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Sunday, 10 January 2016

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Changing the democratic landscape

A rare breed of a gentleman politician with an impeccable track record, untainted by either violence or corruption President Maithripala Sirisena changed the political landscape at the January 8, 2015 Presidential Election and became the sixth Executive President of Sri Lanka after a silent revolution.

During his short span of one year, President Maithripala Sirisena as a political leader with a genuine national interest, has introduced a number of democratic reforms in the country which the people had been clamouring for years.

President Sirisena, the longest serving general secretary of the SLFP announced his surprise decision on November 21, 2014 to quit his party and contest the 2015 Presidential Election as the Common Opposition Candidate.

In his longstanding political career, the President had practised moderate and clean politics which became a rallying point for the politically distraught Sri Lankans to change the regime and herald good governance in the country.

He reached consensus with 49 organisations, political parties and civil society groups to draft his election manifesto and the election campaign. They were the UNP, Democratic Party, SLMC, TNA and the JVP.

President Sirisena defeated his predecessor who was seeking an unprecedented third term as Executive President.

Maithripala Sirisena was the first member of the rural agricultural peasantry to be elected Executive President of Sri Lanka. He hails from Polonnaruwa, the second ancient kingdom in the country.

The President being a friendly and unassuming political figure ended authoritarianism and nepotism and has shown a sense of commitment to duty and service to the people with emphasis on simplicity.

President Sirisena during his short tenure in office has fostered the ideals of democracy, freedom, fundamental rights, human rights and media freedom and won a strong public mandate to set up a new government at the General Elections on August 17, 2015.

Another epoch-making event took place soon after the August 17 General Election when the Central Committee of the SLFP, the main constituent of the UPFA agreed to form a National Government with the UNP for two years and signed an MoU between two parties on August 20, 2015.

As pledged in his Election Manifesto 'Maithree Palanayak', the President introduced the Hundred-Day program soon after he assumed office. The Hundred-Day program introduced socio- democratic reforms such as pruning down the powers of the Executive Presidency, 19th Amendment to the Constitution, summoning an All Party Representative Committee, investigating allegations of massive corruption, a National Drug Policy and the Constitutional Council.

Parliament also passed legislation to 'Assist and Protect Victims of Crime and Witnesses' on February 19, 2015, another landmark.

Under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, initiatives were taken to set up several independent commissions such as the National Police Commission, Judicial Services Commission, Public Service Commission, Elections Commission, Bribery Commission and Human Rights Commission.

The Government will also enact the Right to Information (RTI) Act and a code of conduct for MPs. The President also granted a pay hike for public servants and reduced fuel and gas prices. Under President Sirisena's stewardship, the SLFP and the UPFA collaborated to fulfill the tasks in his election manifesto to restore good governance- Yahapalanaya.

Regrettably, there is widespread public disillusionment with the Yahapalanaya government's failure to ensure any of the big-time political fraudsters involved in massive financial scams are convicted.

The much-awaited RTI has not been passed by the legislature, despite assurances made during the election time.

When the President was the Health Minister in the former UPFA government, he fought tooth and nail with multinational tobacco companies, both in and outside the court, to introduce pictorial warnings on cigarette packets to educate the public on the adverse effects of smoking. During the two and a half year legal battle, there were occasions when he had to wait for hours on end, watching court proceedings. Finally he won. Every cigarette packet carried pictorial warnings on 60 percent of its surface from January 2015.

President Sirisena came to power with the backing of minority Tamils and Muslims and pledged to ensure ethnic reconciliation and end corruption and nepotism that plagued his predecessor's rule.

After his election, the President ordered the Security Forces to return thousands of acres of private land they occupied in the Jaffna peninsula to their owners. A couple of days ago, the President had said that nearly 100,000 people still live in camps, six years after the end of the ethnic war. In six months they will be given land to build homes. The President will hand over the tile deeds for a 600-acre land in Jaffna to their rightful owners on Thai Pongal Day, January 15.

The human rights record has improved significantly since President Sirisena took office. Under the President's leadership, the government took positive steps to address human rights and democracy concerns including the setting up of new institutions and undertaking legal reforms.

This led to the improvement of freedom of expression, while exiled journalists were invited to return to the country and several banned websites were unblocked. The President has shown his government's sincere desire to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final stages of the conflict. In addition, the government also announced the reopening of investigations into several high-profile murders, including those of Parliamentarians D.M Dassanayake, Joseph Pararajasinghan, Nadarajah Raviraj and T. Maheshwaran as well as the assassination of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga and the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda.

He made state visits to India, the UK, China, Pakistan, Maldives, United States, Thailand, Malta, France and Vatican City following the invitation extended by the leaders of those countries.

The President made his first overseas visit to India from February 15 to 18, 2015 on the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The President addressed the 70 th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 30, 2015 and Leaders' Summit on Peace Keeping, New York on September 28, 2015. During his time in New York, the President held bilateral talks with US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modhi and leaders of Malta, Pakistan, New Zealand and Australia.

President Sirisena also had a special meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry. President Srisena addressing the UN General Assembly said that a new era of democracy dawned on Sri Lanka on January 8, 2015 ushering in justice, freedom and equality. Our social and human development approach is founded on pluralism, reconciliation and sustainable development.

The President has called for proposals to draft a new Constitution while a resolution was moved in Parliament yesterday ( January 9) to convert the House into a Constituent Assembly.

After the draft constitution is passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority, it will be endorsed at an islandwide referendum.

 

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