Measuring a powerful political shift

Monday, 3 October 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


President Maithripala Sirisena with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

Twenty months ago a decision was made that changed the course of our country. Many factors contributed to what happened next. Many individuals, organisers and in the end the majority of the voters played crucial roles in how things unfolded. However, if one man had not taken an all-important decision, we may not be where we are today and indeed we may have been even poorer.

Only a man endowed with immense courage, self-confidence, sense of purpose and trust in the people could have made the decision to break ranks with his political party and go against the leader who even his most tenacious opponents considered invincible.

Maithripala Sirisena may have felt his moment had arrived since he was after all a seasoned politician.  He may have been pushed to make the decision by a consideration of the relevant factors and the persuasive arguments of key members of the political opposition to the then regime such as Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya, as well as civil society leaders such as the late Ven. Madoluwawe Sobitha Thero. Such factors he would have had to consider along with the fate that befell Sarath Fonseka in 2010.

While it is true that the events and processes that preceded this historic decision were all about the concept of good governance and that any good candidate may have defeated the incumbent, the fact that Maithripala Sirisena was the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party made a huge difference.  His decision clearly tilted the odds against Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Maithripala Sirisena’s courage would inevitably be tested after assuming office. He would also be challenged to bridge seemingly impossible gaps, create trust and unite a nation broken along ethnic, religious and party lines.  

untitled-4Meaningful change?

Today, 22 months later, two years into Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency and more than a year after the consolidation of the Unity Government following the General Election, a question is being asked: have things changed and if so is it for the better? The quick answer is that things are indeed better but they could have been much better.  

In fact the climate of freedom that has enabled open and harsh criticism has by and large made people forget how things were before 8 January, 2015. An assessment would be useful, therefore.

The program was ambitious. A lot was promised in the first 100 days. Progress was made on important issues, but it was and still is perceived to be slow. Two reasons can be attributed to this state of affairs. The first is that an over-optimistic new regime failed to understand that systems and cultures, especially bad ones, are extremely resilient. Secondly, there is the impatience of the people – when quick fixes are expected, disappointment and disillusionment usually follow. Frustration is essentially a result of high expectations not being fulfilled.

Countries are seldom turned around in a flash. Bloody revolutions can do it, but as the term indicates there’s a heavy price to pay. We saw a democratic revolution on 8 January 2015.  Maithripala Sirisena and the Unity Government he formed with Ranil Wickremesinghe inherited a next to bankrupt economy, a political culture marked by abuse and apathy, officials who are incompetent or timid or both, and robust systems that are veritable partners in crimes of corrupt politicians. It was certainly a situation that had to be handled carefully. They could not afford to let emotions get the better of them. Sober, careful and pragmatic measures had to be taken with a view to long-term recovery.  

Unfortunately we inhabit a political culture where those who favour reason over rhetoric and the pragmatic over the popular are seen as weak and ineffective.

Had President Sirisena opted to crack the whip hard as his predecessor did he may have been called a strong, decisive and effective leader. The truth is that efficiency, strength and decisiveness are not about putting political opponents behind bars through the abuse of the judicial system. Indeed in most instances restraint requires more strength. Restraint was and is necessary because its absence is part of the reason why democracy has suffered so much over the past several decades. If the rule of law and democracy are to be re-established then it would have been erroneous to do things as they were done before. If wrongdoers were treated the way Sarath Fonseka and Shirani Bandaranayake were treated, for example, it would not create a better country but further compromise democracy and the rule of law.  

Reinstituting a robust democracy

When the foundations of democracy have been seriously damaged it is not possible to restore the edifice without relaying the base.  That’s what the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information Act were about; the foundations for a more robust democracy.  

Maithripala Sirisena is the only president who willingly conceded some of the enormous powers vested in his office. This even his strongest critics cannot deny. With the creation of independent commissions, President Sirisena and the Unity Government have effectively put the country on the path to a more accountable and transparent system of governance. These changes have been complemented by the restoration of judicial independence. Slowly but surely people are beginning to trust the courts, another necessary element of the democratising process which had to be carefully handled.

We are already seeing the benefits of these measures. Politicians are slowly but surely realising that being elected is not a license to throw their weight around. The previous Government was feared but not respected. The present regime is respected but not feared. It could be argued that fear rather than respect makes for better political stability. However, conviction generally works better than compulsion. A people who feel they belong and who believe they have ownership stakes are more likely to work with passion.  

Before the 8 January 2015 we had a situation where few politicians or officials dared to object to proposals and directives from the top. Those who did so were punished. Of course today we do have some lethargic public servants who drag their feet or whine that they don’t want to be hauled to the FCID but then again no innocent person has been prosecuted. We can argue that the true measure of governance is when present and not former ministers are questioned, but we must understand that although things are not ideal things certainly are better. Hopefully we will evolve to a point when anyone in power who steps out of line is questioned.  

It is respect and fear of robust systems and not individuals with power that will get us there.  Systems are being put in place and we are not too far away from a situation where wrongdoers in this Government will be investigated, something that was unthinkable just two years ago.

Hurdles ahead

We still have a fair distance to go before the citizens can truly feel that they belong, that their voices are heard, that they and not parochial interests are being represented by the elected and that they truly have ownership stakes. 

Initial gains on the democratic front should not lull anyone into complacency. The gains have been offset by poor judgment in appointments, selective pursuit of suspected wrongdoers and internal contradictions. Not all ills can be attributed to the faults of the previous regime and anyway labouring the point is only a distraction considering the enormity of the tasks at hand.   

President Sirisena, as we mentioned above, had to be a unifying factor to begin with and since being elected has had to keep the forces of democratic change together, united and focused.  He had to deal with dissidents and dissent within his party. The President and the Prime Minister have both had to struggle to overcome the ‘traditional antagonisms’ between the parties they lead, even as they try to strengthen these very same parties.  

Noble, brave and hopeful pronouncements notwithstanding they are yet to succeed.  The coalition is intact but is fragile and errors as well as deliberate bending of rules can only make things worse. It is not a good sign that some of the ardent supporters of the good governance drive are now rather dismayed, less by the slowness than what is perceived to be waning political will.  

Keeping the coalition intact is not the only kind of unity that the Government has had to contend with. The task of post-conflict reconciliation was never going to be easy. It is not an issue that can be put on the backburner.

The commitment to create a society free of hatred, violence and fear was reiterated by the President at the United National General Assembly a few days ago.  A constitutional reform process is underway. There has to be give-and-take across the board and here a sober, patient and empathetic leader like the President is a tremendous source of strength for these are the attributes required of a person whose task it is to draw people from extremes as well as peripheries to the centre and common ground.  

President Sirisena is a man who listens and measures his words, qualities that have earned him respect and positioned him to play the role of a unifier in a broader context – that of overall national reconciliation.

It would be naïve to say that the difficult part is done. The reform project is incomplete – electoral reform has unfortunately been postponed while amendments or even a total overhauling of the constitution for purposes of reconciliation is bound to be slow and contentious. The political reforms have to be matched by performance on the economic front, certainly a challenge in the context of a global economic crisis. The civil service has to be revamped, systems have to be put in place so that capable leaders are developed, a passion for the country has to be inculcated among all students at all levels and as the President pointed out in New York the war on drugs needs to be fought on all fronts and relentlessly too.

And everything, one could argue, depends on the continued partnership between the two major political parties in the island. There is very little room for error. Democratisation can never be driven by the undemocratic, the rhetorician, the rabble-rouser; it is only someone of the calibre of Maithripala Sirisena who can navigate things at this point and only with the continued support of a leader like Ranil Wickremesinghe.  

It remains to be seen whether the two will see the country through this tough and necessary period of democratisation. They probably understand much better than their respective supporters that if either or both put party before country both will lose and that the hope for a more democratic Sri Lanka will consequently diminish. The party faithful need to understand this too.

Fortunately, in Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe we have two leaders who are at the helm and one cannot ask for two individuals better suited to be in charge at this point.  They need the right people in the right places. This is not easy in a country that suffers from a serious human resources crisis – all the more reason for making best use of the meagre pool of capable men and women of integrity.

Twenty months have passed since the historic electoral victory of Maithripala Sirisena. It is probably more advisable to look to tasks yet undone rather than the achievements over this period, remarkable though they are considering the state of the country before 8 January 2015.


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