By R Hariharan –
Move over Rajapaksa, it’s Sirisena who calls the shots now. That is the message President Maithripala Sirisena has sent to Sri Lanka people and political constituency by ensuring the 19th Amendment (19A) to the Constitution was passed in Parliament as promised in the run up to the election.
Three things stand out in his success. He had to outmanoeuvre strong opposition from Rajapaksa-loyalists who at one stage numbered 110 in the 250-member parliament. They belonged to Sirisena’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its tiny coalition partners whose support he would need in the forthcoming parliamentary elections to ensure he is not subsumed by the traditional rivals-turned partners – the United National Party (UNP).
It is a tribute to his political ability that after lengthy parleys with the Loyalists except for 15 diehard supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa others voted for the Amendment when it came up. This would indicate his strengths within the SLFP that were not visible to the public when he served as the senior minister under President Rajapaksa. The former President ensured the limelight was always on himself and none else. Sirisena’s success now should open up the eyes of doomsday men among the public.
The 19A in its final form does not abolish executive presidency as contemplated by the partners of national alliance which fielded Sirisena to take on Rajapaksa in the presidential elections. But even then the idea lacked clarity. By the time political consensus emerged in parliament, partners of the ruling Sirisena-UNP alliance seemed to have agreed upon taking a middle path: retaining the executive presidency with lesser power and greater accountability to parliament while increasing the powers of the prime minister and parliament.
Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe showed a lot of flexibility and pragmatism in the approach of to ensure the 19A enjoyed maximum support in Parliament. This should help them in getting through another tough nut to crack: 20th Amendment (20A) to change the present electoral system where strong differences exist between the two main parties. The new system is a complex mix of both first past the post and modified proportional representation systems. How much the public and will understand its final form is an open question.
As the SLFP is more likely to listen to Sirisena, one thing is clear: now it would not be easy for Rajapaksa to rally the party support in his favour. After all in politics winner takes all. In any case the days of free-wheeling presidency seems to be over as the sweeping powers it enjoyed have been curbed by 19A. Yet another impact of the 19A will be on the inquiries into alleged corruption by Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, Basil and Gotabaya – who had controlled the reins of power. If the inquires now underway throws up evidence, it would be difficult to delay follow up action not only for Rajapaksas but also the authorities as the 19A has made the right to information a fundamental right.
However, former President Rajapaksa is a street smart politician who would not give up easily. Already a one-to-one meeting between Rajapaksa and Sirisena is being organised. It does not matter at whose initiative it is because both the seasoned stalwarts will try to give and take political favours. But clearly it is Sirisena who holds the aces at least for now. So Mahinda must be ruing his past as Thomas Jefferson did: “No man will bring out of the Presidency the reputation which carries him in.” And that many not be enough as he is likely to face more taxing days.
Lastly, Sri Lanka people have shown a lot of political maturity to see that all these radical changes take place without any thuggery and fisticuffs that used to be common in politics in Rajapaksa days. The message it sends to our people cannot be clearer: if you elect the right persons with a clear agenda, life will be more comfortable for everyone, even for the thugs. Bodhu Bala Sena, Buddhist ultras who used to beat up Muslims and spew venom against other religions, is now thinking of registering as a political party according to the latest news. Gandhigiri (or is it Buddhagiri) seems to be at work in Sri Lanka in real life!
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: http://col.hariharan.info .