11 November 2018

Who the *&%# is Maithripala Sirisena, huh?

Maithripala. Maithripala Sirisena. Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena. President. Executive President. A man who has the distinction of going against an  incumbent considered to be unbeatable, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and defeating him for the presidency in January 2015. Enough to warrant some kind of special mention in history. His story is not yet over, but if it were to end today, that’s about it. Nothing more.  

He is, undoubtedly, the man of the moment, but not for reasons that elicit loud and wild applause. Let’s first deal with the trivial and then move to the more serious implications of his presidency and in particular his recent move with respect to the sacking and appointments of Prime Ministers.

Maithripala appears to be a glutton for abuse from all quarters. He earned the wrath of the diehard loyalists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) when he broke ranks and joined the party’s arch enemy, the United National Party (UNP). He was welcomed with open arms for obvious reasons — the UNP had neither held the presidency nor backed a winner in more than twenty years. 

At the time, pro-UNP political analysts tried to make people believe that Maithripala would be a figurehead President, despite the constitutional provisions that rebel against such notions. The naive among the more sober believed that Maithripala would move to abolish his own office. The less naive thought that the 19th Amendment would contain provisions to turn their dream scenario into reality — a constitution-determined figurehead president and a Prime Minister with executive sway.  We know what happened and what did not.

Naturally, the Rajapaksa camp did not miss a single opportunity to criticize Maithripala. It was not just criticism of course. There was excessive ridicule at his glaring errors of omission and commission.  Some were thoughtful enough to tag Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP to such censure, most did not. 

Maithripala’s language use was parodied, first by the Rajapaksa loyalists and later by UNPers increasingly frustrated by the simple fact that they had read him wrong, read the political process wrong and were clueless about the constitution.  His humble beginnings were alluded to. The ‘gamarala’ part of his name was laughed at. His English language incompetency was mercilessly parodied in what Gehan Gunatilleke calls ‘The Puswedilla Franchise’ which he likened to ‘a dose of morphine offering the audience a coping mechanism.’

Hafeel Farisz in a review titled ‘The politics of Puswedilla’ lays it out in this way:

‘It [Puswedilla] boiled down to mimicking a system that we have either confused ourselves about or ridiculing a system that those in Colombo love to loathe. ‘Yakkos’ governing the country is not something that many have been used to prior to the incumbent regime assuming power.’

And he elaborates: ‘The Premadasa era is often used as a case point to negate this argument, but fact remains that even during that era, the institutional mechanisms had not felt the social ‘turnaround’ as it has now. It is in this context that the writer seems to be making hay, through Pusswedilla, catering to an audience that largely comprises a population segment that is becoming negligible in the larger political schism of Sri Lanka.’

Puswedilla elicits laughter, perhaps for the clever jokes but perhaps the appreciation is born of the need to cope. After all, there are people who think Sri Lanka is Colombo and that its theirs to govern by birthright. Or something like that. No place for yakkos, godayas, gamaralas and country bumpkins. Both were writing in 2014, a time when ‘Puswedilla’ focused on the Rajapaksas. When ‘the unbelievable’ happened, i.e. when Maithripala was found to have a mind of his own, the invective was simply directed at him. It was in fact targeting neither Rajapaksa nor Maithripala but the cultural ‘other’, those who are not seen as born-bred ‘Colombo People’ and were seen as culturally inferior because they were not fluent in English.   

Well, it’s got worse. Maithripala has kicked the UNP in its proverbial teeth and worse, decided to bed with the arch enemy, the Rajapaksas. If UNPers were first amused, then worried, later anxious and confused, later still dismayed, they are now positively livid. They (and this includes senior and seasoned politicians like Mangala Samaraweera but not Ranil Wickremesinghe) have not minced their words. 

Maithripala is therefore a politician who is grudgingly loved, first by the UNP and now by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and absolutely hated, first by Rajapaksa loyalists (who later morphed into the SLPP) and now by UNPers.

Back in the day whenever Maithripala did the foot-in-mouth number, the Rajapaksa loyalist guffawed, Ranil’s backers were silent for the most part. Today it’s the other way about. All of a sudden UNP loyalists have discovered that he’s homophobic. All of a sudden he’s violating the basic norms of democracy. 

[Note, they were quiet when he spat on parliamentary arithmetic to appoint Ranil as Prime Minister on January 9, 2015, when he opened the national-list back door to allow people rejected at the polls to enter parliament and of course they were thrilled when he, along with Ranil, dissolved Parliament on the very day that the COPE report on the Central Bank bond scam was to be made public!  All of a sudden he’s the villain.]

Whereas the legality of premiership claims (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s) are contentious, that of Sirisena is not. When it comes to legitimacy, clearly the UNP and Sirisena (plus his SLFP) are also rans compared to Rajapaksa and the SLPP, if we go by the most recent election results. 

On February 10, 2018, the SLPP demolished both the UNP and the SLFP.  The UNP’s vote share fell from 45.7% in August 2015 to 32.63% or more than 13 percentage points.  So, following an argument put forward by Mangala Samaraweera at the time (he claimed that more than half the population had rejected Rajapaksa), we can say that 77.37% rejected the UNP and 86.62% have rejected Maithripala Sirisena and the SLFP/UPFA. The SLPPsecured power in 239 local government bodies whereas the UNP got just 41 and the SLFP/UPFA led by Maithripala a humbling 10.The parliamentary composition does not reflect this nation-wide reality and that is partly why we have this present crisis (quite apart from the power aspirations of the key players).

The UNP now claims that Maithripala’s legitimacy draws from the support he received from the UNP in January 2015 and after the political divorce, he no longer has the legitimacy. Correct. Maithripala, it appears, picked the best option: he abandoned the illegitimate elephant-rail and clung to the far more legitimate saatakaya, to put it metaphorically.  

Maithripala’s future is bleak. He’s now a prisoner of the SLPP and he probably will not have any decent cards to play after the next election.  He has the power of the office and as the UNP learned to their dismay, it is considerable.  

He demonstrated in no uncertain terms that without any political legitimacy to speak of he can still wreck the political equation. He demonstrated that the 19th Amendment was a sham. The UNP cannot complain because it was that party which authored the document. The Rajapaksa camp went along and we do not know whether Mahinda was aware of the flaws and if he did whether he planned to exploit them at the right time. What counts is that it is flawed. 

If D.B. Wijetunga was a man who happened to be at the right place at the right time, it appears that Maithripala is a man who knew how to get to the right place at the right time.  Some in the UNP may have taken him to be harmless or even a fool, but it’s clear that two can play that game and that Maithripala has come out ahead, as of now. 

How will history judge Maithripala? Let us not be hasty, but let us just say that as of now, even as Rajapaksa loyalists are painting him in kind and appreciative colors, he’s not looking too good.

Malinda Seneviratne is a political analyst and freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com