In late 2003, then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in Washington D.C., visiting US President George W. Bush, when he received the news. His own president back home, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, had taken over three key ministries ‒ namely, Defence, Media, and Internal Affairs ‒ effectively sealing the fate of the increasingly unpopular United National Front government led by Wickremesinghe, with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Kumaratunga still at the helm as the all-powerful executive president. The government was dissolved not long after, resulting in the electoral defeat of the UNP in 2004, sending what was [and still is] the country’s single biggest political party back to the opposition benches where it had been languishing in since 1994. The rest, as they say, is history; and thirteen years later, one cannot help but wonder whether history is about to repeat itself.
A lot has changed, of course, since then. The UNP, still led by Wickremesinghe, is back in power, in what appears to be a not-altogether uneasy alliance with a majority of the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, together forming the so-called Unity Government to bring about an as-yet elusive “good governance.” The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in April 2015, curbing some of the powers held by the Executive. The President of Sri Lanka can no longer dissolve a democratically elected government at his or her whim, meaning that, at least on paper, the present government should be safe for the time being. However, a controversial statement recently made by President Sirisena and developments that unfolded in its wake have brought into question the longevity of the Yahapalana Government, with speculation rife that a growing rift between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe could spell disaster for the shaky coalition, resulting in an inevitable reversal of the crucial, albeit few, democratic gains made over the past one and a half years.
No Maithree for the Commissions
In an uncharacteristically angry outburst early this month, the otherwise calm and collected Sirisena expressed his displeasure at anti-graft investigations being carried out by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), the controversial Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID), and the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) of the Police, taking everyone ‒ critics and supporters alike ‒ by surprise. The investigations were politically motivated, he charged, pointedly referring to pending cases against three former commanders of the Navy and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Sirisena didn’t mince his words. “If [these three bodies] are following a political agenda, I will be compelled to make a decision,” he warned. The President argued that everyone is equal before the law and that human rights must apply to all citizens, including those held in remand custody. There can be no place for double standards in an independent commission, he said.
The fallout has been revealing, to say the least, with no one being any the wiser as to what exactly went wrong and what to expect going forward. Director General of the CIABOC Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe handed over a letter of resignation to the President earlier this week. Although she has yet to indicate an official reason for her decision, it is widely speculated and generally accepted that her resignation was in protest of the remarks made by Sirisena. It is unclear at present whether the President will actually accept Wickramasinghe’s resignation, but analysts have pointed out that considering a rejection of the letter would mean a tacit admission that his allegations against the Commission were unfounded, chances are that the President will accept it in due course.
UPDATE: The Daily Mirror just reported citing unnamed sources that the President has, indeed, accepted the resignation.
Civil society activists who actively campaigned for Sirisena in the run up to the presidential polls in 2015 have come out strongly against their common candidate’s utterances, with the Puravesi Balaya organisation going as far as to boycott a meeting scheduled with the President in protest. Convenor of the late Sobitha Thero’s National Movement for Social Justice Prof. Sarath Wijesooriya condemned the views expressed by Sirisena, expressing his organisation’s solidarity with the independent commissions. “We stand with the Government officials investigating corruption,” he told journalists. Political parties, too, have made their voices heard. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna issuing a statement said that arbitrary comments such as those made by President Sirisena lead to a weakening of the institutions established to investigate serious allegations. The President should refrain from making such comments and affecting the morale and independence of those investigative bodies, it added.
Jumping The Gun
However, it must be noted that the President never explicitly made any threat of hurting the independence of the commissions, which he himself was committed to bring about. Nor did he allude to a possible takeover of reigns with regard to ongoing investigations or, indeed, even a halt to the investigations as feared by some. Careful examination of his comments reveals a frustration with the administration’s alleged lack of impartiality and a refusal to keep the Commander in Chief informed. Critics, however, have pointed out that an independent commission has no business informing the President when carrying out its mandated duty. Investigations against SLFP stalwarts such as former Minister A. H. M. Fowzie have also reportedly driven a wedge between Sirisena and the investigative bodies, if not the UNP-led government proper.
Of notable interest is the sudden surge in popularity of Sirisena among Rajapaksa loyalists. Firebrand MP Wimal Weerawansa, one of the staunchest of Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s allies, said that the President’s comments have confirmed what the Joint Opposition had been saying all along: that the investigations carried out by this government were politically motivated. Ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself last week went on record hailing the President’s comments, saying he was glad that the President had “finally understood the truth.” Rajapaksa, the second most powerful person in the country during his brother’s two terms as President, expressed his confidence that the incumbent will take “direct action without being influenced by people with various political agendas.” However, he denied that there was any pact between him and Sirisena ‒ a concern that has, no doubt, been raised at least privately by the other side. Rajapaksa enjoys significant support as a no-nonsense man of action, particularly among the majority Sinhalese community, and there have been whispers of a possible entry into active politics come 2020, though he has never really confirmed it. In a fresh interview given to the Daily Mirror this week, Rajapaksa said that he has not made a definite decision. “Maybe they are thinking of a successor to Mahinda Rajapaksa as he cannot contest as president for another term. Anyway, there is enough time for such a decision. At least three and a half years,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
Common Sense Must Prevail
It’s still early days and while it may be far-fetched at present to say that a resurgence of the Rajapaksas is inevitable, it is not a stretch to imagine that if the government’s popularity continues to wane and the rift between Executive and Legislature widens, the next general election is going to be especially tough for the UNP. In fairness to President Sirisena, however, he has made repeated assurances that this government will continue to stay in power. In fact, even in his unexpectedly hard-hitting speech, Sirisena vowed not to let anyone topple the government.
Tensions and misunderstandings are, needless to say, a given in any coalition, particularly one between two historically rival parties such as the UNP and the SLFP. What both parties ought to remember, however, is that, while it’s important that the rank and file of their individual parties remain happy, there is a larger issue at play. With the end of the war, this country has been in dire need of a bipartisan approach to resolving the more serious issues that have been plaguing it since independence, such as ethnic tensions, large-scale corruption, lack of accountability, social injustice and inequity and the heavy politicisation of many aspects of civil administration. Most people will agree that constitutional reform, reconciliation, and true economic development can only materialise through the meaningful cooperation of the two main political parties. It goes without saying that realpolitik demands that all parties operate with the next election in mind and that each party must look out for its own interests, but if 2015 taught us anything, it’s that no government is too big to fail, nor too powerful to fall. It is in the Unity Government’s best interest, therefore, to put aside their differences, stick to its mandate, and deliver the goods as promised.
Featured image courtesy srilankabrief.org