Sri Lanka: Back to the Future?

After months of intense speculation, it has become official: Sri Lanka’s recently ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, will contest in the country’s parliamentary elections which will be held on August 17. He will be contesting from Kurunegala district as a part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and the possibility of him becoming prime minister is not out of the question. The former president’s return to power would complicate further efforts at democratic reform within the war-torn country.

Like current President Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa is a longtime member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But since Sirisena heads that party as well as the UPFA (the broader political alliance which is led by the SLFP), many had expected that Rajapaksa, if he did actually contest, would have needed to do so on an alternative political platform. After all, Sirisena is the one who came out of nowhere to defeat Rajapaksa when he ran for an unprecedented third term in January’s presidential contest.

Indeed, the fact that Rajapaksa has been granted a nomination under the UPFA umbrella is what some observers find so troubling. Sirisena promised to break with his predecessor’s corrupt and authoritarian past, but Rajapaksa’s return under the alliance he used to lead renews his political relevance and underscores how difficult it could be to implement further democratic reforms. For Sirisena, party politics and SLFP unity became increasingly important once he assumed the presidency. Yet even after doling out numerous cabinet portfolios to SLFP members—a clear transactional gesture to garner additional support—he was still unable to gain control of his own political party and the broader UPFA coalition. Sirisena’s political weakness has undermined his ability to implement many of his desired reforms, including electoral reforms, a Right to Information act, and the abolition of the executive presidency.

Shortly after Rajapaksa called a presidential election last November, Sirisena emerged as the presidential candidate for a broad coalition of political parties, including the United National Party (UNP), one of the country’s two major Sinhala-Buddhist parties and the rival of the SLFP. Sirisena is a longtime member of the SLFP, and his challenge to Rajapaksa came as a tremendous surprise, although most members of the SLFP (and of the broader alliance, the UPFA) did not support his candidacy.

The UNP-led administration which Sirisena formed immediately after being elected to the presidency will be remembered as an unusual, uncomfortable alliance, and the majority of the reforms set out in Sirisena’s 100-day reform program did not come to fruition.

Furthermore, the corruption investigations from Rajapaksa’s tenure (over matters including Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, bribery, and the mismanagement of state-run enterprises) have not yet resulted in indictments. Besides, the UNP is now dealing with corruption allegations of its own making. However, an important distinction from previous elections is that the UPFA will not be able to brazenly abuse state resources during the electoral campaign (as it had done during past contests when Rajapaksa was in power).

The late-June dissolution of parliament came several months later than expected. Sirisena seemed to believe that, as time went by, he would eventually be able to garner control over the SLFP and marginalize Rajapaksa. However, the fact that Sirisena delayed dissolving parliament seems to have had the opposite effect. A thoughtful piece has recently illustrated that, in spite of numerous exhortations to the contrary, Sirisena had far less power to prevent Rajapaksa from running on the UPFA’s platform than is commonly believed.

Ostensibly, Rajapaksa’s return under the prevailing circumstances is good news for the SLFP-led coalition, since a deeply divided SLFP would provide the rival UNP with a significant advantage in the upcoming vote. Similar to the recent presidential election, the UNP is set to lead a broad alliance against the UPFA.

However, on July 14, Sirisena delivered an important speech, clearly stating that he is against Rajapaksa’s nomination and that he would not appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister if the UPFA were to win a majority in the forthcoming election. Sirisena’s speech has allowed to him to regain credibility in the eyes of voters and others who had accused him of betraying the mandate on which he was elected. It also underscores the fact that divisions within the SLFP remain, something which should help the UNP-led coalition on August 17. Nevertheless, Rajapaksa’s resurgence through the alliance he led for nearly a decade emphasizes that the former president looks far from finished.

Sirisena’s electoral victory has resulted in some positive changes, although transformational improvements remain unlikely to occur under his watch. He lacks the charisma found in many visionary leaders, and given the composition of the recently dissolved parliament, his ability to enact comprehensive reforms swiftly was always somewhat limited. Even though Sirisena was elected to the presidency on a wave of UNP support, the UPFA still had a majority in parliament, complicating efforts at reform—not least because constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in parliament.

Sri Lanka’s next steps towards improved governance and deeper democratic gains, if that happens at all, will almost certainly come through modest reforms. And, unfortunately, difficult (though vital) issues such as reconciliation, devolution, and accountability for wartime abuses don’t look like they will be dealt with adequately in the near future.

However, it is important to keep in mind that, had Rajapaksa been elected to a third term as president, he probably would have consolidated his nepotistic, authoritarian brand of governance, likely thwarting even modest democratic gains for a number of years. The passage of the 19th amendment to the constitution reintroduced presidential term limits and curtailed the sweeping powers of the executive presidency. This is a positive step, but well short of the initial vision of abolishing the executive presidency altogether and returning the country to a parliamentary democracy.

The majority of Sri Lankans rejected rampant corruption, nepotism, and unbridled authoritarianism during the January 2015 election. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming general election will generate the same amount of excitement, but—about half a year later—voters are faced with a similar choice.

Rajapaksa’s record as the man who ended the country’s civil war and his concomitant Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism remain potent political weapons—ones he will be able to use during the campaign, especially since a controversial report focused on abuses that occurred during the end of country’s civil war is expected to be delivered to the Sri Lankan government in late August or early September. This timeline gives Colombo time to prepare a response prior to the report’s official release during the 30th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which starts on September 14.

The next few months still have enormous ramifications for the island’s domestic politics and Colombo’s ties with the international community. Sirisena has indicated that he will remain neutral during the election campaign and it is difficult to predict what will happen over the next few months. The forthcoming election could be a closely fought contest. Furthermore, recent developments have shown that formidable obstacles to deeper reforms and longstanding war-related issues will remain prominent for the foreseeable future.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

The South Asia Channel