11 January 2016

Maithripala Sirisena could learn from D.B. Wijetunga (but probably will not)

Sirisena Cooray, who could be called the Basil Rajapaksa or Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the Ranasinghe Premadasa era, once related an interested story.  He was speaking at a time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President and seemingly invincible.  He was speaking about the decisions that had to be made immediately after President Premadasa was assassinated.  The following is the gist.

“I have two regrets.  The first was when it came to the Prime Minister’s post.  There were many who wanted me to be the Prime Minister.  I said that in Parliament the next in line was Ranil Wickremesinghe since he was the Leader of the House at the time.  I said I will concentrate on party matters.  Looking back I think I made a mistake.

“The second was my inability to convince President D.B. Wijetunga to hold the Presidential Election before the General Election.  He would have had a tough battle but would have pulled through.  Maybe he was not confident.  So the General Election came first.  The SLFP-led coalition was able to form a government but had just a one-member majority in Parliament.  Had Wijetunga contested it would have been a different story.”

D.B. Wijetunga is no longer around to tell us what he was thinking at the time.  Maybe he got it wrong.  Maybe he knew what the ‘risks’ were and went ahead.  What we are left with is what happened thereafter and to surmise about what could have happened had he gone along with Sirisena’s suggestion and things had unfolded as Sirisena believes they would have. 

Perhaps something can be inferred from what Champika Ranawaka told some young political associates who were part of the Janatha Mithuro group the day after Chandrika Kumaratunga formed a Government in 1994. The Janatha Mithuro worked harder than the SLFP leaders what turned out to be a game-changing provincial council election, that of the Southern Province.  They had built a considerable network which was deployed to campaign against the UNP in the August 1993 General Election.  This is what Champika said:

“We must accept the fact that with this result we will become weaker.  The defeat of the UNP will sort out a lot of frustrations.  It will produce so much relief that people will feel they can go about with their lives.”

That’s exactly what happened.   The fortunes of the Janatha Mithuro declined thereafter.  They may have not had Wijetunga contested, won and if we had another UNP Government run essentially by those who subscribed to Premadasa’s thinking and ways, both arguably made for stifling democracy.  What kind of social ruptured may have resulted we cannot tell, but it is probably the same that a third Rajapaksa term would have precipitated. 

Wijetunga’s decisions, whether inspired by fear or democratizing intent that held country above party and self, notwithstanding all the crimes of the Kumaratunga regime including lawlessness, executive interference in the judiciary and a general decline in democratic practices, had an overall positive outcome.  Positive, that is, compared to what was and what could have been had he gone along with Sirisena’s proposal.  Even if systems of exploitation and oppression don’t change in that their latency remains, people need some kind of relief.  This is what Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the Sri Jayawardenapura University, Anuruddha Pradeep Karnasuriya, told me a few days ago. 

That’s what the result of the January 2015 Presidential Election also produced.  Relief.  Sure there would have been many who thought we’ll see a radical overhaul of the institutional arrangement so that democracy can be restored and strengthened.  Many called it a ‘revolution’.  Nepotism would be buried forever, some believed.  There would be no more ‘deals’ whereby public money would be pocketed by unscrupulous politicians and their lackeys, some were convinced.  Promises would be taken seriously this time around, people said.  One year into the Sirisena term, the euphoria has given way to sobriety. 

However, it must be said that the passage of the 19th Amendment or rather those sections pertaining to independent institutions (and not the clipping of a few executive powers in the office of the President) is a significant gain.  The benefits are not immediately tangible, but in time when the people are more aware of the functions of these institutions and politicians more conscious of the repercussions of doing things as they were done before, their importance will no doubt be duly recognized.  For now, however, what probably most disappoints those who thought a revolution had taken place is the behavior of the President. 

Maithripala Sirisena, by declaration, was to be a task-focused President.  He would restore democracy, abolish the executive presidency, re-establish Rule of Law, and retire at the end of the term as a hero, a statesman who put country before self.  The signs indicate that such an eventuality is a pipe-dream.  Herein lies the danger. 

Whereas the Wijetunga decision (or non-decision) gave relief, the past 12 months indicate that the Sirisena dispensation is determined to make sure such relief is short-lived.  Whereas leaders tend to get intoxicated with power in their second term, in this instance we see it happening before the second year has begun.  The ‘Official Presidential Song’ released on the anniversary of Sirisena’s election victory (and removed before 24 hours had passed) was in all likelihood commissioned by the president.  He is after all featured in the video striding from the ruins of Polonnaruwa which form the backdrop for the entire theme: he is likened to Parakramabahu the Great and Vijayabahu the First.  The attempt is to inscribe royalty on the man.  Ironically, the lyrics warn him against hosanna-singers even as the song is an unadulterated hosanna utterly lacking in taste and, worse, antithetical to everything that was promised by Sirisena during his campaign. 

The song can be dismissed as a common error by sycophants, but only if what’s happened in the past 12 months did not in fact reflect all that is wrong with that production.      

We do not know who is advising the President or whether he acts on his own, but it seems that he is utterly confused about his role.  On the one hand he is change-agent.  On the other he seems fixated with Rajapaksa-bashing and securing absolute control of the SLFP.  It could be called spreading himself too thin if it wasn’t better to describe it all as falling between stools.  The tragedy is that whoever is turning him into a laughing stock is severely compromising the critical role he should and indeed only he can play in seeing the reform agenda through. 

People say that Wijetunga was an ineffective President, a lucky man who did nothing.  This, looking back, is a bit harsh.  He did not arrive in climate where there was a reform agenda of any serious kind.  He could help ease a transition.  He could facilitate relief.  He did.  President Sirisena has a broader agenda and operates in a climate which is quite conducive to democratizing structural reform.  As of now he’s trying to be Mahinda Rajapaksa the Second in terms of grand self-promotion and, sadly, the indulgence in all the wrong his predecessor was guilty of.  Now, if he did a Wijetunga and nothing else, the history books would be kind to him.  He’s fast disqualifying himself for that kind of page.  

 [This was first published in the SUNDAY ISLAND on January 10, 2016]

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com