Can Sirisena ride the storm in Sri Lanka, or will Rajapaksa claw back?

The incumbent president is no showman like his predecessor. But he has showed his mettle.

 |  5-minute read |   01-06-2015
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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, or Mi3, as scribes refer to him, is continuing his perilous political journey of going ahead with the constitutional reform process though it has overshot the 100-day deadline he had set. His episodic journey, not unlike Tintin, Herge’s immortal comic book hero, is moving from crisis to crisis. Most of his political problems emanate from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which he is supposed to lead. It is behaving very much like Captain Haddock, the tipsy master of Tintin’s ship.

Sirisena needs the support of his party to sail through the last two eddies of the reform process - to get the Parliament to pass the 20th Constitutional Amendment (20A) to reform the electoral system, and constitute the Constitutional Council (CC) – before he can hold an election for a new Parliament. The CC is supposed to be in place before the election so that it can ensure that the structural reform process culminates in a system wherein the accountability of the executive president to the Parliament and greater powers to the prime minister are enshrined in order to ensure highest standards of governance for a corruption-free society.

This is the complex solution that seems to be taking shape after the people voted out their Eelam War hero Mahinda Rajapaksa who was seeking a third term as president. The people found that his autocratic regime was run as his personal fief where fundamental freedoms were curbed and law and order became a joke while allegations of corruption against his family and siblings mounted.

The SLFP though in majority, has about 40-50 Rajapaksa-loyalists in the Parliament who have been trying to pull the rug from under Sirisena's feet at every step. Rajapaksa’s immense popularity in the rural southern Sinhala region is their trump card though its charm seems to be fast fading. The other is to play upon the traditional animosity of the SLFP rank and file to their opponents in the United National Party (UNP), now in power despite lacking a majority in the Parliament. The UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current prime minister, in league with Sirisena and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga masterminded the downfall of Rajapaksa that resulted in a win-win situation for both the UNP and Sirisena, though not for the SLFP.

But Sirisena has a strong suit in the anti-corruption investigation he is carrying out into the various cases of serial corruption across the board during the Rajapaksa regime. If he gets enough evidence to prosecute the Rajapaksas, many SLFP leaders would also be sunk like bumboats going down when a large ship sinks. So the SLFP leaders are not averse to break bread with Sirisena who seems to be determined to unravel the evidence of corruption and sleaze against the Rajapaksas. Basil and Gotabaya are being grilled by the anti-bribery commission. The two Rajapaksa brothers who controlled development finance and defence respectively are facing inquiries into their personal dealings and official projects. The commission is planning to pose Mahinda uncomfortable questions. India and the US are assisting the government to look into secret Sri Lankan bank accounts in tax havens across the globe. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Homeland officials have visited Sri Lanka in this connection. A former Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia and Ukraine has gone into hiding to escape inquiries into his alleged gunrunning and secret deals made in arms procurement.

It would be a dream solution for the SLFP and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) leaders including the Rajapaksa-loyalists if they can replace Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to grab power in the present government. Then they can hold the election while in power and the 20A and CC can be moulded to their comfort. So elements within the SLFP and UPFA have brought a no-confidence motion against Wickremesinghe. It will come up in the Parliament shortly; two other no-confidence motions - against Finance Minister Karunanayake and Public Order Minister Ameratunga - are also awaiting disposal. Thus Sirisena has a major problem on his hands. He will require the SLFP's support to get the 20A passed in the Parliament while retaining the collaboration of Wickremesinghe to take the reform process forward.

The president’s internal conflict with the Rajapaksa-loyalists within his party is continuing. Four ministers belonging to the SLFP dramatically have resigned to affirm their allegiance to former President Rajapaksa. The loyalists want the SLFP to nominate Rajapaksa for prime minister. However, Sirisena has put his foot down. According to the local media, this has infuriated Rajapaksa who had said he would contest the election even if the SLFP did not nominate him. But Rajapaksa, the street-smart kung-fu fighter of Sri Lankan politics, knows doing is much more than talking.

In the midst of all this, can Sirisena come out smiling? Sirisena is no showman like Rajapaksa. But he showed his mettle when he managed to get the SLFP to support the passing of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to clip the powers and increase the accountability of the executive president. But 20A is proving to be more difficult; there has been no agreement within the ruling coalition as well as the opposition on the draft of the 20A as yet. And things are no better on the forming of CC.

But all the song and dance are part of the Sri Lankan political theatre, where the popular hero comes out smiling in the end. In this respect, Sri Lankan politicians are very much like their Indian kin. Sirisena’s deadline has been passed sometime back; much water may still flow in Kelani river before the Colombo leadership successfully manoeuvres through the political tides. The next three weeks will tell which way the tide is turning. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe must be keeping their fingers crossed. And Rajapaksa is probably vigorously praying. 


Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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