Birth of a Strong and Stable Government | Daily News

Birth of a Strong and Stable Government

An Eventful Year

This week marks the first anniversary of the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka following an eventful and historic election in November last year. The year since then has been challenging but also replete with significant milestones for the President.

The lead up to the 2019 presidential poll was anything but predictable. There was much uncertainty in the political landscape after the deterioration in the ‘National Government’ headed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its arch rival of nearly seven decades, the United National Party (UNP).

Matters had come to a head a year earlier, in October 2018, when then President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Premier. A new Cabinet of ministers was also sworn in by the President.

The UNP successfully canvassed the Presidential action in the Supreme Court which ruled that the President’s actions in dismissing the Prime Minister and then dissolving Parliament was not constitutional. The status quo was restored but resulted in SLFP ministers quitting the government.

It was against such a backdrop that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLFP), which had tasted success at its first electoral outing, the 2018 local government polls, was searching for a presidential candidate. The 19th Amendment meant that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa couldn’t run.

Journey to Presidency

Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been mentioned as the likeliest candidate but had not been confirmed. Then, the deadly Easter bombings occurred. More than 250 persons were killed when Islamic terrorists launched a series of co-ordinated attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday last year.

Less than a week later, the former Defence Secretary who presided over the final military operations that crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), announced that he was ready to run for President, saying that dealing with the new threat of terrorism needs to be a priority for the nation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was formally confirmed as the presidential candidate of the SLPP at its convention on August 11, leaving just over three months for the former soldier with no political experience whatsoever to campaign and prepare for contesting for the highest job in the country.

It was to candidate Rajapaksa’s advantage that the main opposition party, the UNP, was in disarray. The then incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, at 70 years, knowing that this would probably his last tilt at the presidency, wanted to contest despite his obvious lack of popularity.

This was creating divisions in the UNP. The majority as well as the rank and file preferred Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa as the candidate. This infighting in the UNP meant that naming a candidate was delayed until September 26, allowing Gotabaya Rajapaksa a free run as candidate until then.

While that delay may have handicapped Premadasa to some extent, the final results showed that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election in a most convincing manner, with 52 per cent of the vote, recording massive majorities in the Southern regions of the country.

The only issue of concern was that the North and the East had voted overwhelmingly for Premadasa. This was not lost on President Rajapaksa. In his inauguration speech at the Ruwanweliseya in Anuradhapura he noted that he won the election without the support of minority communities but pledged firmly that he would be a President for all Sri Lankans regardless of ethnicity, religion, politics or any other factor.

Challenges

The newly-elected President invited these communities to join him to build ‘one Sri Lanka’. After his election, the UNP Government resigned, paving the way for the new President to appoint a Cabinet of his choice which he did, also appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose birthday falls today, as Prime Minister.

The President has had an eventful if demanding first year in office. He has had to deal with a global pandemic the likes of which the world has never known before. He has also had to conduct a General Election, pass a key amendment to the Constitution and keep the economy buoyant amidst the chaos.

Barely three months in to office, the President had to provide leadership in the battle against the Coronavirus pandemic. The manner in which the President dealt with it earned him many plaudits. The country was placed on ‘lockdown’ early and curfews were enforced to limit public movements.

The President took the bold steps of enforcing the lockdown even during national festivals such as the Sinhala and Tamil New Year and the Vesak celebrations. It had the desired result: case numbers were few. Deaths were rare. Sri Lanka was hailed as a model for dealing with the virus with little resources.

This however meant that the General Election had to be postponed. President Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament on March 3, hoping to conduct elections on April 25. However, the Elections Commission decided that conditions were not conducive to holding an election because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The polls were first postponed to June and were finally held on August 5. The SLPP swept the board winning a near two-thirds majority with 145 seats. It was a better performance than even the 144 seats obtained by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 election after winning the Eelam War.

What was noteworthy was the complete rout of the seventy-four-year-old UNP, reduced to just one National List seat in Parliament. Most of its former Parliamentarians had contested under the banner of the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), returning a decent 54 seats.

President Rajapaksa campaigned at the General Election asking for a mandate for a two-thirds majority so he could repeal the controversial 19th Amendment which limited the powers of the Executive President. The President then had the task of securing the support of five or more MPs to do so.

Significant powers

In what is a tribute to the behind-the-scenes political skills of presidential sibling Basil Rajapaksa, the 19th Amendment was repealed and replaced for the most part by the 20th Amendment. Eight MPs from the opposition voted for it, including SJB National List MP and Assistant Secretary Diana Gamage.

The passage of the 20th Amendment means that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa now has significant powers at his disposal. He can dissolve Parliament early, appoint and remove Prime Ministers and ministers and make key judicial and other appointments- all of which had been curtailed previously.

That President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was keen to pass the 20th Amendment despite the seemingly impossible target of a two-thirds majority indicated that he intended to govern exercising all powers at his disposal without being encumbered by Parliament, as his predecessor President Sirisena was.

The 20th Amendment however is not the President’s final target. The objective is to draft an entirely new Constitution to replace the present Constitution which was introduced in 1978 by J. R. Jayewardene when he too won a historic landslide, obtaining a five-sixths majority in Parliament.

A team of legal experts headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva has been entrusted with the task of drafting the new Constitution. The President hopes to achieve this by the end of 2021. It is expected to strengthen, rather than dilute, the Presidential System of Government, authorities say.

The major challenge facing President Rajapaksa right now though is the Coronavirus pandemic. After successfully dealing with the ‘first wave’ of infections, the country has unfortunately been afflicted with a deadlier ‘second wave’ of illness that is spreading faster and causing more deaths.

Tackling the Covid- 19 pandemic

President Rajapaksa has been meeting regularly with his Task Force appointed to deal with the pandemic and all measures are being taken to control the disease. The strategy has shifted from total lockdown to targeted lockdowns of local areas where infected persons have been detected.

The pandemic will take up much of the President’s time and attention in the weeks to come as Sri Lanka does its best to prevent the kind of disaster that has devastated the United States and Europe. Health and military authorities who are working around the clock are confident of being able to do so.

Also challenging for President Rajapaksa is the battle to keep the economy afloat. With tourism at a standstill and other industries and most economic activity being hurt by stoppages necessitated by lockdowns, Sri Lanka’s economy, like those of most nations, faces a difficult period ahead.

Despite these daunting responsibilities, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has retained the confidence of the masses. His strong suit has been maintaining law and order and discipline in Government that was clearly lacking in the previous regime. This has led to the birth of a strong and stable Government.

Such a Government is indeed needed at a time when the entire world has had to contend with the Coronavirus pandemic before it deals with any other issue. Sri Lanka has been fortunate that it has a strong President in Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is reputed for his efficiency and decisiveness.

For someone who spent his life in the military while his brothers dabbled in politics and being a newcomer to the political world, taking on the Presidency has been a massive challenge for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. One year on, it appears to have paid rich dividends both for the President and the Nation, which he will address tonight as he completes one year in office.