Sri Lanka polls: what lies ahead for Sirisena and Wickremasinghe

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Sri Lanka polls: what lies ahead for Sirisena and Wickremasinghe

P Sahadevan

The election

  • PM Ranil Wickremasinghe's alliance has won the polls in Sri Lanka
  • Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa's party has lost
  • Rajapaksa's attempt at staging a comeback, has failed

The players

  • Rajapaksa remains popular among Sinhalese chauvinists. But liberal Sinhalese and minorities ensured his defeat
  • Wickremasinghe's alliance is within striking distance of a majority
  • The real winner is President Maithripala Sirisena
  • His main rival within the party, Rajapaksa, is defeated. And the PM will need his help to work
  • Tamils want the government to do more for peace and reconciliation

The impact

  • India will be pleased with the result. India-Sri Lanka ties are likely to deepen. Rajapaksa was extremely pro-China
  • The President and PM now need to go ahead with political reforms

The Sri Lankan voters have shown their political maturity and wisdom by foiling former President Mahinda Rajapaksa's desperate bid to become the country's prime minister.

This is for the second consecutive time in seven months that they have dealt a serious electoral blow to the erstwhile strongman's political ambitions. The earlier occasion was the January 2015 Presidential Election in which they denied him an unprecedented third term by electing Maithripala Sirisena.

Though the victory margin for the incumbent Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe's alliance in Monday's election was small, the defeat of Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is significant.

Endgame for Rajapaksa?

In a sense, the UPFA's defeat is louder than the victory of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) simply for the reason that the Sri Lankan voters have shattered Rajapaksa's political dreams, perhaps, forever.

Nevertheless, Rajapaksa remains popular among the Sinhalese nationalists who give him credit for ending the 26-year long civil war. They are willing to overlook his authoritarian tendencies and the rampant corruption involving his family members during his reign (2005-14).

At the same, the ethnic minorities and liberal Sinhalese alike reject his divisive politics, illiberal policies and Sinhalese chauvinistic agenda.

Tasks ahead

An immediate task for the victorious UNFGG leadership is to get support of seven more members to reach the half way mark of 113 in the 225-member parliament. This may not be a difficult since some of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs loyal to President Sirisena could cross over to the ruling coalition. Or else, the President may utilise the opportunity to propose a unity government by including his own party and the smaller parties in parliament.

Despite his own party's defeat, President Sirisena should be pleased with the electoral outcome. It is a great relief to him that he does not have to work with his political foe, Rajapaksa, to govern the country.

The cohabitation government with Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister tends to provide a greater continuity to the political reform process initiated in January 2015. Indeed the present mandate is not only for good governance but also for reforming the polity.

The President and Prime Minister share a commitment towards providing a corruption-free government and upholding a liberal ethos. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed in April 2015, made a good beginning by slightly diluting Presidential powers and protecting independence of some of the state institutions that the former president used to undermine.

Despite his party's defeat, President Sirisena would be pleased that he doesn't have to work with Rajapaksa

The next task for the cohabitation government would be to enact the 20th Amendment to reform the electoral system. On this the government is likely to enjoy support across the political divide in Parliament. The question of abolishing the Executive Presidency may also become part of the government's agenda, but the process may not begin soon.

Reaching out to the Tamils

However, the biggest challenge for the government is to address the issue of peace and reconciliation. The Sri Lankan Tamils, who overwhelmingly voted for President Sirisena earlier and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) now, expect the regime to take credible steps to implement their promises.

The TNA manifesto reflects the urgency and mounting disappointment among the Tamils of northeastern Sri Lanka. As part of reconciliation measures, the government has been urged to demilitarise the erstwhile war zone, return the land occupied by the military to civilians and release the political prisoners held in detention.

While the Rajapaksa regime chose to maintain a national security approach to these problems, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government has showed sensitivity and flexibility but not resolved them forthwith. In coming months the TNA-ruled Northern Provincial Council (NPC) is likely to mount pressure on the central government.

The government needs to pursue a structured peace process even while establishing accountability for human rights violations committed during the last phase of the civil war in 2009.

The TNA's tough stand on these issues has increased the government's difficulties. Its manifesto has emphasised a federal autonomy solution going beyond the framework of 13th Amendment and insisted on the merger of northern and eastern provinces into a single territorial unit.

During electioneering, both these demands evoked apprehension and opposition from the Sinhalese political class including the UPFA and UNFGG leaders. For them the unitary system is unalterable and federalism is still a dirty word-a step away from secession.

Further, the present government is keen to prevent any form of international investigation into the war crime allegations. Instead, it favours an internal mechanism.

The TNA remains opposed to the government's stand. This disagreement does not augur well for consensual politics the present regime seeks to promote. It is important that the government engages the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders in a constructive manner.

Advantage India

Finally, the election results undoubtedly suit India's foreign policy interests in South Asia. New Delhi was worried about China's deepening influence in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe not only ended Colombo's tilt towards Beijing but also restored its friendship with New Delhi.

India can expect a deepening of its friendship with Sri Lanka under the new regime.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

P Sahadevan