The Sunday Leader

Maithri, Meeting Promises, Half-Way?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The appointment of two former Prime Ministers, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and D M Jayaratne as Senior Advisors to President Maithiripala Sirisena on ‘Political Matters’ fits into a pattern that he was elected to disband. Coupled with the constant addition of ministers to his team headed by rival UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe, against their collective pre-poll promise to keep the numbers low, gets justified not because of their common intent just now. Instead, it owes to the constant exit of ministers to the ‘Opposition’ led by President Sirisena and divided internally on three fronts.

The UNP has to be congratulated in a way. For a party that could not stay united while out of office for a decade is staying put together since taking the momentous decision to unseat President Mahinda Rajapaksa through the electoral process. For a party that stood solid behind the monolithic leadership of President Rajapaksa, it stands divided three or four ways, to say the least.

There is an SLFP faction that President Sirisena seeks to command but often fails, another that stands solidly behind Rajapaksa, yet another that stands between these two stools and possibly projected by Nimal Siripala de Silva but not led by him. There is yet another, supposedly so, that should owe allegiance to another former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. There is a leader, but no faction.

This does not automatically mean that the UNP is intact and is capable of winning parliamentary polls on its own steam, as expected, or be able to lead a ‘national government’ of its own choice even after the elections. Despite attracting some or many of the incumbent SLFP-UPFA parliamentarians through the offer of ministerial berths, President Sirisena would be able to retain them after dissolving Parliament and ordering fresh polls.

For ministerial berths and maybe even party nomination in the polls, they all need President Sirisena. For votes, they would still need President Rajapaksa. Or, that seems to be the general perception, particularly among the SLFP-UPFA second-line leadership. Unless the non-Rajapaksa factions are able to cut into his perceived voter-support among the Sinhala majority, and unless the UNP is willing to do pre-poll business of some kind with them, to the detriment of the Rajapaksa faction, the poll results look even at least up to now.


Of 19-A, 20-A, et al

It’s not only on popular expectations of a smaller and better government that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo may have failed. Even on specific pre-poll promises, they have not taken the best possible initiative under the circumstances. On what has come to be represented through 19th Amendment and the pending 20th Amendment, they have fallen short of their own promises on the one hand, and woefully so as against expectations of the ‘traditional constituency’ that they had hoped to create out of the existing UNP vote-bank.

The winning votes for Sirisena did not come from the UNP as the latter would want to believe. They constituted his core vote. The victory margin was provided instead by the minority communities and the ‘minor’ parties from among the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. That may have included a substantial portion of the less than five per cent Sinhala-Catholic votes that was seen as going to President Rajapaksa in the previous two outings.

Today, on 19-A Constitution Council, the minor and minority parties have come to the consensus that had eluded them under the defunct 17-A, which President Rajapaksa’s 18-A ultimately superseded. It’s the ‘Big Two’ Sinhala parties, namely, the SLFP and the UNP, that are divided on nominations to the Constitution Council. No one is talking any more about it, but have happily moved on to 20-A.

The less said about the 20-A confusion, the better. The Cabinet has cleared the amendment bill, you are told one day. No, they want to discuss it even more, the very same Cabinet spokesperson, Minister Rajitha Senaratne, is quoted as saying not very long after. In between is the reality that the Bill as it stands cannot muster the two-thirds parliamentary vote to make it into law.

In this, the minorities that had backed Sirisena in the presidential poll are against his promised constitutional measure. Their voices have not even been heard — properly or not comes later. Even the minor parties within the majority community have their voice stifled. Or, so it seems. Thankfully, it’s not by the fear of someone shouting you down. Instead, it owes to everyone shouting each other, ‘Down, down’ – and at the same time. The cacophony is confined near-exclusively to the ‘Big Two’ and the factions within.

Thus, no one is talking any more about the ‘Government’ – led by who between the President and the Prime Minister? Talking to the ‘Opposition’ – led by whose party between the top two government leaders?. There is no more any mention whatsoever of the ruling coalition’s high council meeting to discuss, either 19-A or 20-A. The council itself was conceived to provide talking space for the TNA and the JVP, two parties that had backed Sirisena in the polls but consciously kept out of the government under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo.

Today, the TNA is busy fighting within, without the national media and the international community taking any note, any more. The JVP is still recovering from the shock of the third split in seven years, this time headed by immediate past-party leader, Somawansa Amarasinghe. If the JVP is in the news today, it owes only to the series of splits that it has undergone. If it still remains as a party, it may also have owed to the impossibility of splitting it further. Somawansa has proved that the impossible was still possible.


Keeping ‘em as promises

It looks as if President Sirisena is keen on keeping some of his promises – as promises, still. Even if he had the intention, he does not have the choice. He has to choose between self and his prime minister – where he has little choice and between self and the Rajapaksa faction, where he has even less of a choice. Yet, he is as much an uncharted territory as Rajapaksa was when he became President in 2005, and Sirisena too could be full of surprises, for friends and foes alike.

After all, until he quit the Rajapaksa government – without leaving the party, of which he was the all-important General Secretary – to contest the presidential polls, Sirisena had mastered the art of keeping his secrets and strategies to himself. In this case, even if the strategy may have been someone else’s – there are enough self-styled fathers for it – the tactic of going with it and going through it was all of Sirisena’s. He who had kept it all within the self, and away from the prying eyes of Gota R’s team, could have more of buried secrets, strategies and tactics even deeper.

The question is whether at the end of it all, President Sirisena would come a topper, like Rajapaksa before him (in terms of aggrandising personal ambitions and goals), or a political pauper, or party-pooper in between. It may be too early to give him his due, but it may be even more so, to write him off, either. At the end of the day, he continues to be the Executive President, and as Executive President, he still retains all the powers that he had promised to do away with, on day one.

Today, like all those before him, he has amassed around him and for him, enough reasons and justification to the self, that he could not give up any or many of those powers attaching to the office of the Executive President. Making a ‘could not’ to ‘should not’ -from personal interest to ‘national interest’ – is the art of possible. A President who has made things possible his way from being a near-nonentity, suspected by the regime of the day all along, to what he is today, can go both ways. Yet, a lot will still depend on whom the nation votes now, and where that vote takes the nation to, from now on!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

5 Comments for “Maithri, Meeting Promises, Half-Way?”

  1. Lanka Watch

    The writer has analysed the current political situation quite clearly. The initial mistake made by the ‘troika’ who planned the regime change did not do their
    home work properly. First and foremost, they should have known how gullible
    the people are and how would they react in six months time from victory day.
    People are worried about their bread and butter and not worried as to who
    emptied the treasury and the party who makes the biggest promises ,wins
    the election, irrespective of who did what.. That is the general trend in SL.

    It should have been agreed then, that after the reforms are done and made
    them into law, they should have called for an election ,expecting a three party contest, knowing , MR and his clan will not be given nominations. if SLFP(S)
    and UNP coalition wins, with the support of the minority parties, they could
    form a National govt. until such time the current president’s period comes to
    the end. They should not have agreed that only Ranil, UNP should be given
    the reins, as PM even If UNP lost in numbers. This is what upsetting the people and anti UNP machinery is doing overtime, these days.
    Its not too late to come to an understanding that winning party or coalition will
    form a national govt. with 2/3 majority in hand and a PM voted to power
    by majority vote. The President should not mix up democratic principles with
    local politics. Now that the minority parties have opposed in unison, the
    new electoral reform, call up the election at the earliest to satisfy both the
    majority and minorities, who are eager to have a clean govt. and have this electoral reform discussed after the election and make it law for the
    subsequent election. Understand the President wants to safe guard the
    rights of the people by enacting protection laws but time is running out as
    by then the culprits will become saints.

    The writer says that Mr. Sirisena has mastered the art of keeping his
    secrets and strategies to himself and this is dangerous and he should
    discuss with his confidants as some time ,it can boomerang.

  2. One

    Something like Mario Puzo’s `godfather` the saffron clad pirates are echoing Chamal for PM to keep its flock together- the future can only get worse in what ever they try.

    pirates will be pirates even in their new found glory.

  3. raj

    very good article. well written. Congratulations

  4. anpu

    “The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.”

    As noted earlier, however well intentioned the writer is or good the analysis, it is of concern for a foreign research foundation to monitor the affairs of another country and to find space in the local medium on regular basis.

  5. anpu

    The foreign writer could not comprehend the quality of the person of President Sirisena’s character – self evident in the last paragraph.

    Sirisena must have been thinking all along, chair size notwithstanding, there must be a better way for all the peoples of Lanka. What has happened to the nation since independence had been a tragedy. It was man made, so man can fix it.

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