If it’s always lonely at the pinnacle of power where standing room is only for one, then the presidency for Maithripala Sirisena must seem like solitary confinement in a straitjacket with the four walls closing in on him. Bereft of friends and besieged by enemies, with even the fundamental right of the 6.2 million people [...]


Maithripala throws the baton back to the people

Will spring flowers bloom in an August summer or wilt in winter's barren cold

If it’s always lonely at the pinnacle of power where standing room is only for one, then the presidency for Maithripala Sirisena must seem like solitary confinement in a straitjacket with the four walls closing in on him.

President Sirisena: Neutrality has its price

Bereft of friends and besieged by enemies, with even the fundamental right of the 6.2 million people who voted him to office to hear again his heartbreak appeal to the nation on July 14th denied them by the arbitrary hand of the elections commissioner who has thought it as one of his duties to issue notice to all media organisations on Thursday asking them to immediately suspend telecasting the speech, life at the top must seem worse than a Siberian exile to the man who dared to topple the Rajapaksas from power and usher in a people’s revolution of democratic tenets.

The contrast between the old tainted regime and the new Maithri vision could not be more apparent than in what each has to offer the masses. For Maithripala Sirisena, he was able to create a climate free of fear for the people of this country to embrace the ideals of democracy, freedom, fundamental rights, human rights and freedom of the media. This was said in his speech to the nation on July 14 which has since been found to be offensive to some.

For the Secretary of his umbrella party UPFA, Susil Premajayantha who said at a media conference on Thursday, “Till January 8 the people of this country have been dreaming dreams of development’s high sweet dreams. But for the last six months no climate existed to achieve them and turn dreams into reality. Big projects were stopped without any reason. Thousands in the private sector lost their jobs. Small businesses and big businesses crashed.” Premajayantha is correct when he states that the people until January had lived on dreams, waiting for the much hailed miracle of Lanka to dawn on them – in fact they had been doing so for the past 67 years of independence — but does he think that the mirage would have turned to an oasis if these last six months had been under the Rajapaksa jackboot?

The creed could not be more different. Whilst the president talked of democratic ideals in a democratic atmosphere, his party secretary dabbled in dreams of the affluence development would bring. To one, it was ‘man did not live by bread alone’. To the other, it was ‘damn Democracy’s Christine Dior fragrance, what we want is Marie Antoinette’s cake.’ One attempts to raise the quality of life by enshrining the Rights of Man; the other practises the policy ‘though deaf and dumb and caged, these zoo animals are reasonably fed, the zookeepers even better’.

Maithripala Sirisena broke his long silence on Tuesday evening to explain to the nation that he allowed the nomination of Rajapaksa to keep the SLFP unity intact, only to be cruelly shown the following day how deeply divided it truly was and how his tenuous hold on the party reins had been usurped.

Before even 24 hours could pass, the SLFP Executive Committee met at the party’s headquarters at Darley Road. There, with a portrait of Maithripala Sirisena hung high on the panelled wall looking down in helpless inanimation on the proceedings as a framed spectator, people-deposed Mahinda Rajapaksa took the chair and was immediately appointed as the Chief of Elections Operations Committee of the SLFP-led UPFA.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was in the driving seat of the party now, as to who called the UPFA shots and dictated the future course of the party. And a firm refusal made by Maithripala to UPFA members’ plea to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the team leader of the election campaign committee came unstuck. Not that the UPFA members were able to persuade Maithripala to accede to their request. Nay, they didn’t bother. They merely ignored him and went ahead making their appointment as they chose fit or as their Godfather commanded them to.

This arrogant usurpation of Maithripala’s powers as the party chairman, this blatant disregard to his expressed stand announced to both party members and to the nation, this outright assumption of his authority with reference to none but to their own Rajapaksa caucus reveal the way the cookie is set to crumble in the very near future and places in doubt whether Maithripala Sirisena will be able to withstand the inevitable onslaught on the rest of his adamant refusals so firmly made.

In his speech Maithripala Sirisena said that when he met Mahinda Rajapaksa and his representatives at the President’s Office in the Parliament Complex May 6, he had told Rajapaksa that if he were to contest the elections under the UPFA banner, the party would stand to lose the votes of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. He also told him that he must first satisfy three requirements.

“The first was,” the President stated in his speech, “the confidence placed in me by the people in this country for reinstating good governance and you would not have a place in that. The new political trend in the world which is against corruption and abuse of entrusted power by the leaders and misplacing the trust placed in them by the people. You have not fulfilled the qualifications for good governance. On the other side, the young generation will not cast their vote for you due to the faults, dishonesty, and corruption done under your regime, especially because of the deeds of the Rajapaksa family dynasty. So, I said, “don’t push this party to lose at the election by contesting.” That meeting concluded without any result.” The President added that when representatives from Rajapaksa’s side asked him why he opposed all the requests at that time. “I replied that I need to safeguard the January 8 victory”.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the kind to take the hint and make his excuses and leave the scene. It reinforced his will and would have brought all the fighting instincts that have marked his rise to the top back. While Sirisena played by the rulebook, he little realised that Rajapaksa had consigned the book itself to the flames and written his own set which would thereafter determine UPFA’s way forward. He charmed, he cajoled, he persuaded and convinced UPFA members that salvation lay in his shadow. Who knows he may have even shown them a page or two of the files which he said last November he had of every member of his tainted regime but which he said he would not use, to finally make them see the light and hitch their rickety wagons to the Rajapaksa star.

On July 3, not even two months after Sirisena had declared he did not meet the qualifications required to contest under the UPFA banner, Rajapaksa had successfully wrested the UPFA nomination not only for himself but also for the rest of the corruption ridden cadre including the main suspect in the murder of the man who was shot dead while erecting a stage for a Maithripala rally in Kahawatte on January 5, whilst Sirisena had played a laid back attitude running on neutral gear. His explanation as to why nominations had to be given and why he had to surrender to the Rajapaksa demand was that he would then have had to break away a faction of the SLFP and go around the country which was not becoming of a President. The result of this inhibition was to give the SLFP lock, stock and barrel to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Will that safeguard the January victory hard won not by him alone but by the people of Lanka?

In his speech the President also spoke of the demands that were placed before him at the May 6 meeting. “The first demand was to appoint Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister after the election and to name him as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Next was to oppose some proposals presented in the Parliament. I vehemently rejected the request to give the Prime Minister Portfolio to Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, at that meeting held in the Parliament. I also refused to give the Prime Minister candidacy to him.”

But with the SLFP and UPFA party members disregarding his orders and appointing Rajapaksa as the head of the election campaign committee, it has ensured the UPFA is fielding Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate with or without Maithripala’s blessings. No doubt at every UPFA election rally from now on, Rajapaksa’s arrival on stage will be hailed as the advent of the prime ministerial candidate and every speech given by the members will be prefaced by a reference to the party’s prime ministerial candidate whether their party boss the ‘neutral’ Maithripala likes it or not.

With the second of Maithripala’s refusals to name Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate now blasted will his third all important decision not to appoint Rajapaksa as the prime minister of the next government see the same fate and reverse the Lankan spring to another bleak winter?

The President has stated on many occasions that he will not make Mahinda prime Minister. In his speech he also said that if the SLFP-led UPFA wins the election there are several deserving senior politicians who can be appointed as Prime Minister. But has he done a head count since Tuesday. He may find that another three of his present SLFP ministers have already decamped to Rajapaksa’s bank. Many more will follow suit since UPFA Secretary Premajayantha said on Wednesday that Sirisena’s anti-Mahinda speech is viewed as a challenge issued by him and will be used as a motivating factor to boost morale during their campaign.

The day following the nominations, Wimal Weerawansa hailed the victory of their campaign to receive nominations from UPFA and said now only one battle remained and that was to make Rajapaksa prime minister after the elections. At the inaugural rally at Anuradhapura held on Friday, UPFA secretary Premajayantha confirmed the party aim when he declared that on August 18, Mahinda Rajapaksa will be prime minister of a UPFA government. The SLFP former parliamentary leader Nimal Siripala said at the Mahinda Rajapaksa rally at Anuradhapura that what the party needed now to strengthen it was a strong leader.

All these statements coupled with the many comedowns so far made by President Sirisena do not serve to strengthen or inspire confidence in his ability to stick to his guns.

True, Maithripala Sirisena as the Executive President has the absolute power to choose a Member of Parliament who, in his opinion, commands the confidence of the House. But what does it mean in practical terms especially when one is against an opponent who plays the player and not the game?

What would be the position in the event of a UPFA victory if the UPFA members refuse to accept any Cabinet portfolio unless Mahinda Rajapaksa is appointed Prime Minister? Even in the case a few do and Maithripala Sirisena is able to form a national government with UNP support, for how long will it last if the majority of members of the UPFA, returned as the biggest political entity, stay loyal to Rajapaksa and defeat every parliamentary bill? Back to square one, isn’t it and goodbye to January’s spring of hope?

Furthermore Maithripala Sirisena himself has accepted that despite his avowed refusal to appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, it is still possible for him to become premier. In his speech he says that he dissolved Parliament because “the underlying hope of the no-confidence motion on the Prime Minister, if it was brought forward to the Parliament, was for someone from the UPFA National List to resign and give that position to Mahinda Rajapaksa. When Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to come to Parliament, the plan was to defeat Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a no-confidence motion and for the Rajapaksa faction to form their own government with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. If that indeed were possible without the president’s explicit consent, why cannot the same scenario be reenacted in the future?

The fact of the matter is that Maithripala Sirisena has been reduced to a mere figurehead in the party of which he is supposed to be chairman; and the reins of party power have shifted swiftly and smoothly to Rajapaksa’s grasping hands. The danger must now loom more menacingly than ever before whether, in the days to come in the event of a UPFA victory, an isolated Maithripala Sirisena will be rendered impotent and reduced to a figurehead president for all practical purposes.

And the question must arise whether then Maithripala’s promised aim, as he said in his speech, “to completely abolish or cut down the executive powers of the presidency”, to make the holder of the office nothing more than a neutered mascot to be brought out and put on display at ceremonious functions, through long drawn constitutional means, would have been achieved ironically without the two third hassle to amend the constitution further through the Rajapaksa quick fire method?

The President has stated that he was against Mahinda Rajapaksa before January 8 and still is against Mahinda Rajapaksa and that he has not endorsed his nomination. ‘I asked the party leaders to take a majority decision without splitting the party. I must state very clearly that in the upcoming election I have no association with Mahinda Rajapaksa’ he said in his speech. Obviously he thinks Mahinda is no good to come forward even as a candidate. But that has not stopped him from standing idly by and let events pass him by, events he believes his enormous and varied powers as executive president are unable to influence. So be it then.

Maithripala’s neutrality in the hustings has resulted in the baton being thrown back to the people once again to light freedom’s flame and turn January’s spring into an August summer where hopes’ flowers may finally blossom in sunshine’s sweet lea or perish prematurely in winter’s barren cold sans a chance to bloom.

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