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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2735

Sri Lankan Presidential Election: creation of a benign hybrid by political cloning

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

The emergence of Mr Maithripala Sirisena, former health minister, as the common, opposition presidential candidate, has changed the political landscape in Sri Lanka beyond recognition, which up until two weeks ago, had been relatively static against a backdrop of a catalog of outcomes of regional elections, which, without a shadow of doubt, were foregone conclusions.

Judging by the rapidly-evolving political scene, the abrupt development, a bolt from the blue as far as the ruling coalition is concerned, demystified the aura of invincibility associated with the office of executive presidency, which many in the opposition want to collectively do away with as soon as practicable; it is not as omnipotent as it appears to be in theory, after all, despite its lofty position in the popular imagination.

That is not the first time that the perceived invincibility of the executive presidency got subjected to an acid test by circumstances – at a completely unexpected time.

President Jayawardena, the architect of the executive presidency, who once said that its only inability was turning a man into a woman or vice versa, experienced the first blow on the very floor of the parliament, which ultimately sealed his gradual downfall, when a worker in the same institution hurled a hand grenade at him.

Although, Mr Jayawardena miraculously escaped unhurt physically, the chain of events that followed, seriously handicapped him politically, while enhancing the fortunes of his immediate successor, President Premadasa.

A few years later, President Premadasa went through the same bad patch, when three of his most senior cabinet colleagues rebelled against him, while being serving ministers. The sequence of events that followed, along with the unholy alliances formed against him, almost brought about the spectacle of impeachment, before the intervention of the then Speaker at the eleventh hour – in president’s favor, of course.

Later on, both President Wijetunge and President Kumaranatunge saw the erosion of power of the office, when loyalty was in short supply in the arena where individual political ambitions intensely eclipsed, what then were known as established political principles.

When the post of executive presidency was created in 1978, its opponents had plenty of facts with them to warn against the move, as there were quite a few despots, in the caliber of President Pinochet of Chile, in power at that time around the world.

Ever since, however, its relevance was widely questioned, at least at a time of presidential election, only to be conveniently forgotten up until the next time during the passage of time. This time, however, the public seem to be adamant about its abolition, something that even the incumbent president seems to be sensing at last, when we read between the lines of his latest speeches.

Mr Sirisena, who classifies himself as a simple peasant, did not seem to be silver-tongued, even at the peak of excitement, after triggering off a seismic political move. The drawback, however, has been adequately compensated for by the perception that he has effortlessly created among the masses as a compassionately clean politician.

Since the incumbency always keeps an existing president at an obvious disadvantage, Mr Sirisena has managed to position himself as a formidable opponent, while cashing in on the existing public grievances that transcend the multitudes of divisions in the contemporary Sri Lankan society.

In a noble move, Mr Sirisena made it clear that neither the president nor the war heroes would be handed over to international tribunals on his watch, if the outcome of the forthcoming presidential poll went in his favor. It is a right decision, as president Rajapakse gave the political leadership to the struggle at a critical time, while coming under intense pressure from many corners; those who happened to be around him told me how bad it was at that time.

Of course, the opposition parties are in a buoyant mood at present, as the drive for abolishing the executive presidency is slowly turning into the political equivalent of super glue in order to hold the alliance together – at least, up until the election.

The degree of the strength of the cohesion is clearly reflected by none other than Mr Ranil Wickramansinghe, the opposition leader - by the palpably obvious glow on his face. Having been through many internal squabbles on regular basis, Mr Wickramansinghe seems to have finally breathed a sigh of relief after handling a mischievous band of the faithful for a prolonged period of time.

Since the outcome is too close to call at this stage, I too join in the realm of passive spectators, who pin their hopes on our next shepherd, who is facing the enviable task of moving in step with the flock.

- Asian Tribune -

Sri Lankan Presidential Election: creation of a benign hybrid by political cloning
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