President’s Journey 4
Special supplement to mark four years of Rajapaksa Presidency                         HOME

First four years of Presidency

By Malinda Seneviratne
First he was a ‘no-hoper’ and not without reason. He didn’t have the backing of the party, was not on good terms with the incumbent President, didn’t have an army of campaigners ready to canvass the millions of voters around the country, didn’t have money and didn’t really have much sway with the media either.

He was vilified as a ‘hawk,’ as someone who didn’t have what it takes when it comes to the key area of diplomacy and was supposed to be clueless when it comes to managing the economy. It was predicted that he would alienate the minorities and antagonise the entire international community. Anarchy, in short, was predicted in the event that he became President.

In the four years that have passed since Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, such statements have acquired the tag ‘ridiculous’ for the most part and those who articulated them have to be considered nave and/or lacking in the ability to read the political in Sri Lanka.

First of all, he won the Presidential election. By a small margin yes, but it was still a big victory considering the odds stacked against the man. He was not given a moment’s respite to savour victory, however. The foreign press and sections of the international community that was hoping his key opponent, Ranil Wickremesinghe would win, continued to vilify the newly elected President. There were other problems.

What the President has achieved has to be assessed in terms of the resources he was endowed with when he assumed office, including the economic and political realities he was forced to operate within.
Mahinda Rajapaksa inherited an office in a country that was being held to ransom by the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisation, the LTTE. He was further constrained in dealing with this monster by a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) authored by pro-LTTE elements in the international community, the contents of which had grave implications for national security as well as the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.

Master at bringing people together

The man who was supposed to be a divisive force in the political arena proved to be a master at bringing people together.
Within a short period of time, he had acquired the support of both Arumugam Thondaman and P. Chandrasekeran, half of the
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a significant section of the United National Party, the most vocal elements of the
JVP, both the Karuna-Faction and the Jathika Hela Urumaya; an achievement that had eluded his predecessors

He inherited an administrative setup that had acquired a fierce antipathy to anything associated with nationalist sentiment. He was Commander-in-Chief of the security forces, but the defence services were woefully under-trained, ill-equipped and had systematically been divested of any faith they may have had about politicians being serious about what they want. Post-CFA, troop morale was at its lowest. Corruption was reported to be rampant. And politically, there were few he could trust.

The story of what happened between November 19, 2005 and May 18, 2009 is well documented and fresh enough in the public mind to warrant elaboration. In a nutshell, this is what happened. Mahinda Rajapaksa picked his key personnel with a kind of wisdom no one ever attributed him with. Yes, he appointed his brother as Defence Secretary. Nepotism, some charged. The fact of the matter is that Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in a political context where he could not trust anyone. It has to be a brother, as has always been the case in critical points in the island’s political history. The men he picked to lead the security forces were the best options, as subsequent events proved.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, dubbed ‘The Hawk,’ didn’t go the proverbial extra mile in terms of placing faith in a negotiated settlement; he walked several miles on that road laced with mines and flanked by enemy snipers. To his credit, even as he gave his all to exploring the negotiation option, he prepared for the inevitable, meaning the worst. The LTTE, for its part, harangued the President on all fronts, upped the military ante and brought things to a head with the attempted assassinations of the Defence Secretary and the Army Commander and of course the closure of the Mavil Aru Anicut. Velupillai Prabhakaran, like many others, underestimated Mahinda Rajapaksa. He paid the price, and ‘peace,’ thought to be a dream became a reality.

It was not just about understanding what was needed and proceeding to acquire the building blocks and then putting them in place. It was not about battlefield prerogatives alone. Mahinda Rajapaksa had what his predecessors lacked: The fullest backing of the general public. Whereas others had given mixed-signals, shown they were only half convinced about whatever strategy they themselves proposed, Mahinda Rajapaksa had self-belief and 100% confidence in his key personnel to deliver what was believed to be undeliverable. Most importantly, he convinced the people that this time business was truly meant, that this time there would be no half-measures, and that this time there wouldn’t be caving into pressures, internal or external.

The man who was supposed to be a divisive force in the political arena proved to be a master at bringing people together. Within a short period of time, he had acquired the support of both Arumugam Thondaman and P. Chandrasekeran, half of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, a significant section of the United National Party, the most vocal elements of the JVP, both the Karuna-Faction and the Jathika Hela Urumaya; an achievement that had eluded his predecessors.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa also provided a classic example to the nation that the success of a country’s foreign policy is about how robust or otherwise is the nature of foreign relations. There were pundits galore, warning him not to hobnob with the international ‘bad boy’ (in relation to self-titled ‘good boys’). The President didn’t listen. The quarrels that nations had with one another were treated as being irrelevant to the batter of developing and strengthening relations between Sri Lanka and each individual nation.

The economy was predicted to collapse. Every two or three months, doomsday prophets would issue sombre warnings. There was fear-mongering from all quarters. In addition there was the unforeseen global financial crisis which some thought would affect the country so badly that defence spending would have to be curtailed to bolster other sectors of the economy because inflation would pull the rug from under the President’s feet in the form of public discontent. Sri Lanka did not collapse, although there were many who wished for such an eventuality. Financial scandals rocked the country, but the economy showed surprising resilience. Not a single profit-making state enterprise was sold although there was no lacking in pressure from funding agencies for privatisation. In fact, following massive frauds being perpetrated by supposedly respectable citizens and some who have been conferred honorific titles, the state has moved to acquire certain assets to minimise the impact on gullible investors, many who gambled their life savings in these enterprises.

Then there were the loud protests in certain multilateral forums and sections of the international media regarding allegations of rights abuse. These voices were quelled by skilled diplomacy and a determination not to compromise the nation’s dignity, whatever the cost. Of course they are not completely silenced, but the Rajapaksa administration demonstrated that there is something to be won by deciding to be firm.

This war was won, we must remember, even as the government executed massive development projects, even as the state continued to provide free education and free healthcare to the entire population, and even as other welfare measures, including subsidies, were kept intact to insulate the people from harsh economic conditions.
It is no surprise then that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policies were endorsed emphatically in each election that was held since November 2005. Even if one were to factor out inherent advantages to the ruling party as well as certain unacceptable practices that have unfortunately become part and parcel of Sri Lankan politics, the approval rating that the President enjoys is considerable and unprecedented for someone who is about to begin the fifth year of his term.

What was the secret? There are multiple answers to this question of course, but underlying all possible responses is this; the national interest was paramount in every critical decision taken over the past four years.
Has his been a perfect Presidency? No, and Mahinda Rajapaksa would not disagree. There have been horrendous errors. There are areas that were neglected, such as attending to the matter of reforming democratic institutions, perfecting the law and order mechanism and also ascertaining the true nature of minority grievances and aspiration (i.e. shed of rhetoric, frill and crass politicking) and resolving for these. There are charges of political patronage that are not easily explained away. Charges of corruption have been articulated too.

In the post-war situation, the condition of IDPs has drawn a lot of criticism, much of it unwarranted and indicative of gross ignorance and despicable politicking. The resettlement process is slow, but there has been very little appreciation of logistical constraints on the part of the critics. The President will not hear the end of it until the process is complete. Happily, much progress has been made in this regard.

What he has achieved and how he has gone about it indicates that Mahinda Rajapaksa is eminently capable of attending to these other important issues. It is not advisable to give blank cheques to politicians. The President himself told the nation in no uncertain terms when he assumed office that he was only temporary custodian and not owner of the land. He also requested that he be criticised constructively and that this was preferred to hosannas being sung. This is very much like what Jawaharlal Nehru once said: ‘Don’t put up statues for someone who is still alive because you can never tell what wrong that person may do’.

The balance sheet overwhelmingly warrants a plus sign for Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the end of four years, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Executive President has certainly given us something to cheer about, a reason to be proud to be Sri Lankans, conferred a kind of dignity that was absent for decades and was thought to be undeserving. Reason enough to say ‘thank you’.
Tomorrow? That is something we have to necessarily wait on before engaging in prediction, I am sure he would himself agree.

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