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Democracy in Sri Lanka Will Soon Confront Its Second Moment of Truth – Jayadeva Uyangoda

In happier times: Maithripala Sirisena (R) and Mahinda Rajapaksa, pictured here at a 2013 event in Colombo

With fresh parliamentary elections scheduled for August 17, Sri Lanka’s politics has once again entered a phase of some uncertainty. The fate of the ‘silent revolution’ of January 8, 2015, which saw the autocratic regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa being replaced, is in the balance. If Rajapaksa returns to power as Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority, Sri Lanka’s democratic reform process will certainly be rolled back. However, Sri Lanka’s public mood and electoral arithmetic do not seem to favour a Rajapaksa return. Not as yet.

The circumstances under which next month’s parliamentary election will take place are somewhat unusual. Although President Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election in January this year with the backing of a lose opposition alliance called New Democratic Front (NDF), the government he appointed did not have a parliamentary majority. In fact, the majority of MPs – over 135 of the 225-member legislature – belonged to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), centred on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Both entities bitterly opposed Sirisena at the presidential election. The United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party of the NDF coalition which backed Sirisena’s successful presidential bid, had only 47 MPs, supplemented with the support about a dozen of MPs from small coalition partners. This led to the formation of a minority government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, leader of the UNP.

Uneasy cohabitation

Although crossovers from the UPFA to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government were expected to boost its parliamentary strength, only a few MPs made the switch. Even those who crossed over to the government from the SLFP did so to accept ministerial positions. Several of them had tainted records of being close allies of Rajapaksa. Some also had the dubious honour of indirectly contributing to Rajapaksa’s defeat. Ironically, the government of ‘good governance’ had to resort to a little bit of political corruption to ensure its own survival.

Against this backdrop, a tense and uneasy cohabitation between the NDF government and the opposition UPFA in parliament ensured the survival of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government for six months. When the minority government was formed in January, the plan was to dissolve parliament in mid-April, after the completion of its 100 Day-Programme. This ambitious programme envisaged an extensive package of constitutional, electoral and governance reforms, coupled with investigations into corruption and abuse of power, alleged to have occurred during the Rajapaksa rule.

While the NDF government was busy with clearing these roadblocks, the Rajapaksa camp executed two plans to come back to power.

With no parliamentary majority at its disposal, and facing the increasing risk of being voted out in parliament, the reform agenda of Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government faced a deadlock. To ensure that at least some alteration was made to the presidential system of government, Sirisena and Wickremasinghe had to make unanticipated compromises with the opposition UPFA, giving up the initial idea of abolishing the presidential system. Eventually, the 19th Amendment was passed in parliament, but it did not abolish the presidential system, but only reduced the excessive powers of the president. Given the precarious balance of power in parliament, this limited reform measure was something, rather than nothing, to show the people that the government has fulfilled one of its key election promises, at least partially. However, the 20th Amendment, which sought to change the electoral system by replacing the existing proportional representation (PR) system with a version of the German mixed system, failed to materialise, due to opposition and sabotage by the UPFA. Small and ethnic minority parties within the coalition also opposed it, since they perceived the proposed electoral reforms primarily favored the two major parties.

While the NDF government was busy with clearing these roadblocks, the Rajapaksa camp executed two plans to come back to power. Plan A was to defeat the government in parliament through a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister. Plan B was to defeat the government at the parliamentary election, in case Sirisena and Wickremasinghe dissolved parliament to avert the UPFA’s option of a no-confidence motion. While the parliamentary leaders of the Rajapaksa camp were collecting signatures for the non-confidence motion against Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, President Sirisena dissolved parliament, calling for elections on August 17.

President in his labyrinth

Sirisena has not had an easy time in his first six months as president due to the unusual challenges he has had to face. He became the presidential candidate of the UNP-led opposition coalition in November last year, almost out of the blue. By that time, he was the general secretary of the SLFP of which Rajapaksa was the leader. Although there were rumours for many months that he was unhappy with Rajapaksa over his not being offered the job of Prime Minister, deserting the party and leader to become the opposition challenger was an act of revolt as well. While it exploded the myth of Rajapaksa’s iron grip over the SLFP and the UPFA coalition, it re-energized and galvanized an otherwise weak opposition. Thus, Sirisena emerged as the ‘individual’ who became an unconscious tool of history to shift the political balance of forces away from Rajapaksa. The partial regime change that occurred peacefully this January was something unthinkable before Sirisena abandoned Rajapaksa.

Thus, Sirisena’s presidential term and Wickremasinghe’s prime ministerial term began in January with a great deal of public hope for turning Sri Lanka’s politics away from the illiberal, authoritarian, and personalized style of governance which Sirisena’s predecessor practiced. Both began their new government knowing very little about how the reality of politics could soon slow down and eventually undermine their reform agenda. The 100-day programme turned out to be too big a project to complete within just three months, with no parliamentary majority. The much awaited corruption investigations into politicians and officials of the previous regime produced no tangible outcomes, except newspaper headlines and passionate denials, for six months. The new government’s claims to providing corruption-free, clean governance came to be severely tarnished by the story of a massive financial scandal surrounding the auction of central bank bonds, with allegations of irregularities, insider manipulation, conflict of interest and personal profiteering by UNP politicians and officials. The NDF government’s lack of clear economic strategy became quite obvious when the new finance minister presented the first interim budget within two weeks in power. It appeared that being out of power for two decades had actually taken its toll quite harshly on Sri Lanka’s grand old party, the UNP.

Benefits, and burdens, of regime change

Joined at the hip: President Maithripala Sirisena, seen here with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga is in the middle.

The positive achievements of the regime change are quite significant, but paradoxically they remain mostly invisible and intangible. Key among them include making the state less and less repressive, removing the use of fear, terror, intimidation and corruption as instruments of governance, turning the regime behaviour moderate and less leader-centric, dismantling the political culture of the personality cult, demilitarisation of politics and public space, the re-opening of the space for critique and dissent, and the removal of the fear among ethnic and religious minorities of organised violence. These indeed are no mean achievements gained within a space of days and weeks of the regime change. All these are negative achievements in the sense that they are outcome of the government refraining from doing certain things. But they constituted a fundamental alteration of the pattern of regime behaviour evolved during the past so many years.

Meanwhile, the past two to three months also indicated that a rift between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe had developed. There are a few reasons for this. First, Sirisena’s acceptance of the SLFP’s and UPFA’s leadership soon after he became the President became a burden on him, although he may have thought that the leadership of the party and the UPFA coalition would enable him to secure firm control over the SLFP and thus isolate Rajapaksa politically. That did not happen. Instead, Rajapaksa loyalists within the SLFP and the UPFA launched a campaign to bring Rajapaksa back to active politics. They exerted tremendous pressure on Sirisena to accommodate and accept Rajapaksa as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate at the parliamentary election. This posed a major dilemma to Sirisena. Although he was the leader of the SLFP and UPFA, he had no control over them and therefore could not ignore the pressure from the Rajapaksa camp. At the same time, Sirisena was elected President by essentially non-SLFP, non-UPFA voters. Torn between two loyalties, Sirisena began to show vacillation and indecision, ultimately allowing Rajapaksa to be given the SLFP-UPFA nomination as a parliamentary candidate.

Second, as it was rumoured in Colombo, Sirisena was quite apprehensive of Wickremasinghe’s strategy of splitting the SLFP into two camps, one led by Sirisena and the other by Rajapaksa in the run up to the parliamentary election. As Sirisena himself admitted in a recent public statement, protecting the SLFP and leading it to electoral victory under his leadership became his responsibility as the leader of the party. That ran totally counter to the electoral mandate he received in January. As many critics pointed out, Sirisena’s mandate was not to protect the SLFP, but to protect democracy and good governance in Sri Lanka. Yet, as the SLFP’s new leader, Sirisena could not ignore his role of establishing his leadership over the party by unifying it. Not unexpectedly, Sirisena lost his battle with Rajapaksa in securing control of the SLFP. Now Sirisena has only a few loyalists in the party; the rest are backing Rajapaksa in his bid to become the Prime Minister. Caught between two contradictory loyalties, President Sirisena has opted to be neutral during the parliamentary election.

Difficult to call

The electoral battle lines are now drawn between two main axes, the UNP-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), and the SLFP-led UPFA. The UNFGG is a new coalition formation, put together for the parliamentary election to confront Rajapaksa at the parliamentary polls. It consists of the UNP, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), some SLFPers who were earlier with President Sirisena, as well as breakaway groups from the Left parties. The UNFGG has the advantage of securing most of the Tamil and Muslim votes as well, except in the North and some parts of the East where the Tamil National Alliance is contesting. The UPFA, in contrast, will primarily depend on the Sinhalese-Buddhist votes. Ethnic and religious minorities view the SLFP and UPFA under Rajapaksa’s leadership as aggressively majoritarian.

The outcome of the parliamentary election is not easy to predict. There is no discernible wave in favour any of the two main contending coalitions. Given the configuration of forces at present, the UNFGG might emerge as the entity with the highest number of seats, yet without a clear majority in the 225-mmember legislature. The UPFA is likely to emerge strong, but not in a position to form a post-election majority coalition. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are likely to share about 30 seats between themselves, and they are not likely to back Rajapaksa’s UPFA in forming a post-election coalition government. They are committed to preventing Rajapaksa from forming the next government.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is a political scientist in Sri Lanka

Featured Image of Presidential Secretariat in Colombo: Kesara Rathnayake, CC 2.0



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