President Maithripala Sirisena

Maitripala Sirisena has been the President of Sri Lanka now for slightly over 5 months. Sirisena is an experienced politician in terms of being a party man (SLFP), an MP, a Minister and now the President. He has been all that for over 40 years. Sirisena’s time in the SLFP has been mostly about patience and waiting for his turn. By all accounts, Maitripala Sirisena is a decent, honest and hardworking man who is quite content to be the person behind the scene and let others bask in the limelight. Those are extremely unusual qualities in a Sri Lankan politician who by and large are long on bluster and short on humility Those qualities served Sirisena well during the last Presidential poll and helped him defeat the braggadocio incumbent Rajapaksa. Sirisena’s victory was cobbled together by a diverse coalition of political parties, civic groups and others keen to see the back of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena as a candidate without a party to back him had to look outside his usual comfort zone and come to some untenable political arrangements to make his candidacy a credible one.

The most risky was making a man who had the support of less than 25 precent of the parliament, the Prime Minister. Making a person with such little support the PM also meant that the President had to take the bull whip to some of his own party/coalition members to get them to support a minority Wickremesinghe government. When Maitripala Sirisena abandoned his party to take on Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was castigated as a carpetbagger by the Rajapaksa loyalists. As such, Sirisena was on a sticky wicket even before throwing the weight of the SLFP behind the minority UNP government.

At best this was a marriage imposed on a hostile bride who had no desire to make it work and it was predictably in trouble soon after. Considering the historical distrust between the SLFP and the UNP and the diverse ideologies and interests within the coalition, only a political neophyte-would  not  have expected the Ranil Wickremesinghe government to encounter survivability issues.

Much of the young Sirisena presidency has been about dousing political fires caused by Ranil Wickremesinghe, his cabinet and former President Rajapaksa and his supporters.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has cleverly manipulated President Sirisena’s lack of a loyal political base to his benefit. Wickremesinghe was able to coax the passing of the 19th Amendment thereby weakening the hand of the President and strengthening the hand of the PM. Even when his appointees were involved in dubious deals and actions, the PM has been able to skate free by getting the President to carry the bucket for him. Wickremesinghe has been nothing short of brilliant in planting the image that Sirisena Presidency and Wickremesinghe Premiership is inextricably linked in the minds of the people.

Even more disturbing is the troubles faced by the President within his own coalition. Sirisena has failed to quell a festering rebellion within the SLFP and UPFA brought on by Rajapaksa loyalists because he has allowed the dissidents to dictate the narrative. Sirisena’s gentle plodding followed by the threat of withdrawing nominations as a last desperate step to get dissidents to toe his line has merely reinforced the notion that Maitripala Sirisena does not have the political ruthlessness required to rule a nation. Many are coming to the conclusion that he is a nice guy who has been taken for a long ride by political opportunists of every hue.

Considering, time has come for the President to shed the naive nice guy image and do some serious political spring cleaning. The President needs to begin this process by getting rid of the malcontents in the SLFP and the Alliance. Too many individuals in these two organizations have started questioning the legitimacy of Maitripala Sirisena in public for the President to keep turning the other cheek without getting embarrassed politically.
It is one thing to encourage the Socratic exchange of ideas but it is quite another to allow your subordinates to openly flout your authority and promote your nemesis. President Sirisena’s credibility has been seriously damaged by the ongoing rebellion in the SLFP and the UPFA. If President Sirisena is serious about changing the political culture in Sri Lanka for the better, then he must take all necessary steps to end the resistance to his leadership in his coalition, even if it means dismantling the UPFA and suspending Rajapaksa loyalists from the SLFP.

Taking such a drastic action might cause some serious setback for the party in the short-term but it would still be preferable to allowing the Rajapaksa clan and their acolytes to regain control of the country again.