Pressure island

62Sirisena Miles to go: Sirisena at a cultural show in Colombo on January 9 | AFP

Sirisena completes a year as president, but he still has many promises to fulfil

It has been just over a year since Sri Lanka celebrated, with firecrackers and hosannas, the underdog, Maithripala Sirisena, becoming the president of the island nation in January 2015. The expectations were high and the new president, along with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, riding on the euphoria of defeating the seemingly unbeatable Mahinda Rajapaksa, went on a now proven utopian task of bringing about “good governance” in 100 days. One year down the line, the words “good governance” are little more than a joke and the only solace is that criticising Sirisena and Wickremesinghe does not merit a horrible fate as was seen during the previous regime. Police brutality on student protests, however, has continued.

On becoming president, Sirisena faced a major structural hurdle. Parliament was still controlled by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and his alliance, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Sirisena’s main backer in the election, the United National Party (UNP), had only 43 MPs in a house of 225. But, gradually, especially after the parliamentary elections in August, Sirisena gained control of the SLFP and a majority of the UPFA by using the questionable method of engineering defections. Today, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo has two-thirds majority in parliament, but challenges remain.

In April 2015, even before getting a majority, Sirisena moved the 19th constitutional amendment bill meant to drastically prune the gargantuan powers of his own office—the executive presidency. It was passed with an overwhelming majority. The constitutional council and the various independent commissions that the amendment set up circumscribed the president’s powers over high-level appointments and the functioning of key institutions except the defence forces. But it had been his election promise to completely abolish executive presidency. In the new year, he has kickstarted the process of drafting a new constitution which will give Sri Lanka a parliamentary form of government and ensure ethnic reconciliation, human rights and the rule of law.

Sirisena has pledged to give the country a new constitution by the end of the year, but political pundits doubt if he can. Given the entrenched fears of minorities becoming too powerful in a country where 70 per cent of the population is Sinhalese Buddhist, the devolution of power to the provinces and giving statutory rights to the Tamil minority, denied to them since independence in 1948, will pose immense problems.

The expectations of the Tamils—having military presence removed from the north-east, release of jailed LTTE prisoners and getting their land back from the military, which control areas in high security zones—are still thorns in the side of the Tamil National Alliance.

International obligations

As part of the promises made to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2015, Sirisena is to set up a judicial mechanism to investigate and try war crimes cases, mostly against the Sri Lankan armed forces, and report to the UNHRC orally in June, and in a written submission in September. As foreign involvement in this exercise is generally unacceptable to the Sri Lankan polity, many wonder if Sirisena will be able to survive politically if he were to set up a hybrid mechanism under US and western pressure.

Tricky issue of corruption

Bringing the corrupt of the last regime to book and ensuring good governance have been a major challenge for Sirisena. And, it is likely to remain so in 2016. Although more than 2,000 cases have been filed with the various investigative agencies, and some have also been filed in courts, the slow progress has caused public dismay. The government is handicapped by lack of staff and there are political compulsions to go slow against SLFP stalwarts, because many of them, now with Sirisena, might leave him to rejoin Rajapaksa, who is biding his time. Rajapaksa himself is a hard nut to crack given his popularity among SLFP voters.

But the anti-corruption brigade will brook no excuses and could turn against Sirisena, as indeed many have, going by the acidic comments on social media. “What was expected of this government was to clear up the mess created by the former government and to eradicate rogues. But the same rogues have got ministerial positions. The biggest crooks who robbed the country are running free,” says Anura Kumara, leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who provided tactical support to Sirisena in the presidential election.

Economic challenges

Sirisena will face tough times on the economic front. The Rajapaksa regime had left the country with huge international debts. The money owed to China is enormous. The government’s bid to raise money through fresh taxes in the 2016 budget almost completely failed because of a rash of public agitations. And while the government is committed to spending huge amounts on welfare, it will be forced to go by the International Monetary Fund’s prescription to be austere.

Following wide protests from people of diverse vocations and professions, more than 10 key budget proposals, all intended to curb costs and increase revenue for the government, were changed. Sirisena was at odds with China when he came to power, suspending multi-billion dollar Chinese projects on charges of corruption and over-invoicing. But he has since made up with Beijing as there is no other country which can lend Sri Lanka so heavily and execute projects of its choice without asking questions.

Balanced relations with India

Unlike Rajapaksa, Sirisena is friendly with India. But, given Sri Lankan fears of Indian hegemony, he would not pander to it. He has denied that Sri Lanka will sign the controversial Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India, which would have allowed the entry of Indians into the services sector in Sri Lanka. But he would respect India’s security concerns. Recently, when Pakistan wanted to sell its JF-17 jet fighters to Sri Lanka, India expressed its opposition, and Sirisena promptly backed out of the deal.

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