Suhasini Haidar

Reading the Sri Lankan vote

Sri Lanka incoming President Maithripala Sirisena waves to supporters as he leaves the election secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. In a stunning election result that was unthinkable just weeks ago, Sri Lanka's longtime president acknowledged Friday that he had been defeated by a onetime political ally, signaling the fall of a family dynasty and the rise of former Cabinet minister Sirisena. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)   | Photo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena

After his dramatic defeat in the post-war elections of 1945, British PM Winston Churchill said that the vote against him had shown that the “people of Britain are facing that new era with the same courage as they faced the long years of war."

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the people of Sri Lanka, too, have shown exemplary courage with this election in which President Mahinda Rajapksa has been defeated, surprising many and proving that their vote cannot be taken for granted. As PM Modi congratulated Mr. Maithripala Sirisena for his victory, India must also welcome the chance to build a new relationship with its closest and most intricately connected southern neighbour. For this, a closer analysis of the victory is necessary.

To begin with, Mr. Sirisena’s win does not denote a significant shift in core politics in Sri Lanka. This was not an election between two opposites. On the one hand was Mr. Rajapaksa, a strongman, who had delivered his country from the terror of the LTTE, and ruled the island with a combination of popularity, majoritarian rhetoric, military might, and family power. On the other was his former minister Mr. Sirisena, a consensus opposition candidate, but also an associate of Mr. Rajapakse for several years. Two key players in the power structure will also be familiar faces of the past, i.e. former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsingha, who will be PM again, and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Secondly, Mr. Sirisena’s victory is more a rejection of Mr. Rajapaksa, than it is a vote for him, and therefore the reasons for Mr. Rajapaksa’s loss are important. If the defeat of the LTTE was Mr. Rajapksa’s best hour in office, his electoral defeat is clearly his worst. Yet, in many ways, the reasons for both are similar, and the very traits that won him the war seem to have lost him the election. To begin with, his authoritarian leadership united the country as it went into the last phase of the war to finish LTTE chief Prabhakaran. His predecessors had failed, precisely because of the internal political wrangling or differences with the military leadership that President Rajapaksa had curbed. With one brother leading the defence forces (Gothabaya), another responsible for economic development (Basil), the third the speaker of the assembly (Chamal), and his son (Namal) groomed to succeed him, Mr. Rajapaksa has been able to control all parts of his government as he did the last stages of the war. A key part of that was that he brooked no dissent in either tasks, and both questioning journalists and political opponents were effectively silenced. It is just this tight control that seems to have lost Mr. Rajapaksa the election, with some analysts adding that the “family ring” around him prevented him from seeing the defeat coming.

Thirdly, it is significant that Tamil-majority areas and Muslim-majority areas voted for Mr. Sirisena’s coalition. It will be important to see how far he is willing to keep their trust, especially on the subject of devolution of power, and the demilitarization of the region. Many in these areas felt betrayed and marginalized that Mr. Rajapaksa refused to take action against those responsible for human rights violations, torture and disappearances during the LTTE war, and didn’t implent his own government’s LLRC (Lessons learnt and Reconciliation committee) report. Yet it remains to be seen if Mr. Sirisena, who represents the hardline-Sinhala constituency of the North-Central province, and was himself the Defence minister in May 2009, would go much further. He has already said clearly that the army would not be redeployed from the Northern province as the Tamil TNA leadership demanded. Also to consider is the support he enjoys now from the JHU, called ‘the monk’s party’, or the right-wing JVP, which would hardly allow more devolution to the North.

Neither should this be read, as it has in some quarters, as a “win” for India vis-à-vis China. While Chinese President xi Jinping, who invested much support into Mr. Rajapksa’s presidency, will face a setback if Mr. Sirisena goes ahead on election promises and cancels projects including the $1.5 billion Chinese contract for the Colombo “port city” that the two leaders launched in September 2014.

But the contract was won by open bids, and India either declined the offers to take them, or didn’t bid for the Colombo port and other projects like Hambantota. It may be premature, then to assume China will be cut out of Sri Lanka’s development to India’s benefit. Moreover, at a press conference Mr. Sirisena has said that he hopes to build an “equal relationship” with India, Pakistan, China and Japan, a statement that hardly indicates a special position for India.

It is with all these points in mind that the government must essay the new opportunities with Sri Lanka, an island that has shown refreshing unity, optimism, and yes, courage in electing the new government of Mr. Sirisena.

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 8:43:52 AM |

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