President Maithripala Sirisena speaks at the Open Government Summit in Tbilisi, Georgia
By Harindra B. Dassanayake
Around the world, people are impatient that their elected representatives fail them. They occupy high office but get to low levels to embezzle tax money. When discontent starts to flutter, however small, they end up becoming storms.
It was one such that changed the otherwise strong rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. Recent revelations in international press about political donations and some dubious transactions during the Rajapaksa time only confirms what people already knew when they went to the polling booth in 2015 January.
The much-anticipated and celebrated ‘change’ was only the beginning of people expectations, which are high and they are impatient to see the results. When President Maithripala Sirisena landed in the Caucasian city of Tbilisi, Capital of Georgia, to take part in the Open Government Summit, he had a lot to share with the world about Sri Lanka’s progress in fighting corruption.
It is the first time that a high profile Sri Lankan leader is taking part in the Summit that is held for the fifth time. This time, it is co-hosted by the Georgian Government. Sri Lanka was invited to be a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2015, following the victory of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who ran an electoral campaign based on a vibrant anti-corruption platform. His electoral success and subsequent action to introduce the 19th Amendment to the Constitution made him a desired international figure in the fight against corruption.
Sri Lankan model: Government leadership
Fighting corruption is often seen as a civic action pressurising governments. Sri Lanka stands out as an example of a government action to fight corruption by curtailing excessive powers vested in the Executive Presidency to strengthen the Parliament.
President Sirisena was piquant when he responded to a question on how Sri Lanka has progressed during his tenure in terms of the principles of Open Government Partnership: “When you talk about the principles of Open Government Partnership with regard to eradicating corruption, misappropriation and waste, it is important to understand the link between corruption and power. They go hand in hand. It is critical therefore that the power concentrated around politicians or public officials is checked and shared constitutionally.
“When I became the President of Sri Lanka, the presidency in Sri Lanka was vested with so much executive powers that no other elected leader in the world enjoyed. It was under that absolute power that corruption spread. Therefore, within the first six months since I became the President, I curtailed those excessive powers concentrated around me as the Executive President and transferred them to the Parliament. That strengthened the Parliament.”
This statement by the President received wide approval from the audience and fellow members of the panel as an example of a government taking leadership to fight corruption and strengthen democracy. The framework which has been put in place constitutionally has started to bring positive outcomes as reflected in International Indexes as well as in high profile invitations such as of OGP. In some of those indexes, Sri Lanka ranking has improved only by a tangent. But some actions don’t bring immediate results.
Corruption is a deep-rooted cultural phenomenon that needs perseverance to fight, as pointed out by Mukelani Dimba, Civil Society Co-chair, OGP: “Fighting corruption is a long walk,” echoing the words of late Nelson Mandela, reminding the audience that 18 July marks a centenary of the great leader and freedom fighter.
Voluntary curtailing of excessive powers
The 19th Amendment echoed the sentiment of the times that brought President Sirisena to power. Yet, the two Presidents came to power with the same promise. This was the first time that the promise was kept.
President Sirisena did not miss to make a remark about the context when he became President: “When I became the President of Sri Lanka, the Presidency in Sri Lanka was vested with so much executive powers that no other elected leader in the world enjoyed. It was under that absolute power that corruption spread. Before I strengthened the Parliament, it was according to the arbitrary liking of the President that the Chief Justice, other judges of the Supreme Court, Attorney General, Inspector General of Police were appointed. Although there were some commissions established, all their commissioners were also appointed to the liking of the Executive President, thereby keeping total control over them.”
On the sidelines, he would mention to a fellow State leader participant of the same panel that although that is what he has done, there are elements in the country who do not like such democratisation and empowerment of citizens as they prefer a form of benevolent authoritarians.
It is not uncommon that such restraint about using existing executive powers and sharing his own powers is seen as a weakness. A case in point is the recent statement to end the moratorium on the death penalty that received so much of praise indicating quite paradoxically that those who ask for strongman leaders is still a concern.
A Caucasian connection
It is noteworthy that President made these remarks about his voluntary power sharing in Tbilisi, which is also connected to the myth of Prometheus, the mythical hero of the Greeks, who went against the gods and stole fire from heaven to help the humanity. For this offence, God Zeus punished him by clamping him to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains and got his liver eaten by an eagle, only to be grown again to be eaten the next day.
Such as the myth has it, President Maithripala Sirisena has stolen the power that no other politician has done and vested it with the people. If Sri Lankans are not happy about the fact that the democracy is when people have the power, and that no politician is above the law, then, we’re making a Sri Lankan Prometheus out of Maithripala Sirisena.