The idea of a common Presidential Candidate was not new in itself – it was tried at the 2010 Presidential Election – but at the tail end of November 2014, a revolution took place in Sri Lankan politics that would rewrite history. Just a few months earlier, the situation looked hopeless as no candidate who could challenge the incumbent President seemed to be emerging.
A candidate did indeed emerge in November 2014. Maithripala Sirisena fronted the broadest political coalition ever assembled (“The Rainbow Coalition”) in Sri Lanka, to contest the Presidency and gained a resounding victory on January 8, 2015. He will be stepping into his third year in office, today.
These two years have seen a marked departure from the previous presidencies. All Sri Lankan Presidents have promised to do away with the Executive Presidency or at least prune its excessive powers, but only President Sirisena has had the courage to go ahead with plans to do so. One of the most significant achievements of the President (and the National Unity Government that followed) was the passing of the 19th Amendment, which completely overturned the draconian provisions of the 18th Amendment. He oversaw the pruning of many presidential powers and the term limit (of two terms) was restored.
This was just one salient feature of the Yahapalana (Good Governance) concept that the President and the Government promised to bring to Lankan politics. The Right to Information (RTI) mechanism, which will fully come into effect from Independence Day this year is one of the most significant pillars of Good Governance. This empowers citizens (not just journalists) to get information from Government ministries and agencies on request. For example, if a villager wants to know how much the repaving of the village road cost and who received the contract, the authorities are obliged to provide that information to the villager. The RTI has broad implications in terms of transparency, the anti-corruption drive and conduct of Government bodies. Media freedom as well as freedom of expression are two other rights that have been given due attention by the Government.
Ensuring the independence of the Judiciary is another achievement of the Government. The judiciary faced its nadir with the impeachment of the then Chief Justice, Shiranee Bandaranayake, a few years ago. This situation has been reversed. Various courts have given verdicts that were not favourable to the Government, yet, there has been no adverse reaction from the Government, unlike in the past.
It was equally important to ensure the independence of the Police service which had previously been politically subjugated. This was one of the aims of establishing the Independent Police Commission. Likewise, independent commissions have been established for the Public Service, Elections and Judicial Services, apart from the Constitutional Council itself. The idea is to grant greater independence for these services and depoliticize them. This aim has more or less been achieved, with room for improvement.
President Sirisena has insisted on making changes to the current Proportional Representation system of elections. There is universal agreement among all political parties that this divisive and derisive system should be replaced with a system that truly reflects the will of the people. We should soon see elections being held under a new electoral system to rejuvenate the democratic process.
The President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have vowed to wipe out corruption from politics and elsewhere. This is essential for development. Several investigative bodies, including the Commission to Investigate Bribery and Corruption and the Financial Crimes Investigations Division, are probing high profile cases that allegedly took place during the previous administration. The two leaders have emphasized that corruption will not be tolerated now or in the future.
The other most significant achievement of the Maithripala Sirisena administration occurred in the foreign relations sphere. Our relations with the rest of the world were at a low ebb for a few years and we only had a few outcast countries among our friends. This Government immediately set about the task of restoring relations with the West, with which we had an acrimonious relationship, especially, after the conflict ended. The reality is that our trade depends mainly on the West, the United States and EU accounting for more than 70 percent of our exports. Any economic sanctions imposed by these countries on human rights and accountability grounds would have hurt the economy adversely.
Fortunately, this Government constructively engaged the international community on these issues, both, at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and outside if it. Most countries that had previously voted against Sri Lanka in resolutions at the UNHRC sided with Sri Lanka after the new Government took a series of viable steps to ensure human rights and uphold law and order. Sri Lanka is looking forward to working closely with the incoming Donald Trump administration on these and other matters of mutual concern.
In fact, both, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have travelled in an official capacity to several friendly countries, including, China and India, outlining investment and trade opportunities available in Sri Lanka. They have also spoken at several world fora on the same lines. There has been a positive response to these overtures, with a discernible rise in foreign investments. The Government must however, address the bureaucratic red tape sometimes observed in granting permission for these foreign investment projects. More Free Trade Agreements are in the offing, including one with China, which has already committed to invest in the Hambantota area.
The next three years will hopefully spur an economic and social transformation, led by the Government’s newly unveiled three-year economic development program and the new Constitution which is still being formulated amid discussion and debate. It is the very essence of a vibrant democracy.
The path ahead is certainly not rosy. Cohabitation is not always easy and there are bound to be disagreements and dissenting voices on various issues concerning governance among the different parties in the Government. But, they have to reach a middle ground in order to take the country forward because the ultimate aim of all is to usher in a better future for the people.