Politics is the art of the possible
• Will the government throw Sirisena to the Wolves?
Once more, it is the Easter weekend and two years on from the deadly terrorist attacks that cost more than 250 lives, we are not really any closer to finding who masterminded the tragedy and who was culpable for the incidents.
One name keeps coming up repeatedly though: Maithripala Sirisena, the sixth President of Sri Lanka and the Head of State, Head of Government and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces at the time of the attack who was unfortunately not in the country at the time the disaster unfolded.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) ironically appointed by Sirisena himself has found that he was at least negligent in discharging his duties and responsibilities and recommended instituting criminal charges against him. That was several weeks ago.
Until now, Sirisena had maintained a stoic silence. He however broke this silence this week to tell Parliament that he had not received any information related to the attacks prior to the incidents. He said if he knew about the intelligence information he would have enforced a curfew, protected the churches and taken appropriate action to arrest the bombers and prevent the attacks.
Stepping up the rhetoric a notch further, Sirisena said anyone who says he knew the information and disregarded his responsibilities is ‘mad’. Sirisena’s statement, of course, was protected by parliamentary privilege.
Another who stepped up the rhetoric a notch higher was the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. His Eminence issued a scathing statement demanding justice for the victims of the attacks, publicly querying whether there were other factors at play.
“It makes us wonder as to whether there are external interferences that hamper the efficiency of investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks as the culprits of this crime have not been identified even after two years,” a statement from the Cardinal said.
The government therefore is faced with a conundrum. Do they follow the law to the letter, act on the recommendations of the PCoI and prosecute Sirisena? This is what the Cardinal and sections of the Catholic community are demanding. Or, do they dilly-dally and let Sirisena ride this wave of public opprobrium, hoping it will go away eventually?
When the PCoI findings were made public (to a large extent, though not fully), the government maintained a straight face and told us that the findings have been referred to a ‘ministerial committee’ to study how they can be implemented. That is what prompted the acerbic comment from the Cardinal as to why those haven’t passed their ‘O’ Levels were dabbling in matters that have already been dealt with by more learned men and women.
That ministerial committee was headed by Chamal Rajapaksa, no less. The presence of the eldest brother of the Rajapaksa clan in that committee will ensure that its decision will be what the brothers collectively want.
So, what fate awaits Maithripala Sirisena? After his successful 2015 presidential election campaign against Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena confided that had he lost the election, he feared being ‘six feet under’.
It was perhaps this same fear that prompted the then President Sirisena, when he realised that he wouldn’t be winning another term of office following the disastrous showing of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the 2018 local government election and the ascendancy of the then fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), to try and cosy up to the Rajapaksas once again by sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and installing Mahinda Rajapaksa instead.
If the Supreme Court hadn’t intervened at the time, Sirisena would have cut a deal with Rajapaksa and they would probably be still sharing the Presidency and the Premiership though it is hard to tell who would be in which position- and Gotabaya Rajapaksa wouldn’t even be in the picture.
However, Sirisena’s best laid plans went awry and he now finds himself cornered, the threat of a criminal trial hanging over him. The dilemma for the Rajapaksas is no less challenging.
They can appease the Cardinal and the Catholic Church and throw Sirisena to the wolves of criminal prosecution. That would however almost certainly lose the support of the SLFP. This will cost them the near two-thirds majority in Parliament which they now enjoy because Sirisena’s SLFP holds one tenth of the SLPP’s seats in Parliament.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s aim is not merely to be President for the next four years. Having strengthened his position through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, he now wants to do away with the entire Constitution, replacing it with one that is more to his liking.
The grand design for such a new Constitution will strengthen the Presidency further, centralise power in the Executive, do away with provincial councils as a means of devolving power and establish a system of elections that will skew the vote in favour of the ‘pohottuwa’ party.
To do all this though, the government will need every vote of the two-thirds majority they generated to see the 20th Amendment through. That is where Maithripala Sirisena and his fourteen seats from the SLFP will come in handy. That is also why throwing Sirisena to the wolves is such a difficult decision.
It is said that politics is the art of the possible but the SLPP does have the services of its ideologue, Basil Rajapaksa for whom anything is possible. With Basil on board, the government could also be exploring another option: ditching Sirisena but trying to woo and win the rest of the SLFP parliamentarians, Dayasiri Jayasekara and Mahinda Amaraweera et al.
Unfortunately, Maithripala Sirisena is not a leader in the calibre of Sirima Bandaranaike, Mahinda Rajapaksa or even Chandrika Kumaratunga- the kind of leader who MPs would remain loyal to, even when the leader is out of power and thrown out of office. His performance, both as President and as leader of the SLFP was an unmitigated disaster, and it is quite possible that at least some SLFP MPs are dreaming of a life where they would be beholden to a Rajapaksa, even if it was Namal, rather than Sirisena.
We await the next episode of this Easter Sunday drama with bated breath- but don’t be surprised if, at this time next year, we still don’t know whether Sirisena will be crucified or resurrected!