For a fresh beginning in Sri Lanka

A peaceful transfer of power without post-election violence, after a relatively peaceful campaign, is testimony to the resilience of Sri Lanka’s democracy after experiencing civil war and semi-authoritarianism

Updated - April 01, 2016 11:37 pm IST

Published - January 10, 2015 12:17 am IST

Other than among the diehard supporters of the outgoing Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, there was no doubt about the victory of Maithripala Sirisena, the common Opposition candidate in the country’s Presidential election held on January 8. Yet, what surprised Mr. Rajapaksa’s supporters and opponents alike was his decision to concede defeat and leave the official residence early morning of the day after, hours before even a third of the official election results were out. A peaceful transfer of power without post-election violence, after a relatively peaceful election campaign, is testimony to the resilience of Sri Lanka’s democracy after three decades of civil war and half-a-decade of semi-authoritarianism.

Revival of democracy Based on political calculations as well as astrological advice, Mr. Rajapaksa called for fresh presidential elections in November 2014, two years before the constitutionally scheduled time. He sought an unprecedented third term, a facility he created for himself by altering Sri Lanka’s Constitution. A third term would have secured the continuity of his family’s grip over the Sri Lankan state, backed by an alliance with political loyalists and the new business class which he and his family had created. However, many observers feared, and not without good reason, that a third term for Mr. Rajapaksa would have robbed Sri Lanka’s democracy of whatever little vigour was left in it. Further closure of the democratic space through populist authoritarianism would have enabled him to further consolidate his model of a developmentalist-national security state. The democratic will of the Sri Lankan voters has now stalled those possibilities.

How will Mr. Sirisena, the new President, fulfil his electoral promises?

The main idea that animated the Sri Lankan voter has been his promise of “regime change for good governance.” It is amazing that a concept which is a part of the neo-liberal political discourse has been appropriated in the vernacular, democratic political imagination for the revival of democratic politics. Mr. Sirisena’s election campaign stressed democratic and corruption-free governance, the end to family rule and cronyism, and reviving the autonomy of key institutions of governance, specifically the legislature and the judiciary. This is a kind of home-grown democratic reform agenda evolved primarily against the five years of Mr. Rajapaksa’s semi-authoritarian and family-centric style of governance.

The support base In his political agenda, Mr. Sirisena and his New Democratic Front (NDF) emphasised two types of political reforms, state reform and governance reform. The state reform agenda focussed on a redemocratisation of the Sri Lankan state through constitutional reform. Reforming the executive presidential system and the abolition of the 18th Amendment, which made the office of the President enormously powerful and imperious, were its two key elements. Unlike in the previous elections, devolution and the political rights of the ethnic minorities were not elements in the state reform agenda this time round. The ethnic conflict was present in the NDF policy manifesto only in its absence. Quite surprisingly, Tamil and Muslim parties who backed Mr. Sirisena, and even ensuring his victory on January 8, did not bargain for any commitment to devolution. They supported him primarily on his promise of regime change and democratic state reform. That in a way reflected the urgency felt by most of Sri Lanka’s political stakeholders for a fresh political beginning in a post-Rajapaksa era.

A fresh beginning is perhaps the phrase that best captures the political space opened up by the victory of Maithripala Sirisena in this Presidential election. The challenges and obstacles awaiting him would be both daunting and complex. The election result shows some of these complexities. A preliminary glance at the electoral statistics highlights a few salient patterns and dimensions. First, it is the Tamil and Muslim minority vote which gave Mr. Sirisena the edge over Mr. Rajapaksa. The support he received from the Northern and Eastern provinces and electoral divisions where Tamils and Muslims are a significant minority was overwhelming, in many instance even reaching over 65 per cent of the votes cast. In the same vein, Mr. Sirisena failed to secure majorities in most of the electorates which are predominantly Sinhalese. In many such districts, Mr. Rajapaksa emerged the clear winner indicating that his rural Sinhalese vote base has not seriously eroded, although it has diminished. Third, Mr. Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) still has a clear majority, over 135 seats in the 225-member Parliament, although there have been some key defections to the NDF during the election campaign.

Consolidating power The immediate challenge that confronts Mr. Sirisena is in consolidating power for his newly formed coalition. The NDF is an eclectic coalition of political and ideological forces of a somewhat inchoate nature. They have a common programme prepared for the election a few weeks ago, because they all wanted to end the rule and the style of politics introduced by Mr. Rajapaksa. The return of Ranil Wickramasinghe, the leader of the United National Party, as the Prime Minister, and as Mr. Sirisena’s chief lieutenant, would be a major stabilising factor. Mr. Wickramasinghe is known for his vast experience in government as well as for political shrewdness. His pro-western political profile would help the new President to chart a new version of non-alignment in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy — not hostile to the West, not so dependent on China, and quite at ease with India.

Surprisingly, Tamil and Muslim parties who backed Maithripala Sirisena, and even ensuring his electoral victory, did not bargain for any commitment to devolution

Fulfilling his promise of political reform within the deadline of a 100 days would certainly be a huge challenge for the President and his coalition government. The 100-day reform deadline is easier promised at elections than really met, as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would easily agree. The key reform promise with a time limit of a 100 days is the constitutional amendment that would reform the executive presidential system and abolish the 18th Amendment. Both these reform measures require the support of two-thirds of Members of Parliament: a minimum of 150 of them.

The option Mr. Sirisena has is to appeal to the goodwill of the UPFA’s Members of Parliament. That will also require the support and cooperation of the Rajapaksa brothers who lead the UPFA. This scenario ideally calls for some form of government-opposition political accommodation for national unity. It also effectively rules out the efficacy of any confrontational response to the UPFA by Mr. Sirisena and his NDF strategists. If that happens, that will also help create a style of governance which is not overtly hostile to the Opposition, and therefore be moderate in its style and spirit of governance.

Development agenda During the election campaign, there were fears expressed by some that an NDF government under Mr. Sirisena would roll back the development agenda of Mr. Rajapaksa. That fear was also a major campaign theme of Mr. Rajapaksa. All indications are that the new NDF regime will continue to carry out the present development agenda with some modifications. Excessive reliance on China for economic assistance and loans for development, which has political consequences too, is most likely to be reviewed. Close economic cooperation with the West is a policy with which Ranil Wickramasinghe is identified. He is also known for his economic pragmatism. When he was the Prime Minister, in 2002-2003 he devised a policy of closer economic integration between Sri Lanka and the southern States of India.

As it happens at crucial moments of political change, new leaders and new governments emerge with a great deal of promise for change. The greater the promise, the greater can also be the disappointment, once the euphoria of the newness declines and the promises meet the political realities. One such challenging prospect which the new President is likely to face is in balancing the interests of the Sinhalese majority community and the ethnic minorities in the next parliamentary election. Tamils and Muslims voted for him on January 8 practically en masse on the promise of a return to democracy. At the next parliamentary election, which has to be held before 2016, the dynamics of the political sentiments of Tamil and Muslim minorities might not be confined to macro democratic reforms. Devolution and reconciliation will some day return to the political agenda. Managing that challenge in a manner different from how Mr. Rajapaksa did through the strategy of cooptation, intimidation and development largesse would require a great deal of political skills as well as the capacity for democratic accommodation of diverse political agendas.

(Jayadeva Uyangoda is Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo.)

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