Maithripala’s last day | Sunday Observer

Maithripala’s last day

As the results trickle in from Sri Lanka’s eighth presidential election and the country’s seventh Executive President is sworn in to office, his predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena will spend his last day as Executive President, Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces today.

The Sirisena Presidency was a political experiment born out of political expediency. Five years ago, in November 2014, Mahinda Rajapaksa was President with a seemingly unshakable stranglehold on all aspects of the country’s administration: the bureaucracy, the judiciary and Parliament.

However, there was a sense of unease that the twice elected war-winning President was overreaching his limits. He brought in constitutional amendments that allowed him to run for President ad infinitum. A Chief Justice was impeached. An Army Commander was court-martialed, stripped of his rank and jailed. The first family appeared to have infiltrated every arm of the government apparatus.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the United National Party (UNP) was a feeble opponent, hamstrung by its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who, many believed, could not be ‘marketed’ to the electorate as a viable alternative to the cherubic, charismatic Rajapaksa. It was to fill this breach that Maithripala Sirisena stepped in. The verdict of the January 8, 2015 election confounded the Rajapaksas, political pundits and the rest of the country. Maithripala Sirisena, who was general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for fourteen years, most of it under Rajapaksa, became President. Sri Lanka hoped for a new political culture.

Only the naïve would have expected the UNP and the SLFP – arch political rivals for almost seven decades – to live happily ever after, savouring the spoils of Sirisena’s victory. It was not to be. Soon, only a few months into the cohabitation, the honeymoon period ended in this political marriage of convenience.

A key factor in this was that President Sirisena was elected to office primarily on the votes of the UNP. Without the rank and file of the UNP coming out in their millions to vote for him, he would not have been elected President. However, he chose to ignore this and proceeded to seek and obtain the leadership of the SLFP and then attempt to strengthen his hold on the party.

Understandably, this aggrieved the UNP which had its own political agenda which ran counter to that of the SLFP. With a general election looming, the parties were in direct conflict with each other and parliamentarians were fighting for their political lives, trying to get re-elected.

Had President Sirisena – who was then unencumbered by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution – dissolved Parliament in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election, the UNP would have cashed in on the momentum generated by the presidential election and romped home with a working majority in Parliament.

However, because he was trying to establish himself within the SLFP, President Sirisena needed time to do so and the general election was delayed, much to the chagrin and eventual detriment of the UNP. When it was eventually held in August 2015, the UNP had blotted its copybook because speculation about the Central Bank bond scam was already rife.

The result was that the UNP could not secure a simple majority at the election. That brought a great deal of instability to the government and the tug-of-war between the Executive and the Legislature began in earnest.

There were significant policy differences between the two parties too. Often, there were clashes between UNP and SLFP ministers in Cabinet. The result was a government that lacked cohesion and direction and faltered at every step with the criticism from within being the most damaging.

The parting of ways between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP led government was inevitable. In fact, it was surprising that the coalition for ‘good governance’ lasted as long as it did, ending only when President Sirisena attempted to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister, ousting Wickremesinghe. The rest, as they say, is history.

The past four years is a testament to the fact that petty parochial considerations are an overriding factor in Sri Lankan politics. The so-called ‘yahapaalanaya’ (or good governance) government was a political experiment that produced the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and only time can tell whether this is a by-product that will be useful.

The government did have its salutary moments, such as when it enacted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. For all the criticisms laid at its doorstep, it was the 19th Amendment that prevented the constitutional coup of October 2018 reaching fruition.

It is also the 19th Amendment that clipped the wings of the Executive President to some extent, so much so that he cannot hire and fire key officials of the government on a whim: now, these have to be ratified by the Constitutional Council.

There has been much criticism about President Sirisena, particularly in the latter part of his tenure. To say the least, some of his actions have not been statesmanlike and have lacked consistency and conviction. It could even be argued that much of this criticism is justified.

However, this must be viewed in the light of the alternative which would have been to continue an all-powerful, all-controlling Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency for six years from 2015. That would have established an oligarchic state in Sri Lanka with little room for dissent or discourse. With that as an alternative, most Sri Lankans understandably opted for Maithripala Sirisena as their President.

There may be misgivings about some of President Sirisena’s actions, but, viewed in that perspective, a Sirisena Presidency would still have been the better choice, even with the benefit of hindsight in to some of his more questionable actions – such as the events of October last year.

As Maithripala Sirisena ponders the first day of not being President of the country, the rest of the nation will heave a sigh of relief that he at least kept one promise – that of being a one term President and not running for the office again, even if it is by necessity rather than choice – and that is as much a reflection of the system as it is of the man.