Citizens long used to democratic processes develop an aversion to authoritarian leaders, even if the latter seem invincible at their prime. Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa received that lesson twice over this year, failing in his attempt to become prime minister in this week’s election, following on his defeat by Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential polls in January.
The United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who ran on a more inclusive platform, is likely to form a government marking a departure from the majoritarian tenor of politics that Mr Rajapaksa championed.
Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat was crafted by fostering a hostile climate of opinion in which President Sirisena played a key part. Both leaders belong to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but fell out when Mr Sirisena emerged as the candidate that the Opposition backed against Mr Rajapaksa in January’s election.
Mr Rajapaksa remained in the SLFP and insisted on fighting parliamentary elections in an effort to become PM again, after Mr Sirisena restored more powers to the office since taking over. Mr Sirisena could neither throw Mr Rajapaksa out nor openly campaign for the Wickremesinghe-led coalition but wrote a long open letter to Mr Rajapaksa that left no doubt about his preference. He accused Mr Rajapaksa of turning the SLFP from a progressive political party that accommodates ethnic, religious and social diversity into a party “that refuses to accommodate diversity”.
He admonished Mr Rajapaksa for igniting “flames of communalism” and said that he, as president, was faced with the challenge of “freeing the SLFP from narrow ideologies and transforming it into a political party that represents the whole Sri Lankan nation”. The effect of such a rift between the leaders will not have been lost on Sri Lankan voters, who have wisely jettisoned the prospect of an endless confrontation between Mr Sirisena and Mr Rajapaksa that would have been toxic for Sri Lanka’s public life.
Sri Lanka will now have a political dispensation capable of moderating the country’s politics and pursuing reconciliation with the Tamil minority and other marginal groups. The president and Mr Wickremesinghe will need to sustain inclusive rhetoric and match that with policy interventions in order to contain Sinhala nationalism that remains a force in Sri Lanka’s politics. India will be happy with the outcome as the winners are in favour of closer ties with New Delhi. The relationship will, nonetheless, need a good measure of nurture and tact, owing to sensitive issues such as the rights of Tamils.