From promising beginnings to a disheartening close: Neville de Silva looks back on 2015, a chequered year in Sri Lanka’s complex party politics.
Many Sri Lankans saw 2015 as their annus mirabilis. The year began dramatically. Just over a week into the new year, incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a shock defeat at the January 8 presidential election at the hands of one of his own cabinet ministers.
Unsuspected by the public at large, Maithripala Sirisena, a relatively unknown colleague, did a sudden and unexpected long jump to land on the other side of the political barricade. He emerged as the main contender on behalf of a collection of political and civil society forces, for years cowed by the growing authoritarianism of Rajapaksa, his family and inner circle.
Not many Sri Lankans believed Rajapaksa was defeatable, least of all the then president himself, who had been conditioned into thinking he was invincible by his ever-growing circle of sycophantic courtiers interested in self-aggrandisement.
Like the emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, Rajapaksa was clad in a non-existent mantle. But, like the little boy in the fable, a determined and expanding combination of forces punctured his inflated world of make-believe and brought him crashing down to earth.
Still, Mahinda Rajapaksa was not without merit. After attempts at negotiation failed, his political leadership provided the will and determination to challenge the minority Tamil insurgency of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who, foreign military experts and diplomats claimed, could not be militarily defeated.
With his young brother Gotabhaya, a former veteran in this near three-decade long conflict, as his defence secretary, Rajapaksa proved the world wrong. He convincingly won Asia’s longest internal war, despite the LTTE having the financial and logistical support of a substantial segment of the global Tamil community and major political forces in neighbouring Tamil Nadu in southern India.
Rajapaksa’s mistake—an error of judgement largely attributed to those close to him—was in thinking that Sri Lankans would be eternally grateful to him for ridding the country of terrorism and restoring peace. While his political leadership in overcoming an over-confident LTTE will be firmly etched in the history of this country, the gratitude he won dissipated mainly in the post-war years through his burgeoning authoritarianism, the use and abuse of power by his family and friends, corruption, nepotism and the misuse of state resources.
So when he changed the constitution to remove the two-term limit imposed on an incumbent president, it seemed that Rajapaksa was creating a political environment for the perpetuation of family rule in the coming decade.
The public, however, was growing weary of this common Asian habit of political hierarchies embedding themselves in power by genuinely democratic or other means.
With almost 50 political and civil society organisations backing Maithripala Sirisena—who pledged to abolish the executive presidential system which some blamed for concentrating power in Rajapaksa’s hands, and to effectively change the country’s political culture, eliminating corruption and nepotism—a public tired of being victims of a personality cult voted Rajapaksa out on January 8.
But though down, he was not entirely out. The mainly Sinhala-Buddhist south clearly still supported him. Sirisena was able to seal victory because the Tamil and Muslim communities voted overwhelmingly for him or, more truthfully, against what the Rajapaksa clan represented.
The new government, with Sirisena at the helm and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the rival United National Party (UNP), as prime minister, following a pre-election agreement that seemed to lack political legitimacy, set about trying to fulfil an array of elections pledges.
The collective opposition had laid down a programme they hoped to implement within 100 days. But like the best laid plans of mice and men, it went awry largely because of political filibustering by a core of Rajapaksa parliamentarians who, like Horatius across the Tiber, were determined to hold the government at bay.
Still, Maithripala Sirisena, who had by now wrested control of the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), managed (by methods better known to politicians than the populace) to win over some Rajapaksa loyalists who were not averse to enjoying ministerial and other perks. He thus managed to secure the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to effect some constitutional changes, but not before agreeing to water down draft provisions to satisfy the Rajapaksa camp, sniping from different directions.
After all the platform rhetoric of wholesale corruption, the spending of public funds for private needs, abuse of state power and the disappearance of dissidents, the public waited anxiously and impatiently to see the guilty drawn and quartered, so to speak.
But the inaction and foot-dragging by state institutions dealing with law and justice was seen by the public as deliberate procrastination by the new leaders engaged in political chess, and by officialdom with continuing Rajapaksa sympathies.
A classic case among post-election thrillers was Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement to the media that, with Rajapaksa facing defeat, a plot had been hatched to stage some kind of ‘coup’ on January 9 to keep the then president in place and annul the election result.
International media naturally played up this drama, for it punctured the widely circulating view in the Western world of a peaceful and democratic transfer of power.
The Associated Press said on January 11: ‘Sri Lanka’s new government will investigate an alleged attempt by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a coup to try to stay in power when results showed he was losing last week’s election, a spokesman for the country’s new leader said Sunday.
‘A “special investigation” will be set up to probe the alleged coup soon after the new government is formed, said Mangala Samaraweera, the spokesman for President Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power after winning Thursday’s election.’
‘“Some say this was a very peaceful transition. But that’s not the truth. People should know what happened behind the scenes,” Samaraweera told reporters.’
The next day The Times (London) reported that Samaraweera had said: ‘The first thing the new cabinet will investigate is the coup and conspiracy by [former] President Rajapaksa.’
With Sri Lanka unaccustomed to such happenings in its political history (except for the failed military coup in 1962), a news-hungry public waited with bated breath for Samaraweera to continue with his Frederick Forsyth-like saga of Third World conspiracy and coup.
But like many promises made before and after the election, little has been heard about the result of this investigation. The public is still waiting but their bated breath has subsided after almost a year.
That is, unless 2016 dawns with the resurrection of this conspiracy story ahead of the forthcoming local government elections, whose timing is still a matter of discussion and dispute.
When parliamentary elections were held on August 17 with many promises still to be fulfilled and the stench of nepotism and cronyism slowly returning to pollute the political scene, the public still voted to retain the combination of forces that evicted Rajapaksa.
With Rajapaksa determined to return to centre-stage as prime minister in the country’s eighth parliament, a public fatigued of ‘Rajapaksaism’ continued to put its faith in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership, though it seemed clear that disillusionment with the new leaders was beginning to surface. This continuing faith was based on the inverted belief that the little known devil is better than the known one.
The SLFP led by Sirisena, who was still trying to gain better control over the party, and Wickremesinghe’s UNP signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to consensual governance and to pursue a non-aligned foreign policy.
So when the two jointly kept expanding the cabinet of ministers and their deputies, touching the magical 100 that some of Sri Lanka’s new young cricketers are aspiring to reach, the disenchantment began to spread. Some of those who had worked hard for political change and those who voted for it were asking themselves a critical question: had they been short-changed? The criticism was heard publicly—on television, in print and in public discourse.
What stuck in the public craw was that the country’s first National Unity Government (NUG), consisting of the two major parties, had jettisoned an earlier agreement to limit the cabinet to a far more modest figure than Rajapaksa’s own piece of political construction that surely qualified as a record to be faithfully entered in the Guinness Book.
But the number was substantially increased because Sirisena wanted to attract to his fold party politicians who were Rajapaksa loyalists. He was hoping to fortify his own tenuous position among the rank and file of the SLFP.
This enormous cabinet, maintained at state expense in a country with a population of only 22 million, was a political travesty but was agreed to as a part of consensual politics. In doing so, the UNP, which over the years had hardly been innocent of political chicanery, was tarnished with the same brush.
In the circumstances, the party has come under sharp criticism from some of its own supporters for compromising on the good governance that it promised the people. As the year came to a close, one had the distinct feeling that the new government had begun to lose its initial lustre. Inter-party differences were beginning to surface.
This was not surprising because the unity they had forged was the result of a marriage of convenience and the honeymoon was not going to last forever, as several political analysts had anticipated. The ideological and political differences between them were bound to surface before long, despite written agreements on common policies to pursue.
It did not take long for this to happen. The National Unity Government’s first budget, which had been approved at a special November 20 cabinet meeting attended by President Sirisena, was to become what one might call the casus belli.
Within a couple of days of the budget being presented in parliament by the UNP Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, President Sirisena was calling for a tax to be imposed on imported beer. Some might call this small beer, as the saying goes. But it set in motion a whole series of demands for the withdrawal of several budget proposals, the first time that Sri Lanka had witnessed such a concerted attack on a budget resulting in major changes.
With a collective of trade unions threatening a strike, the government caved in. At the time of writing, the Third Reading of the budget was due and the prime minister is expected to announce changes to the original proposals. So, apparently, is President Sirisena when he returns from his visit to the Vatican.
Though the main budget debate ended at the start of December with the government securing a two-thirds majority vote, it by no means signified an economic consensus. Though some MPs voted in favour, they expressed their deep concerns and implied their disapproval of the government’s economic and fiscal policies.
Dr Nimal Sanderatne, the economic affairs columnist of the prestigious Sunday Times—Sri Lanka’s leading weekend English language newspaper—wrote that changes to the budget proposals and the confrontation with the trade union collective ‘makes the budget a confusing and perplexing one’.
He quite rightly pointed out that the big majority vote the budget received only showed a reaffirmation of the political agreement between the two parties in the National Unity Government, rather than agreement between them on economic policies.
The Economic Policy Declaration made by Ranil Wickremesinghe some days before the budget and the budget itself show that these are the policies of the UNP and hardly those agreed to with the SLFP.
As Dr Sanderatne pointed out, the fiscal policy itself is in disarray and with further changes to the proposals due, it would distort the budgetary figures substantially. The result of all this chopping and changing and retreating in the face of trade union threats will be increased revenue shortfalls and spending overruns.
Even as the budget was being debated, the IMF again warned about the need to take measures to re-establish fiscal consolidation and reduce public spending.
So 2015, which started as a political annus mirabilis, turned into an economic horribilis at the year’s end. The reading is that the new year will see the widening of both political and economic disparities unless consensual governance becomes a reality. That would be hard, given the political roots and the economic traditions of the two parties.
In any case, it is unlikely to improve the economic situation, of which even deft handling will not eliminate all the troubles that pundits say lie ahead.