Sri Lankans foil Rajpaksa's return to power
Sri Lanka voted overwhelmingly to elect the broad coalition led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe back to power. The election also put to rest former President Mahinda Rajapaksa's ambitions to return to power as the Prime Minister, a post that enjoys substantial power after the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed this July. Though Sri Lanka continues to have the system of Executive Presidency in place, some of the powers that this office enjoyed till the 19th amendment were accumulated through the 18th amendment passed by the previous Rajapaksa regime. These powers now stand transferred to the parliament and the office of the prime minister. It is interesting to note that the United National Front for Good Government (UNFGG) has now reached an understanding with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which President Maithripala Sirisena is the chairman and Rajapaksa is an elected MP, to form a national government.
On the day of the election, in a surprise move, President Sirisena sacked 13 members of the central committee of the SLFP to pre-empt any effort by Rajapaksa to make a comeback. Most of these members were Rajapaksa appointees and had supported his nomination from the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of which SLFP is a partner. The election results also threw a major surprise. Rajapaksa, who had claimed that he lost the presidential election to Sirisena because of international conspiracy and argued that people want him to contest the election, was shocked that the SLFP managed to get 4.8 million votes compared to more than 5 million votes he polled in the presidential election this year. The party went to the poll by projecting Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial candidate, even if he was not officially nominated by the party. It made national security, protection of motherland and the imaginary threats posed by the possible re-emergence of the LTTE as its main poll plank in a strategy to replicate the 2010 election in which Rajapaksa, who had just won the Sri Lankan Civil War, secured an overwhelming victory. Moreover, the SLFP was divided between the supporters of President Sirisena, who by virtue of being the president was the Chairman of the SLFP, and former President Rajapaksa, who used his loyalists to upset the balance. In many constituencies, the SLFP candidates lost the election while some of the UPFA constituent partners belonging to minor parties got elected using Rajapaksa's charisma – the main crowd puller in the election rallies.
The election results also reflected that people continued to support the reformist President Sirisena who himself has a clean image. UNFGG won 106 seats - 7 seats less of majority - whereas the UPFA got 94 seats in a 225 member parliament. After the MoU was reached between the SLFP and the UNFGG, a national government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was formed under Article 45 of the Constitution. Therefore, it would not be difficult to carry forward the mandate of good governance that was promised by Sirisena.
The agenda of the government is to continue with the reform process and take forward some of the reforms it had proposed to fulfil within 100 days but this could not be accomplished since Wickramasinghe, who was appointed by President Sirisena as the prime minister following the eighth January presidential elections, was heading a minority government and was dependant on UPFA support in the last parliament.
President Sirisena is in the process of reconstituting the central committee of the SLFP. He has successfully managed to win some of Rajapaksa's supporters; it remains to be seen whether Mahinda Rajapaksa will continue to pose a challenge to his leadership. Sri Lankan politics is notorious for defection from one party to the other. If Rajapaksa manages to unseat the UNFGG government, he will try to win back the party members who have joined Sirisena's camp after the election. It depends on how he packages a deal that would not only exonerate him from corruption charges but also promise relief from persecution to his cronies. Some of his greatest supporters like Wimal Weerawansa of the NFF, Dinesh Gunawardena of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and Vasudeva Nanayakkara of the Democratic Left Front, have decided to sit in the opposition as they are opposed to the SLFP and UNFGG coalition. This also implies that the UPFA as a coalition would no more be viable. It is apparent that President Sirisena has decided to get the SLFP out of the coalition which has benefitted self-servient smaller parties at the cost of the SLFP.
The August 17 parliamentary election is decisive in many ways. First, it was against Rajapaksa's plan to return to power as the prime minister; it was in favour of the January presidential mandate that promised democratic reforms which will put Sri Lanka's democracy back on track and in favour of ethnic reconciliation that would herald long term peace in the island. Defeat of Rajapaksa's prime ministerial ambitions, along with his brand of politics, would surely pave the way for ethnic reconciliation in the post-war context. Similarly, the defeat of the Tamil separatist party, the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF) also signals the rejection of chauvinistic politics.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that received 16 seats, sweeping the election in Tamil dominated areas, looks forward to long-term solutions of the Tamil political aspirations. The party supported President Sirisena in the recent elections, and has pinned their hopes on him for delivering on the political issues concerning the people of North and East. Though the UN investigation report on the last phase of the war will be made public in September, notwithstanding its content, the international community is hopeful that peace and stability is preserved for the greater good of Sri Lanka. Under the leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, and with a coalition between the two major political parties of which they are the leaders, Sri Lanka is uniquely placed to manufacture a political consensus to resolve long pending ethnic grievances that is a prerequisite for development and good governance that this election promised.
The writer is Research Fellow, IDSA.