Two years are long enough time for the government to be born again or to die again


Rajan Philips

"A week is a long time in politics" is what British Prime Minister Harold Wilson apparently said a week before narrowly winning the 1964 British elections. On that political scale the two years remaining on President Sirisena’s first term, as confirmed by the Supreme Court, are indeed a long time in presidential politics. They are long enough for President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to remake their government and fulfill at least some of the sweeping promises they made to the people in 2015. The two men are still a pair and partners in government despite everything that has been going on for the last few months. What happens at the end of little less than two years is something they can start thinking about six months from now, depending on what they make of their partnership by that time. Six month will be long enough to see if the President and the Prime Minister can make their government to be born again or if they are on course to let it die again.

The Supreme Court determination is seen by many as a setback to the president, a slap on his ill-advised referral to the court for determination. That is calling the glass with water one third empty. The Prime Minister is in a worse predicament. There is baying for his blood in much of the media, as the price for the bond fraud at the Central Bank that was perpetrated under his watch and under the direct gaze of his handpicked Bank Governor. Yet, the President and the Prime Minister are and will remain the two central figures in the country’s politics for the next two years. Even by the most optimistic prognosis in the Rajapaksa camp, no one from the former first family will be anywhere near power for the next two years – either in the modest scenario in which Mahinda Rajapaksa accepts demotion as Prime Minister to bring the family close to power again and protect it from prosecutions, or in the more exuberant scenario in which Gotabhaya Rajapaksa manages political double promotion and becomes President. What happens after two years is still a long time away. It is not going to be that soon.

The Economist has just called President Sirisena a lame duck president. That tag will sure gain a lot of currency given the source. I tend to disagree. President Sirisena is not isolated from the legislature to be rendered a lame duck. He heads the executive, the cabinet of ministers, which is drawn from the legislature. They are all mutually dependent, and either they function together, or they do not function at all. Having a two-party government has its advantages and disadvantages. The last three years, the President and the government have mostly run on the disadvantages. Can they now put the awkward experiment to more positive uses? If they do, there is a chance for the government to be reborn again. Otherwise, it will die again.

The key to all this is the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe partnership. As I wrote last week the two men are constitutionally joined at the hip and they cannot be easily separated by a vote in parliament, as a few opposition MPs and pundits are incorrectly speculating. More than the constitutional joint, there is also good personal chemistry between them, which became quite evident during and after the president’s outburst at last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting. The President apparently made a loud and emotional complaint about UNP MPs publicly attacking him. He was not attacking the Prime Minister, but was assuring that he had never tried to undermine the Prime Minister. If at all the Prime Minister has not been listening attentively to his President. And when the President angrily stormed out, it was not a moment of permanent departure. Nor did the Prime Minister sit back and sigh: good riddance. He could not have. So he went after the President and came back with the President. They have two more years ahead of them. There is no toxic antagonism between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, as there was between Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa, or between Dr. NM Perera and Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Born again government

after bond fiasco

Objectively, it is in their self-interest for the President and the Prime Minister to work together on a positive agenda for the next two years. From the country’s standpoint there is no other worthwhile political alternative around for the next two years – other than the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe partnership. But no positive purpose will be served if the two leaders and their parties keep working separately and at cross-purposes as they have been for much of the last three years. Without fundamentally changing their ways, they will not be able to make the government to born again, or prevent it from dying again.

To be born again in the post bond-inquiry universe means shedding all the baggage from the bond scam. To shed something there must be acknowledgement of what needs to be shed. So far the Prime Minister and the UNP have acknowledged nothing. The claim that this is the first government that has investigated its own misdoing is a spurious claim. Even if that is true, it is only because this is the first government that was specifically elected to stay clear of corruption and abuse of power. It is true that sections of the media are manifestly gleeful in lambasting the Prime Minister in stark contrast to their grave silence during the years of the Rajapaksa misdemeanours. Yet, it is a stretch for the Prime Minister and Ministerial colleagues to berate the press of abusing their freedom; and, worse, at least in the case of one particularly loquacious minister, to emulate Trump and accuse the media as fake media.

There wouldn’t have been anything offensive in the media if the Prime Minister had not usurped the Central Bank from the Ministry of Finance, handpicked Arjuna Mahendran as the Bank Governor over the objections of his cabinet colleagues, and assumed that Mr. Mahendran will insulate himself and the bank from the businesses of his son-in-law. For the government to be born again now, means that the Central Bank should be reverted to the Ministry of Finance, and institutional safeguards should be put in place at the Bank to make sure what the Bank the has been going through for the last ten years are never repeated again. On the legal front, the law enforcement agencies led by the Attorney General should be given the freedom and independence to complete the investigations and proceed with charges.

Being born again places obligations on the President as well. If he is to leave a positive legacy as President, Mr. Sirisena must primarily focus on his job as the President of Sri Lanka, and should not be overly pre-occupied with the leadership of the SLFP. Equally, he should preclude known thugs and criminals being given positions of authority in the government and in the party including party nominations as candidates. And he should avoid pandering to self-appointed custodians of culture and morality and do silly things such as barring women from buying alcohol. The pathetic patriarchal hypocrisy in the President’s re-imposing a 1955 regulation has been well exposed by women: Sri Lankan women should be barred from bars and liquor stores in Lanka, but they should be encouraged to fly to the Middle East to do menial jobs and send money home, only for their husbands to squander it on drinking and gambling.

Whether or not the half-governing SLFP will do well in the local government elections, President Sirisena has been monopolising the political news day after day in January 2018. First it was his statement on the Bond Commission Report; then it was the President’s Court referral and the Court’s determination on his term limits; and finally the President’s outburst at the cabinet meeting about UNP MPs’ public criticisms. With three weeks to go before the local government polls, the political and media attentions will gradually turn towards the local elections. They have already been called a national referendum on the government; and after the release of the Bond Commission report, they have been called a referendum on the Prime Minister. The February 10th local election results in Ontario could well be a harbinger for other upcoming provincial elections, and finally the next presidential and parliamentary elections after two years. The more topical question is what effects will the local election results have on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe partnership and their remaining two-year term?

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