In the mid ’70s, when J.R. Jayewardene was challenging Sirima Bandaranaike for power, he was ridiculed for the way he said ‘koranawa’. In 1977, Ms. Bandaranaike — who presided over the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Colombo and chaired the movement — lost to JR. During the last presidential election campaign, Maithripala Sirisena was scoffed at for [...]


Yahapalanaya: Potential statesman on a tightrope


In the mid ’70s, when J.R. Jayewardene was challenging Sirima Bandaranaike for power, he was ridiculed for the way he said ‘koranawa’. In 1977, Ms. Bandaranaike — who presided over the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Colombo and chaired the movement — lost to JR. During the last presidential election campaign, Maithripala Sirisena was scoffed at for his style of speech, because he said ‘hitan’ very often. He went on to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa — who hosted the Commonwealth summit in Colombo and chaired the 55-nation body — and ousted the Rajapaksa family from power.

It is ironical that while JR was mocked for being unable to speak Sinhala properly, Sirisena was belittled for doing just the opposite: speaking the language of the typical Sinhala villager. However, it underscores what most people already knew: Sirisena is no JR, either in style or in political outlook. They both wore the white ‘national’ in public but the similarities end there. JR, whose youth overlapped the last days of British rule was a self-confessed anglophile and was famous for his political cunning. Sirisena is a son of the soil reputed for his simplicity.

In defeating the all-powerful Rajapaksa, President Sirisena finds himself sharing power with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, JR’s nephew. For the past twenty years, Wickremesinghe has led the United National Party (UNP), sometimes called the ‘Uncle Nephew Party’, perhaps not inappropriately.  Wickremesinghe is making a habit of being non-executive Prime Minister for short periods of time. In his last stint, he was sacked by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. He must be hoping that history will not repeat itself but he can rest assured that his President is Sirisena, not Kumaratunga.

Three months ago, suggesting that Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena would be President of the country would have been considered a joke by someone with a poor sense of humour. Today, President Sirisena holds that high office and carries the hopes of most Sri Lankans with him. That alone is a phenomenal achievement. He has done what Wickremesinghe and Sarath Fonseka could not do: defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa at an election. The last time Rajapaksa lost an election was thirty seven years ago, when he lost the Beliatta seat to Dr. Ranjith Atapattu at the 1977 general election.

President Sirisena’s victory was possible because of a combination of factors: the political forces that united firmly against Rajapaksa and rallied around him, blunders committed by Rajapaksa’s own campaign and not least of all, the dissent that had been growing against the Rajapaksa clan’s authoritarian rule. That should not belittle President Sirisena’s role in the campaign. He was able to project himself as a man of sincerity and purpose, despite his modest political achievements until then. He also convinced a range of disparate political groups to place their trust in him, no mean task indeed.

Candidate Maithripala Sirisena was everything that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not. Rajapaksa oozed confidence and charisma. Sirisena was unassuming and self-effacing. Rajapaksa roared from campaign platforms. Sirisena simply stated his case and made his promises, hardly raising his voice. The over-kill indulged in by the Rajapaksa camp contributed to President Sirisena’s victory. The gross abuse of state resources, the prostitution of the state media and the hurling of vitriolic insults would have convinced many voters that the Rajapaksa regime needed to be sent a message — and sent home.

Wooing the majority community at the expense of antagonising the minority communities worked well for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010. In 2015 though, it was a fatal flaw. And, with friends like the loud mouthed Wimal Weerawansa on his platform, Rajapaksa didn’t need many enemies.  Some question President Sirisena’s mandate to govern, rolling out coloured maps of the nation and pointing out that the ‘Eelam’ map is uncannily similar to the regions won by him. That may appear so but the reality is, Rajapaksa lost because he had an almost ten per cent swing against him in the South.

The dust has settled on the January election — amidst allegations of a former Chief Justice lurking in the corridors of ‘Temple Trees’ on the night of the vote, for hush-hush talks — but Sri Lankans can be pardoned if they are confused about the government they elected and if they are wondering whether they have an opposition! JR, the Grand Old Man of Sri Lankan politics and architect of the executive presidential system, once boasted that this country was a ‘five-star’ democracy. Now, it truly is: the President is from the party with the majority in Parliament but that party is in the

opposition and the ‘minority’ is in government! At that time when the opposition was emaciated and only a rump of the SLFP was in parliament, the lordly JR with 5/6th of parliament under his control exclaimed that — like in Kamal Ataturk’s Turkey years gone by, he could create both, the government and the opposition. The incumbent President may have thought after his somewhat surprise victory that he would be able to run the country in peace. Assisting him was a former President (who made it clear she was seeking revenge from Rajapaksa) and a Premier who was a lame duck due to his party being a minority in Parliament.

That was not to be. If Sirisena was portrayed as a ‘puppet’ by the Rajapaksa campaign during the polls, in recent weeks he has had his hands full trying to prove that he is not one. The leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was given to him but a faction of the party is brazenly defying him. The pressure is telling. Sirisena was helicoptered from Polonnaruwa to the Army Hospital in Colombo on the eve of the National New Year with high sugar levels but returned to his hometown soon against doctors’ advice; he wouldn’t have wanted to give the wrong signals about his health.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was at the Guruvayurappan temple in Kerala in South India, offering his body weight of seventy seven kilograms in sandalwood, in return for God Krishna’s blessings. Given the challenges the government faces, divine intervention maybe needed! The twin incidents betray a sense of stress creeping into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition.

The President’s entire election campaign was based on the premise of a 100-day programme that focused re-establishing good governance- or ‘Yahapaalanaya’. But, with so many groups in the government pulling in different directions, there is a question whether this is ‘Haya Paalanaya’. Just after the polls, the pent-up anger against the Rajapaksa family burst into the open. Many claims were made. Newspapers ran stories of the first family using Air Force helicopters and planes without paying. Alleged abuses at SriLankan Airlines by an in-law of the Rajapaksa family are shocking.

However, investigations have been slow and uncoordinated without substantive charges being framed. The people are becoming restless about the lack of action against the misdeeds of the past regime. Making allegations is all well and good, but why aren’t the culprits brought to book, they ask.  What the government should have done was to retain international firms that have investigative arms to pursue the white collar crimes that are alleged to have taken place during the Rajapaksa era. They charge high fees but the amounts embezzled are so high that it would have been cost effective.

Instead, the Goverenment is relying on the World Bank’s Stolen Assets Recovery (StAR) unit. The process has been laborious and little by way of results is evident yet. When Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva says on a local TV programme that the Sri Lankan Police can only investigate “if someone breaks your cupboard” it is not helpful either. This has given the Rajapaksas added courage to first deny the allegations against them and now, defy the government. Basil Rajapaksa, the alleged villain of the Rajapaksa regime even in the eyes of SLFPers, has returned to the country and says “the Rajapaksas haven’t taken five cents” from the public.

In the meantime, the President is having an uphill task within his own party. Rajapaksa handed him the SLFP leadership at a time when parliamentarians were deserting the party in the immediate aftermath of the elections. But suddenly, the trend has changed: Some are backing Rajapaksa again. Rajapaksa, egged on by weeping supporters in Medamulana, smaller political party leaders such as Weerawansa and a sizeable group in the SLFP, is gearing for a comeback. Now, it is not a matter of whether Rajapaksa will return, only a matter of when he will. Yet, Sirisena hasn’t cracked the whip.

The President is in a difficult position. He repeatedly acknowledges that he is where he is because the UNP provided at least 60-70 per cent of his vote. The minorities and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) provided more than 20 per cent and only about 10 per cent came from SLFPers disgruntled with the Rajapaksa clan. That could have tilted the balance but then, the bulk of his votes did come from the UNP. Sirisena is therefore in this miserable situation of being Leader of the SLFP but at the same time President of the country because of the UNP and the two parties are at loggerheads purportedly over electoral reforms.

Sirisena is not of the Machaivellian mould, so he hasn’t broken his links with the UNP. That is why he himself came to Parliament this week to present the UNP government’s 19th Amendment. SLFPers in Parliament though paid little heed to him suggesting that he is not in control of the party he leads.  The Rajapaksas are no spring chicken. They have the finances and human resources to spend on a fight back. The government has not been able to trace Rajapakasas’ reservoir of funds. That the Commission Investigating Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) resorted to questioning him on bribing an MP – and not on any corruption charges — is a bit of a give-away. Without cast-iron cases against them, nor has it been able to stop growing numbers of grassroots level SLFPers joining the Rajapaksas.

The Rajapaksas are targeting former President Chandrika Kumaratunga for starters hoping to break the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe-Kumaratunga axis, the troika which in effect runs the country now. It is well known that Wickremesinghe goes to Kumaratunga to resolve issues with Sirisena and vice-versa. The first salvo was when Rajapaksa loyalists jeered Kumaratunga at a public meeting at Kurunegala; since then, she has not been seen in public. However, Kumaratunga was a woman scorned when Rajapaksa was President and is likely to move behind the scenes to try and thwart his return.

When the Government’s crackdown on the Rajapaksas came this week — Mahinda and Gotabaya summoned to the Bribery Commission and Basil being arrested — it was possibly too late. It has given the Rajapaksas time to regroup as an entity, play the ‘political revenge’ card and hope for sympathy. That is why SLFPers who meekly consented to the 18th Amendment, who watched silently while Sarath Fonseka was persecuted and raised their hands to impeach Shirani Bandaranayake, created an ugly ruckus in Parliament merely because Rajapaksa was summoned to the CIABOC.

The President is also learning that in his job, it is hard to please everyone. Some of the choices in the Cabinet have been called into question, especially as the numbers of ministers and deputies keep rising. As someone said, the Cabinet is like a woman on a diet: trying to be slim, but ending up fatter. Pushed to the brink, the President did sack five ‘dissidents’ from the SLFP’s Central Committee, but S.B. Dissanayake — who, during the recent campaign threatened to strip Kumaratunga naked — was made a minister and another Rajapaksa loyalist, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, was appointed a deputy minister. It is the same story in the public service.

Some actions of the UNP have not helped President Sirisena either. Arjuna Mahendran’s appointment as Central Bank Governor and the subsequent Treasury Bond fiasco are a case in point. Even if Prime Minister Wickremesinghe insists that justice was done, it did not appear to be done. Eventually, how politically savvy the President is will be tested not in his governing skills but in his role in bringing the SLFP to heel. Sirisena must also know that all of the party’s key officials who endorsed him as leader of the SLFP actively and vociferously campaigned against him at the polls.

Yet, as the dissolution of Parliament nears, there is still no certainty of how the general election, possibly in late June this year, will be fought. It is unclear whether it will be on a proportional representation basis or a hybrid of that system with the Westminster style first-past-the-post method. Within this drama on Sri Lanka’s political stage, there are many sub-plots: Sirisena is trying to assert himself as the undisputed leader of the SLFP, Rajapaksa is calculating his return and his loyalists, fearful of reprisals and the possible refusal of nominations, are seeking a way to sneak Rajapaksa in.

This is the political tightrope that President Sirisena will have to navigate in the weeks ahead. His ’100-day plan’ proposes that political parties contest separately and then form a national government for at least two years to put the country back on track. Right now, this is wishful thinking. But, quite tangible changes have occurred too. It is to President Sirisena’s credit — and even Premier Wickremesinghe’s — that there is no fear element in the country as there was during the Rajapaksa era. Despite their theatrics, Rajapaksa loyalists do not run in to ‘white vans’, nor are they branded traitors.

The courts have got back their backbone — as was evident in the ruling on the 19th Amendment, siding neither with the government nor the opposition. The media are freer than before, notwithstanding some outlandish public utterances by the Premier against individual journalists who do not like him. In the three months and more that he was Head of State, President Sirisena has led a simple life; there has been no ostentatious behaviour on his part. He told SLFPers that “some people visualise how a President must be like, but I am myself and I will act as I have always done, that is as a simple man”

The Sirisena campaign made good use of social media during the election, an aspect where Rajapaksa missed a trick. But, after the election, his publicity machine has run out of steam. If the Government had difficulties, in apprehending wrongdoers for instance, the people were not adequately informed.  There was a general complaint that he was too aloof and was not reaching out to the people. He was giving interviews to TIME magazine and various other publications but not to those who voted for him or the rest of the country through the local media. On Thursday, the President broke that silence.

In what was his third address to the nation, the President called for support for the 19th Amendment. Hardly a day later — and after the amendment had been ratified by the SLFP’s Central Committee — former minister G. L. Peiris told the media the SLFP would ask for changes to the amendment. Such is the duplicity of the persons President Sirisena has to deal with. His first address to the nation at Independence Square was hurriedly arranged in fading light and amidst chaotic scenes of people jostling with each other for a vantage point. In many ways, that is emblematic of his Presidency.

Yes, the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ utopia that was promised has not materialised yet, but there is no reason to abandon hope either. Some first steps have been taken and a few difficulties have arisen but President Sirisena, the man chosen to usher in that era has so far done nothing to doubt his sincerity. This points to the next election — and the period between now and then — being like no other this nation has seen in its post-independent history. And, if he finally dismantles the Executive Presidency –JR’s political legacy — Maithripala Sirisena will leave a legacy of his own, just as much as JR did.

Or maybe, just maybe, he would like the proposal once made within the UNP when the 1978 Constitution was being drafted, that once a President is elected by the people, he gives up party politics, leaving aside the stresses of parochial politics, and becomes a national statesman.

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