Journalist | Writer | Analyst
The Times of India
12 January 2015
Fall of a Strongman
The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan presidential election does not automatically mean an end to the country’s political and economic problems but it has helped avert the disasters that surely lay ahead had the two-time president succeeded in winning a third term.
The opposition he faced was dispirited and divided but smart politics, like guerilla warfare, is all about creating disruptions in the enemy camp. So imperious was Rajapaksa in his behaviour and so centralised was his exercise of power that the deadliest blow came from within and not without.
Maithripala Sirisena was head of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) when he defected to the opposition and became the presidential candidate of the New Democratic Front. This front itself would not have come into being but for the role played by Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa’s predecessor and one-time patron, and Ranil Wickramasinghe of the United National Party.
Rajapaksa’s destructive majoritarianism was playing havoc with the country’s fragile national fabric, perverting its political economy, wrecking its civil liberties and distorting its foreign policy. What Sirisena, Chandrika and Ranil have managed to do along with smaller allies like the leftist Janata Vimukti Perumana and the Sinhala Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya is to stop any further damage from being done. They managed successfully to get the electorate to press the reset button. In doing so, they have created an opening for Sri Lanka to think anew about its political future.
The vote was close — only four percentage points separate Sirisena and Rajapaksa — but the idea that the former won only because of minority support is incorrect. Rajapaksa polled well in Sinhala areas, trouncing his opponent in Hambantota, Matara, Ratnapura, Galle and Monaragala by big margins. However, Sirisena won a large number of Sinhala votes too and would not have hit 51% of the vote share but for that.
Sinhala voters may have felt the constrictions of Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism in different ways but they were as affected by his misgovernance as the country’s Tamils and Muslims.
The Sirisena manifesto is committed to the abolition of the all-powerful executive presidency, whose problems have become so apparent. Of course, how the new coalition will go about doing that is not clear. Rajapaksa’s SLFP has a majority in Parliament, where a two-thirds majority is needed to amend the Constitution and reconfigure the relationship between president and PM. Fresh parliamentary elections may help, provided the coalition holds. But what the change will mean for the relationship between President Sirisena — whose face toppled Rajapaksa but who lacks a political organisation of his own — and PM Wickramasinghe is anybody’s guess.
The next order of business after getting rid of the executive presidency will surely have to be the ‘Tamil question’. So far, the new president has not had much to say about the grievances of Sri Lanka’s minorities — the Tamils, Muslims and even Christians — who voted overwhelmingly for him.
An elected Northern Council is already in place but its powers are limited. More pressing is the demand for a lower army footprint in Jaffna. Rajapaksa won the war against LTTE in 2009 but lost the peace by pursuing triumphalist chauvinism rather than reconciliation. Sirisena must not end up losing a peace that is his to deliver now that he has triumphed on the electoral battlefield. Rajapaksa’s ouster will allow these problems to be considered and addressed calmly.
The war crimes issue is a potential time bomb and Sirisena is likely to be as resistant to foreign pressure on this account as his predecessor. “No international power will be allowed to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism,” his manifesto says. While pressure from abroad will temporarily abate, this difficult issue can and must be handled domestically.
The best way to do this is via a truth and reconciliation process, provided Sirisena, Ranil and the Tamil National Alliance are able to craft an overarching and just political settlement that keeps both the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka and the legitimate aspirations of the Jaffna Tamils in mind.
For India, the change of guard in Colombo is a stroke of good luck that will allow PM Modi to look for changes on two fronts of particular concern. The first is the quest for a durable political solution to the Tamil question. The second is the growing Chinese ‘presence’ in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa cleverly played the China card in order to deflect Indian pressure on the Tamil issue, while Beijing was only too happy to be ‘used’ by Colombo in this manner. The visit of two Chinese nuclear-powered submarines to Sri Lanka late last year prompted Indian protests. Mindful of these concerns, Sirisena’s manifesto assures New Delhi that he will act to have “closer relations with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependent”.
Modi government must give the emerging dispensation in Colombo time to find its bearings, especially given the fragile nature of the coalition that has come to power. The changes Sirisena needs to bring require not just the support of his own people but also the backing and goodwill of Sri Lanka’s friends abroad.