President Gotabaya is celebrating his 71 birthday as the President of Sri Lanka. Like most of the previous incumbents, he has had to face significant challenges on his way to the top. Very few expected him to make a comeback after the Rajapakse administration was booted out of office in 2015.
The President has clearly shown that when “…the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The gods have also been kind to him. However unlike in the 80s and 90s when CBK and JRJ led the nation – the role of the President has now become like the Chairman of a Board.
The Prime Minister is now technically the CEO. Therefore it is the Prime Minister who has the power to run the show, because the Prime Minister technically controls the legislature. The President without the legislature is a sitting duck.
The test of this separation of powers will come after the August elections. Life at the top sounds enviable, with the cars, the trips and the security. Especially for some of the past leaders like Wijetunga and Sirisena. For them, reaching the top was not so difficult. However they soon realized remaining at the top require and array and mastery of skills.
All new leaders are expected to show their arrival as a watershed, that things will be different, and of course they have to bring their own people to make it happen. Often side-lining people who have the capability of doing things for loyalty.
For the President, the last eight months has been very challenging on several fronts. On managing the pandemic, he has done a great job. The proactive and reactive measures taken by him to combat the virus despite the rise in cases globally, has resulted in increasing support from the masses.
The squabbles in the main Opposition and the breakup of the oldest party have helped the government to improve their ratings and deflect their not so democratic decisions. This is not surprising, people voted for a President with an iron fist, because they believed the nation was under threat. The President promised to put the nation back to work.
The strong backing of certain private media have also helped to push the strong image of the President. He has not been able to fulfil the promises made at the Presidential Election largely because of the pandemic and Parliament has been in lock down for three months.
His biggest challenge is now to get the economy going. He cannot do this by using only an iron fist – by throwing people out and threatening people. He needs soft hands and soft power to deal with the economy and professionals in the public sector.
Because for public servants with an eye on the future, they clearly know that Governments will come and go, so they remain. They have to do the right thing to ensure they stay out of jail. We all know nothing is permanent in this world.
As Benjamin Disraeli said many years ago “Never take anything for granted.” The rot of the Yahapalana Government began when they started harassing the public servants, by taking them to the FCID for the wrong deeds of their political masters.
However, there is nothing really wrong for the President to occasionally transfer anxiety to the bureaucracy to enjoy a quiet weekend. The President has done a great deal to stop the political cycle of victimization and revenge. He has demonstrated that before we are blue, green or red – we are firstly Sri Lankan.
Focusing on the future
The President has a long way to go. He will need extraordinary skills and patience to deal with the new administration and the Opposition. He will have to work collaboratively with the new government to drive his agenda.
The elected Prime Minister and his Ministers will have to look after their own electoral interest to win the next election. The current Prime Minister is arguably one of the most popular leaders since Dudley Senanayake.
His charm and kindness has won him millions of fans. His Public Relations skills are the best in the game. Many of the senior politicians who hero worship him would have also called it a day by the next election.
To lead through all this, the President would need a professional and an energetic young team, not those businessman and bureaucrats who play with the government when in power and then jump ship early when the tide is changing, and become darlings of a new administration.
They ironically enjoy the best of both worlds. Because they quickly become bigger government supporters than the government itself and get the best jobs in the administration. In the final analysis, the world is in absolute crisis, therefore the country needs a leader with authority to work for the betterment of all people.
We have a President who can surely do that, if he stays on course.