President strives for populist vote
Screen to print by Dinouk Colombage
President Maithripala Sirisena was in the news this past week, once again, for all the wrong reasons. Less than a week after the annual Vesak day presidential pardons which are handed out to individuals convicted of various crimes, news emerged that the President was issuing a special presidential pardon for convicted Buddhist monk and BBS General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera. At the time of writing, there had been no official confirmation of the pardon; however, mainstream media had confirmed the release.
Both the timing of the release and the individual in question has led to many questions being raised by the public. Just over a week prior to the expected release of the firebrand Buddhist monk, the country was facing islandwide curfews in the face of growing ethnic violence. Gnanasara Thera himself is no stranger to inciting violence. Back in 2014, he delivered a vociferous speech in Aluthgama which led to several days of rioting which targeted Muslim shops and homes.
While little action had been taken against Gnanasara Thera on that occasion, it was in 2018 that he was finally jailed for a period of six years for contempt of court. While he was not punished for inciting racial violence, the General Secretary of the BBS was held accountable for his behaviour. The sentencing of the Buddhist monk led to widespread celebrations online, with many commentators hailing the decision as a step forward in re-establishing the rule of law in the country.
Unfortunately, this past week, the President’s special pardon (if delivered) is now being described as a step back in the independence of the judiciary which was previously established through the 19th Amendment.
Sources within the Government indicated that the decision by the President was an unpopular one, with many members expressing surprise and disappointment. The recent riots in Minuwangoda and Kurunegala had left the public questioning whether or not the Government was capable of ensuring the security of the citizens. Certainly, the President’s decision to pardon this individual who has a history of flaming the fire of ethnic tensions will reduce further confidence in the Government.
The President, who was overseas during the recent riots, had been criticised by senior UNP members of the Government who described the decision as simply an attempt to win votes.
The news of the pardon, which broke on Wednesday (22) evening, followed the announcement made by the Prime Minister that education in the country was to be revamped, which would see a public school system implemented based on the Sri Lankan identity and not on language or religion. The announcements by the two leaders clearly suggest a different approach to the upcoming elections.
Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s pledge to re-craft the education system seems to be based on strengthening the Sri Lankan identity through a greater sense of inclusivity for all ethnic groups. The President, on the other hand, appears to be making a last ditch attempt to appeal to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ votes while disregarding the minority support that ensured his victory in 2015.
Lost political mileage
The controversial pardon by the President was not the first step taken in a disjointed effort to regain lost ground. Earlier this week, a video emerged online of a traffic block caused when a road was closed by the Police; it was alleged that a VVIP was travelling down that road. The motorists in the vehicles had demonstrated their anger by horning continuously. This matter was raised at the weekly Cabinet meeting. The President subsequently announced through his media division that no roads would be closed for VVIPs.
The announcement failed to garner any significant reaction from the public, but it clearly indicates that the President is scrambling to reclaim lost political mileage.
His announcement gains more significance when compared with the lack of communiqué from his office during the recent riots. On Monday (13) night, when riots erupted around the country, the Prime Minister was swift in making a national statement calling for calm while instructing security forces to ensure that peace was restored. However, the President, to date, has not made any comment regarding the riots.
His decision to remain silent on the riots, while also approving a special presidential pardon for Gnanasara Thera, suggests that he has well and truly abandoned efforts to win minority support for the upcoming election. In fact, the President went out of his way to ensure Gnanasara Thera’s release was given full publicity by not issuing his pardon along with the other 762 pardons issued on Vesak day.
The President’s commitment to appealing to the perceived populist voices was further highlighted through his trip to China. Despite being a pre-planned trip, the President’s media remain tight lipped on the outcome of the visit, choosing to release only snippets of the news that he had signed several agreements related to the defence infrastructure of the country. While there has been no official confirmation of what exactly the President has agreed to, it appears that he had attempted to appease those demanding a firmer hand in dealing with security matters in the country.
It does warrant mentioning that while the President was overseas discussing security matters, he failed to address the riots which had endangered the lives of the minority communities within the country.
The two ruling factions of the Government, the President and the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, have clearly indicated the stance that they will be adopting in the upcoming elections. The UNPers have demonstrated that they will remain loyal to their vote bank by continuing to develop an inclusive society built on a strong foundation of education. While the President, who was ironically elected in 2015 by this vote bank, has chosen to appeal to the nationalists who are normally loyal to the Rajapaksa camp.
Sri Lanka, having emerged from a month which saw a terrorist attack and several communal riots, will soon have to decide whether or not they will support a regime which could potentially exacerbate the issues, or one which would continue to overcome the country’s turbulent past.