Stanley W. Samarasinghe – The Sri Lankan Presidency: A Report Card for the First Quarter

Sri Lanka’s president Maithripala Sirisena will complete one fourth of his six-year term of office in June 2016. He won the presidency in January 2015 as the candidate of a broad coalition. He polled 51.3% of the vote as against his rival and the then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 47.6%. Most importantly Sirisena had a true national mandate garnering the vote of about 70% of the ethnic and religious minorities (30% of the population) and about 45% of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority (70%). There was a high degree of optimism that the Sirisena presidency would usher in a new era for the country in, among other things, ethnic reconciliation, peace building, respect for the rule of law, good governance, and economic prosperity. The Chinese who built a very close relationship with Rajapaksa appear to have backed him while Sri Lanka’s most important neighbor India and western powers appear to have backed Sirisena. This is an opportune time to take stock of the president’s successes and failures and review needed course correction to meet the high expectations that his supporters both at home abroad had of him.

The office of presidency of Sri Lanka is currently at a crossroads for more than one reason.  First, the presidential election of January 2015 and the parliamentary elections that followed in August produced a coalition government of necessity between the two main poltical parties, United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), that have been traditional rivals for sixty five years. The coalition in turn has led to an informal power sharing arrangement between President Sirisena (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP). In strict constitutional terms the executive president is all-powerful. In the past, typically, the prime ministers have been little more than figureheads under the executive presidential system. But it is not so today. The two men share power.

Second, while the 19th amendment to the constitution (April 2015) diluted the powers of the executive presidency, Sirisena yet retains significant powers in several areas. He is the minister of defense.  He has a major say in making key state sector appointments. The public also expects him to use the presidential bully pulpit and give moral leadership to some less tangible but very important activities such as ethnic reconciliation and nation building. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is the economic czar under the power sharing arrangement. There are good practical reasons for this division of labor. Sirisena who entered parliament in 1989 has held cabinet office since 1997 with a short break between 2001-2004. However, he does not have much of a track record in economic management. He also does not have international connections that are needed to obtain foreign assistance that Sri Lanka badly needs now. Wickremesinghe has those strengths.

Third, Sirisena is now battling the former president Rajapaksa to retain the leadership of the SLFP. That has become his current priority realizing the fact that if he loses the battle he has practically no political future.

Fourth, Sri Lanka has embarked on making a new constitution – the fourth in its 68-year post-independence history – that keeps Sirisena preoccupied. Parliament will act as a constitutional assembly to draft the new constitution. The future of the executive presidency is at stake. People witnessed the abuse of power of the presidency under Rajapaksa (2006-2014). Many of the voters who supported Sirisena do not wish to see the return of an imperial presidency that Rajapaksa tried to create. At this point in time it is likely that the executive presidency will be retained but with changes. What is uncertain is how power would be divided between a president that is elected directly by the voters and a prime minister who is also elected by the voters as a member of parliament. Sirisena will have an important say in the final outcome.

Politically Sirisena has been testing his strength against Rajapaksa over the control of the SLFP. As the formal leader of the party Sirisena organized his “official” May Day rally on May 01st in the southern port city of Galle.  Rajapaksa headed a rival rally in Colombo. If attendance is used as the metric to measure public support it appears that there was not much to choose between the two. In general Sirisena has thus far held his own against his former leader partly by using his presidential powers and state resources at his disposal to induce members of parliament and others to back him. The appointment of a large number of ministers is a good example. As of today there are 47 cabinet ministers, 20 state ministers and 25 deputy ministers that together account for 59% of government MPs.

Sirisena has also been reasonably successful in making the UNP-SLFP collation work. Opinions vary on the personal relationship that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have. Some believe that there is a “cold war” between the two. The theory is that Sirisena would strengthen his grip on the SLFP and then try to oust Wickremesinghe to form a government of his own. However, others claim that the two men get along reasonably well perhaps because they need each other to keep their common enemy Rajapaksa from making a comeback. As long as the present balance of power – 106 UNP members and about 50 Sirisena wing SLFP members – in the 225 member strong parliament continues the president and the prime minister need each other for political survival.

The president’s record in other areas of governance is, at best, mixed. This record is partly determined by his low-key style of governance. A much needed era of ethnic reconciliation was conspicuous by its absence after the twenty five year old ethnic civil war ended in May 2009.  While there is no evidence of ethnic violence remerging under Sirisena, there has been no vibrant movement towards ethnic reconciliation either. President Sirisena represented a predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist electorate in the North Central Province in parliament and has no known record of working for ethnic harmony before 2015. As president he talks about ethnic harmony.  But he has failed to use the resources of his office in any bold or creative manner to promote ethnic reconciliation. However, Sirisena alone cannot be blamed for this situation. It takes two to tango. The Tamil poltical leadership in the north has also not shown the leadership that is needed to find creative and lasting solution to promote ethnic reconciliation.

In the 2015 presidential election Sirisena benefitted greatly from his promise to promote good governance known in local Sinhalese parlance as Yaha Paalanaya. His actions have not matched his rhetoric. Several individuals that the president has appointed to senior positions in government do not have the requisite qualifications. Such appointments appear to be mostly self-serving and smell of nepotism.

At the time of assuming office Sirisena (and Wickremesinghe) enjoyed a great deal of goodwill from a broad section of the electorate. While Rajapaksa’s support was largely Sinhalese Buddhist and semi-urban and rural, Sirisena won support from every ethnic group (Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors), all major religious groups (Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims), urban and rural, rich and poor and the more educated as well as the less educated. He won a genuine national mandate. Unfortunately Sirisena (and Wickremesinghe) have so far failed to make full use of that opportunity. For 2014, the last year of the Rajapaksa administration, Freedom House awarded Sri Lanka 5 (1 is the best and 7 is the worst) for Poltical Rights and 4 for civil liberties and described the country as “Partly Free.” Under Sirisena the numbers were 5 and 5 for 2015 and 4 and 4 in 2016 with the “Partly Free Status” remaining unchanged.

Public opinion in Sri Lanka more or less validates the assessment of Freedom House. The more educated and largely urban voters that supported Sirisena openly express disappointment at perceived growing corruption. A massive foreign debt that the government finds difficult to service can be blamed on Rajapaksa’s reckless borrowing. But responsibility for incompetent handling of the 2015 and 2016 budgets has to be borne by the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe administration. Lack of visible signs of economic development has been a disappointment to all. The current leadership has so far failed to deliver on its economic promises. For example, the 2016 budget allocated Rs 21,000m ($145m) for small rural development projects island-wide. One would have expected Sirisena who comes from a rural background to have taken a special interest in this project. Nearly five month of the year have elapsed and not one penny has been spent. Sirisena’s presidency is in need of a major course correction.

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