27 April 2015

Presidentiality Restored?

President Maithripala Sirisena has appeared to have preferred a backseat in political affairs since being elected.  He informs us that this is not true.  Indeed it can be argued that being President is more than making a song and dance about each and everything one does. Work is one thing, talking about it and getting it all recorded and disseminated is something else.  The former is what is preferred.

The President’s address to the nation on Thursday was clearly timed to mark the completion of 100 days after being election.  It was as good a moment as any to come out from what appeared to be a long sojourn in a political shell where he deferred to the Prime Minister the larger task of running the country. 

And he scored.  Heavily.

He showed leadership and vision. My friend Nandana Perera would say 'don't be too hasty'.  I would agree (this original version of this piece was written on April 24, 2015).  Both 'leadership' and 'vision' can be used to describe the speech only in a relative sense: relative to what he has been the past three months and relative to the jokers around him (and opposing him!).  The headline of the original article didn't end with a question mark, please note.  

[Nandana puts it well: 'I only hear his outpouring inferiority complex. Jaaathayantharayee senehasa (affection of the international community)! No kidding !!'] 

Most importantly the speech was calculated to put to rest any doubts about his willingness and ability to exercise the powers of his office which, even in the self-truncated form remain considerable.  In fact the nature of the power he enjoys is clearly evidenced by the fact that all it takes is a single speech to put all opponents (and indeed would-be opponents) on the back foot.    

If anyone entertained illusions about Maithripala Sirisena’s political naiveté these were unceremoniously laid to rest.  He cleverly took credit for the (for-the-time-being) suspension of hostility from certain sections of the international community.  He was correct in pointing out that there have been positive changes in political culture of the country since he assumed office, in particular when it comes to freedom of expression and freedom from feeling stalked and/or under surveillance. 

At the same time he subtly deflected criticism over the delays in reforming the constitution, putting the onus on the Parliament.  Nothing was said about the abject failure of Ravi Karunanayake’s ‘interim budget’ in bringing down the cost of living.  Nothing at all about the fiasco of the Central Bank bond issue.  He claimed he has not interfered in any investigation.  That was neat move.  Therefore the guilt in acts of omission and commission, would naturally fall into the account of Ranil Wickremesinghe.  The President has effectively retained some trumps for later use.  
The President, for all this, must understand that things can change very fast.    Friendships with international players come with costs and friendships can sour. Very fast.  Political culture can improve.  It can also decline.  Crooks can be apprehended, charges proven and sentenced, but stopping theft requires that structures that permit such things are corrected.  Talk won’t take anyone too far, for it is far too cheap. 

Therefore the presidentiality demonstrated through a well crafted speech has to be complemented by constitutional reform.  He has to deliver on the 19th and the 20th Amendments, the first to divest from his office dictatorial powers and the second to correct a horrendously flawed electoral system.  If this is not done he will retain all the dictatorial powers that J.R. Jayewardene created for himself plus the goodies that Mahinda Rajapaksa got for himself.   As would his successors, we must add.  And who knows who that could be!  If that is what results then this speech would sound utterly hollow and its ‘presidentiality’ duly lampooned. 

He’s behind schedule.  The speech bought him time.  Indeed, few would grudge the President a few more months to see the reforms through. 

We applaud his intentions and wish him well.