Maithripala Sirisena’s failed Presidency


by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Sri Lanka is on course to elect a new President on November 16, 2019. In all probability, the result will be announced on the 17th morning, and the tenure of the current President of Sri Lanka will come to an end. While none of us can predict as to how the seventh President of the country would perform, the report card of Maithripala Sirisena (MS) would be stamped in bold letters as "FAILED."

MS was elected and sworn in as the sixth Executive President on February 9, 2015. The electoral defeat of his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), was welcomed as people felt, corruption was rampant, and the Rule of Law virtually non-existent in the country.

The failure of the opposition United National Party (UNP) to have groomed a leader capable of winning the Presidental election despite being in opposition for nearly 20 years (other than between 2001 and 2004) resulted in MS being nominated by the UNP and others as the common candidate to run against MR.

In retrospect, the failure of the unity government, a.k.a. Yahapalana government can be attributed mainly to five years of missed opportunities and stagnation. It is a fact, MS was elected mostly by a UNP vote base along with that of the Tamil and Muslim minorities. The UNP would have garnered the Tamil and Muslim votes even if Ranil Wickremesinghe had been the candidate. However, the Sinhala vote would not have been forthcoming in the numbers required to defeat MR.

Therefore, as in 2010, the UNP decided to go along with a candidate who was not one of its party members and, more importantly, did not share the same ideology and value system. It is no secret, the UNP hierarchy under RW’s leadership consisted of persons from the upper-middle-class. It did not appeal to the Sinhala working class. The compromise candidate was MS. Therein lies the reason for the period between 2015 to 2019 to go down in the annals of the country’s history as one of utter failure.

It is a fact, MS lacked the visionary leadership qualities required to be an Executive President of a third world country grappling with multiple issues. This was further compounded by the fact, he had to govern and cohabit with a Prime Minister (PM) with a mindset totally alien to his rural background and beliefs. This unholy alliance resulted in the country and its people having to pay dearly, especially from an economic perspective. Further, it accentuated a feeling of despair amongst the population of Sri Lankan politicians being deceitful and corrupt to the core.

The economic consequences arising from both the 51-day constitutional crises precipitated by MS followed by the Easter Sunday attacks on several Christian churches and Luxury hotels killing over 250 people cannot be overstated. These two incidents, more than any other, will forever define the failure of MS and his government.

On the issues of the 51-day constitutional crisis, MS has to bear total responsibility. The appointment of MR as PM without his ability to win a vote of confidence in the Parliament and the subsequent dissolution of Parliament in breach of the constitution were undemocratic acts. In my view, these were motivated by factors that were personal to MS. His desire for a second term overrode national interest. The fact, he was not subsequently impeached by the Parliament is an indictment on the political system that pervades in our country. Basically, the ‘you scratch my back, I scratch your’s’ culture.

A substantial quantum of the blame also needs to be allocated to MS for the April 21 bombings. His cavalier attitude towards the all-important subject of national security was amply demonstrated. Exclusion of the Prime Minister, State Minister of Defence, and the IGP from the National Security Council meetings was one such instance. This was further compounded by him proceeding overseas without appointing an acting Defense minister.

However, I believe the most significant lapse was his poor judgment in the selection of the person who held the post of Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on that fateful day. Hopefully, it should be a lesson for future leaders. Possession of competencies required for the position and not blood relations, friend, and other hangers-on should be the criteria for all state appointments.

A few days after becoming the President, he appointed his brother Kumarasinghe Sirisena as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom. This despite having criticized the Rajapaksa regime for nepotism!

True to form many other undertakings given during the run-up to the Presidential Election in 2015 were quickly forgotten. The pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency, to serve only one term and to return to his home town Polonnaruwa after that are some of the broken promises. He also established a reputation for saying one thing in the morning and changing his stance by evening.

Despite insisting he would not reappoint RW as Prime Minister even if all 225 MPs demand so post the 51-day crisis, he was compelled to do just that. Unfortunately, this type of casual remarks resulted in making him the laughing stock in the minds of many in this country and, no doubt, the various foreign governments dealing with our country.

Another contradiction that is causing immense consternation is that despite seeking to implement the death penalty he has seen it proper to pardon the killer of young girl despite the Supreme Court having imposed the death sentence. This appears to be his last act of defiance against public opinion and commonsense.

Unfortunately, MS also did not exercise financial prudence when it came to enjoying the perks that go with the office of the President. At a time when the country is undergoing a severe debt crisis that required the Head of State to show the way by exercising restraint on unnecessary expenditure, he did nothing of that sort. A sum of Rs. 180 million was spent on refurbishing the property occupied by him soon after he was elected President. I am sure many more millions would have been spent after that as well. The purchase of new Mercedes Benz bulletproof vehicles costing several hundred millions of Rupees as per media report is a case in point.

The decision by the cabinet of ministers to allow MS to remain in his official residence at Mahagama Sekara Mawatha (formerly Paget Road) in Colombo after ceasing to be the President is another deplorable act of taxpayers’ money being squandered by politicians. Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), in a public release has pointed out that this decision contravenes a Supreme Court judgment made in 2007. TICL has quantified the entitlement to cost the taxpayers of the country a whopping Rs. 360 million over a 20-year period.

A quick perusal of the President’s Media Division website revealed no details of presidential travel for the initial period of January to August 2015. I believe he did visit India and China during this period. Between September 2015 and today, MS has traveled overseas at state expense on 38 occasions. At a conservative estimate, it would be 40 foreign trips over 59 months. This is an average of nearly one trip per month. Many of these trips were unnecessary and did not yield any tangible benefit to the country. It appears to be a case of making merry while the ship sinks.

The single most decisive factor of his presidency is the significant improvement in media and personal freedom. The reintroduction of Presidential term limits in the 19th amendment despite its other flaws, an independent judiciary and the passage of the Right to Information Act are some of the other positive factors.

In the overall context, these may not have yielded any economic benefits. However, after the authoritarian period between 2010 and 2015, these freedoms were much needed and wholeheartedly welcomed.

We must also acknowledge the role of Mrs. Sirisena, who remained in the background and did not abuse her position.

It has been reported, MS wishes to continue in active politics after his term is over. Signs are, he will follow the footsteps of his two predecessors who simply refuse to go away.

People would no doubt rather see him follow the footsteps of former President DB Wijetunga and go back to Polonnaruwa to lead a simple and quiet life. His actions might just be the catalyst for both Mahinda and Ranil to yield their positions to a younger generation of leaders and retire peacefully!.

The next question is whether "pigs will fly"!.

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