A diluted President

Never a sober week in Sri Lanka


President Maithripala Sirisena

Sanjana Hattotuwa

With a coalition government now at the level of the PM having to instruct his party to not publicly attack the President, the prognosis for political cohabitation is bleak. A shared interest in keeping the old regime out of power will continue to animate how the President and PM interact. How this interest translates into political machinations is up for contestation. The President – used to cold calculations and indeed, betrayal, is unsure of his role and relevance beyond 2020 especially after a slap in the face from the Supreme Court. He will use his charisma and political acumen to secure for himself and those close to him deals, including by overtures in private to the old regime, that will ensure, at the basic minimum, security, safety and some creature comforts in office beyond his present term of office. The PM’s approach of playing everyone against each other will contest these deals, and may even occasionally complement them, if it involves a configuration beneficial for his and the UNP’s interest in retaining a controlling hand in the country’s political future. In all this, what’s certain is that the old regime will continue to publicly decry and privately engage with anyone from government who in their opinion – and these calculations are always in flux - can secure the best possible path for one of theirs to come into power, and for persecutions to be kept at bay.

All this doesn’t take genius to figure out – it is playing right in front of us. Particularly disheartening is that at the height of optimism in early 2015 – no matter with what cynicism and derision one can look back at that time now – the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination was seen as the best possible chance for a new country - one that left behind the politics of self-aggrandisement, the cult of personality, corruption, wanton waste, violence, apathy and nepotism. The vote in January and again in August of 2015 was not a vote for those now in government as much as it was a vote against what was a culture, polity and society many wanted to move away from, and see real change around. The pace of reform given the complexity of government would always and by far respectively take longer and be more difficult than at first imagined. This was a problem, but the bigger one was that the government hasn’t since being elected to office connected with those who elected them as to why what was promised hasn’t happened, and why promises made repeatedly on a number of issues, just haven’t been kept.

Last week witnessed a lot of debate around a gazette that allowed women the same rights as men. Many sought to justify or decry the gazette on the basis of statistics around how many women in Sri Lanka consumed alcohol and whether there was any discernible increase in this consumption in recent years. That’s missing the point. A constitutional right around equality is precisely that. It isn’t pegged to any statistical determinant around its validity or application. If it was somehow proven to be the case that only a single woman in the country consumed alcohol, and wanted to purchase it, the law needs to be such that she is able to do so, without harm, hate or hindrance. The best way men can use their political office to ensure the rights of and as some would paternalistically argue, the protection of women, is to allow women to take control of their own lives, and with as much fallibility as grown, adult men, take their own decisions around their lives, bodies, health and future.

But I digress. In all this, what is of relevance to this column is the behaviour of the President. His public stature in 2015 was one of selflessness, courage and indeed, greatness – a man who on the evening of January 9, 2015 when taking oaths as President, we were hoarse cheering on, all the while expecting to be killed by a loyalist from the old regime. In one of his first addresses to the country, he thanked, indirectly, those who had voted for the first time and the role of social media, in being elected to office. Here was a man a lot of us didn’t openly campaign for, but wanted in office, because the alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

That man, that promise, that optimism is gone. Kaput. Looking back, it is unclear whether that man ever really existed, or was instead a projection of our own desperation pegged to an individual who till then, to be either loved or reviled, wasn’t known for anything significant. And that’s precisely why he was a prime candidate to contest Mahinda Rajapaksa – Sirisena didn’t display at the time a vaulting ambition to seek or retain the kind of absolute power he was elected into. That is no longer the case. Power has made the President into a very small man. Antics in Cabinet – purported nature calls aside – suggest a petulant, prissy child, reminding us of an old joke where after much crying and whining, an individual who refuses to go to school is reminded by his mother that he must in fact go, because he is an adult and in fact the Principal. We now have a President who is feverishly shaping a new currency as the saviour of all that is good and great about a languid, but if provoked, violently assertive Sinhala Buddhist conservatism in politics and social outlook.

Therein lies the rub.

It’s not about the gazette around giving women the freedom to purchase alcohol. It is not about the commission on the bond issue. It is not about the other commissions the President will appoint in the future, the drama in Cabinet meetings, or the perorations in public meetings. President Sirisena’s vision has contracted, even as his power increased. It is a common ailment, where one’s legacy sought to be secured through family succession and political entrenchment. The President’s early interest in women’s undergarments and now their ability to buy alcohol, seeks to gloss over the fact that he is now a common liar to so many women in the North, who are still waiting for news of those who disappeared he promised he would secure but never has. The President’s tiresome preaching in public about anti-corruption doesn’t take into account that Lanka E News remains blocked in Sri Lanka for running very serious allegations around his own complicity in dubious contracts to procure a Russian warship. Ironically, confirmation around the greatest validation of concerns expressed on a website not even remotely known for its professional journalism was in the actions of those close to the President to block it, and the total silence from the Presidential Secretariat around unconstitutional, extra-judicial actions. We have now a President who cannot countenance public criticism, and has to hide behind ludicrous assertions of the Cabinet Spokesperson. We have a President who isn’t Presidential anymore. Or more accurately, a President who is increasingly motivated to remain as such, and deviously anchor, even project, what is a personal thirst for power in various pious submissions that it is in fact the public who want to keep him in office.

This is a problem. The President has become a populist. He is now a common, small man, far removed from the elder statesman figure of 2015. He is now just another politician, with the usual trappings. The more the banal bluster, the more he secures his position as an impediment and anti-thesis to all he represented, stood for and commanded on the steps of Independence Square on January 9, 2015.

And that is our loss, more than it will ever be his.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...