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Sunday, 04 September 2016

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Both at 65

In a remarkable coincidence, President Maithripala Sirisena today celebrates his 65th birthday just two days after marking the 65th 'birthday' of the political party he heads.

While President Sirisena has made history on his own by becoming the 'common candidate' for both the country's major political parties in a presidential election, his party has also made history by dramatically and decisively contributing to this country's post-colonial revival and national consolidation.

Today, he is at the helm of this nation at a challenging time of national recovery not simply from a devastating internal war but also from the ravages of a decade of corrupt and autocratic rule that has severely undermined the entire State system.

At the same, he must lead his own political party away from a state of internal decay caused by that same dynamic of corruption and autocracy. Today, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party holds its national convention in Kurunegala facing huge challenges of internal bickering and some resistance to his leadership of the party.

The SLFP, today, must deal with the threat of a split, something that is not new to the party, just as much as many other national political parties, in this country and the world over, have experienced similar challenges. But despite all its own experiences of racism, nepotism and authoritarianism, the party has retained its basic democratic spirit as demonstrated by Mr. Sirisena himself in answering a question at a presidential news media briefing last Friday.

Asked as to whether his leadership position was secure in the context of the intense divisions and rivalries within his party, Mr. Sirisena pointed out that the leadership position in question was that of a political party and was not his personal property.

Thus, it was not for him to decide or to declare the legitimacy of his chairmanship of the party but, rather, that was in the hands of the party membership and collective leadership. Whether he means it or not (and this country has known many pretenders), at least Mr. Sirisena was sensitive enough and careful enough to answer in the spirit of democracy and collective decision-making.

These are important markers that indicate that the democratic pulse beats in the political culture within his party - to which he is also sensitive. This remarkable resilience of democracy can be seen in many facets of Sri Lankan social and political life despite the long decades of ethnic violence, communal rivalry, ethno-nationalist intolerance, authoritarianism, nepotism and war.

The party today looks to the future with some uncertainty given the severity of the winds of internal disruption. However, as the President himself pointed out at that same media briefing, such disruptions are part of politics and in the life of many political parties and movements.

Both the UNP and SLFP have previously experienced inner party dissent and even actual splits, only to recover - sometimes with those same rebels re-entering the party to contribute to its political success.

Mr. Sirisena is now part of the 'old guard' of his party, a member of a generation that has succeeded the original leadership. In addition to the problems of internal dissension, the SLFP leadership faces the challenge to build a new generation of party leaders from the grassroots upwards. As the son of a farmer and, a farmer himself in his youth, Mr. Sirisena knows better than those politicians born at higher social levels, the essence and motif of the 'grassroots'.

And the 'grassroots' in Sri Lanka, today, are social layers that are on the move - leaping upwards in social mobility thanks to the modern social welfare structures of free education, free health and many other social-democratic facilities such as the security of employment.

Both major political parties - the SLFP and its progenitor, the UNP - have contributed differently to this social development. It is the UNP that has made the most decisive contribution in terms of strategy for economic development.

It is the SLFP that has led the way in social and cultural empowerment of the people. And other parties - of the Left and of the ethnic minorities - have also made their respective contributions in terms of social justice and minority rights.

At a time when the Constitution is (again) under discussion, political parties have additional burdens to bear in facilitating the maximum participation of the citizenry in an inclusive process of political deliberation and consensus-building.

Impressively, the National Unity government has set in motion one of the most participatory processes in constitution-making this land has experienced. Thousands of inspired and interested groups of citizens have made submissions on diverse aspects of the new State they wish to see built on this soil - a soil fertile but also blood-soaked.

It is to be hoped that Mr. Sirisena and his party colleagues will lead their party through the tumult and debate of the convention towards a new beginning: for their political organisation and for the country.

The United National Party will shortly hold its own convention - also in these same epoch-making circumstances of constitution-formation and national recovery. While, at this particular historical juncture the 'Grand Old Party' of Sri Lanka does not face the same internal challenges that the SLFP faces, the UNP has done so in the past.

The GOP will be watching events in Kurunegala not just to ensure that its key coalition partner remains strong but also to learn the future direction, new capacities and, most importantly, the internal management skills that, hopefully, will see the SLFP transcend current leadership battles and nurture a future leadership.

The citizens will wish both Mr. Sirisena and his party well as they look to the future.

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