The final Cabinet Meeting chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to have ended with pleasantries. His tenure, however, was all but pleasant. For all the positive talk about bipartisanship, it was obvious that from Day One, it would be a challenging term.
Sirisena promised that his would be a single-term presidency. It is no secret that he explored the possibility of a second term. Pledges and less articulated aspirations are no longer relevant. His term will effectively end in a few days.
He was a fortunate man, all things considered. There was no talk of a Maithripala Sirisena presidency even a few days before presidential aspirations were announced in late 2014. He did not express such intention and no one considered him to be a possible contender. And yet he became the president.
Since he was backed by a rival party it was going to a venture into uncharted territory. An experiment if you will. The circumstances were hardly ideal. He had quit the party of which he was the General Secretary. He had to work with a party he had worked against for many decades. He was of course given the leadership of the party he had left. In contrast to the terms of his predecessors, his was bound to be a very solitary affair.
One could argue that had Siriesena refused to be the SLFP leader, he would have had more time to focus on his work. On the other hand, if that had been the case, he would have been a virtual prisoner of the UNP; a name-board president and nothing more.
That would have been an insult to those who voted him to power and a body-blow to the notion of sovereignty. He had to work with the UNP and rebuild his political stature within the SLFP. That’s a kind of twin-challenge that no other president had to face.
The Sirisena-UNP marriage soured very quickly and it didn’t take too long for the blame-game to begin. The love-hate nature of the relationship meant that there could be very little coherence in policy or implementation. The 2015-2019 period indeed has ample material for many theses on bipartisanship, its challenges and pitfalls.
While many who had backed Mahinda Rajapaksa officially expressed loyalty to him, their support was not something he could afford to take for granted. There were of course many who never forgave him for betraying the party, not even when circumstances prompted them to forge what turned out to be a temporary alliance in the failed parliamentary coup. Incompetency and sloth were directly or indirectly blamed on Maithripala Sirisena.
He had to suffer insults and to his credit it was only rarely that he retorted. He could not risk putting his foot down, because he needed some strength.
He couldn’t afford to compromise the new relationship with his party. Neither could he compromise his relationship with the UNP. He had to play deaf, dumb and blind at time. The generous explanation would be that he felt he had to do his best to keep the working arrangement with the UNP intact, he had to hold the coalition together and he had to fight to maintain some semblance of political stability. And he was not ridiculed only for the political choices.
He was lampooned mercilessly for his beginnings, his early vocations and his language abilities. In short Maithripala Sirisena invited ridicule for both the right and wrong reasons. The wrong reasons showed up the snooty and snootiness. He was all good when it was convenient, but ‘terrible’ when things went wrong.
In the days to come the good, the bad and the ugly of the Sirisena Presidency will be analyzed. Merits and demerits will be listed and values ascertained. The what-ifs will also be talked about. Some may begin with ‘if only…’.
His time is over. What his future is, time will tell. He had a tough job in the tougher of circumstances. History, one hopes will be fair and even kind in its judgment.