President Maithripala Sirisena is a seasoned politician but sometimes even seasoned politicians get it wrong.
Addressing a rally to commemorate the first anniversary of the ‘unity’ government between the Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), he declared war on those in his party who were pondering on whether they should form a separate political entity. If they do so, he declared, all their misdeeds would be exposed.
We have a sense of déjà vu about this statement.
It wasn’t very long ago that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, then at the height of his powers, thundered from election platforms that he had ‘files’ on those who were defying his authority. Rajapaksa was taken to task for that statement by the UNP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which demanded that if he had ‘files’ on any misdeeds of anyone, he should be taking action against them regardless of their affiliations.
Already, some have called on President Sirisena to do so, although the UNP, now in a cohabitation agreement with the President, has not done so.
The masses of this country elected President Sirisena to office by a convincing majority in January 2015, not because he was the most charismatic politician in the nation. He was elected by the people because they believed that Mahinda Rajapaksa who had won the war against terrorism was overstepping his mark and trampling on the freedoms enjoyed by the people. They also feared that this culture of impunity was leading to widespread corruption and abuse of power.
President Sirisena was elected on a mandate of good governance. This implies being corruption free and allowing a free hand to the rule of law. In a country where dishonesty among politicians has become a way of life and political interference is endemic, we know that such lofty ideals are not achieved overnight.
To be fair, the government that President Sirisena has presided over has made some significant changes to the previous political culture.
It has enacted constitutional changes that allowed independent commissions governing key state institutions and appointments. It has allowed freedom of expression even when it has been detrimental to the government. It has initiated inquiries into the misdeeds of the past regime although the pace of those investigations is agonisingly slow. On the political front, it has left room for dissent, allowing Rajapaksa loyalists of the SLFP to engage in shenanigans as much as they want.
President Sirisena has even had the courage to put his foot down when the UNP got it wrong. A case in point is the appointment of a Governor for the Central Bank. If the UNP had its way, Arjuna Mahendran would still be signing our currency notes but President Sirisena insisted on doing the right thing. In the end, the UNP had its say but the President had his way and common sense prevailed.
That is why the President’s statement that if his political opponents in the Rajapaksa camp in the SLFP form a separate political party, all their misdeeds would be exposed doesn’t sound right. It is out of character. It is also, quite simply, wrong.
The President is the country’s first citizen, its Head of State and despite all the hullabaloo about executive presidential powers, he still has many executive functions at his disposal. He was elected on a mandate of getting the country back on the right track – the path of justice and fairplay. So, we expect him to act without fear or favour and expose wrongdoing whenever and wherever it occurs and not just only when someone threatens to form a separate political party.
We know that President Maithripala Sirisena, for reasons of political survival, has had to rope in some who were not squeaky clean. But history will be kinder to the President if he does what he was elected to do and not pander to petty party political considerations.
Of course, the Sirisena Presidency is young and we hope the President will still keep to his pledges. Otherwise, he risks getting the same message from the masses that Rajapaksa got – no matter what good you have done, you shouldn’t be overstepping