By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
The Presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, which began on January 9, 2015 on a thrilling note marked by great hopes about the establishment of “Yahapalanaya” or “Good Governance” in place of the high handed and corrupt regime of the Rajapaksas, will be ending this week unnoticed and unsung.
The reasons for the dismal end not far to seek.
Along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, President Sirisena led a non-performing and deeply divided government, the dirty linen of which was washed in public to the disgust of its supporters and the merriment of its detractors.
The Joint Opposition Yahapalanaya regime soon became a coalition of two incompatible traditional rivals, namely, the right-wing, pro- West United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the left wing and rural Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Maithripala Sirisena.
No wonder it developed engine trouble almost immediately after its establishment.
The UNP-led cabinet formulated the 100-days program without consulting the Executive President and the head of the cabinet, Maithripala Sirisena. Later, an aggrieved Sirisena complained about this and dubbed the 100-days program as the “stupidest.”
Again, right in the beginning, the two power centers clashed over the appointment of Arjuna Mahendran as the Governor of the Central Bank. Given his past record and his Singapore citizenship, Sirisena was opposed to the choice. But Wickremesinghe over-ruled him and appointed Mahendran.
Governor Mahendran became a subject of discord when he was found to have been responsible for the great Central Bank scam involving billions of rupees. Sirisena wanted Mahendran probed and punished if found guilty, but Wickremesinghe found ways to save his friend Mahendran, who eventually fled to Singapore and remains out of reach till date.
Having been Sirisena’s main prop in the 2015 Presidential election, the UNP felt entitled to corner all the key economic ministries to enable it to follow its neo-liberal and pro-West economic policies. This upset the leftist and nationalistic Sirisena who began to use his power as Executive President to reverse a number of decisions of the cabinet.
He opposed a Free Trade Agreement with Singapore and kept the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement with India in abeyance. He stalled the handing over the Mattala Airport to India and the award of a contract to build a container terminal at Colombo port to India. Sirisena also stopped an Indian project to build a coal-fired power plant in Trincomalee on environmental grounds.
The President spoke against the arrest and imprisonment of armed forces personnel who had allegedly committed war crimes even though the Wickremesinghe government was pledged to implement the co-sponsored UN Human Rights Council resolutions seeking a variety of accountability measures with international participation.
Sirisena complained that Wickremesinghe had an air of cultural and linguistic superiority over him which impeded inter-personal communication. The government was run by a cabal he charged.
At one stage, Sirisena accused Wickremesinghe and UNPer Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka of plotting to assassinate him and former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the aid of a foreign intelligence agency. He accused Wickremesinghe of ignoring his pleas to investigate the plot.
When he concluded that he could not co-habit with Wickremesinghe, Sirisena tried to sack him from the Prime Ministership. But he could not succeed because at that time Wickremesinghe had majority support in parliament.
Sirisena then said that the 19 th. Amendment, passed with his consent in 2015 after he became President, was flawed. The Amendment curbed the powers of the Executive President while increasing those of the Prime Minister. As Executive President, Sirisena could not exert authority as President because of the constitutional curbs put by the 19A. He wanted it replaced by a more workable arrangement. But the 19 th.Amendment suited Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to the ‘t’.
When he came to power in 2015, Sirisena promised not to seek a second term. But with relations with his Prime Minister going from bad to worse and seeing the need for a new leftist-nationalist political force to challenge the UNP, Sirisena decided to forget his earlier pledge and began to prepare the ground for a second term.
As part of the preparations, he wanted to secure full control of the government by replacing Wickremesinghe with a more friendly and pliable Prime Minister. He offered the post to parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and the UNP’s Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. But both refused to ditch Wickremesinghe.
Sirisena also wanted to find out from the Supreme Court if he could consider his term to be six years rather than five as he was elected for six years. He was elected before the 19 th. Amendment was passed. The 19A reduced the term to five years. But the Supreme Court said that his term would be for five years only.
Sirisena’s next step was drastic. In October 2018, he sacked Wickremesinghe and appointed his arch-rival Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. He prorogued parliament to give Rajapaksa time to secure a majority in parliament. However, eventually, he was forced to convene parliament which backed Wickremesinghe to the hilt. Sirisena ate humble pie and reappointed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
Changing tactics, Sirisena called for an early Presidential election in the hope that the SLFP and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) will nominate him as its candidate. But the SLPP did not oblige as it had done very well in the local body elections.
Seeing the re-emergence of the Rajapaksas as a political force and frustrated with Sirisena’s failure to provide meaningful leadership, many SLFPers left the party and joined the SLPP. Eventually, Sirisena had to allow SLFP to become any ally of the SLPP and support the latter’s Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
In his efforts to build a political space ahead of a bid to contest again, Sirisena began to portray himself as a hardcore Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist. As part of this exercise, he pardoned and released a convicted radical Buddhist monk Ven.Gnanasara Thero, who had carried out many anti-Muslim campaigns.
This was not the only controversial decision which Sirisena took. He recently gave a Special Presidential pardon to S. Jayamaha who had wantonly and brutally killed a Swedish girl in Colombo. Sirisena did not consult the Attorney General before pardoning Jayamaha.
Sirisena was an enigma. One the one hand, he portrayed himself as a good Buddhist but on the other hand, he supported the carrying out of the death penalty which was suspended on humanitarian ad Buddhistic grounds in 1976.
He surprised the legal fraternity by declaring that he would sanction the carrying out of the death sentence only in select cases. Hardened drug dealers who were plying their trade even while being in prison would be hanged he said.
While Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s standoffishness and his barely concealed arrogance was responsible for Sirisena’s actions, Sirisena himself proved to be a bumbling leader with little or no thought going into his actions.
According to one of his staff, he is a quiet man who will give a patient hearing to people with ideas. But he will take all the decisions himself. He had come up in the party from the bottom without anyone’s help. He had started off as a Grama Niladhari and had risen to be President, all on his own. This gave him the conviction that he had the capacity to act on his own untrammelled by others’ advice. Such confidence took him far, but in the end, he crashed because he was ill-equipped to understand and deal with the complexities of governance at the topmost level.