Commentary: Lanka’s new president won the electoral battle, but the political war awaits
By: Hector Welgampola
With political alacrity, Sri Lankans have voted in a new president thwarting an incumbent’s plan for an unprecedented third term seen as a move to further entrench dynastic power. The cosmic speed of behind-the-scene events before and after the Jan. 8 election took many by surprise.
Was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to quit midway through vote-counting a final act of magnanimity or a crafty move to ensure his political future? Where does it leave the kitchen cabinet of siblings and son, who continue to hold office? Before returning to his native village, Rajapaksa had a final tete-a-tete with soon-to-be prime minster Ranil Wickremesinghe, a longtime friend, though vintage political antagonist. What transpired remains unknown. Only history or future political memoirs will divulge the mystery of the Rajapaksa exit.
Some insights may be discerned from newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena’s speedy decision to be sworn-in within hours of his victory. The ceremony was simple but rich in symbolism. In order to counter witness to the lavish presidential lifestyle of the past, the Gandhian new president had instructed his staff to restrict his inauguration expenses to fifty dollars. He took the oath of office in the presence of a Tamil judge of the Supreme Court, not in the presence of the country’s chief justice, Mohan Pieris, the Catholic appointee promoted by Rajapaksa after impeaching Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike.
Reportedly, the installation was unduly speeded up partly to relieve the public regarding fears of an alleged military intervention. Two days before the Jan. 8 election, a Muslim citizen wrote a 13-point open letter to the army commander deploring politicization of the military. All armed forces are under the defense secretary, Rajapaksa sibling Gotabhaya. Social media too reported that even before President Sirisena swore him in as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe had private discussions with military leaders to assuage army fears of counter politicization, as well as to allay public fears.
Social peace and stability will be essential if the new president is to implement his 100-day program of constitutional reform and return to a just and equitable system of governance. He heads a rather loose coalition of disparate political elements, some of whose retinue may be nursing hopes of political perks and rewards. But the new president’s greatest asset is public confidence and hope for a return to an era of peace and social justice based on the equality of all citizens irrespective of race, religion or political persuasion. He received the unprecedented support of all ethnic groups. His highest percentage of votes came from the Tamil-speaking northern and eastern regions.
After a decade of discrimination, partisan politics, nepotism and corruption, the ethnically and economically fractured nation of 21 million will have thousands of grievances. The religious sector has the unenviable role of soothing their anxieties and championing their just causes. Religious leaders must heed the chiding by the nation and recommit themselves to guiding rulers with diligence and not pandering to their weaknesses. Much fallout of this period of transition could be contained if Church leaders act as Romeros, not as Richelieus.
In a statement to Fides news agency, Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy, has already welcomed the election of Sirisena. The country’s senior bishop expressed hope that the new president would implement the program of anti-corruption, good governance, commitment to development and reconciliation he placed before the country’s bishops.