Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena, the seventh and incumbent executive President, will retire in less than a month. With the presidential poll on November 16, the winner of this congested race will assume office the following day. President Sirisena himself was sworn in a day after the presidential election on January 8, 2015.
Visitors to his official residence spoke about packed boxes, ready to be taken to Polonnaruwa as he was preparing for the eventual relocation. Then during the last week, the President secured a bountiful retirement, including the tenancy of his official residence at Paget Road, and an entourage of the Special Task Force. His domestic staff can now be excused from moving boxes.
Yet, President Sirisena, who has pretty much lost the control of his political party, SLFP, is more likely to sink into political oblivion. Many observers, probably including Mr. Sirisena himself, are now pondering about what his legacy has been.
However, five years ago when he ran for presidency, his backers of the UNP-led UNF, and the voters who elected him did so not for his gamesmanship, but for lack of it. They were in a desperate bid to end an all-powerful and increasingly-authoritarian reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The soft-spoken and down to earth Sirisena was picked to bell the cat. He appeared both naïve and brave enough for the task. With over half a million or so votes, he snatched from the Sinhala Buddhist core, and a good portion of independent and ethnic minority voters, plus the UNP’s base vote, he ended Sri Lanka’s potential slide to dynastic politics. If he failed, trying that, judging from the fate of another Rajapaksa contender in a previous poll, repercussions would have been a lot worse.
However, a few expected him to deliver a miracle, or to take a decisive role in decision-making. Civil society and chattering classes, and the official UNP that backed him, wanted him to hand in reins of government to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
There again, Sirisena let Mr. Wickremesinghe run the show for almost four years until he pulled off an aborted constitutional coup. Most vocal backers of Sirisena’s presidential campaign are now the most venomous critics of his record. His term is described as one of unfulfilled promises and betrayal of the mandate.
Sirisena’s presidential campaign was more or less a single issue agenda: he promised to abolish the executive presidency to empower independent institutions. If those were a measure of his performance, Sirisena’s is a lot more impressive record card than it is portrayed.
To be fair, in the annals of two terms presidencies of J.R Jayawardene, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Sirisena’s four years and ten months tenure is fairly short (It is still six months longer than R. Premadasa’s who was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber at a May Day rally in 1993.)
Abolition of the executive presidency as some of the windbags in the cocktail circuits, now advocate would have led to nerve-wreaking political paralysis in a country where politics is increasingly-polarised and fragmented
Yet, of all his predecessors, Sirisena did most to resurrect democracy, and entrench separation of power among the organs of government. All major candidates beginning with Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995 contested the elections, promising to abolish the executive presidency – and abused the powers of the office once they got elected.
Sirisena broke that long tradition and took an active interest in clipping the wings of the presidency and let Parliament do so through the 19th Amendment.
The trimming of presidential powers and simultaneous empowerment of independent institutions under 19A is the best equilibrium Sri Lanka could have between the separation of power and effective administration of governance. Abolition of the executive presidency as some of the windbags in the cocktail circuits, now advocate would have led to nerve-wreaking political paralysis in a country where politics is increasingly-polarised and fragmented.
Sirisena is flouted for not being able to bring a solution to political aspirations of Tamils. However, in dispassionate prediction, no future President will be able to do that either. That is in part due to what is presented as Tamil grievances are in reality an expansive set of political aspirations born out from the distinctive Dravidian social cultural dynamics, which cannot be addressed without disregarding the commensical concerns of the Sinhalese majority, and long-term implications of political stability in the country.
He is also blamed for not being able to prosecute the perpetrators of alleged human rights abuses. That, however, is a matter for the court to decide – though the most vocal voices calling for investigations are simply asking for the consolation prize for the defeat of the LTTE.
However, Sirisena failed in many other counts, primarily because, he simply failed to use the powers at his disposal as executive President.
His letting of the UNP to run the show ended in a disaster. The economy stagnated for over four years, and grew at less than four per cent annually, which was lower than the average economic growth rate during independence.
Relations with China, the main development partner, were mishandled. The development work of the Chinese-funded Port City was suspended for nearly a year, despite Sirisena’s promise to President Xi Jinping for speedy resumption of work. Policy paralysis and indecisiveness of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government shattered investor confidence. Yahapalanaya could never get out of its mindset of being political opposition, probably the UNP was there for too long. The country was not governed, it was rather on autopilot for most of the time.
President Sirisena was a bit too simpleton to dissect the problem. However, invariably, the economic rot accumulated during the past five years is unwarranted. Sri Lankans in general share a sense of urgency in economic development. That was never fully acted upon by Yahapalanaya.
At the personal level too, President Sirisena failed, there again, his failure was primarily due to failure at shrewd utilisation of power at his disposal.
Politics is about art of the use of power. Sirisena was a bad advertisement for that. The SLFP was reduced to a skeleton of its former self under his presidency. His MPs decamped to the opposition. Politics is also about playing hard ball and running rings around your opponent. In this part of the world, where politics is a zero-sum game, it is also about playing dirty when it is mandated. Some of the most successful Asian statesmen such as Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew are embodiments of that game. One had his primary contender jailed and the other made his opposition leader bankrupt.
Maithripala Sirisena is a measured politician who leaves a modest political legacy. He was perhaps too restrained for too long, that denied him a tenure of pro-active presidency.
Whether his successor would be as measured as he was in using powers of the executive presidency should now be everyone’s worry.
Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter