The road ahead for Maithripala Sirisena

With Maithripala Sirisena's victory in the Sri Lanka Presidential elections, The Hindu takes a look at what lies ahead for the Presidential candidate.

Updated - November 28, 2021 07:40 am IST

Published - January 09, 2015 01:16 pm IST

Mithripala Sirisena waves to the media as he leaves the opposition party office in Colombo.

Mithripala Sirisena waves to the media as he leaves the opposition party office in Colombo.

Five immediate tasks for Maithripala Sirisena:

1. Restore the rule of law

With power being concentrated in the Rajapaksa brothers for nine years, the hands of the police force in Sri Lanka were allegedly tied during the previous regime, especially when it came to acting against ruling party supporters and unruly groups that enjoyed state patronage then. The new President will have to infuse independence and autonomy in the functioning of the police and rein in anti-minority groups like the Bodu Bala Sena.

2. Restore the independence of the judiciary

A major factor that discredited the Rajapaksa regime was its brazen attack on the judiciary’s independence by the removal of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake on flimsy grounds and without following due process. In fact, the Supreme Court had ruled the impeachment move illegal, but Parliament ignored it. Rajapaksa appointed his Attorney General Mohan Peiris as the Chief Justice. The new President may look at ways of reinstating Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, or at least take legislative measures against the abuse of the impeachment clause.

3. Strengthen institutions by according them functional independence

The Rajapaksa regime had amended the Constitution to vest in the President all powers of appointment of members of major institutions like the Elections Commission, the Public Services Commission and the Anti-Bribery Commission. Besides, he had also amended the Constitution to remove the two-term limit on the President. These measures have severely undermined the integrity and autonomy of democratic institutions. The 18th amendment may have to be scrapped.

4. Cooperate with the elected Northern Province government, give it freedom to govern devolved subjects

The elected government of the Northern Province has been nearly dysfunctional because of the squeeze on funding and powers. In deference to the mandate in the north that Sirisena has got, there is good ground for him to allow the Chief Minister to function without an unfriendly Governor bearing down on him. A civilian Governor and a Chief Secretary who works for the Provincial government rather than the Central government are needed.

5. Halt the pervasive militarisation of the northern province

Maithripala Sirisena has ruled out scaling down the military presence in the North, citing national security reasons and the need to prevent a resurgence of militancy. However, he can halt further expansion of the army and end perceptions of its interference in civilian life.


Five potential pitfalls for Maithripala Sirisena:

1. The promise to abolish the executive presidency

This is a promise that dates back to 1994 when Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected first. However, lack of political will has meant that the abolition never takes places. Incumbents also get a taste of the enormous power that the executive presidency confers on an individual and such powers are not easily shed. Sri Lanka will have to debate vigorously on whether it should return to a Westminster-style parliamentary government.

2. The demand for a UN probe into war crimes

With the Rajapaksa regime coming to an end, there may be renewed calls for an international probe into war crimes in the last phase of the war, but it may also mean that the new government will be under pressure to hold a rigorous domestic investigation. This is a challenge because Sinhala nationalist parties are also backing Sirisena and they may resist such attempts. Also, Sirisena himself carries the baggage of having acted as defence minister for the last two weeks of the war in Rajapaksa’s absence.

3. Reviving the parliamentary negotiation on devolution of power and giving effect to the 13th Amendment

Attempts to rewrite Sri Lanka’s unitary constitution into one that allows substantial devolution of power to the regions and minorities have always failed. At present, a parliamentary process to discuss devolution has been stalled. With the Tamil National Alliance having played a role in the election of Sirisena, there may be an opportunity for reviving the process with the participation of the Tamil leadership. However, a consensus across ethnic lines may not be easy to come by and Presidents in the past have taken the easy way out of not proceeding on committee reports and recommendations.

4. Balancing the pulls and pressures of a coalition that may include archrivals SLFP and UNP

With a support base drawn from both the main southern political parties, Sirisena may have to do some delicate balancing work to maintain cordial relations with the UNP led by Ranil Wickramasinghe and the SLFP faction that supports him and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. A ‘cohabitation’ government in 2001, when Kumaratunga was president and Wickramasinghe was Prime Minister, came down mainly because of the unending squabbling between the two camps. Sirisena must try and avoid a repeat of the 2001-2003 experience.

5. Revive the economy that has been laden by debt

The Mahinda Rajapaksa regime had availed of development loans from China at high interest rates as part of its policy of getting close to China. However, in the long term, it is seen as landing the country in great debt. Resentment at the economic costs of his diplomatic cosiness with China was one of the factors behind Rajapaksa’s defeat. Cost of living is very high and the poor and middle classes are reeling under rising prices of fuel and food.

Venkatramanan Krishnamurthy is Deputy Co-ordinating editor at The Hindu.

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