By Lankamithra –
“Coalitions though successful have always found this, that their triumph has been brief.” ~Benjamin Disraeli
President Maithripala Sirisena was not elected President as a candidate representing one single party. He was the candidate of a combine. That combine consisted of the parties that represent the two major ethnic groups, Tamils and Muslims, and the United National Party (UNP), the leading single political party in Sri Lanka since Independence. No more than a marginal few of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) voted for him.
The entire Southern province was swept by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Bulk of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, nearly 65%, voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Close to 85%, if not more, of the Tamils and Muslims voted for Maithripala Sirisena. Almost 100% of the UNP voted for him. In other words, if not for the Tamils, Muslims and the United National Party, Maithripala Sirisena would not have been our President today. All of the aforementioned are ‘facts’, not ‘opinions’. Yet the humility has gone the Maithripala way and arrogance belongs in Rajapaksa’s lap.
Then followed the parliamentary elections. Not only did the Rajapaksa-clan and his local (Sri Lankan) cohorts expect and boldly predict a sweeping victory for the SLFP. Even some foreign embassies, particularly those embassies that represent countries that were closely connected to the Rajapaksas’ alleged transactions came out of their usually muted diplomatic shells and privately talked about a parliamentary majority for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister. They were wishfully giddy about a Mahinda-comeback. The Champaign was ready; fire crackers waiting to be lit and parties prearranged. When the results were announced, the United National Party secured a majority of parliamentary seats. Yet it failed to secure an absolute majority. Hence a coalition government was formed. For the first time in the histories of the leading political parties in Sri Lanka, an uncommon and unprecedented decision was reached.
A coalition government came into being. The only stakeholders of the coalition are the UNP and SLFP. The voters in Sri Lanka, collectively decided that the best alternative to a Mahinda Rajapaksa’-led cabal-government was a coalition between the two leading political parties representing a nation, though a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious in real terms, that is increasingly becoming Sinhalese-Buddhist in nature and orientation. The results of the General Election in 2015 produced a UNP plurality, not an absolute majority. This was an error committed by the collective mind of the Sri Lankan electorate. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe campaigned for the UNP candidates while President Sirisena refrained from campaigning for the SLFP candidates. Maithripala Sirisena, as was elucidated at the very outset of this column, was elected to office by a combine of Tamils, Muslims and 100% of UNPers. He simply could not campaign against the UNP candidates. That would have greatly hurt those who elected him, not to forget his pristine conscience. However, President Sirisena’s absence from the campaign trail in the General Election did not help the UNP significantly. Consequently, chances of a UNP-only government evaporated. An agreement between the two leading political parties ensued and a ‘coalition’ government was formed, much to the distress of the UNP voters and ‘suspicious-delight’ of the SLFPers.
What then followed is what we are having now: a Cabinet, enormous in number and grievously disproportionate to the work at hand and an egregious renunciation of a campaign pledge. A natural consequence of a coalition government- trying to accommodate each and every plea, reasonable or unreasonable, of the coalition partners- is overshadowing the need for a manageable Cabinet and a bureaucracy supporting the government policies and principles. The ‘permanent government’, the official bureaucracy which is made up of Sri Lanka Administrative Service personnel in Sri Lanka, does not seem to be aligned with the political leadership of the current Administration in Sri Lanka. (The same is alleged to be in practice in the chaotic Trump Administration in America. In the United States they call it the Deep State). There are reasons for it. The entire bureaucracy, excluding one or two, was in place for the entire period of the Rajapaksa regime. They had become part of the web of corruption and nepotism. Some of them were cronies of the previous First Family. They are as sinful as the politicians who commanded them in that period.
Consequently, President Sirisena is sandwiched between these conflicting forces. On top are the politicians of the SLFP who clamor for positions and a corrupt ‘Deep State’ at the bottom. Political mayonnaise and pickle is provided by the JVP. It seems that the only stakeholder of the coalition that is not pressurizing the President is the UNP and its leadership. Added to all this is President Sirisena’s boundless allegiance to the idea of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. His loyalty to the concept of the SLFP, its founder-leader S W R D Bandaranaike, his Swabhasha policy, the general idea of ‘government’ and its inevitable intervention in the running of the country’s economy and dictating the basic commandeering of the four factors of the economy, Land Labor, Capital and Enterprise, have all contributed to the current make-up of the man. Yet, every now and then, he has shown a remarkable degree of flexibility when confronted with the cruel results of government intervention into the economic life of the country. He has refused to carry on with loss-making government ventures.
His greatest quality, in the context of macro governance of the country, is how he responds to the issue of resettlement of Tamils in the North, his flexibility in the broad direction of the Tamil issue and the surprising amount of ‘trust’ he has developed with the Tamil leadership in the country. The top leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has privately intimated to the writer that the Tamil leadership deeply trusts President Maithripala Sirisena.
Maithripala Sirisena as Health Minister in the Rajapaksa government decided to leave that cabal of a government and challenge the leader of the cabal. He was convinced that such a challenge was, given the context of widespread corruption, nepotism and crony-capitalism practiced by the First Family and its cronies, a national necessity. He was convinced that there was more than a compelling reason for him to take an extraordinary stand in his political life to oppose his own Party Leader who was the President of the country at the time. He may also have known that such an occasion would rarely come in his long journey in politics. And a commitment to the principles of justice, fair-play and honesty was not a deviation from the norm but the next logical step one had to take if the principles of justice, fair-play and honesty are revered by him.
Then we come to the next phase of Maithripala Sirisena’s dilemma. He is the leader of the SLFP. Ironically, he is being cornered and attacked by his own party officials and parliamentarians. None of those rebel-parliamentarians have been sacked from the party. While being members of the party, some of whom were prominent members of the Rajapaksa Cabinet, this cantankerous ‘Joint Opposition’ has launched a vicious campaign against its own de jure leader. In this confusing conundrum, Maithripala Sirisena must realize one unmistakable fact: he is being cornered and attacked by those he did not vote for him at the Presidential Elections. There is nothing irregular or abnormal in that. Against such an unfavorable backdrop, it becomes incumbent upon the other partner of the coalition to safeguard the President. That is the United National Party led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Buttressing of President’s position has to originate from the UNP because it is not forthcoming from the ‘Mahinda-led SLFPers’ who are guilty, not only of not supporting him at the Presidential Elections but also dreaming of a Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government.
If President Sirisena is being psychologically harassed and jammed by the notion that he would preside over the dissolution of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, then he must come to a firm decision whether to move forward having to let go of the question of the future of the SLFP. Maintaining a no-decision stance is only aggravating a wound which is already oozing. Yet an unconditional loyalty to President from the UNP ranks is a must and I’m sure it will be forthcoming. The bond between the President and Prime Minister should not be subject of discussion; it should be off the table.
In this instance, Maithri, as he is fondly referred to by his supporters as well as his close associates, may well be served by a gentle reminder as to how his late leader S W R D Bandaranaike responded to a question in parliament in 1956/7 about the delay in implementing the Swabhasha Act. He, Bandaranaike, the Oxford pundit, quoted Samuel Taylor Coleridge from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:
“Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze –
On me alone it blew.”
The writer is available at firstname.lastname@example.org