Editorial/Opinion

Take a cue from the President

President Maithripala Sirisena’s return from his five-day state visit to the Philippines will signal the beginning of a more intensely contentious period between him and the governing United National Front (UNF).
After the end of the 51-day drama, which ended last December, it was thought that the two protagonists had either kissed and made up or agreed to do so going forward, but the current reality is that the two have never been more apart.
Although the UNP leadership has gone to great lengths to portray some sort of unity by indicating that they have no issue working with the President, for his part, the President has not wasted any opportunity to hit out at the party.
A case in point is his trip to the Philippines where the two countries signed five bilateral agreements. These agreements concerning agriculture, education cooperation, tourism, and military exchanges were signed in the absence of the relevant subject ministers, all of whom represent the UNF. Having been left out of the presidential delegation, it is unlikely that any of them were aware of the contents of the agreements.
Funnily enough, according to a tweet from Minister Harsha de Silva, the President took a delegation of Opposition MPs as his official delegation. Under normal circumstances, this should have resulted in a howl of protest from the government MPs, especially the ministers concerned, but except for De Silva’s “by-the-way” remark, the presidential slight has gone unchallenged. This basically explains the ruling party’s lack of appetite for confrontation, which the President will duly note as an inherent weakness of the UNF leadership.
If that was not a slap in the face for the UNP, the President, while in the Philippines, decided to appoint another presidential commission of inquiry to probe corruption issues from 2015 to date. In justifying the appointment, Sirisena said that it was in fulfilment of a promise he made during his election campaign.
One would recall rather vividly that his promise was to probe the excesses of the previous regime which now has been suddenly replaced by the excesses of his estranged election bedfellow.
There is no longer any talk of the progress of the multitude of investigations which commenced in the aftermath of the presidential election of 8 January, 2015; and no longer is there any presidential reference to Yahapalanaya, which is the platform that brought him to power.
The fact that 10 years later, and a good four years under Sirisena’s presidency, the murderers of high profile journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge are still at large says a lot about his commitment to uncover the truth.
This new presidential commission, headed by a retired Supreme Court Justice, has a rather curious mandate which includes inquiring into “acts of criminal breach of trust, criminal misuse of state assets, deceiving or cheating, criminal use of state power or endangering state revenue by those who have held or are holding government office”.
The irony of it all could not be lost even on the most uninitiated. For instance, is it not Sirisena himself who “breached the trust” placed in him by his electors when he compromised his own mandate and appointed a new prime minister on 26 October last year? Then again, is it not “criminal misuse of state assets” that followed the illegal appointment? Was it not blatant “deceiving or cheating?” What about the “criminal use of power” through the state mouthpieces which were criminally taken over? And lastly who is responsible for “endangering state revenue” to the tune on Rs. 300 billion during the 51-day hiatus?
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled the presidential action as illegal, does the matter end there? Could a normal citizen violate the Constitution, cause havoc across the country leading to billions of rupees in losses, not to mention inestimable damage to the image of the country, and then pretend like nothing happened? It is the reinstated Prime Minister and his party that should be asking these questions, but for reasons best known to them, silence seems to be the operative word these days.
Judging by his recent actions, it is quite clear that the only thing on the President’s mind right now that takes precedence over all else, is facing an election and keeping his job for another term. He is going about this with a sense of purpose which is sadly lacking in the rest of his Government.
Sirisena, just as much as his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, has pleasantly realised that the UNF is easy to manipulate. Once the seeds of internal struggle are sown, they are lost in their own world, giving him all the space to do as he pleases. Sirisena is in a unique position which none of his predecessors enjoyed, as he is the head of both the Government as well as the main Opposition in Parliament.
The Opposition agenda will therefore be custom made to suit his requirements. Though not many may realise, given this status quo, Sirisena is in a powerful position and knows it better than anyone else.
Rather conveniently, the presidential committee appointed to probe the post 2015 activities has been given a time frame of three months to submit an interim report and six months to submit the final report. This provides a hint of when the next election will be held. It is not rocket science that the “findings” of the commission will form the bedrock of his re-election campaign; the fireworks will start in three months’ time.
Meanwhile, the discovery of 100 kg of explosives in a location in Wanathawilluwa in Puttalam points to more sinister forces at work in order to create chaos and mayhem in the run up to the polls. The startling fact which mainstream media failed to report was that the detection was made while investigating one of the key suspects in the recent Mawanella incident where Buddhist statues were destroyed with the aim of causing communal clashes.
With the Police now directly under the purview of the President, he should not waste any time in finding out the intended use of the stock of explosives. It is also cause for concern that the main suspect in the Mawanella incident is still at large, and with this discovery, there appears to be a larger plan in the works to disrupt the peace. It seems that no stone will be left unturned in the quest for power.
It was last October that the conspiracy to assassinate the President emerged, leading to the President wasting no time in sacking the Prime Minister. Given the precedence, we cannot help but wonder what’s in store in the days ahead.
Be that as it may, the UNP is busy shooting itself in the foot by introducing a hugely unpopular new carbon tax that will affect millions of vehicle owners including motorcyclists and trishaw owners. The attempt to introduce a new constitution at this late stage too is bound to hurt them where it matters. All that the party needs to do is to take a cue from the President and redraft their agenda for 2019.