Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election appears to have delivered a firm endorsement of the ruling United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) coalition. The result scotches an attempted political comeback by the country’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and consolidates the position of Maithripala Sirisena, who defeated him in the presidential elections in January.
Back then, most were hopeful that Sirisena’s win would reverse the slide towards authoritarianism over which Rajapaksa had presided since 2005. Things have not gone entirely to plan since then – but this latest result has saved Sri Lanka from a big step backwards.
A victory for the main opposition coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), would have led to calls for Rajapaksa to be installed as prime minister, which would have seriously undermined Sirisena’s progressive agenda. Instead, while the UNFGG coalition does not appear to have won an overall majority, its leader Ranil Wickramasinghe is now expected to form a unity coalition with support from both Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and several minority parties.
Optimists are hopeful that that the UNFGG’s win will restore political stability, boost economic performance and provide space for the consolidation of Sirisena’s “good governance” agenda, which has had trouble getting off the ground.
Room for manoeuvre
Since his victory, Sirisena has taken important steps to foster a more open political climate and reassert the rule of law. Key measures have included reinstating the presidential term limit, releasing detainees, and reining in the surveillance and intimidation of journalists and civil society organisations.
But the national government that came to power after Sirisena’s election didn’t command a majority in parliament and it has struggled to make good on a range of other promises. While several high-profile investigations into alleged corruption, political murders and disappearances have been initiated, there have been no major indictments.
Perhaps most worryingly, a recent report from Freedom from Torture UK shows that the torture and rape of Tamil detainees has continued during Sirisena’s presidency, concluding that “torture is an entrenched part of the state apparatus in Sri Lanka, enduring under successive political leaders.”
The general election campaign intensified an internal split within Sirisena and Rajapska’s SLFP, with Sirisena taking increasingly bold measures to maintain unity in the face of mounting pressure from Rajapksa loyalists.
Rajapaksa’s campaign focused heavily on traditional nationalistic concerns about the dangers of resurgent Tamil separatism. Although he proved very able to mobilise a committed following in the Sinhala Buddhist heartlands, his campaign was widely viewed as uninspiring. At times he cut a diminished figure in a campaign starved of state patronage.
Sirisena struck a more inclusive tone. He resisted calls for Rajapaksa to be appointed prime minister in the event of a UPFA victory and penned a scathing letter to the former president just before the elections in which he attacked him for “igniting the flames of communalism” (meaning the primacy of ethnic allegiances over patriotism) by playing on the fears of the Sinhalese majority.
An important early test for the new government will be its response to a UN war crimes report due to be published in September. The prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe has promised to address any issues raised in the report, but that will be far from straightforward, not least because of the military’s entrenched position and the Sinhalese majority’s deep-set opposition to any international investigations.
The UNFGG coalition will also have to focus on simply holding itself together. It includes a broad spectrum of political groupings and agendas, spanning both main parties (the UNP and SLFP), several minority parties, and the Buddhist JHU. The new government will have the onerous task of holding this unwieldy alliance together, and of building the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to pass constitutional changes.
Although both Sirisena and Wickramasinghe are committed to reform, neither has backed further devolution of powers to the provinces. This is one of the core demands of the main Tamil grouping, the TNA, which performed strongly in yesterday’s poll. Many Tamils, inured by previous broken promises by politicians from both major parties, remain unconvinced that Sirisena and Wickramasinghe represent a break from the past.
Sri Lankan democracy suffered a profound setback under Rajapaksa’s authoritarian government. While the electoral boost to Sirisena’s good governance agenda signals a clear shift away from the abuses of the Rajapaksa era, Sri Lanka still faces many of the same challenges it did in 2009, particularly the need to build more inclusive state institutions and address demands for accountability and reconciliation.
Overcoming those long-term challenges demands a sensitive and comprehensive strategy from the new government, as well as careful and committed support from international governments and civil society. It’s a tall order – but with a Rajapaksa comeback off the cards, at least for now, the chances are better than ever.