One year and one day ago, against the backdrop of a twilight sky and amidst chaotic scenes at Independence Square in Colombo, Maithripala Sirisena became the sixth person to be sworn in as the Executive President of Sri Lanka. That day, Independence Square was crowded and unruly. Various people from both major political parties were [...]


Sirisena Presidency: Finding order in chaos


One year and one day ago, against the backdrop of a twilight sky and amidst chaotic scenes at Independence Square in Colombo, Maithripala Sirisena became the sixth person to be sworn in as the Executive President of Sri Lanka.

The oath-taking ceremony amid commotion on January 9 last year perhaps is symbolic of events that marked the Sirisena presidency for the past one year

That day, Independence Square was crowded and unruly. Various people from both major political parties were elbowing each other and jostling for a vantage point.

The hastily staged event lacked the pomp, pageantry and precision that usually accompanies such occasions, but the chaos was the price that had to be paid to ward off a greater danger — the fear that elements loyal to the vanquished President Mahinda Rajapaksa would somehow scuttle the change of guard.

Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn-in as Prime Minister immediately thereafter to seal the verdict of the people.

One year later, in more ways than one, the commotion at Independence Square that day seems typical of Maithripala Sirisena’s Presidency so far: ad-hoc, unruly, people jostling for places amidst general confusion and knowing that Mahinda Rajapaksa is still waiting in the wings, marking his time, to make his move.

That is not to belittle Maithripala Sirisena’s achievements in winning the presidential election and restoring democratic freedoms thereafter.

As Sarath Fonseka will readily tell anyone who asks him, taking on the Rajapaksas is an inherently dangerous task. Had Sirisena lost that election, he would have been persecuted and the President himself believed he would have been ‘six feet under’.

The story of finding a challenger to Rajapaksa reads like a spy novel — clandestine meetings under the cover of darkness.

Many are the fathers — and mothers — of this exercise, each claiming credit for the induction of Sirisena, an unlikely candidate. Some say that Nimal Siripala de Silva was, in fact, the first choice, but he baulked at the prospect, fearful of the repercussions of losing. So, Sirisena it was, who stepped up to the task.

In the first eight months of his Presidency, Sirisena had to contend with a factor none of his predecessors had experienced — a minority government.

True, he had been offered the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on a platter by Rajapaksa but that was only because Rajapaksa had, at the height of his power, changed the party’s constitution to enable the country’s President, if he or she was from the party, to be its leader.

What was a cunning move to keep Chandrika Kumaratunga out of the SLFP hierarchy had boomeranged on Rajapaksa. What was more, defections to the Sirisena camp by hitherto faithful Rajapaksa acolytes followed.

Though nominally the leader of the SLFP — and the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to boot — Sirisena found his parliamentarians nevertheless playing truant.

When Rajapaksa loyalists — Dinesh Gunewardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara were running around the country organising a ‘Bring-Back-Mahinda’ campaign Sirisena threatened his SLFP MPs with disciplinary action if they participated in the campaign.

They ignored the threat, but the President did nothing.

Critics will argue that this inaction is why SLFP MPs are still defying him — dozens of them voted against the budget recently defying the party whip and threats of sackings.

At the time though, Sirisena was eager to placate parliamentarians because he was keen to enact the 19th Amendment which partly diluted the powers of the Executive Presidency, an election pledge of his.

In the process, however, he slipped in the provision to continue in office till his term finished — something he didn’t promise the voter.

The 19th Amendment did eventually pass muster but not before MPs loyal to Rajapaksa moved a plethora of amendments, chiefly relating to the composition of the Constitutional Council.

To his credit, Sirisena stayed in Parliament the whole day that day, liaising with an equally diligent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, but MPs confessed that at the end no one knew what they passed in the chaotic last stages of the third reading of the bill.

But the duo did indulge in a bit of one-upmanship over the general elections. The UNP wanted early polls to consolidate the support it had mustered during the presidential poll but Sirisena wanted more time to get the entire SLFP under his wing.

As President, although still having enormous powers at his disposal, Sirisena knows that he has been elected on UNP votes.

He also knows that the UNP will not ask its voters to do so again. Hence the need to rally the SLFP behind him — but this has not happened so far because Rajapaksa continues to lurk in the shadows.

Sirisena knows, that despite winning over some MPs with ministerial posts, the bulwark of SLFP voters see him as the one who had the SLFP defeated — both in January and August last year.

The run-up to the August general election was a fiasco of sorts. At first, Sirisena declared that he would not grant nominations to Rajapaksa but then allowed that to happen.

Then he took to national television to explain his decision saying he was only trying to avoid a split in the party and announced that Rajapaksa would never be made Prime Minister. SLFPers were naturally livid because their captain was scoring an ‘own goal’!

In trying to woo Rajapaksa loyalists after the election — in which the UPFA lost but came a not too distant second — Sirisena made two blunders.

First, he appointed defeated candidates to Parliament through the National List. Politically, he was killing two birds with one stone: he was ousting Rajapaksa’s nominees from the National List and at the same time getting his loyalists in.

However, this flew in the face of the much-hyped ‘yahapaalanaya’ (good governance) that he preached during his election campaign and brought forth gasps of disbelief from the likes of Ven. Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera who assumed Sirisena would act in a more principled manner and made public his views.

Second, Sirisena was not averse to trying Rajapaksa’s formula of wooing MPs with cabinet portfolios. Worst still, some of them have outstanding allegations of bribery and corruption against them.

The number of ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers is now more than 90 and counting — a far cry from the pledge in Sirisena’s manifesto that “the number, composition and nature of the Cabinet of Ministers would be determined on a scientific basis”.

This has eroded the President’s credibility even further — that he is willing to compromise principles for expediency, and he still doesn’t command absolute loyalty from SLFP MPs or supporters.

The President would of course argue that with more constitutional reforms on the cards, he needs the support of every MP that he can get at whatever price he has to pay, if he is to preside over the abolition of the Executive Presidency and restore a hybrid electoral formula that combines the merits of the first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems.

There is some validity in that argument, like in most arguments of such a nature, but it is Sirisena’s integrity that takes a beating whenever pictures of two more smiling ministers take oaths before him appear in the newspapers.

Sanguine statesman

If, in the year that he has been in office, Sirisena has not been the shrewdest of politicians, he has been a more sanguine statesman than his predecessor.

Helped no doubt by his Prime Minister Wickremesinghe he has been able to tone down the anti-Sri Lanka rhetoric that was emanating from Western countries and the United Nations. Sri Lanka is no longer a ‘rogue state’ mentioned in the same sentence as Syria and North Korea.

Sirisena has not been averse to having a dialogue with the Tamil Diaspora, releasing those detained at the height of the war and reducing the military’s presence in the North.

These gestures, though they will not fully douse communal tensions, have created an atmosphere of hope among the minorities and signalled that the Government in Colombo is one that wants to be engaged in reconciliation rather than retribution.

The dangers portend, however. Accusations of a sell-out are going to ring very soon among the majority, and Rajapaksa will hitch his wagon to that nationalism star for a certainty.

Foreign and domestic challenges

The real challenge will come in meeting the demands of the Western powers in the next few months with regard to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution. A ‘war crimes’ tribunal even if domestic is not going to be popular and the Rajapaksas will see to that.

Sirisena might have to do what Rajapaksa did to his opponent Fonseka if he is to avoid such a scenario. That such a ghost haunts the incumbent President is borne by his repetitive comments that he will not allow ‘conspirtors’ to topple his government for five years — comments clearly aimed at the still formidable Rajapaksa camp.

More challenges loom on the domestic front. As always, it is the Government that is called in to answer the difficult questions of incumbency.

Foremost among them would be the lack of tangible results in prosecuting those accused of bribery, corruption and abuse of power during the previous regime.

Avant Garde, Thajudeen, Ekneligoda and Dubai bank accounts have been words that have regularly hit the headlines in recent months but the investigative processes involved in these issues have been painfully slow. Development projects have come to a standstill and the economy is not doing too well either.

The President would counter this by saying he cannot run kangaroo courts and throw the alleged offenders in jail in much the same way that Sarath Fonseka was jailed — and that proper procedures would need to be followed which of course takes time; that the massive loans taken by the Rajapaksa regime have to be re-paid and there’s no money in the kitty. While all this is true, the people are not always impressed by logic and reality.

They want action — but not action that is seen as mere revenge.

Perhaps the other lapse on the part of the Sirisena Government is in not communicating to the public what exactly is happening in respect of the allegations against the former regime.

If the Cabinet spokesman, the loquacious dentist turned Minister Rajitha Senaratne is to be believed, the arrest of the Rajapaksas is imminent every day.

On the other hand, the public is fed with a series of inspired leaks in the media which suggest that someone would be interrogated or arrested soon — but nothing sensational has ever happened. And so, the credibility of the Sirisena government takes another beating.

Beneficial for the country

On the plus side of things, President Sirisena is to be commended for leaving the day-to-day functioning of the government in the hands of his ministers, who are from the both the UNP and the SLFP. Indeed, he has maintained cordial ties with the UNP ministers and he is known to enjoy a good working relationship with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe based on mutual understanding and respect.

Critics call it a ‘you scratch my back; I scratch yours’ policy each ignoring the warts of the other. Nevertheless, if the government blunders on any issue, as its leader and the Executive President, as head of Government not only as Head of State, the buck stops, not with the minister concerned, not with Wickremesinghe but with Sirisena. The recent budget is a case in point.

Despite all these handicaps, drawbacks and shortcomings most Sri Lankans would probably agree that Maithripala Sirisena’s ascension to the Presidency a year ago was beneficial for the country in that it prevented a Rajapaksa oligarchy transforming itself into a virtual monarchy, where young Namal Rajapaksa would have surely taken over the reins of power in the fullness of time.

There is also a palpable sense of freedom. When an untoward incident occurs — like it did with former Minister Tilak Marapana and now with Hirunika Premachandra — the media are swarming all over it, without worrying about getting the ‘white van’ treatment.

Indeed, Sirisena has also kept his promise of living a simple lifestyle though being President albeit a few excesses like the expenditure for his official bungalows (when there is a President’s House for him already), him taking his son on the official UN delegation and some controversy over a sibling heading a cash-rich semi-government company.

It could be argued that, while not being perfect, these transgressions pale into insignificance, compared to the excesses of the previous regime.

Many may say Sirisena’s performance as President has fallen short of expectations in his first year in office because his key promises — abolishing the Executive Presidency, changing the electoral system, prosecuting those responsible for bribery and corruption and fostering a culture of good governance- have only been partly fulfilled.

However, he remains a benign figure in the public perception, not being invested with a Machiavellian persona — not yet anyway. If at all, his critics would say he is not shrewd enough for the job though he may be learning on it.

Such cunning, which his rival Rajapaksa possesses in abundance, will surely be needed when he confronts his next major election- the local government polls, which he has got extended till he secures himself in the SLFP saddle more firmly.

This is where, despite their marriage of convenience, the UNP and the SLFP would have to part ways and contest each other at the grassroots level.

Ideally, this can happen while the cohabitation in Parliament goes on but in a political culture based on two-party rivalry for decades, the current tenuous camaraderie between the UNP and the SLFP will be put to the ultimate test.

Already, a minister close to Sirisena, the blabber-mouth S.B. Dissanayake is reported as saying the parting of ways is imminent; whatever he meant by that.

We have suggested in this column previously that Sirisena should have played statesman and not politician. To do so though, he should have distanced himself from the SLFP and been an apolitical President. After all, he was an SLFPer elected on UNP votes and playing this dual role was always going to be difficult.

To date, he has shown no inclination of removing himself from his party — rather, he is trying to get more control of it.

On January 9, 2015, shortly after taking his oaths amidst the bedlam that prevailed at Independence square, Sirisena promised the nation that he would not contest the Presidency any more.

Indeed, there would be no need to do so because, if he kept his promise, the Presidency would be abolished after his tenure of office. He now says he would like to continue with his “political philosophy” after 2020 when the Presidency lapses.

Of course, he didn’t tell the country that, shortly after taking his oaths. And, what will he be telling as time goes by.

Power changes the mind-set of politicians. We saw Mahinda Rajapaksa metamorphose from an easy going, frugal, fun loving person into an omnipotent autocrat, helped of course by various hangers on who were not shy to sing his praises even when they were not warranted.

We hope the same fate does not befall President Maithripala Sirisena. That is not only because his job is only partially done. It is also because, after taking on the challenge of contesting Rajapaksa, he deserves a kind footnote in history.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.