By Sundar Nathan for Global Risk Insights
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was dislodged after a decade in power by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena in a closely contested presidential race. Though the result evoked surprise, the writing on the wall was becoming evident in the course of the campaign. Desperate ruling alliance supporters became increasingly violent towards the end of the campaign. At the end, the common opposition comprising all sections of Sri Lankan ethnic groups won over the ruling United Progressive Freedom Alliance by a margin of more than 300,000 votes.
Last September, Rajapakse had decided to go for snap elections to avoid the risk of facing a much stronger anti-incumbency sentiment two years later. There was a definitive decline in his government’s popularity in the provincial council polls. To secure his position among the Sinhala masses, his brother Gotabaya Rajapakse allegedly cultivated radical Buddhist groups such as the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) which ran a nasty anti-Muslim campaign in the garb of protecting the Sinhalese population. Orchestrated violence against Muslims was unchecked by security forces lending credence to the allegations.
On the Tamil question, the President and his government hardly took any sincere step to devolve meaningful powers. The Northern provincial council, that is ruled by the Tamil National Alliance, had powers lesser than that of a local city council.
Besides alienating the minorities, the government’s economic policies were unpopular. A Colombo based think tank reported in a survey that half the population felt they were worse off. This perception was gaining ground even as the economy was clocking a growth rate of 7% with low inflation. Many Chinese funded infrastructure projects were seen as white elephants enriching the coffers of the ruling family, which did not result in tangible economic benefits. As a matter of fact, this became a crucial campaign point for the common opposition that appealed to the Sinhala masses, who were unhappy with the state of economy.
The ruling family was increasingly seen as corrupt and worse, autocratic. Journalistic freedom was restricted and there were many instances of disappearances of critics. Intimidation and violence which were veiled by the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels began to be exposed. During the campaign itself, the centre for monitoring electoral violence reported more than 400 incidents including an attempted attack on the incoming President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Yet, the polling day was peaceful with the election commission asserting itself in ensuring a free and fair poll.
Now that the elections are over, major Constitutional reforms are expected. The executive presidency, immensely strengthened by the 18th amendment, is expected to be diluted to restore parliamentary control. If that happens quickly, the prime minister, UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, will be the effective head of government with the possibility of President Sirisena getting reduced to a titular head. This transition process may not be smooth if Sinhala parties choose to play competitive majoritarian politics.
In the interest of long-term security and stability, the new government should work on a devolution package that addresses the aspirations of the Tamil population especially in the North. Mahinda Rajapakse scuttled the opportunity for reconciliation by making no sincere attempt towards a political reform package. He mistakenly believed that development in the form of infrastructure would compensate for the Tamils’ struggle for equity, dignity and self-determination. The incoming government should address ethnic Tamil concerns immediately to deny space for revival of Tamil militant nationalism. It should also rein in Buddhist radicalism that has alienated Muslims.
On the geo-political front, the Rajapakse government often played the China card against India and ended up offending its sensitivities. By not favouring Beijing over others, the new government is expected to exercise neutrality and derive maximum benefits from both economic powerhouses. This neutrality should also allow the country to mend its ties with the United States and the West that were severely strained during the previous regime.
There will be huge domestic expectations after this unexpected victory. A major task will be to counter the three Cs – corruption, cronyism and communalism, which could hold back the emerald nation from realizing its economic potential. Judicial independence and autonomy of regulatory institutions, that were severely compromised, need to be restored.
The fact that markets in Colombo reacted positively to Rajapakse’s defeat means businesses are optimistic about the new government. That makes a good beginning. Yet, the coalition is too varied. A clear picture on where Sri Lanka will head will depend on the parliamentary polls in the coming months. This could be as early as in April as president-elect Sirisena had promised during his campaign.