VIEWPOINT
April 24, 2015

On the 9th of January President Maithripala Sirisena took his presidential oath in a historical location, the Independence Square in Colombo, amidst crowds who came to witness in support, unlike those generally referred to as ‘bus loads’ shipped in to portray support. President Maithripala came into power as the common candidate through the United National Party led coalition securing the trust of 51.28% of those who voted. The new government, ideologically based on a manifesto titled “A Compassionate Maithri Governance—A Stable Country,” and with “good governance” as it fundamental premise, launched itself with a 100 day governance reform programme.

 

President Maithripala, who belonged to the United Peoples Freedom Alliance under the leadership of the former President Mahinda Rajapakse, crossed over to represent an opposition-led common alliance with an ambitious plan to restore democracy in the country. To be successfull, he will thus need to work with his old party, learn the workings and expectations of the new coalition, study the requirements needed to meet new targets, and master the skills for decisive leadership. The question is - can the President and the incumbent government walk the talk and travel through this “hundred foot journey of good governance” and achieve democracy?

 

 This 100 day programme includes a mix of easy wins and some daunting challenges:

  • Started off with a bang with the reduction of cost of living by presenting an amendment to the 2015 national budget (which was passed in parliament).
  •  Political prisoner Sarath Fonseka was given a full pardon and not only were all his civil rights, rank and decorations reinstated but he was promoted to the rank of first Field Marshal in Sri Lanka.
  • Salaries were revised for public servants. 
  • Introduction and approval of the National Drug Policy Bill 
  • Appointment of the cabinet turned out to be controversial. The first batch of appointments of 27 ministers went over the stated goal of appointing only 25 ministers. By the third week of March, however, with the formation of a National Government, this number climbed to 40. 
  • The number of employees in the Presidential Office was reduced by 1000. Bringing the number down to 600. 
  • Initial steps towards curbing corruption are underway. These are mostly in connection with the henchmen of the former President Mahinda Rajapakse. Although the process is legitimate and requires time, the actions are not considered profound enough to translate well for the general public. The government is under immense pressure from its own constituents as well as the public to show results. In the last week of the 100 day programme, the Bribery Commissioner called former President Mahinda Rajapakse, former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (L) & Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe(R) in Parliament on January 29, 2015 at the presentation of the supplementary budget. Photo credit: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images Minister of Economics, Basil Rajapakse and former Defence Seretary, Gotabaya Rajapakse for questioning. This created an uproar among the followers and supporters of the Rajapakse family and resulted in many protests. Nevertheless, former Minister Basil Rajapakse returned to the country, was questioned and is now held in remand. The process of investigation continues amidst support from the ruling party and objections from the opposition.
  • Unexpected issues related to the bond issue controversy and the new Governor of the Central Bank tested the confidence of the public in March. The new Governor took a leave of absence and a panel was appointed to conduct an investigation, the workings of which were not made public - a fact that was questioned by the business elite. The investigation concluded in the last week of the 100 day programme and resutled with the Governor being back at work.
  • Electoral and constitutional reform are more challenging and remain pending. The parliament will take a vote during the last week of April and the President has called the opposition to support this move. The 19th Amendment to the constitution is widely discussed and debated, with the following five points flooding social media:
    • Bring back the independent commission that was nullified by the 18th Amendment
    • Restore term limits on the presidency and restrict to not more than two terms.
    • Make the President and his exercise of his power accountable to the Parliament.
    • Stop corruption and prevent lawlessness by empowering relevant institutions.
    • Force politicians to work for the people through accountability, transparency and good governance. 
  • The intention to call for General Elections in April was moved, where the parties will contest separately and not as a coalition. The government hopes to gain a majority in parliament with the proposed election, dates not announced.
  • Whilst the internal democratic mechanisms are examined for reform, restoring of strained external relationships are being worked upon too. Discussions with India, China, United Kingdom and the United Nations are of great significance.
    • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka was significant in that he was the first Indian Prime Minister in 30 years to have visited Jaffna and war affected areas in the north of Sri Lanka. He requested the Sri Lankan government to fully implement the 1987 constitutional provision for greater autonomy, which was in line with President Maithripala’s election promise of ethnic reconciliation.
    • The visit to China was more complicated due to the suspension of the Colombo Port City project by the Government of Sri Lanka due to concerns related to environmental impacts, procurement of firms, and the issue of cede or lease of the land to China. Managing the geo-political terrain with India and China is crucial, as the Government of Sri Lanka needs to be strategic, forward thinking and protective of her sovereignty.
    • The conversations with the British were largely focused on human rights and freedom, again a focus on ethnic reconciliation. Meaningful and continued engagement with the United Nations on investigations related to war crimes is a signifiant step for the partnership between the two countries.
    • Several discussions with the United Nations, with the March deadline for the submission of the Commission of Investigation report being moved to September. The Government of Sri Lanka promised the United Nations to have a “credible domestic mechanism” in place.
    • International trade and promotion, foreign direct investments and diplomatic relations are some of the key topics on the table with these and other supporting countries
  • Only time will tell the fruition of these discussions. Nevertheless, the strained relationships with the international community has been restored.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe is acknowledged as the brain behind the incumbent government. This is his third stint as the Prime Minister and he is respected for his close eye on anticorruption, international relations, economic development and constitutional reform. While he is supported by intellectuals and advocates within the government, the clean up process, however, seems daunting and uphill task for all.

As the 50 day mark crossed in early March, many watch-dogs, policy makers and analysts presented opinions. The disappointments of the elite and general public were expressed vehemently. There was a call for more accountability and for a better placed government communication on reality. The self-injected plan of 100 days to portray efficiency and win over the hearts of voters was questioned. This could be a problem of complex management of the present team of leaders or it could be that the existing mess was too overwhelming, the answers were not clear.

As the 100 day mark was reached, the public and politicians alike were equally energised to take stock. During the journey, attrition of trust in the incumbent government and President Maithripala loomed given the wavering levels of delivery and progress. However, President Maithripala may have dealt with this with his address to the nation on the conclusion of 100 days on April 23, 2015. Some of the points stated, in the words of the President are:

International Relations:

  • Through the close friendship displayed by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Indian Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jingping have confirmed their trust placed in us for the protection and growth of freedom and democracy.
  • Therefore, I wish to emphasize to those who question what we have done in the past 100 days that we have regained the international friendship and trust that had considerably declined under the previous government, and that my government and I were able to win over and strengthen this friendship for the benefit of the people of this country.

Freedom of Speech

  • Freedom to speak freely by telephone. In the past 3 months, this freedom has been restored and strengthened. This was similar with media freedom, too.
  • It must be noted that we have firmly established the democratic rights of the people and the freedom of the media.

Rule of Law

  • Today, with the appointment of the Chief Justice, the Commander of Army, all who serve in those sections have a clear acceptance that these appointments had been made on seniority and suitability for such positions. Therefore, we have strengthened the Rule of Law, which is essential for freedom and democracy.

Executive Presidency

  • In order to build a democratic and civilized society, it is necessary to prevent the emergence of dictatorship and taking control of state power, state assets, the judiciary, parliament and all of this to one’s own control that comes from the Executive Presidential system.
  • Therefore, in order to ensure that we build the country that protects the people’s freedom, democracy, promotes civilized society and helps build a disciplined country, it is my belief that every one of you will vote to adopt the 19th Amendment. I call on you to use your valuable vote for this and be a partner in firmly establishing freedom and democracy in this country.

Electoral System

  • A draft bill has been presented to the Cabinet to change the electoral system. Action is being taken to present this to Parliament for adoption.

Presidential Task Force

 

  • Appointed a Presidential Task Force to inquire into corruption and fraud and work on this matter is proceeding effectively.
  • Moving further towards reconciliation, we have now appointed a Presidential Task Force and a
  • Presidential Office for Reconciliation.
  • A special Presidential Task Force has been appointed to regain State assets.

 

The 100 day programme was ambitious and to some extent underestimated the ground reality. The plan did not reflect a thorough risk analysis with a corresponding plan to address these risks. Risks are: political and economic, international relations and capacity and knowledge management of the governance system. Careful risk mitigation will be required in the days ahead.

It is easy for all those sitting outside the box to find fault, point fingers and provide a suit of solutions. It is easier said than done. There is much to do, undo, redo, cut, paste and delete. At the same time the general public requires clear communication and visible action, which will ensure crowds will still gather willingly to support the incumbent government. At the end of the day, the balance of power is crucial. Maithripala Sirisena requires to maintain a level head to increase capacity of government machinery, along with perseverance and dedication to achieve the goal of ‘Democracy’. A journey longer than 100 days is needed to restore democracy in Sri Lanka, but it is achievable with political and public will. 

Niroshinie N. Nayagam is a senior strategist, consulting at present for the United Nations Office for Project Services, Denmark, World Vision Australia and Sustineo Private Limited, Australia.

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