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A time to remember


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Four years ago, Maithripala Sirisena stepped down as the Health Minister of the government of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Secretary of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), to contest for the presidential election as the Common Candidate. The presidential election, which at that point seemed like a forgone conclusion, was suddenly thrown open with his entry. 

The moderate citizens of Sri Lanka, who had been concerned by the creeping authoritarianism spreading across Sri Lanka, rallied behind Sirisena, and gave momentum to an underdog campaign that aimed to protect and promote democracy. The campaign culminated in the removal of Rajapaksa, and created the environment for change that should have strengthened institutions, law and order and respect for the Constitution. Sadly for Sri Lanka, despite the lapse of four years, it appears these hopes have now come to naught.    

Civil society, academics, religious leaders, and the public that flocked to the common candidate four years ago, did so because of the promise to strengthen democracy and wipe out corruption. The term “Yahapalanaya” entered popular discourse, and the United National Party (UNP) as well as its coalition members campaigned on a platform to bring good governance back to Sri Lanka, by strengthening institutions, the rule of law, and giving respect to the decisions of the people. 

In an environment after the passing of the 18th Amendment, which took away the two term limit for the president, growing extremism with the rise of organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and the controversial impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, a chance to change the power at the top seemed all but impossible. The social movement that campaigned to end the Executive Presidency appealed to many, because the consequences of concentrating power in the hands of one had become self-evident over nine long years. Many in the country were ready for a change. 

To this void stepped Maithripala Sirisena. A candidate many felt reflected the right combination of democratic aspirations, with relatable Sri Lankan political credentials that appealed to the masses. There was little doubt that this was likely to be an imperfect change, but as choices were few, the voters made the best choice they could have at the time, and hoped for the best. Their hope was buttressed by the multiple and repeated statements made by Sirisena that he would end the Executive Presidency, remain in power only for one term, stamp out corruption and promote reconciliation. 

Four years later, not only are all these promises undone, they have been pushed into the background by the events of 26 October. President Maithripala Sirisena, who was voted into power to be a statesman, has put his party and his own political survival above the welfare and democracy of the country. A statesman is one versed in the principles or art of government, especially someone actively engaged in conducting the business of a government, or in shaping its policies. A statesman is a wise, skilful, and respected political leader, who is able to work with others of different political agendas, for the benefit of the country. President Sirisena still has the opportunity to rise to the occasion, but whether he wishes to do so remains to be seen. 


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