A stronger executive president could have made his prime minister investigate his nemesis. The President wields a good deal of constitutional remit, and not so constitutional but, practical means to make that happen. President Sirisena failed in that, and that failed both him and Yahapalanaya.
On the other hand, in the economic front, ThePresident’s economic view, and indeed, that of his so called experts are anachronistic. Sri Lanka needs a strong handed liberalizer, and not an insular economic nationalist. Maithripala Sirisena falls into the latter category. His intervention at the latter stages only added to policy confusion.
Unless the President does something extremely stupid, it is unlikely that his final year would drastically alter the track record of his first four years. His final score: A minus for democracy and C+ for economy and anti- corruption.