Assessing 22 months of National Unity goveRnment:
Everything depends on coalition continuity
Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
Pic: Lake House Media Library
Twenty months ago a decision was made that changed the course of the
country. Many factors contributed to what happened next. Many
individuals, organizers and the majority of the voters played important
and even crucial roles in how things unfolded. However, if one man had
not taken an all-important decision, we may not be where we are today,
we may have been even poorer.
Only a man endowed with immense courage, self-confidence, sense of
purpose and trust in the people could have made the decision to break
ranks with his political party and go against the leader who even his
most tenacious opponents considered invincible.
Maithripala Sirisena may have felt his moment had arrived since he
was a seasoned politician. He may have been pushed to make the decision
by a consideration of the relevant factors and the persuasive arguments
of key members of the political opposition to the then regime such as
Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya, as well
as civil society leaders such as the late Ven Madoluwawe Sobitha Thero.
Such factors he would have had to consider along with the fate that
befell Sarath Fonseka in 2010. The fact that Maithripala Sirisena was
the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party made a huge
difference. His decision clearly tilted the odds against Mahinda
Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena’s courage would inevitably be tested
after assuming office. He would also be challenged to bridge seemingly
impossible gaps, create trust and unite a nation broken along ethnic,
religious and party lines.
Today, 22 months later, two years into Maithripala Sirisena’s
presidency and more than a year after the consolidation of the Unity
Government following the General Election, a question is being asked:
have things changed and if so, is it for the better? The quick answer is
that things are indeed better but they could have been much better.
In fact the climate of freedom that has enabled open and harsh
criticism has by and large made people forget how things were before 8
An assessment would be useful, therefore.
The program was ambitious, a lot promised in the first 100 days.
Progress was made on important issues, but it was and still is perceived
to be slow. Two reasons can be attributed to this. The first, an
over-optimistic new regime failed to understand that systems and
cultures, especially bad ones, are extremely resilient.
Second, the impatience of the people – when quick fixes are expected,
disappointment and disillusionment usually follow. Frustration is a
result of high expectations not being fulfilled. Countries are seldom
turned around in a flash. Bloody revolutions can do it, but there’s a
heavy price to pay. We saw a democratic revolution on 8 January 2015.
Maithripala Sirisena and the Unity Government formed with Ranil
Wickremesinghe inherited a next to bankrupt economy, a political culture
marked by abuse and apathy, officials, incompetent or timid or both, and
robust systems that are veritable partners in crimes of corrupt
politicians. It was certainly a situation that had to be handled
They could not afford to let emotions get the better of them. Sober,
careful and pragmatic measures had to be taken with a view to long-term
recovery. Unfortunately, we inhabit a political culture where those who
favour reason over rhetoric, and the pragmatic over the popular, are
seen as weak and ineffective.
Had President Sirisena opted to crack the whip hard as his
predecessor did he may have been called a strong and decisive leader.
The truth is, strength and decisiveness are not about putting political
opponents behind bars through the abuse of the judicial system.
Restraint requires more strength. Restraint is necessary because its
absence is part of the reason why democracy has suffered so much over
the past several decades. If Rule of Law and Democracy are to be
re-established it would have been erroneous to do things as they were
done before. If wrongdoers were treated the way Sarath Fonseka and
Shirani Bandaranayake were treated, for example, it would not create a
better country but further compromise Democracy and the Rule of Law.
When the foundations of democracy have been seriously damaged it is
not possible to restore the edifice without relaying the base. That’s
what the 19th Amendment and the Right to Information Act were about.
Maithripala Sirisena is the only president who willingly conceded some
of the enormous powers vested in his office.
This even his strongest critics cannot deny. With the creation of
independent commissions, President Sirisena and the Unity Government
have put the country on the path to a more accountable and transparent
system of governance. These changes have been complemented by the
restoration of judicial independence. Slowly but surely the people are
beginning to trust the courts.
Politicians are slowly but surely realizing that being elected is not
a licence to throw their weight around. The previous government was
feared but not respected. The present regime is respected but not
feared. Conviction generally works better than compulsion. A people who
feel they belong and who believe they have ownership stakes are more
likely to work with passion.
Before 8 January 2015 we had a situation where few politicians or
officials dared to object to directives from the top. Today, we do have
some lethargic public servants who drag their feet or whine that they
don’t want to be hauled to the FCID, but then again no innocent person
has been prosecuted. Hopefully we will evolve to a point when anyone in
power who steps out of line is questioned. Systems are being put in
place and we are not too far away from a situation where wrongdoers in
this Government will be investigated, something that was unthinkable two
We still have a fair distance to go before the citizens can truly
they belong, and their voices are heard. Initial gains on the
democratic front should not lull anyone into complacency. The gains have
been offset by poor judgment in appointments, selective pursuit of
suspected wrongdoers and internal contradictions. Not all ills can be
attributed to the faults of the previous regime.
President Sirisena, had to be a unifying factor, and since being
elected has had to keep the forces of democratic change together, united
and focused. He had to deal with dissidents and dissent within his
party. The President and the Prime Minister have both had to struggle to
overcome the ‘traditional antagonisms’ between the parties they lead,
even as they try to strengthen these very same parties. The coalition is
intact but is fragile and errors as well as deliberate bending of rules
can only make things worse.
The commitment to create a society free of hatred, violence and fear
reiterated by the President at the United National General Assembly a
few days ago. A constitutional reform process is under way. There has to
be give-and-take across the board and here a sober, patient and
empathetic leader like the President is a tremendous source of strength
for these are the attributes required of a person whose task it is to
draw people from extremes as well as peripheries to the centre and
common ground. President Sirisena is a man who listens, who measures his
words, qualities that have earned him respect and positioned him to play
the role of a unifier in a broader context – that of overall national
It would be naïve to say that the difficult part is done. The reform
project is incomplete – electoral reform has unfortunately been
postponed. The political reforms have to be matched by performance on
the economic front. The civil service has to be revamped, and systems
put in place. As the President pointed out in New York the war on drugs
needs to be fought on all fronts and relentlessly too.
Everything, depends on the continued partnership between the two
major political parties. Democratization can never be driven by the
undemocratic, the rhetorician, the rabble-rouser; it is only someone in
the calibre of Maithripala Sirisena who can navigate things at this
point and only with the continued support of a leader like Ranil
It remains to be seen whether the two will see the country through
this tough and necessary period of democratization. They understand that
if either or both put party before country, both would lose and the hope
for a more democratic Sri Lanka will consequently diminish.
The party faithful need to understand this too.
Fortunately, in them, we have two leaders who are at the helm and one
cannot ask for two individuals better suited to be in charge at this
point. They need the right people in the right places. This is not easy
in a country that suffers from a serious human resources crisis.
It is now more advisable to look to tasks yet undone rather than the
achievements, remarkable though they are, considering the state of the
country before the 8 January 2015.