More Electoral Surprises in Sri Lanka?

The timing of Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections has significant ramifications for the country’s domestic politics and Colombo’s relationship with the international community.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09:  President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena arrives at the Observance for Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena arrives at the Observance for Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 09: President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena arrives at the Observance for Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey on March 9, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka’s transfer of power in early January came as a surprise to many, although the lasting effects of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat are far from clear. Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena promised to implement bold, ambitious reforms. The new government is off to a decent start, although Sri Lanka’s political situation is likely to remain precarious until Sirisena dissolves parliament and holds parliamentary elections. Additionally, the timing of that election has significant ramifications—both in terms of the country’s domestic politics and Colombo’s relationship with the international community, not least because a long-awaited report, focused on wartime abuses during the country’s civil war, will finally be released during the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which runs from September 14 to October 2.

During a speech in Colombo last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry alluded to parliamentary elections being held in the near future. During his prepared remarks, Kerry said, “We want to help support you in the upcoming electoral processes. Timely elections will be yet another sign of the government following through on its commitments.”

In April, June had been floated as the most likely time for that election. The Economist recently reported that aides of Sirisena have intimated that elections would likely be held in August. In late May, a leading Sri Lankan weekly cited August 27 as the likely day that elections would be held. How much does the timing of a parliamentary poll matter? What’s really going on here?

Sri Lanka’s transfer of power in early January came as a surprise to many, although the lasting effects of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat are far from clear. Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena promised to implement bold, ambitious reforms. The new government is off to a decent start, although Sri Lanka’s political situation is likely to remain precarious until Sirisena dissolves parliament and holds parliamentary elections. Additionally, the timing of that election has significant ramifications—both in terms of the country’s domestic politics and Colombo’s relationship with the international community, not least because a long-awaited report, focused on wartime abuses during the country’s civil war, will finally be released during the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which runs from September 14 to October 2.

During a speech in Colombo last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry alluded to parliamentary elections being held in the near future. During his prepared remarks, Kerry said, “We want to help support you in the upcoming electoral processes. Timely elections will be yet another sign of the government following through on its commitments.”

In April, June had been floated as the most likely time for that election. The Economist recently reported that aides of Sirisena have intimated that elections would likely be held in August. In late May, a leading Sri Lankan weekly cited August 27 as the likely day that elections would be held. How much does the timing of a parliamentary poll matter? What’s really going on here?

First, let’s briefly consider why the U.N. report’s release was delayed from March until September. The delay was requested officially by the newly elected Sirisena administration. More specifically, it was due to a confluence of factors: namely, Sri Lanka’s precarious political situation, the Sirisena administration’s own promises about a domestic accountability mechanism (and heightened engagement with the U.N. more generally), and the fact that a parliamentary election was supposed to happen in April (or shortly thereafter).

During Kerry’s recent visit to Sri Lanka, he brought reassurance that the warming of U.S.-Sri Lanka ties was genuine, but the Sirisena administration must follow through on at least some of its promises. Indeed, Kerry’s brief reference to “timely elections” was most likely borne out of Washington’s sincere desire for that to actually happen—not least because it’s hard to argue that the current parliament most accurately represents the will of the people.

Sirisena is a longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), although his rise to power would not have been possible without the support of the rival United National Party (UNP). Sirisena challenged Rajapaksa because he had grown tired of the corruption, nepotism and centralization of power that had become trademarks of Rajapaksa’s tenure. During the presidential campaign, Sirisena was supported by a broad alliance, although most members of the SLFP did not support his candidacy. Yet it is the SLFP that currently holds the most seats in parliament. Moreover, like the coalition that brought him to power, the “national government” that Sirisena formed in late March (when Sirisena gave many cabinet positions to SLFP members) is an unsustainable, awkward alliance. Finally, dissolving parliament had always been an important part of Sirisena’s plan—a promise (among others) which he’s already fallen behind on.

For now, the plan appears to entail getting the 20th amendment to the constitution (which deals with electoral reforms) passed, after which Sirisena would dissolve parliament. If it happens at all, getting the 20th amendment passed could take time, yet it’s hard to tell with accuracy how much time. A detailed agenda for the U.N. Human Rights Council’s 30th session hasn’t been released, though if elections are not held by the end of July, one of the key reasons for delaying the forthcoming U.N. report could again rise to the forefront. (Let’s keep in mind that the report is expected to be delivered to the Sri Lankan government in August and it is almost certain that a copy would be subsequently leaked to the media.)

And while some observers may feel that further delays regarding parliamentary elections would compel Washington (or others) to encourage another delay of the U.N. report, this line of thinking is misguided. Furthermore, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has made it clear that there will be no further delays.

Since Sirisena was elected on a wave of UNP support, the UNP is likely to benefit if elections are held sooner rather than later, especially since the 19th amendment—which trims presidential powers—was passed in late April. Right after that legislation was approved, the UNP called for Sirisena to dissolve parliament. Sirisena, understanding that postponing elections would probably help his party, could decide to delay the vote indefinitely. Besides, the SLFP remains deeply divided and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political future is still uncertain. What has become increasingly clear is that the recently ousted authoritarian remains a force to be reckoned with, and Sirisena continues to have trouble controlling his party. In that context, it’s understandable that the majority of the SLFP would prefer that elections be delayed indefinitely.

This is an awkward state of affairs.

Sirisena would strongly prefer that the SLFP perform well in the elections, something that becomes more likely if polls are delayed. On the other hand, Sirisena doesn’t want to backtrack on too many of his promises, and refusing to hold a parliamentary vote promptly would undermine his legitimacy internationally. International approval is important to Sirisena and he’s made it clear that he wants the country to pursue a more balanced foreign policy and improve ties with Washington and New Delhi specifically.

Regardless, Sri Lanka’s political situation will remain delicate as long as a general election is looming. Even though Sirisena promised to dissolve parliament and hold elections in late April, the current parliament could run until April of 2016.

The release of the forthcoming U.N. report is a significant event, one that will test Sirisena’s leadership skills, foment tension within Sri Lanka, and probably compel the government to show some progress regarding its own domestic accountability mechanism.

Nonetheless, it would be unfortunate if elections are not held before that report is released. After all, such a scenario could open the door to a resurgence of more hardline elements within the country. It also has the potential to further weaken Sirisena’s grip on his own party, result in heightened polarization during a forthcoming electoral campaign and make the prospects of dealing with the most controversial issues surrounding accountability, devolution and reconciliation even more remote. Lastly, it would be a notable setback for Colombo’s rapprochement with Washington and other members of the international community. As a longtime member of the SLFP who held a position in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, Sirisena is no stranger to politics, and a degree of skepticism regarding how much the country will change under his watch is still warranted. Nevertheless, the challenges before him remain immense and would test even the shrewdest of politicians.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Taylor Dibbert is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

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