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
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
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
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.