Sri Lanka

Reality check

Print edition : March 16, 2018

President Maithripala Sirisena (right) with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during Sri Lanka's 70th Independence Day celebrations in Colombo on February 4. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Mahinda Rajapaksa after the party backed by him put up an impressive show in the local body elections. Photo: REUTERS

The ruling coalition partners decide to stay together after a phase of perceptible strain in the relationship, but it is now a case of two insecure leaders against a newly emboldened Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is buoyed by the local body election results.

IN the week that followed Sri Lanka’s local authority elections, which were held on February 10, the country’s national unity government was on the brink of a split.

That an election to local bodies, the smallest unit of government in Sri Lanka, must make the national government, the highest unit of power helmed by an executive President and a Prime Minister, so vulnerable would seem illogical. But if one considers the deepening insecurity of the coalition government over the past year, particularly the last few months, it is no puzzle.

Months ahead of the local elections, the two political parties in the coalition—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—declared that they would go it alone in elections to the 341 local bodies across the island.

It has been an uneasy coalition since it came to power in 2015, and its unity is further threatened by the UNP’s alleged links to a massive bond scam at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Some leaders in the UNP camp have been accusing the SLFP of blocking reform proposals, while those in the SLFP, in turn, blame the UNP for pushing economic policies that do not serve the people.

For the most part of their joint stint in government, though, the two leaders appeared cordial, refraining from direct attacks on each other. They shared a working relationship despite undercurrents of a power struggle. However, closer to the local elections, the strain became more visible, particularly after a Presidential Commission of Inquiry that probed the controversial bond sale recommended that the Central Bank’s former Governor, who was earlier hand-picked for the post by Wickremesinghe; the Governor’s son-in-law, a businessman; and their allies be prosecuted.

With such a report in hand, President Sirisena decided to go after the Prime Minister on his campaign trail, projecting himself as a crusader against corruption even as his own government came under attack for not acting on cases from his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power. The government is also facing fierce criticism for its failure to arrest rising costs of living and for its inability to respond swiftly to a severe drought that gripped several parts of the country.

Rajapaksa’s rise

The two parties went to the polls against the backdrop of their incumbent government’s fading popularity expecting a challenge. But they may not have expected the drubbing they received and the extent to which their failings would prop up Rajapaksa.

Three years after he was unseated by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, Rajapaksa made an emphatic political comeback in the recent elections. With his backing, a newly formed party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), or Sri Lanka People’s Front, secured 239 out of the 341 local bodies in the country, while the UNP won 41 and the SLFP merely 10.

In a recent column, the noted political commentator Tisaranee Gunasekara summed up the ruling alliance’s election debacle like this:

“When a kilo of edible rice (some of the imported rice varieties are barely edible) hits 100 rupees while farmers have no choice but to sell their paddy to rice millers at rock-bottom prices, when punitive taxes are imposed on consumers and small businesses, when a large swathe of the country is affected by the worst drought in 40 years, when mega-infrastructure projects disrupt ordinary lives and destroy both livelihoods and environment, when jobs are scarce and hope of betterment is even more so, when justice is both delayed and denied, when highly connected crooks are protected while a child is jailed for ‘stealing’ a coconut, when crime proliferates and leaders spend their time preaching morality to a disenchanted electorate, when politicians who promised to usher in good governance wallow in its opposite, what else can one expect but disaster?”

Clearly, the government’s severe shortcomings worked in Rajapaksa’s favour. This factor, coupled with his undiminished popularity in the Sinhala heartland, propelled the SLPP to an impressive victory.

All the same, seen in vote-share terms, the SLPP obtained 44.65 per cent of the total votes polled, which is lower than Rajapaksa’s share in 2015, and the UNP and the SLFP together secured 46.01 per cent of the votes, about the same the alliance got in 2015. For those dreading a Rajapaksa return, this perspective offered some consolation even though the reality check from the election outcome was hard to miss.

The SLPP is now the de facto political vehicle of Rajapaksa’s supporters in Parliament. Informally called the “Joint Opposition”, it is essentially a grouping of 50-odd legislators from a breakaway of faction of the Sirisena-led SLFP—Rajapaksa is still a member of the party—and his other miscellaneous allies.

Amid efforts before and after the elections by some within the SLFP to unite the two factions supporting the current and former Presidents, a triumphant Rajapaksa said: “I don’t have to go behind anyone now. My focus henceforth will be on building and strengthening our new party.”

Tenuous unity

Following desperate but unsuccessful attempts by their respective parties to break off the coalition and form a government independently, what remains is a “unity government” scarred by narrow, partisan politics. In its weakest form now, the coalition hopes to sail through the remaining two years of its term with a reshuffled Cabinet.

From the time the two leaders mulled coming together in late 2014, it was the shared objective of ousting strongman Rajapaksa that bound the SLFP (at least part of it) and the UNP in an unlikely coalition. The two major parties had been rivals for decades, challenging each other in every election since the 1950s. With relations souring to make the two partners adversaries, it seems that even the Rajapaksa factor may not unite them in the next election.

Asked about the growing tension within the government in a recent press briefing, Wickremesinghe remarked stoically: “Coalition politics is not easy.” However, the challenge on hand for the ruling alliance is more than what the complexity of coalition politics entails. It is a case of two insecure leaders against an emboldened rival.

The recent election outcome is only one indication of how Sri Lanka’s first national unity government weakened itself over three years. What brought this government to this point?

Announcing his decision to quit the government in November 2014, Sirisena, who had served as Health Minister in Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, said: “The country is heading towards a dictatorship.” He became the common opposition candidate in the January 2015 elections, drawing significant support from different sections, including the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Sirisena’s taking a huge political risk, that too antagonising his former boss Rajapaksa, was seen by many as an unexpected and incredibly bold move, leading to a watershed election in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa lost the election and stepped down from office after two terms spanning a decade. His second term, soon after he crushed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended the war, gave him an invincible war victor image and would fetch him unwavering support in the Sinhala-majority south.

His second term was also marked by high surveillance, military intimidation, “white van” disappearances—many people in the north disappeared after being allegedly picked up in white vans—and resistance to carrying out the promised devolution of powers to minority Tamils, and a wave of anti-Muslim attacks by hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist groups.

Season of hope

In such a political landscape, the prospect of an alternative led by a mild-mannered politician such as Sirisena offered great promise to many Sri Lankans. There were many reasons for this new-found hope: the country’s two main parties coming together for the first time, signalling a certain political consensus for their reform agenda and a promise of good governance; the minority parties representing Tamils and Muslims extending support to him; civil society throwing its intellectual and moral weight behind his campaign; and international actors, including the United States and India, pushing this alternative. What emerged was an eclectic, rainbow coalition led by Sirisena, which assured its support base of a more democratic and inclusive country.

After assuming office, Sirisena, along with Wickremesinghe, took some welcome initiatives. Tamils could now sing the national anthem in their language. The military began returning northern and eastern Tamils’ private land in its possession. The President made multiple trips to the north, often assuring Tamils that he had a moral obligation to address their lingering post-war concerns. The government co-sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council promising to undertake various measures for reconciliation. The leaders took pride in reviving ties with international partners with whom Sri Lanka’s relationship had soured under Rajapaksa.

Despite all this, some were sceptical right from the beginning. The political economist Sunil Bastian said this was an unusual coalition following a virtual coup that saw Sirisena come out of Rajapaksa’s government. According to him, all big changes in Sri Lanka came when one party was in power. In this case, it was clear that maintaining regime stability was not going to be easy. “Especially when the UNP [the senior partner in coalition] had its own way of controlling a weakened President [following a constitutional amendment that clipped some of the President’s executive powers] and of holding on to key Ministries,” he said.

Lessons from 2015

In his view, the originally Centre-Left SLFP and Centre-Right UNP had fewer and fewer ideological differences after Sri Lanka liberalised its economy in 1977. Both zealously embraced neoliberal policies in different ways and conceived development through infrastructure projects. There was a political consensus on economic policy. In that sense, the tension within the coalition government has less to do with ideology. It is more a tussle for power.

However, there are some crucial lessons to be learnt from the 2015 election that the government must still reflect on. To start with, many, including in Sri Lankan civil society, tend to interpret the Sinhalese electorate as a homogeneous unit. That must change, Bastian stressed. “President Sirisena could not have won just with minority votes—they would have anyway voted against Rajapaksa. A section of the Sinhalese making a decisive shift is what ensured his victory in 2015,” he said.

Without carrying forward a large section of the Sinhalese electorate, no government in the south can successfully address problems of the minority Tamils. It will neither be able to make the new Constitution, still on paper, more inclusive, nor take power devolution from rhetoric to reality. “For that, the government must evolve economic policies to address concerns of the rural Sinhalese people.”

There are many such concerns, as the recent election outcome showed—from joblessness to fertilizer subsidies to water resource management. For all his thrust on economic development and international trade pacts, Wickremesinghe lacks a social vision for rural Sri Lanka, Bastian said. “In such a situation, forces like Rajapaksa can easily combine nationalism and an apparently socialist rhetoric and win over the constituency.”

Meanwhile, Sirisena, too, has moved away from his initial seemingly thoughtful and reasonable persona. Frantically trying to retain control and power in recent times, he seems to have lost sight of the bigger picture. He was unable to decide whether to remain in government or leave. Sirisena also wanted the Prime Minister to take responsibility for the defeat and step down. Given his own party’s poor showing in the election, there is little logic to his demand or its timing.

After much negotiation, the coalition partners have decided to stay together. The Prime Minister has said his government will take “corrective measures”, taking the message from the election setback. Every step that the leaders take from now on will not just impact their own political future but will be crucial to the country’s future. The 2015 election was historic for Sri Lanka. Squandering the opportunity that came with it would be unfortunate.