Sirisena Likely to Break Pledge Not to Seek a Second Term
Sri Lankan President signals ‘do not look for a candidate’ to supporters
COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent statements displaying an uncharacteristically aggressive stance on the issue of corruption and the Central Bank bond scam, indicate not just a desire to go down in Lankan history as a gladiator against corruption, but also to prepare the ground for a second term in office.
But he would be breaking a pledge he took so sanctimoniously when he assumed office three years ago in January 2015 not to seek a second term.
Sirisena took that pledge to stand in contrast to his predecessor, Mahinds Rajapaksa, who brought in the 18th.Amendment which removed the two-term cap on the Presidency.
In January 2015, Sirisena had declared that he was assuming the Presidency only to abolish the all-too powerful Executive Presidency, restore democracy and promote ethnic reconciliation. He pledged to achieve all this in a single term as President.
But he is now hinting that he might stand for the top post again when it comes up for grabs in January 2020.
Earlier this week, the media reported him as saying that he is determined to fulfill his election promise to root out corruption in the country and punish the thieves and that he will not quit until he has sent the guilty jail.
“I can quit at any time but I will not before I send the corrupt to hell,” the President said publicly.
Even as he said this, the President’s office announced that a committee of experts had met under his chairmanship to chalk out a plan to take legal steps against those who had been found to be corrupt by the various commissions of inquiry. The Attorney General was asked to proceed with legal action.
A Special High Court is to be set up to try corruption cases and a law passed to recover ill-gotten wealth.
It was reported that Sirisena is also planning to take over from the Prime Minister the committee which is overseeing of the economic ministries. Since corruption (which is massive and deep rooted in Sri Lanka as in other South Asian countries) cannot be rooted out before his term ends in January 2020, just two years down the line, political observers wonder if Sirisena plans to continue beyond that to fulfill his promise. And that means contesting the January 8, 2020 Presidential election.
In fact, some members of his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have already declared that Sirisena will be the party’s candidate for the Presidency in 2020.
The first indication of Sirisena’s interest in a second term appeared on January 8 this year, when he asked the Supreme Court if the constitution would permit him to be in office for six years instead of five as stated in the 19th Amendment. Justifying his query at a public event recently, Sirisena said that some people were asking if he could remain President for six years, one year more than the five years given by the 19th.Amendment of the constitution, on the grounds that he was directly elected by the people on January 8, 2015 for a term of six years and not five. The cap of five years was put months later in April 2015, with the passage of the 19th.Amendment, they pointed out.
Sirisena would not have put this question to the Supreme Court if he was keen on stepping down at the end of five years, whether the country’s problems like corruption were solved or not. He clearly wanted extra time.
After the Supreme Court told him that the 19th.Amendment was clear that the five year term applied to him too, irrespective of the popular mandate he had got for six years, Sirisena appears to be thinking of contesting the next election, which he can. The 19th.Amendment allows two terms for a President.
Issues such as corruption, ensuring democracy, ethnic reconciliation and cooperation with the rest of the world, are complex and cannot be solved in the three years Sirisena is now left with. He needs another five year term to achieve his economic and political goals.
These goals are: taking full control of his Center-Left party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP); marginalizing if not obliterating the challenge from his principal internal and external rival, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa; and ending the ideologically inappropriate and creaky alliance with the United National Party (UNP) led by the neo-liberal Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The signal Sirisena is sending out to his fellow SLFPers through his resolve not to quit before he roots out corruption and punishes the corrupt, is: “Don’t look for another leader in the near future.” In other words, what he is saying is that, he is not going to be a lame duck President who is on his way out.
The signal to the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is that it has a long term challenge ahead. The political vacuum the Rajapaksa camp is expecting in two years’ time may not materialize in January 2020.
Sirisena’s expectation is that those who are now with Rajapaksa might lose confidence in him if he shows determination to stay put and pursue the corruption cases against Rajapaksa and his cohorts and puts them behind bars. And since these cases need time to be rendered fit to stand judicial scrutiny, he needs time in office to see them through.
Sirisena has had a tough time explaining why he agreed to make Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister in January 2015, when the latter’s party the UNP, was not the single largest party in parliament and why he took over the SLFP and later declared that he would never make Rajapaksa Prime Minister even his faction became the single largest party in parliament after the August 2015 general elections.
The President said that his moves were not motivated by a desire for self-aggrandizement but by a desire to fulfill his pledge to bring back democracy; end the officially sanctioned culture of intimidation and abduction, and catch and punish the corrupt.
Towards these ends he appointed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister instead of choosing somebody from the SLFP then under the control of Rajapaksa. When Rajapaksa offered him the mantle of the leadership of the SLFP, he took it because he needed to control the then single largest party in parliament instead of leaving it to Rajapaksa.
And again, in the run up to the August 2015 parliamentary elections, he announced that he would not make Rajapaksa Prime Minister even if the pro-Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP became the single largest group in parliament.
Sirisena said that he did not take action against the Rajapaksa group between January and August 2015 because he needed its MPs to pass the 19th.Amendment, which pruned the powers of the Executive President, reduced the Presidential term from six to five, and put a cap of two terms for a President as per his election manifesto.
As President, he did try to point out the mistakes of the UNP-led government; reversed some of the untenable and controversial decisions in the interest of the people; and set up commissions of inquiry into the misdeeds of the cohorts of the incumbent government as well as the leading lights of the Rajapaksa regime.
He is now earnest about taking the fight against corruption to its logical conclusion and is seeking time for that.