General election:President in balancing act
* Cancels acquisition of USD 16 mn presidential aircraft
* Promises to repeal dictatorial prez powers by April 20
* Pays tribute to social media for overwhelming MR
* Assures his family won’t use VIP choppers
President Maithripala Sirisena on Saturday (Jan. 31) declared that though he was the leader of the SLFP, he wouldn’t undermine the UNP in the run-up to the forthcoming parliamentary election.
Similarly, the SLFP, too, wouldn’t be let down, President Sirisena emphasised while explaining the difficulties experienced in tackling what he called an unprecedented situation. The President was responding to interviewer, Upul Shantha Sannasgala, in a recorded interview telecast by Rupavahini.
The President asserted that whatever the outcome of the next parliamentary election, the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP would have to work together for the greater good of the country.
Rupavahini aired the interview in the wake of UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declaring in Kandy that the next parliamentary election would be held in June, 2015. Addressing a gathering of UNPers, Wickremesinghe said that they should strive to secure the largest parliamentary group at the next election. Wickremesinghe told the cheering crowd that the House would be dissolved any time after April 23, 2015.Fielding questions, President Sirisena stressed that the success of the on-going 100-day project aimed at providing relief as well as to bring in far reaching constitutional reforms to restore parliamentary democracy would entirely depend on the support extended by the 127 member strong SLFP/UPFA parliamentary group.
President said that the major political parties couldn’t ignore ground realities, particularly the need to extend cooperation beyond the 100-day period. The President called for a change of attitude as well as reappraisal of priorities to overcome present-day political challenges.
Responding to another query, President Sirisena directed that he shouldn’t be called His Excellency in accordance with his policies. The President also stressed that there was absolutely no requirement to call his wife, First Lady. The new leader said that he could be called President Maithripala Sirisena and his wife, Mrs. Sirisena.
Emphasising the pivotal importance of him in his capacity as the President as well as the leader of the SLFP setting an example of good governance and accountability, President Sirisena assured that his wife and children would under no circumstance use SLAF helicopters unless they accompanied him. The President stressed that the use of SLAF VIP helicopter fleet would be restricted.
The President also prohibited the indiscriminate use of children in functions attended by him, though they could participate in specific tasks such as recital of Jayamangalagatha. Referring to some major events during the previous administration, President Sirisena said that schoolchildren had been greatly inconvenienced due to the callous attitude of both politicians and officials.
Commenting on the need to be mindful of government expenditure, President Sirisena said that in line with an election promise he wouldn’t move into President’s House. Admitting that he was actually not comfortable living in such a place, President Sirisena stressed that in consultation with the government action would be taken to preserve the President’s House as well as several President’s Houses in the provinces maintained at a massive cost to the taxpayer. The President said that he wouldn’t use any of those palatial houses; therefore a tangible plan was required to protect them and explore ways and means of using them.
The President also revealed that in consultation with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, he cancelled an order placed by the previous government to acquire a special aircraft from the US for the exclusive use of his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa. The President claimed that Sri Lanka was earlier scheduled to take delivery of the aircraft next month. It would have cost USD 16 mn and that amount could be now utilised to acquire spare parts required by the Sri Lankan airlines, he said.
While stressing the importance of having security at an acceptable level, the President said that he had directed sharp reduction in the contingent assigned for his security. The previous president had 4,000 security officers and men, President Sirisena said that he would use only one fourth of that contingent. “I recently instructed senior officers as regards the deployment of vehicles as well as other assets for my protection.”
The President said that he would have given up presidency in just four years if the National Executive Council (NEC) had not told him that such action would be inimical to the national interest. The President recalled the circumstances under which previous presidents had failed to keep the promise to do away with the executive presidency. The President said that in accordance with his election manifesto, dictatorial features in the executive presidency would be repealed by April 20, 2015 and a presidency accountable to Parliament would come into being.
Commenting on delay on the part of the government to take legal action against those accused of waste, corruption and irregularities, President Sirisena said that the results of the on-going investigations would be known in the coming weeks. The President assured that those found guilty wouldn’t be allowed to escape by siding with the new government.
Responding to a query as regards the take-over of the SLFP by him immediately after the Jan. 8, 2015 presidential poll, President Sirisena said that the decision had been made at a meeting with his predecessor at the official residence of Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa. “My meeting with Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa lasted for about 10 minutes. My predecessor complained about post-election violence. I pointed out that there had been many incidents in the run-up to the poll, while promising to take every possible step to prevent incidents. We had tea and parted,” the President said, revealing that the venue had been decided by Mr. Rajapaksa. “Although it was to be one on one, the Speaker, too, participated in the discussion.”
The swift transfer of control of the party had helped avert a damaging split which could have caused irreparable loss to the organisation, the president said.
Pointing out that the then incumbent launched his campaign eight months ahead of January poll, President Sirisena said that the Opposition couldn’t have defeated the Rajapaksas without spearheading role played by the social media. Young boys and girls had played a significant role in the Opposition strategy, the President said, the social media and the Internet had contributed to his victory in a big way.
The President was perhaps responding to his predecessor, who recently publicly acknowledged his failure to counter an social media campaign. Former President Rajapaksa said that their failure to realise the threat and take counter measures had caused a debilitating set back to his campaign.