The politics of former Sri Lankan Presidents By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

One cannot help asking Parliamentarian Dulles Alahapperuma as to why he waited so long to urge former Presidents to bow out of active politics. If anyone puts this question to him, he or she cannot be faulted.

Alahapperuma said last week former Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Gotabaya Rajapaksa should keep away from politics for their own health and for the sake of the people. Public funds which are spent on them should not be used for any political activity, he added.

” One time US President John Quincy Adams contested for the US Congress. He was the only foreign head of state to remain in politics after his retirement from the Presidency,” Alajapperuma recalled.

We in Sri Lanka have four ex-Presidents who have no intention of giving up politics even after serving in the highest office of the country and are eager to return to political office even after being driven out of power by the people.

At least now Alahapperuma is able to understand the futility of their involvement in politics.

Sri Lanka’s first Executive President J.R. Jeyewardene retired from politics after the completion of his two terms in the latter part of 1980s. Until his death, he showed no inclination return to politics and refrained from commenting on political problems publicly.

The second Executive President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in a suicide bombing before the end of his first term in mid-1993. D.B. Wijetunga, was in power for the remaining one and a half years of Premadasa’s Presidency but stayed out of politics after his retirement in November 1994.

But, after him, those who have been Presidents during the last three decades are actively involved in politics even after the completion of their terms. Among them Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena contested the general elections and came back to Parliament.

As for Mrs. Kumaratunga, her political involvement has largely been aimed at supporting anti- Rajapakasa groups. Apart from that, she almost limited her political activities to issuing occasional statements on important issues affecting the country and giving interviews to the media.

But recently she has intensified her activities with the intention of reviving the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP ) which has been badly weakened under the leadership of Maithripala Siriseana and turning it around into a party with popular support. It may be an impossible task as there are clear indications of further splits in her party.

After Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2005 Presidential election he changed the SLFP from being a party controlled by the Bandaranaike family into one under the control of the Rajapaksa family.

Following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the 2015 Presidential election, the Rajapaksas were unable to retain the leadership of SLFP. Then they launched their own Sri Lanka Padujana Peramuna (SLPP ) and regained power with the overwhelming support of the people.

Mahinda Rajapaksa had no qualms becoming an ordinary Member of Parliament after holding the highest office in the land. He was elected from Kurunegala district in the 2015 August general elections and was the leader of the Joint Opposition in Parliament. He was re – elected from the same district in August 2020 general elections and was appointed Prime Minister in the government of his younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa. What happened after that is recent history.

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration has gone down in history as the most discredited government in Sri Lanka. Though Sri Lankan politics had been dominated by certain elite families in the past, people had not taken to the streets and revolted against those families as they did against the Rajapaksa family.

It is a great irony that a family with such historical disrepute can still run the government from behind the scenes and think they can determine the country’s future political direction.

Following Mahinda Rajapaksa, another former President Maithripala Sirisena came back to Parliament after forging an alliance with the Rajapaksa party in the last general elections. The world will really doubt the sanity of the Sri Lankan people who voted for such a person as the Executive President when looking at the way he ruled the country and the controversies created by his irresponsible utterances in recent times.

Meanwhile, a few attempts were made but in vain by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s loyalists to bring him to parliament after his resignation from the Presidency. But, his brothers are distancing themselves from him by placing the entire blame for the misrule on him.

Some observers said his recently released book on an alleged foreign conspiracy to oust him from the Presidency was but an indication of his return to politics. As the country is bracing for national elections, we will not have to wait for long to ascertain whether Gotabaya will return to active politics or not.

While taking of the politics of our former Presidents we must not fail to observe an important thing which is of great concern for the people. All former presidents including the one who fled the country amidst the popular uprising and resigned from the post while in a foreign land are supported by public funds while the people are facing immense hardship as a result of their misrule. They enjoy many boons such as pension, security details, a fleet of vehicles and luxurious palatial residences in the high end areas in the capital.

In addition to these, Mahinda and Sirisena enjoy the privileges afforded to Members of Parliament.

None of the ex-Presidents sacrificed their wealth for the common good. On the contrary they have amassed huge wealth through politics. In fact there is no need to maintain them at government expense.

People will greatly welcome any new law to make it possible for ex – Presidents to be given pensions and other benefits at government expense only if they do not return to political office such as Members of Parliament.

In this regard, political parties should come forward to make a promise to the people at the coming national elections. Opposition political leaders who are talking about bringing a new political culture and a system change should seriously take note of this.

It could be argued that it is a fundamental right of former Presidents to engage in politics. But, being involved in politics after retiring from the highest office of the country and returning to political office and enjoying additional privileges at government expense are entirely different things.