Why election verdict is good news for Sri Lanka and India

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 18, 2015 14:34 IST
In this photograph taken on October 23, 2006, then Sri Lanka Freedom Party secretary, Maithripala Sirisena (second left) and opposition United National Party senior party official, Malik Samarawickrema (second right) sign an agreement to work together towards a political settlement to the island's drawn out separatist conflict with the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (left) of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) looks on in Colombo. (AFP file photo/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi)

Sri Lanka's parliamentary election result on Tuesday, which saw the victory of current incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe and put an end to the prime ministerial hopes of Mahinda Rajapaksa, is good news both for Sri Lanka and India.

Here is the context

This was a complicated election. President Maithripala Sirisena is officially the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but could not stop the nomination of his bête-noire and the man he defeated to become President in January, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a candidate and de facto prime ministerial face of the SLFP led alliance, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

On the other side was the United National Party, led by current PM Wickremesinghe. The UNP led a broader coalition called the United National Front for Good Governance. The third party in the fray in Sinhala-dominated areas of Sri Lanka's south was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). In the north, the battle was between the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with other more radical Tamil outfits, which had the backing of sections of the influential Tamil diaspora.

Sri Lanka's parliament has 225 members, and the elections are based on the proportional representation model. This means that parties win seats based on the percentage of votes polled. The final tally is not yet out, but current assessments indicate the UNP-led alliance will get over 100 seats; the Rajapaksa-led alliance will have between 80 and 90 seats. With the support of the TNA, which has done well in the north, and the JVP, Wickremesinghe is comfortably placed to become prime minister.

Internal reform

In the last six months, ever since the surprise defeat of Rajapaksa in the presidential poll, Sri Lanka has witnessed a degree of political reform. This has been a slow, often frustrating process. But Sirisena lived up to his campaign promise and delivered on the 19th amendment, which curtailed the powers of his office, gave more autonomy to constitutional institutions and increased the power of the prime minister. He initiated corruption cases against those who held office in the past, including members of Rajapaksa's family. There has also been a change in approach towards Tamil minorities and assurances of justice and rights - though many Tamils feel they are yet to see the dividends on the ground. A major part of this period, however, was taken up by internal SLFP politics, with Rajapaksa attempting to make a comeback and Sirisena doing his best to prevent it.

The parliamentary election was critical because it was a referendum on the two men. People had to decide. Did they want the Rajapaksa brand of a strong state and hardline Sinhalese nationalism back? They could well have been tempted because internal fissures within the broad alliance that has run Sri Lanka in the last six months had led to disillusionment. Or did they want to continue with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe brand of messy but democratic political reform, 'good governance', and a more inclusive nationalism?

If the Rajapaksa-led alliance had emerged as the single largest formation, the President - even if he did not want to - would have been under pressure to invite his rival to lead the government. It would have derailed the project of political reform.

Rajapaksa would have yet again capitalised on Sinhalese nationalism, painted demands for devolution as a recipe for disintegration, and blocked any measures for reconciliation with Tamil minorities. He would have used his parliamentary numbers to insure himself and his family from any accountability for past measures He would have established a firmer grip over the SLFP; Sirisena's political capital would have diminished and there would have been an uneasy balance between the head of the state and head of the government.

Tuesday's outcome has prevented such a situation.

Instead, it has reinforced the January verdict. The president can now wrest back control of the party. He is keen on a national government, and many SLFP parliamentarians may be willing to cross the aisle after an acrimonious election to join the government benches. This will shrink Rajapaksa's support base considerably and provide Sirisena the space to continue with reform. The election also marks the return of Wickremesinghe as PM - but this time after a victory. The UNP has a better track record with minorities.

There is also an inter-personal dimension here. Wickremesinghe's support was critical to his victory in January; this time, Sirisena's support helped Wickremesinghe. The two men will continue to have their share of issues, but there is a convergence of interests and objectives. This is critical because the reform agenda is unfinished.

The India hand

The strong external subtext is hard to miss.

Rajapaksa had blamed India - and in particular the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) - for his January defeat. He had done so to deflect attention from his domestic failures, which alienated large sections of the Sinhalese and pitted the minorities as adversaries entirely. It was true that India was not happy with him either, because of his proximity to China and his green signal to projects that India saw as affecting its security interests as well as reluctance to look for a political solution to the Tamil issue. India, it is reliably learnt, did encourage the broad opposition alliance to come together, led by Sirisena, Wickremasinghe and mediated by the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The defeat saw India-Rajapaksa ties deteriorate further after he went public with his allegations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, kept open the channels of communication, and met him for a one-on-one during his visit to Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa had been keen to improve ties with India, notwithstanding his 'nationalist' rhetoric in public. But India felt his victory would upset the process of political reform initiated in January. There was also a strong sense that Beijing had thrown its weight behind Rajapaksa. But Delhi knew any high-handed move, where it was seen as taking sides, would only embolden the Sinhalese nationalist constituency. It kept a low profile, and quietly encouraged the Wickremasinghe-Sirisena combine.

Tuesday's result will help President Maithripala Sirisena re-establish his authority over his party and continue with his reform agenda. It gives Wickremesinghe the legitimacy and confidence he lacked as a prime minister of a minority government to take forward his agenda. It will ensure there are checks and balances in the polity - the political process may be messy and there will be pulls and pressures between different factions, but the presence of multiple stakeholders and their compulsion to work together will consolidate democracy. It opens up the doors for more substantive steps on reconciliation with the Tamil minority - especially accountability for war crimes, devolution and demilitarization. It also re-establishes the primacy of moderate Tamil politics over the more radical offshoots which would have only enhanced polarisation. The result means that Sri Lanka's historic close ties with India will deepen; it will also continue to engage with China but within a certain framework.

There are many challenges and questions. As a recent report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said, "Sri Lanka is only at the possible beginning of a long journey, one delayed by six years of Sinhala nationalist authoritarianism. It needs to rebuild democratic institutions damaged by 40 years of insurgency, civil war and ethnically-based centralization." While being aware of this challenge, today is a day to celebrate the judicious choice of the Sri Lankan electorate.

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