Sri Lanka’s Failing Coup Might Succeed at the Ballot Box

Many voters still back populist Mahinda Rajapaksa despite his attempt to seize power.

Giant posters of acting prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are seen in his home town on November 14, 2018  in Tangalle, Sri Lanka. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Giant posters of acting prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa are seen in his home town on November 14, 2018 in Tangalle, Sri Lanka. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Following an attempted coup, Sri Lanka remains mired in crisis. President Maithripala Sirisena is still trying to ensure that Mahinda Rajapaksa, his newly—and illegally—appointed prime minister, secures his position. But Ranil Wickremesinghe, the legitimate prime minister, says that the job is his. The coalition that ruled since 2015 is a thing of the past. A new cabinet has been created, though it’s fundamentally illegitimate. The coup appears to be failing—and yet the crisis is deepening. That puts Asia’s longest-lasting democracy in real danger.

Sirisena had suspended Parliament until Nov. 14. On that day, Rajapaksa lost a no confidence motion in Parliament, and a fight even broke out on the floor. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance didn’t accept the vote. On Nov. 16, there was more fighting, and Rajapaksa lost another no confidence vote. Yet neither Sirisena nor Rajapaksa seems willing to accept the results. It appears that Sirisena is unwilling to have Wickremesinghe as prime minister under any circumstances. The relationship between the two men has completely broken down.

Sirisena already unconstitutionally dissolved Parliament on Nov. 9 and called for a snap parliamentary election in January. The Supreme Court recently put a stay on the dissolution of Parliament, though the case is due to be taken up again on Dec. 7, when the court is unlikely to rule in Sirisena’s favor. Plans for a January election have been put on hold.

The president’s reckless moves pose a clear threat to the island nation’s democracy.

The newly formed Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance is a complicated and messy situation. Rajapaksa ruled the country in an increasingly authoritarian fashion from 2005 to 2015. Sirisena served as a cabinet member in Rajapaksa’s administration and unexpectedly challenged his old boss in a January 2015 presidential contest.

For the past three years, Sri Lanka had been ruled by a coalition led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. But the power-sharing arrangement has always been awkward, and the coalition struggled to do much of anything good. Sirisena campaigned largely on a platform of anti-corruption, economic reform, improved governance, and reduced authoritarianism. While he’s ruled far more softly than Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s reform program has basically gone nowhere.

In the meantime, the former president’s political stock has been steadily rising. He’s the most popular politician in the country. Venerated for ending the country’s long-running civil war, Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism will always resonate with a significant portion of Sinhalese, the majority community in Sri Lanka. The failures of the coalition government have made it even easier for Rajapaksa to make his case to the public. A newly created political party that Rajapaksa backed handily won local government elections earlier this year. From the increasingly unpopular Sirisena’s perspective, aligning with Rajapaksa is the only hope he has of winning a second term as president.

As noted, despite fervent efforts and even credible claims of bribery, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance was unable to form a parliamentary majority in the run-up to a showdown on Nov. 14 (which was the real reason that Sirisena prorogued Parliament).

It’s unclear what happens next. Chaos permeates Colombo, the capital. There have been plenty of protests, and more are sure to come. Rajapaksa and his allies have essentially taken over government ministries. And yet it’s clear that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance doesn’t have a parliamentary majority and that their purported cabinet is completely illegitimate. They’ve taken control of state media, too. Things could get messier in the days ahead.

Rajapaksa should relinquish his illegitimate posting as prime minister. Sirisena should walk back his dangerous moves. But, worryingly, there may be no turning back for either of them—and that may mean doubling down on reckless and autocratic behavior.

Last week, members of parliament opposed to Rajapaksa’s appointment as prime minister took the reins of an important parliamentary committee. Relatedly, a majority of parliamentarians have decided to challenge the legitimacy of Rajapaksa’s supposed appointment (and the “new” cabinet) in court. We don’t know how this will play out, although it’s increasingly clear—domestically and internationally—that Rajapaksa’s claim to the premiership totally lacks merit.

It’s no secret that Rajapaksa has wanted an early vote (a parliamentary poll isn’t due until 2020) for some time. He and his allies called for a parliamentary election after this year’s local government vote, and Rajapaksa reiterated this request after Sirisena appointed him as prime minister.

Calling for an election ahead of schedule—which would require a motion passed by two-thirds of Parliament—could defuse the current stalemate. If the United National Party were to agree to early parliamentary polls, that would be a boon to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance. It would also set a horrible precedent in terms of democratic and institutional norms in the country.

On the other hand, as unpopular as the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has been, many Sri Lankans are clearly upset at the way in which Rajapaksa has tried to return to power. To some extent, Rajapaksa’s brand has been damaged by his unconstitutional and undemocratic actions; that might spoil their electoral chances.

Yet it’s also quite possible that many of same people who are upset with Rajapaksa’s recent actions are people who’d vote against him anyway. Rajapaksa probably still has the masses (of Sinhalese) with him, particularly those residing in rural Sri Lanka. After all, many Sinhalese still view him as a capable and charismatic leader who oversaw a heroic victory.

But even though Rajapaksa might win a fair election, he and his allies could well choose to fix it anyway. For example, even without active ballot-stuffing, voter intimidation and suppression would be a concern, especially in the heavily militarized Northern and Eastern provinces. Additionally, it appears that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance would have the backing and resources of the state during an electoral campaign—unless the two sides negotiate some other arrangement for an early vote.

There are also worries the conflict could be resolved through force. As president, Sirisena controls the security apparatus, and many members of the armed forces are believed to be loyal to Rajapaksa anyway. If it came to that, Wickremesinghe wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight.

In addition to irritation and anger about Sirisena’s actions, many people are fearful of what might come next. A more profound Rajapaksa resurgence wouldn’t just augur the end of a reform project that never really got started. It almost certainly would mean that the country would descend into a troubling and more authoritarian phase. While the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government has been a huge disappointment, it’s been nothing close to as bad as Rajapaksa’s reign.

Sri Lanka has always been a flawed democracy where ethnic majoritarianism has prevailed. During his presidency, Rajapaksa pushed the nation toward the brink of autocracy, although when the voters rejected him in January 2015, he respected their wishes and left peacefully. Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s recent unconstitutional maneuvers have been unprecedented.

The attempted coup has been met with significant resistance. At crucial moments—through the Supreme Court and Parliament—the country’s institutions have held up. The range of civil society protests and public criticism of the coup attempt has also been notable. Rajapaksa hasn’t been able to use intimidation, misinformation, and brazen lawlessness to seize the prime ministership—not yet, anyway.

Nonetheless, the coup attempt has already inflicted critical harm. Sri Lanka’s democracy has been dealt a major blow. The economy and tourism have taken hits; more economic pain is expected to continue. Sirisena has been irreparably tarnished politically, though he’s unlikely to ever be held accountable for his illegal actions. And even a purportedly “good” or peaceful resolution to the crisis—far from a foregone conclusion at this point—is likely to be unsatisfactory. In the meantime, as an angry stalemate continues, the risk of violence grows by the day.

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

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