Updated: January 10, 2015 12:00:38 am
In a smooth transition of power, Maithripala Sirisena has been sworn in as the new president of Sri Lanka. The election process was marked by a high turnout and absence of violence, for which the country’s election commission deserves credit. Sirisena has been gracious in acknowledging the role of his former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost the election after 10 years in office, in defeating the LTTE. He has said there will not be any retributive action against the outgoing regime. This augurs well for democracy in the island republic, which has been through difficult times.
Having said that, the new president would know that the nation did not vote for him to continue with Rajapaksa’s policies or approach to governance. In fact, Sirisena had termed his resignation from the Rajapaksa administration and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), just after the announcement of the election, as an act of protest against the government’s policies. The country’s main opposition, the United National Party, the Tamil National Alliance, various Muslim groups, a section of the SLFP under former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, and even sections of the Buddhist clergy, rallied around him because he stood up to Rajapaksa. The Rajapaksa administration had come to be identified with nepotism, corruption and high-handedness. To be responsive to the trust placed in him by the voters, Sirisena must critically examine his predecessor’s record. He will need to deliver on his promise to undo the concentration of executive powers in the president’s office and repair the damage done to state institutions under Rajapaksa. The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary must be restored and law enforcers made accountable.
An urgent challenge for Sirisena is to address the concerns and anxieties of the minorities who have been at the receiving end of the rising tide of Sinhala and Buddhist nationalism. During the campaign, he had refused to condemn chauvinistic mobilisations, perhaps to avoid any consolidation in Rajapaksa’s favour. Now he needs to step in and lay out an agenda of administrative and political action. It is necessary for Sirisena to re-imagine Sri Lanka as a multi- ethnic and religious nation and bury the Rajapaksa legacy, which saw the state as a custodian of majoritarian interests. That, and a critical assessment of the Chinese involvement in Sri Lankan affairs as offered by the UNP, would also help Sirisena take Colombo’s ties with New Delhi to a higher level.
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