Quoting from the Dhammapada that good governance in keeping with the Dhamma would bring all benefits to the people, President Maithripala Sirisena said the necessity today was not for kings, but those who engage in genuine service to the people to ensure the dawn of an era of good governance.
Interestingly, the blessing by Pope Francis the next day was also to do with service to the people. What His Holiness wrote in the Guest Book of the Presidential Secretariat, said: "On those who serve the beloved people of Sri Lanka, I invoke the divine gifts of courage, wisdom and discernment. Peace, reconciliation, harmony and happiness!!" - Francis 13. 1. 2015
President Sirisena said this is not the time for kings, but for those of service to the people, speaking immediately after the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, State and Deputy Ministers, who comprised the main audience at the Presidential Secretariat. The message was given to new ministers of every rank, in the follow up to a presidential election where massive corruption in government was the main theme the Opposition alliance's campaign for its common candidate.
There was emphasis on the role of politicians and ministers in achieving Good Governance, telling them the task of politicians is to win the hearts and minds of the people, by setting an example of good conduct and behaviour in carrying out their duties. They should make every attempt to move away from the situation where politicians in general were treated with contempt by the people. He underscored the need for politicians, and especially those who hold whatever office, to set an example in society through character that is attractive in service to the people, and gain popularity through the recognition of such qualities.
A matter of standards
This is the first time since Independence in 1948, when a new Cabinet of Ministers was given such a message by a Prime Minister or an Executive President. It was a clear expression of the recognition by the President of the decline in standards and values of politics in this county through the past years, reaching a peak of corruption and disregard for the aspirations of the people, in the past decade. This showed the major task he faced of building a foundation of clean politics to realize the goal of "Yaha Palanaya" or Good Governance, the theme of his campaign for the presidency. His message was quite clear - if there is corruption, fraud and irregularities in office, there will be firm disciplinary action despite the rank or office held by a person.
He had another important message too, especially to the politicians who had just been sworn-in to positions of power, those who would have been disappointed by the positions they got, and others who did not gain any position. It was the necessity to have a mind set ready to give up office and position. Giving his own example, President Sirisena said his willingness to give up both power and office, as Minister of Health and General Secretary of the SLFP, had resulted in the people raising him to a much higher position. It was his view that power could be strengthened, and stability ensured only with the ability and commitment to give up power when necessary to do so.
This was in keeping with his statement, immediately after his swearing-in as the 6th Executive President of Sri Lanka, that this would be his first and last term in this office, repeated in his address to the nation at the Dalada Maligawa last Sunday, and in his address to the audience at the Presidential Secretariat when he assumed office there last Monday.
The President and his government certainly have a major task ahead, especially in carrying out the tasks of the first 100 days in office. These include the rescinding of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which, among so many other challenges to democracy, gave the Executive President the ability to seek election for any number of terms beyond the earlier limit of two six year terms. The other matters of importance include bringing the necessary legal structure, with suitable amendments to the previous 17th Amendment, which was removed by the last government, and enable the establishing of free and independent commissions to manage and direct the Police, the Public Service, conduct elections, and very importantly ensure a fully independent judiciary.
A clean election
If the new President has his work cut out for him today, the responsibility for it rests largely with the Commissioner General of Elections, Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya. His task in carrying out a free and fair poll has not only won the praise of observers both local and foreign, but also gave full meaning to the franchise of the people that was very much held in doubt.
The patterns of elections in the past two decades had given rise to major concerns about the ability of the people to freely elect the leaders of the provinces and the country. The inroads of the executive into all aspects of governance, from the control of the police and the public administration, which was made worse after the passage of the 18th Amendment, made the task of the Commissioner General of Elections a truly demanding and challenging one.
This was not the only poll that faced the threats and contemptible political interventions by those in power. The election of President JR Jayewardene for his second term, when his main rival, the late Hector Kobbekaduwa and another well known politician of that time Pieter Keuneman, were among those who had been impersonated in the poll is just one example of the type of interference that prevailed. The huge corruption seen at the 1983 Referendum to extend the life of Parliament, held by JR Jayewardene was another example of corrupt electioneering. The observations of the last Commissioner General of Elections, about the Presidential Election of November 2010, also show how such political interference had created the public acceptance of what was called a "jilmart" at any major election.
From the time this election was announced, two years before the completion of the second term of the President in Office, Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was clearly seen as a very tough election to manage and ensure the freedom of choice of the people.
From the huge cut-outs of the then president shamelessly being displayed all over the country, the use of state employees and funds for pro-incumbent electioneering, and the complete abuse of every branch of the State media, as well as the pressure on most sections of the private media to fall in line with the corrupt election strategies of the ruling power, seemed an insurmountable task for Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya.
Although many were not convinced by his words about ensuring a free and fair poll, in the final outcome, both in his words and deeds, especially his final move against the violation of election laws by key sections of the State media, showed him to be a man of steel that not noticed before.
He displayed both courage and conviction on the need to conduct a free and fair poll. He moved with strength and good speed in the short period of the snap election, meant to create obstacles to the opposition campaign, to ensure the people had every opportunity to make a free and fair choice.
His ability to ensure a free, fair and wholly credible election, where the people clearly expressed their views on the two main candidates, whatever post-polls political positions and slogans the losers may have, has brought credit to our record as the Asian country with the oldest record of universal franchise. This would help silence many critics, especially abroad, that we lack the ability as a society to resolve our own problems in a truly democratic manner.
Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya earns my highest respect for his role in restoring faith in the democratic process in our country. It is now the task of those in office, with promises of Good Governance, to ensure that the electoral process is made more fair, not only in its administration, but also in the very structure of the electoral process, especially in elections to parliament.
Another Ranil move
I am one who has had strong disagreements with the political, economic policies and social strategies of the United National Party.
This comes largely from my left wing background in politics, involvement with the trade union movement, and the campaign for media freedom. This would make me a clear opponent of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe in politics. However, with the fall of the socialist systems in the West, the new thinking taking place about the Welfare State, and the many other changes in the political processes worldwide, some of our original opposition to the "right wing" policies of the UNP requires rethinking.
Apart from his politics, I have known Ranil Wickremesinghe to have been a very good Cabinet Spokesman, and one who had a ready ear for complaints, questions and criticism from journalists. My aim here is not to dwell on this but on the role of the UNP's leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe in the protection of the democratic system on two key occasions.
The first was when President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated on that fateful May Day in 1993. It was the speedy action by Wickremesinghe, as the then Leader of the House, to ensure the smooth transfer of power to Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunga, that defeated the attempts by the LTTE to bring about a major political crisis in the country, endangering democracy.
Similarly, it is now becoming evident that he did play a major role in ensuring the smooth transfer of office from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the current President Maithripala Sirisena, in the crucial early hours of January 9, 2015.
I read of conspiracies to thwart the electoral process, of alleged attempts to use the armed forces to ignore the public choice, and many other allegations, which need proper inquiry. As I see it, the situation grew out of the former President calling for a snap election, to ensure the extension of his term in office, as enabled by the 18th Amendment, which he introduced. While the campaign was on, there were some key speakers on his platform who said openly that even if he is defeated in the poll, he has the legal power to complete the balance of his six year term, although he had clearly said he would resign if defeated.
This failure of the chance that was taken to ensure re-election, after the adverse trends in the Western, Wayamba and Uva Provincial polls could certainly have contributed to the worries taking place that night at Temple Trees, and the thought of possible extra-legal or twists of the law to remain in office. The political build up for such action was seen in his campaign, though not by Rajapaksa himself.
While the full story remains to be written, one has to acknowledge the role that Ranil Wickremesinghe played, as the Leader of the Opposition, in the discussions that took place, and the assurances extended, to ensure upholding of the people's verdict, the former President bowing to the people's will, and the smooth transfer of power.
Ranil Wickremesinghe deserves all plaudits for what he did, which shows a major commitment to the democratic process, and the security of the State and people. He deserves well earned kudos for this, with the hope it will also be seen in his role as Prime Minister in the new government.