On Friday morning, with fewer than half the votes counted in Sri Lanka’s presidential election, incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa unobtrusively moved out of his official residence at Temple Trees in Colombo. This was a quiet end to a political dynasty few thought would fall so easily. It also heralded the victory of Maithripala Sirisena.
For nearly a decade, the Rajapaksa oligarchy – the president and his small band of family members – had burrowed into the very bedrock of Sri Lankan politics, putting down roots into all spheres of power. President Rajapaksa installed his elder brother Chamal as the Speaker of the Parliament; his younger brother Basil as economic development minister, giving him control of the state’s purse strings; and another young brother Gotabhaya as defence secretary and de facto chief of the Sri Lanka’s armed forces.
President Rajapaksa was seen as a national hero for defeating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 in a bloody and controversial end to Sri Lanka’s civil war. He believed he had the mandate to secure Sri Lanka’s political and economic might for his siblings. He quickly positioned his eldest son Namal as Sri Lanka’s future leader – a crown prince and heir apparent to a new emerging Asian dynasty.
President Rajapaksa also brooked no criticism. He boldly imprisoned his former army commander Sarath Fonseka and stripped him of his rank and medals after a failed attempt to unseat Rajapaksa at the last presidential election in 2010. He sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, and replaced her with his former attorney-general and personal legal confidant Mohan Peiris. He vilified anyone who supported calls for war crimes investigations linked to the closing stages of the civil war.
It is a little too optimistic to assume that the Rajapaksa oligarchy’s fall will end political corruption and brazen nepotism in Sri Lanka. But at the very least, this election proves the stranglehold of dynastic politics can be defeated.
In November 2014, Rajapaksa’s house of cards began to look shaky. He was threatened by an unlikely opponent in the form of Sirisena, his former health minister and party secretary. Sirisena’s surprise defection to a common opposition coalition that had been scrounging for a presidential candidate finally provided a rallying point for a united anti-Rajapaksa movement.
Sirisena’s parliamentary career since entering politics in 1989 had been anything but remarkable. But it wasn’t his political prowess the coalition needed. They needed the defection of a loyal man – one who echoed the same frustration felt at the grassroots.
It was that defection, combined with the powerbrokers behind the unremarkable Sirisena, that made his bid for presidency serious. It is also the politics of these political puppeteers that will make his tenure unpredictable.
On the surface, Sirisena’s primary goal is to bring an end to the all-powerful executive presidency, an overarching political appointment that has subordinated the legislature and the judiciary for more than three decades. But in Sri Lanka’s treacherous political landscape, promises to abolish the executive presidency are traditionally matched by blatant post-election back-downs propped up by a plethora of excuses.
Sirisena’s true powerbrokers
Chief among Sirisena’s political kingmakers are Rajapaksa’s predecessor and party stablemate, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga; former prime minister and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP); and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) MP and Buddhist ultranationalist Athuraliye Rathana.
Kumaratunga came to power in 1994 on an anti-corruption platform. She promised to abolish the executive presidency but ultimately failed to do so during her 11-year tenure. Her prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who eventually became her presidential successor, also vowed to end the executive presidency in his 2005 election manifesto. However, he not only strengthened the office of president in his second term, but also introduced constitutional amendments to abolish a two-term limit.
Bitter and defeated, Kumaratunga has been in self-imposed exile since losing the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to Rajapaksa in the lead-up to the 2005 elections. Rajapaksa was the first person outside the Bandaranaike dynasty to lead the party since the SLFP’s formation in 1951. Kumaratunga’s return to politics could see another internal battle for the party leadership.
For his part, Wickremesinghe has remained UNP leader for two decades. But with the exception of a three-year stint as prime minister leading a UNP minority government under SLFP president Kumaratunga, he has failed to secure real power. His rise within the party was hardly auspicious. He became leader after the party’s front-runners were systematically killed off in a series of LTTE political assassinations. But since taking the reins, he has remained remarkably resilient to internal power grabs and political defections.
Moments after being sworn in as the Sri Lanka’s sixth president in a hurried ceremony at Independence Square, Sirisena promptly installed Wickremasinghe as prime minister. The unorthodox move is likely the result of just one of many political deals Sirisena struck in exchange for support. Questions remain as to how he will continue to fulfil his pre-election pledges without compromising his own position or deploying the executive presidency powers he has vowed to remove.
At a regional level, neither Kumaratunga nor Wickremesinghe have shown much warmth toward China. China was the Rajapaksa regime’s principal financial benefactor, having bankrolled his war against the LTTE and handing Sri Lanka almost $4.8 billion in assistance – mostly in the form of soft loans. It will be interesting to see how Sirisena and his coalition negotiate relationships with China and India in light of China’s military expansion into India’s sphere of influence.
Ultra-nationalist Buddhist interest and minority politics
It is perhaps the involvement of Sirisena’s third powerbroker – Buddhist monk Rathana – that could prove the Sirisena’s greatest political challenge. Sirisena will have to keep the Buddhist powerbase onside while also appeasing minority parties the Tamil National Alliance and the Muslim Congress, whose pre-election support and thousands of newly registered voters were crucial to his election win.
Rathana represents an ultra-nationalist Buddhist party largely populated by Buddhist monks. It secured a remarkable nine seats in the April 2004 general election. While it seemingly shelved some of its more radical views during its political alliance with the Rajapaksa coalition from 2007 to 2014, a party founded on Sinhala Buddhist superiority may create the kind of politico-ethnic friction that Sirisena’s pluralist government could well do without.
On the upside, the Rajapaksa regime’s demise may also signal the end of the violent fundamentalist Bodhu Bala Sena movement, a JHU splinter group responsible for the 2014 anti-Muslim riots.
There are many reasons for Sri Lankans to celebrate Sirisena’s victory, but he now faces a political balancing act unlike any president before him. Whether he has the wherewithal to manage such a disparate group of kingmakers and their expectations remains to be seen, but the hope is his election will ring in real change and not a mere respite from Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional political norms.