The South Asia Channel

Sri Lanka’s Surprising Election Victor

With poll results that stunned incumbent power, Maithripala Sirisena defeated two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka's national elections. Will the island nation now get a more liberal version of democracy?

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (C) and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (L) offer prayers during a Buddhist ceremony at the Kelaniya temple in Kelaniya on January 17, 2015 (Getty Images)
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (C) and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (L) offer prayers during a Buddhist ceremony at the Kelaniya temple in Kelaniya on January 17, 2015 (Getty Images)

In what came as a surprise to many, challenger Maithripala Sirisena recently defeated two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Until late November last year, Sirisena was health minister and general secretary of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the main political party in the United People’s Freedom Alliance. Sirisena was sworn into office on January 9, 2015. That same day, United National Party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe was sworn in as prime minister.

Seeking an unprecedented third term, Rajapaksa had called a snap election two years early – ostensibly because his regime was becoming increasingly unpopular and his governing United People’s Freedom Alliance started to weaken. His seemingly realistic goal was to be re-elected handily, as the opposition remained fragmented and unlikely to put up a credible challenger that could compete with Rajapaksa, the man widely credited with winning the country’s brutal civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.

Unfortunately for Rajapaksa, things did not go as planned.

Aside from a range of defections within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sirisena’s New Democratic Front was backed by a diverse array of political parties, including the country’s leading Tamil and Muslim parties and the country’s main opposition party, the United National Party. Notably, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga (a leading Sri Lanka Freedom Party figure) also backed Sirisena.

Sirisena ran largely on a platform focused on good governance, the rule of law, shifting from the country’s executive presidential system to a parliamentary one, and scrapping the country’s controversial 18th amendment to the constitution. Passed in 2010, this amendment greatly expanded executive power and, by eliminating presidential term limits, paved the way for Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term.

He vowed to curtail the corruption, widespread nepotism, rising authoritarianism and centralization of power which became hallmarks of the Rajapaksa regime. Sirisena also promised to address issues like the rising cost of living, wages and the welfare state.

When Rajapaksa called the early election in November, no one predicted this would even be a close race. However, the sudden emergence of Sirisena, coupled with a multitude of other defections, really shook things up. In a swiftly shifting political landscape that took even the most seasoned Sri Lanka watchers by surprise, the country’s “common opposition” emerged as a credible challenge to the Rajapaksa regime. In short, in the weeks leading up to the election, a shaken Rajapaksa found himself fighting for his political life. While polling in Sri Lanka is notoriously unreliable, most analysts were predicting that the race was simply too close to call.

Was This a Free Election?

The relatively brief election campaign was plagued by numerous election law violations and widespread political violence, the vast majority of which were committed by government supporters. In addition, the Rajapaksa regime made liberal use of state resources throughout the campaign. Understandably, there was a lot of concern about violence on voting day. Yet, according to election monitoring organizations, the election itself was relatively clean and fair. Relatively few violent incidents were reported and, most surprisingly, Rajapaksa conceded defeat promptly. Worrisome scenarios about extensive post-election violence or an intransigent Rajapaksa retaining power through unlawful means did not materialize, although allegations of an attempted coup have persisted and the Sirisena administration has asked for an investigation.

Interpreting the Election Results

Approximately three-quarters of Sri Lankans are ethnic Sinhalese; Tamils and Muslims are the nation’s biggest ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, the concerns of minority voters were not part of the campaign discourse, as both Rajapaksa and Sirisena catered to the largely Sinhala-Buddhist electorate. In fact, Sirisena stated publicly several times that he was against a federal system of devolution of power for Tamils and that the army’s presence in the north should be maintained. He also said he would not allow the Rajapaksas or Sri Lankan military personnel to be tried internationally for alleged war crimes.

Impressively, voter turnout exceeded 81 percent. Sirisena captured 51.28 percent of the vote compared to 47.58 for Rajapaksa. The Sinhalese vote split between Rajapaksa and Sirisena. Importantly, voter turnout in the north and east was also high, with the vast majority of people voting in favor of Sirisena. While it looks as though Tamil and Muslim voters played a decisive role in this election, many commentators have astutely suggested that those results should be interpreted more as a rejection of Rajapaksa than a wholehearted Tamil or Muslim endorsement of Sirisena. Be that as it may, Rajapaksa’s majoritarian policies, post-war triumphalism and unwillingness to curtail ethnic and religiously motivated violence against minority groups really hurt him on voting day. On the other hand, while Rajapaksa still captured a narrow majority of Sinhalese votes, people could plausibly argue that his diminished support among this ethnic group is what cost him the election.

International Relations

This election has significant ramifications in terms of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. The Rajapaksa regime had come under pressure due to alleged wartime atrocities and ongoing human rights violations, specifically at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where three resolutions have been passed on Sri Lanka since 2012.

There are some who will argue (mistakenly) that international pressure on the Rajapaksa government, particularly in a forum such as the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, was designed to foment regime change. If anything, Rajapaksa was able to use such examples of criticism in international forums to rally his Sinhala base and strengthen his political coalition domestically.

In light of the surprising Sirisena victory, some will argue that a degree of patience is warranted. Nevertheless, Sirisena needs to move quickly. He, his inner circle, and the United National Party must receive clear signals that perceptions (real or otherwise) of delay regarding the sweeping reforms they campaigned on would be most unwelcome at this juncture.

Sri Lanka remains part of an intriguing geostrategic puzzle and many in the West and in New Delhi had been concerned about Colombo’s deepening ties with Beijing. It will be interesting to see what Sirisena’s victory actually means in geopolitical terms. He was certainly critical of China’s influence in Sri Lanka during the campaign and his victory is likely good news for both the Obama and Modi administrations.

The Next Steps for Sri Lanka

The root causes of Sri Lanka’s civil war have yet to be resolved. Concerns specific to the Tamil community – devolution of power, accountability for atrocities which occurred during the war and high levels of militarization across the historically Tamil northern and eastern provinces, are all issues which remain unaddressed. And frankly, it is not clear that Sirisena is the man who will change any of that. Let us not forget that he was acting defense minister during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. It may be that he too has blood on his hands. Nevertheless, Sirisena’s victory could eventually provide political space to deal with some of these sensitive issues.

Sirisena has made many promises, but will they be kept? Cracking down on corruption might be the easiest place to start. An important parliamentary election will be held in April. But before then, Sirisena has outlined a bold, ambitious agenda for his first 100 days in office. Crucial constitutional reforms will require a two-thirds majority in parliament. It is unlikely that Sirisena will be able to fulfill all his promises, particularly given the swift timetable he has laid out in his 100-day program. Nevertheless, much could be accomplished in the coming months. If nothing else, Sri Lanka’s recent political shake-up means the country will remain a fascinating place to watch.

Sri Lanka has held national elections since 1931. Under the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lanka became an increasingly illiberal democracy. On January 8, Sri Lankans showed the world they want a more genuine brand of democracy.

Yet Rajapaksa’s defeat is only the beginning. Now is the time for guarded optimism, but let us be realistic about the obstacles. Sri Lanka’s road to genuine reconciliation, a lasting peace and the building of a more inclusive state that fully recognizes the country’s considerable diversity remains a long, hard slog.

 

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He worked in Sri Lanka from 2011 to 2014. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.
Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

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