By Gamini Jayaweera –
As soon as Mr. Maithripala Sirisena became the President of Sri Lanka on 8th January 2015, an article titled “New President’s Vision – A Fantasy Or A Reality?” which was published in the Colombo Telegraph (CT) on 5th February 2015, I gave full credit to the new President for his speech on the 30th January for explaining his vision of creating a new political culture in Sri Lanka and the humility which he demonstrated as the leader of our nation which had not been seen in the history of our political sphere. I also went on to say, “If the new President governs our country exactly the way he has outlined in his address to the nation, there is no doubt that he will become one of the great leaders in Sri Lanka.” The new President did not have an ego like many other politicians in the country and indicated that he would like to solve problems with discussions, respecting other opinions and compromising wherever possible to achieve the maximum benefits for the people of Sri Lanka.
One of the main objectives of his Vision, as he explained in his address, was to change the political culture in Sri Lanka to eradicate unlawful behaviour by the politicians and their supporters during pre and post-election periods. Though there were some minor incidents, by and large the recent Local Government elections were peaceful compared to the previous elections where fear, intimidation, thuggery, and murder were the highlights of the elections. Full credit to the President and his Unity government for setting up Independent Commissions and implementing the Law and Order in the country to maintain the peace during the election period.
New Found Freedom
Another important part of the vision was to allow the people to enjoy the freedom of speech without intimidation, freely exercise the workers’ right to take industrial action for their rightful demands, stage peaceful and legitimate protests without fear, publicly expose the fraudsters irrespective of their status or the political affiliation and exercise our freedom to criticise the government activities/policies which are harmful to the nation. It is a fact that the Unity Government has liberated the society from the brink of dictatorship. They freed the media outlets to make constructive and destructive criticism without any punishments. They allowed legitimate and unjustifiable demonstrations to take place against the government organised by the Opposition parties, Trade Unions, and Citizen Groups without fear and intimidation.
The other important objective was to change the mind-set of the politicians in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) to work together in partnership to govern the country for the duration of the current parliament. Both the President and the Prime Minister agreed on this strategy with the blessings of the MPs in the UNP and most of the MPs in the SLFP to set up the Unity Government. In another article titled “Can the UNP/SLFP Partnership Survive In The Long-Run?” published in the CT on 30 August 2015, I challenged the members of both parties whether they can change their deep-rooted attachments to certain party policies, agreeing to work on Mutual Objectives, and changing their firmly established behaviours to embrace the general principles of Partnering Culture. I also questioned whether the newly elected MPs from the UNP and the SLFP would be able to seize this opportunity that was open to them because it required a great deal of time and effort to change the hearts and minds of the membership to embrace the new partnership culture. But both parties have failed to take up the challenge for narrow minded political and personal gains.
The UNP and the SLFP partnership failed because both partners had hidden agendas, were holding secret meetings to undermine each other, acted dishonestly and did not trust each other, but raised accusations against each other to try and demonstrate to the country that one party is better than the other. At the same time both parties were engaged in “deals” to protect corrupt politicians for political and personal survival. Both parties also failed to take the responsibility for praise and blame as a single partnership for the successes and the failures without undermining each other.
After the Local Government (LG) election results on 10 February, the government and the opposition politicians, media outlets, and some party supporters are asking to remove the Prime Minister and dissolve the Unity Government, etc. It is reported that even the President has asked the Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe to step down from the premiership and hand it over to someone else because the members of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) are not willing to support the Unity Government if Mr. Ranil Wickramasinghe continues to be the Prime Minister.
This is an unfair and unethical demand by the President and the members of the UPFA because they are also equally to be blamed for the substandard performance. It is a fact that most of these UPFA MPs did not whole heartedly support the Unity Government. It is also a fact that most of these MPs have one foot in Mahinda camp and the other foot in Sirisena camp and are waiting to jump in to any camp if they could grab a position with perks. Even the President Maithripala Sirisena has recently stated that some Ministers and MPs are having friendly talks with him in the day time and the same Ministers and MPs are having discussions with the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the night time. That is one of the factors which contributed for the down fall of UPFA & SLFP in the LG elections. If so, a reasonable person would expect that the President would ask those Ministers & MPs to resign from the UPFA before he requests for the PM to step down. After all, in this LG election UNP polled 32.61% of the total votes where as UPFA polled only 8.90% and SLFP polled a mere 6.26%. Is there any legitimacy or justification for their demand for the PM to step down?
Mistakes and Inactions
The President and the Prime Minister must accept the fact that both made some deplorable mistakes during the last 3 years. The President was praying for the future, hoping that one day the SLFP would become a united party under his leadership hence turning a blind eye to the members who often contravened the party discipline. The Prime Minister has made many errors in his judgements including his dealings with the nominations and appointments of personnel to important positions in the government institutions. The following is a summary of some of those mistakes that in my opinion have given a bloody nose to the Unity Government in the LG elections:
- Appointment of defeated SLFP candidates from the National List as Ministers and State Ministers. Most of these Ministers are very close to the former President.
- Creating a “Jumbo” Cabinet by awarding ministerial/deputy ministerial posts to majority of the members in the Unity Government.
- Failure to conclude investigations into the killings and disappearances of media personnel and the rugby player Thajudeen.
- Not acting to nip the “Joint Opposition” in the bud before it became a challenging political party which benefitted from the use of the SLFP / UPFA infrastructure facilities. An article titled “Time Is Right To Deal With The Joint Opposition” published in the CT on 7 January 2016, I have highlighted the importance of making a timely decision on this matter.
- Failure to take disciplinary action against the members who violated the party discipline. During the past 3 years, how many times the public were told that the SLFP’s Central Committee (CC) was going to take disciplinary actions, but no actions were taken against the rebels. I highlighted the dangers of inaction in the article titled “Are The SLFP CC Members Naïve and Day Dreaming?” published in the Colombo Telegraph on 31 March 2016.
- Appointment of former Governor of The Central Bank and the PM’s insistence of continuing with him long after the allegations of a Bond Issue scandal.
- Allegations about “deals” with the members of previous regime to delay or suspend prosecution for alleged bribery & corruption, drug dealings, and mis use of public funds.
- Failure to take immediate action to remove the former Finance Minister from his position as soon as allegations of misconduct in public office surfaced in the public arena.
- Appointing “old School” friends who lack experience and expertise to responsible positions to manage government institutions which have failed miserably. Failure to replace them when they are not performing.
- Failure to listen to majority of the MPs in the party other than to the members of the “inner circle” who are making things difficult for the President, the PM and the other MPs. The failure to realise that members of the “inner circle” do not have all the answers to economic, social and political problems.
- Appointment of some advisers who have abused their power, mis-used
the public funds & foreign aid and failed in their policies during the late President Premadasa’s administration.
Calm Down, Wake Up, Change, And Deliver
The voters have issued a stark warning to the Unity Government, but It is not a cataclysmic failure for the President to sack the PM or dissolve the government. The Unity Government has got 2 more years to rule the country and hope they make use of that time wisely to correct their mistakes. As late Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Harold Wilson said, “a week is a long time in politics.” The parties in the Unity Government must restrain from making knee-jerk reactions to the outcome of LG elections. In this situation both parties do not want “Clever” politicians to resolve the issues but they need wise heads to make practical and sensible decisions to move forward.
Remember in 1956 general election UNP managed to get only 8 seats in the parliament after governing the country for 8 years since independence. But the party members did not quit politics, abandon the party, and join the other parties leaving it to face the natural death. They reorganised, changed their policies and rebuilt their party to win 66 seats in the 1965 elections to govern the country. Likewise, in 1977 general election SLFP was reduced to 8 seats after governing the country for 7 years. They also reorganised, changed their policy position, and rebuilt their party to win 105 seats in the 1994 elections to govern the country.
Most Sri Lankans are surprised and disappointed about the behaviour of some of the MPs in the SLFP and the UPFA for their reaction to the substandard performance at the LG polls. Some of them wanted to abandon the partnership with the UNP and join the opposition rather than fighting to regain the confidence of the people who have temporally abandoned them. As Vince Lombardi said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up”.
This is not a time to quarrel and score political points to sabotage the principles of the “Yahapalanaya”. Of course, all partners in the Unity Government must understand and accept that they have failed to deliver the basic principles of the partnership to carry out the promises given to the public in the last Presidential and general elections.
It is high time for the President and the Prime Minister to “eat humble pie” and publicly apologise for their mistakes and inactions during the last 3 years and take immediate action to make a significant shift in their behaviours. They should work together to eradicate deep-rooted cynicism and the lack of commitment by some members in the Unity Government. The President, The Prime Minister, and the Ministers in the Unity Government must contemplate on the real reasons why they have garnered such a poor reputation for “good governance” in the recent LG elections. The people of Sri Lanka deserve a Real Change to live freely and peacefully irrespective of their race, religion, and social status in the society. It is time to Calm Down, Wake Up, Change, and Fulfil the promises given to the public in the presidential and general elections.