Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for January 9th, 2020

The Sirisena Presidency in retrospect

Posted by harimpeiris on January 9, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 08th January 2019)

January 8th 2020, marks the fifth anniversary of the election to office of Maithripala Sirisena as the sixth executive president of Sri Lanka, an occasion overshadowed by the recent election of his successor Gotabaya Rajapakse less than two months ago. With parliamentary and provincial elections due and expected by or before mid-year, it is worth reflecting on the Sirisena presidency and its impact on Sri Lankan society.

The current politicized election period has meant that the Sirisena presidency is viewed by how it ended. The unravelling of the rainbow coalition and the political alliance which elected Sirisena and its recent defeat at the presidential election. A president who strived to get re-nomination from both major political alliances and failed, the decline of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) into political irrelevance under his leadership and also for the bitter and counterproductive relationship between the president and his prime minster, Ranil Wickramasinghe, which ultimately contributed to impasse in governance and the stringing defeat of the centrist and moderate political forces, which elected them to office five years ago.

Currently former President Sirisena, seems intent on pursuing an active political future, as a parliamentarian and seeking to reorganize and re-energize the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) though at complete loggerheads with the matriarch of the party, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The political struggle within the SLFP between Sirisena and CBK, is not about personalities, but a more fundamental one about the future direction of the SLFP. Former President Sirisena desires the SLFP to be an appendage of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), while the political objective of former President Kumaratunga is for the SLFP to be a dynamic party in the opposition and play an important role as a check and balance on the new SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration. It is clear that the distinct identity and political future of the SLFP is surer as an opposition political party, rather than being swallowed up as an irrelevant side show to the SLPP juggernaut.

However, the Sirisena presidency, in 2015 started off with much promise. Beginning from its political platform of good governance. The good governance platform was especially meaningful, because it was a civic basis for a political alliance and not parochial or identity-based politics as much of Sri Lankan politics tends to be. Due to the very fact that the rainbow coalition, did not play on identity politics but was an unlikely alliance between such disparate forces as the JHU on the one side and the TNA on the other side, including the UNP and the Muslim parties, political pundits in 2014 did not credit the hastily patched together grand opposition alliance with much chance of winning the election. But five years ago, they did. It was a victory based on ideas and not identity. That was significant.

There were some notable gains in the early years and seeking to fulfil the promises of good governance made to the electorate during the election campaign. Foremost among these gains, is the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which re-established the independent commissions, reduced the discretionary powers of the president and reintroduced term limits for the office of the executive president, among other democratic governance strengthening measures. While the 19th amendment has come in for criticism of late, including by President Sirisena, it remains an important piece of constitutional reform, perhaps even in the traditions of the Magna Carta in Britain, which reduced the absolute powers of the British monarchs and was an important step towards constitutional governance as opposed to an absolute monarchy in Britain.

However, the 19th Amendment was not the Sirisena Administration’s sole achievement. The Right to Information (RTI) Act, the release of private lands back to their owners in the North and East occupied by the military during the conflict, the resettlement of the conflict related internally displaced persons (IDPs), the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and a Reparations Office as part of the post war reconciliation process. The rebalancing of foreign relations from a China centric policy and the opening up of democratic space, the institutionalizing of judicial independence and greater media freedom. The then Joint Opposition (JO) political forces, elected to government in last November’s presidential election in the shape and form of the SLPP, may well relook at these and many other reforms effected by the previous government, with a view to rolling back the clock and indeed they may well succeed. Especially if the upcoming parliamentary election puts the SLPP government within sight of the constitution amending two third majority it seeks. However, this does not detract from the significance or the value of the above-mentioned civic policy platform and governance reforms effected by the Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration during its period of office.

The unravelling of the Sirisena presidency probably began with the miscalculation by both Sirisena and especially then premier Wickramasinghe, that the Rajapakses defeated in the 2015 election were politically down and out. Down they certainly were in 2015, but out they certainly were not, even then. The change in the political equation from the two way contest between the Rajapakse led political forces and the rest, to a three cornered one between Sirisena, Wickramasinghe and former president Mahinda Rajapakse, resulted in a divided government, an opposition unified under the Rajapakses and directly led to the decisive victory of the SLPP in the November presidential election, once again placing the nation under the leadership of the political first family from Medamullane, who are now elected to govern for the next five years and likely to do so with an iron fist inside a velvet glove.

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