SRI LANKA

Upset and after

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Maithripala Sirisena takes the oath of office as President of Sri Lanka on January 9. Photo: Sudath Silva/AP

Mahinda Rajapaksa goes, defeated by an eclectic political coalition. Can the coalition partners, with different political agendas, find ways to work together?

IN late November 2014, Sri Lanka’s war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa called snap elections, appearing confident of winning a record third term in office.

Now, barely a couple of months later, the leader who once seemed invincible stands defeated in one of the most closely fought elections in the country.

Dealing one of the earliest blows to Rajapaksa’s campaign was his former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, who crossed over to a joint opposition platform to be named the common presidential candidate. After a convincing victory, Sirisena is currently looking at ways to implement his election promises, including the abolition of executive presidency. Rajapaksa, meanwhile, is facing serious charges of attempting a military coup on the day when votes were being counted, an allegation which he has denied.

How the tables were turned and how the hurriedly galvanised joint opposition secured enough political mileage to unseat a well-entrenched politician is an important chapter in Sri Lanka’s contemporary political history. A range of factors decided the course for the extensive political realignment that followed.

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s strategically timed political comeback, after nearly a decade’s break, played a key role in drawing together disgruntled members within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), including Sirisena. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s mission was to “save the party that the Rajapaksas had destroyed”.

After much speculation about his candidature, the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to step aside from the race and make way for Sirisena.

Soon, different political actors, including Sinhala nationalists and Tamil and Muslim minorities, found themselves being drawn into an eclectic political coalition. Putting their differences aside, they connected with each other because of the need to unseat their common political rival Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The diverse nature of the new political allies makes Sri Lanka’s post-election scenario rather complex. President Sirisena’s key election promise was the abolition of executive presidency. While he swiftly appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister, the imminent parliamentary elections only signal further political reconfiguration. Each of the coalition members will go it alone in the parliamentary elections scheduled in April, but obtaining a majority in the 225-member Parliament will not be easy for any party.

The SLFP, to start with, suffered a virtual split after Sirisena’s victory, which subsequently made him also the leader of the party. Though the UNP showed promise in the Uva provincial election last year, the party is still considered weak in rural areas and will need enormous campaigning ahead of a national election.

Sri Lanka’s Leftist nationalist party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which backed Sirisena in the presidential election primarily by campaigning against Rajapaksa, is unlikely to align with either of the two key parties. The minorities, too, may distance themselves from the mainstream parties in the next couple of months unless the Sirisena government reaches out to them.

Messages from the presidential election

The outcome of the presidential election brought with it many messages. The most important was that Rajapaksa’s appeal as war victor was waning even among sections of the Sinhalese community. Disillusioned by charges of corruption, nepotism and family rule, they felt let down during the second term of President Rajapaksa. Their falling incomes and scarce livelihood options weighed them down further. The development initiatives of the Rajapaksa government, clearly, had failed to touch their lives.

The minorities also decided to make a point. Even before the Muslim political leadership announced its support to Sirisena, community leaders and the people of the island’s Eastern Province, which has a sizeable Muslim population, had mobilised significant support for Sirisena. The Rajapaksa government’s alleged patronage to Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners such as the Bodu Bala Sena, an outfit accused of provoking religious clashes, particularly against Muslims, had effectively alienated the community.

The Tamils, of course, were always going to vote against Rajapaksa even though the former President, at an election rally in the North, had urged them to vote for the “known devil” rather than the “unknown angel”.

Reading the Tamil vote

The Tamil voters—the Tamil-majority Northern Province saw around 70 per cent voter turnout—did not have it easy. With the contestants fighting a close battle in the Sinhala electorate, the minority votes were going to be very crucial, if not decisive. From reports of intimidation by the army to boycott calls from some members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main party representing northern Tamils, there were visible attempts to thwart the Tamil vote. That may have been a costly error.

Right from the beginning, TNA leader R. Sampanthan made every move with great caution. While the party was sure that it would campaign for regime change, the official announcement of its support to Sirisena came just before election day.

The party’s leadership underplayed its own demands in public, though leaders held closed-door meetings with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sirisena ahead of the elections.

The TNA decided to highlight the need for democratic space for dialogue, strategically aligning itself to some of the common themes that were part of election discourse nationally. It did raise some of its key concerns, such as militarisation of the North, with the common platform it was backing, but chose to employ a moderate tone rather than a confrontational one.

Following the elections, there have been indications of the Sirisena government’s willingness to engage with the TNA. One of the first things that Sirisena did was to appoint a new Governor to the Northern Province; a seasoned diplomat has now replaced a former Major General. Similarly, the Chief Secretary, who all along had been on a collision course with the Northern Province Chief Minister, has been removed.

While large sections of the Tamils have welcomed these changes, the litmus test for President Sirisena will be whether he will devolve substantive powers to the provinces. His credibility will also be linked to how he addresses the concerns over the heavy militarisation of the province, whether internally displaced persons can return to their lands allegedly grabbed by the army for its security zones, and whether there will be any convincing response to complaints of missing persons.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s recent assurances on implementing the 13th Amendment—an outcome of the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987—will be keenly watched by the island’s northern Tamils and the Tamil leadership. They have been let down far too many times in the past.

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