A leader falls: Why Sri Lanka ousted Mahinda Rajapaksa

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2015 03:57 IST

Thursday's presidential election in Sri Lanka was arguably one of the most important in the country's history. And its outcome on Friday determined that the creeping authoritarianism of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family will not get institutionalised and further entrenched but called for opening up of the democratic political space.

The results show that Sri Lanka would not like to continue on its path of a centralised rule, belligerent majoritarian nationalism and monoculturalism but accept a degree of multiculturalism, recognition of minorities and allow entities other than Colombo's presidential palace to have a say in state affairs.

Sri Lankans did not want their country to continue being an international outlier, drawing flak from the West and human rights community for not addressing the issue of justice or rights and at least attempt to re-engage with universal democratic values.

The people have spoken - and what a verdict they have thrown up. After almost a decade of absolute rule, with a firm militarist orientation, Rajapaksa has been ousted.

He has now conceded defeat and left his palace. The new victor is the common Opposition candidate and a former health minister in Rajapaksa's government, Mithripala Sirisena.


Supporters hold up images of Mithripala Sirisena as they celebrate in the streets of Colombo after President Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat in the country's presidential elections on Friday. (AFP Photo)

How did Rajpaksa lose - a scenario few could have imagined till a few months ago? And what does it mean for the Sri Lankan polity as well as the subcontinent, especially India?

After a three-decade bloody civilian war, Sri Lanka yearned for peace and order when Rajapaksa arrived on the national centre-stage in the middle of the last decade. Peace talks had collapsed, military stalemate ensued, suicide bombings continued and the north and the east functioned almost independent of Colombo.

A unique set of circumstances helped Rajpaksa.

Post 9/11, there was no sympathy for the murderous LTTE internationally; the outfit was also wrecked by factionalism with key leaders turning into informers for Colombo; public support for the Tigers had dipped even in its stronghold areas and there was fatigue; the Sri Lankan military was well funded, well equipped and given a blank cheque to conduct operations and India shared critical intelligence. Rajapaksa won the war in 2009, though only after massive human rights violations - now documented well internationally.

Riding on this victory, Rajapaksa won the overwhelming support of the Sinhalese constituency in the next elections. The opposition was in disarray, with no political platform since they had chosen his former military chief as the common candidate. The Tamil and Muslim minorities were politically marginalised. The state remained firmly loyal to Rajapaksa and the results were a foregone conclusion.

But this is where Rajapaksa lost the plot. Instead of using his political strength to deepen Sri Lankan democracy and heal the wounds of the war, he decided to cater to his extremist Sinhalese base. Going against repeated advice by well wishers - including the Indian establishment - he refused to devolve power to Tamils. He treated the state as a family fiefdom, with all key positions handled by his brothers, alienating even party veterans.


Supporters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa celebrate following the close of polls in Colombo on Thursday, January 8, 2015. (AFP Photo)

Rajapaksa turned on any dissent by even Sinhalese media and civil society activists. He confronted the world on human rights violations - backed by China. It was the victor's arrogance but beneath what seemed like a complete grip on power, disenchantment was growing. The Tamil minority remained upset - many innocents had been killed in the war and there was no justice; they were still treated as second class citizens. The last few years saw the assertion of Buddhist chauvinist groups, who now turned to attack Muslim minorities. What also happened was that many Sinhalese in the south now began to have aspirations besides peace and order. Livelihood concerns became critical; rural Sri Lanka was unhappy. And given its strong democratic tradition, voters did not like the ruling family's authoritarianism. It was time for change.


The fact that Rajapaksa has graciously conceded defeat is credit to him and Sri Lankan democracy. But the transition will be difficult. (AFP Photo)

Sirisena became the catalyst when he defected from the Rajapaksa government a few months ago. He was then appointed the common opposition candidate, backed by former president Chandrika Kumaratunga and former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (who will once again take over as PM). Sirisena's Sinhalese credentials and anti-LTTE stance could not be doubted - he had after all been a part of the regime. So it was difficult for the family to portray him as anti-national. He was also careful to reiterate his commitment to security presence in north; Sirisena has also said the Rajapaksas will not have to face international trial.

But his promise to abolish executive presidency won him the support of the more liberal elements of Sinhala society. Tamil and Muslim outfits recognised that even though Sirisena had not firmly committed to their rights, their primary contradiction was with Rajapaksa for now. Removing him would open the democratic space. And so it was that a wide coalition came around to supporting the opposition candidate. Friday's verdict is a culmination of that.

It is a moment of jubilation for all democrats - Sri Lanka has just shown the power of elections to effect regime change peacefully; it has shown that politics is not static, that voters cannot be taken for granted; that divisive politics has its limitations; that one family cannot become a substitute for institutions; and that a united opposition fighting a free and fair election can turn the tables in a complex fragmented polity. This will open up the polity and free space for democratic activism.

The fact that Rajapaksa has graciously conceded defeat is credit to him and Sri Lankan democracy. But the transition will be difficult. Sirisena and Wickremasinghe will have to cobble together a government. They will have to meet their promise of abolishing the executive presidency. In the medium term, they will have to reconcile conflicting demands of their Sinhala base and Tamil and Muslim aspirations.

They will be constantly looking over their shoulder as Rajapaksa will call any concession as sell out to Tamil separatism. Rajapaksa got over 45% vote and will remain a strong force. Parliamentary arithmetic is also in his favour till the next parliamentary polls. But what is politics if not the art of managing contradictions - and Sirisena will be tested on that.

Many people will be smiling in Delhi today. India has long told Rajapaksa to use his stature to address Tamil aspirations within a united Sri Lanka. Sources say this was a message that Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed when Rajapaksa attended his swearing-in ceremony.

He was encouraged to do this before the elections. Rajapaksa has been obstinate. And as a political and strategic buffer, he has played up the China card to force Delhi to dilute its pressure. India will have no blank cheque in Sri Lanka - but the structural change opens up possibilities. India now has friendly governments in all of South Asia's smaller countries (leaving aside Pakistan which is a different equation). This will help Modi'a neighbourhood policy too.

But that comes later. For now, celebrate the return of a vibrant democracy to an intimate neighbour.

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