Sri Lanka: After the Election Upset – What Next?

January 12, 2015: Maithripala Sirisena, sworn in as Sri Lanka’s president soon after his stunning upset victory in the January 8 election, will have a very different persona from his predecessor. His top priorities deal with domestic governance, and will be tough to implement. He presides over a coalition which has little in common except distaste for his predecessor. His election presents an opportunity to reset Sri Lanka’s relations with India and the United States. To do this, he and his foreign friends will need tact and creativity, and he will need all his political skills to keep the coalition together. A good place to start would be to suspend action on the annual U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution on Sri Lanka while the new team gets its balance.

After years of increasingly president-centered rule in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa peacefully left his official residence, Temple Trees, the morning after an election he had been confident of winning. Rajapaksa was not the only one surprised: he was believed to have great reserves of popularity in rural Sri Lanka and his family seemed to have a lock on politics and administration in an increasingly autocratic government.

Who is Sirisena? The new president comes from a farming family in Polonnaruwa, one of the centers of Sri Lanka’s ancient civilization, in the central hills of the island. He is a stalwart from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the heart of the outgoing government’s coalition, having joined its youth wing as a student in 1967. He was jailed after the first of Sri Lanka’s revolutionary uprisings in 1971; his web site says he was not involved. He has held a series of party offices, and was first elected to parliament in 1989. During the next twenty years, he served several times as minister, most frequently with responsibilities for agriculture and for Sri Lanka’s major agricultural development project near the Mahaweli river. His most recent appointment was as Health Minister from 2010-2014. He has had little opportunity to get involved in foreign policy, and his education was primarily in Sinhala-language institutions.

Sirisena, in short, has honed his political skills for decades, and is steeped in both the economics and sociology of Sri Lanka’s farm sector. He will probably rely more on his ministers when dealing with foreign affairs and more technical issues. The most prevalent rumors suggest that there will be a strong foreign affairs and finance team, including both political figures and technocrats, and drawn both from Sirisena’s original party, the SLFP, and from newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s United National Party (UNP). Indeed, Wickremasinghe’s major focus during his first time as prime minister in the 1990s was on the economy, and he was a constructive voice on Sri Lanka’s difficult internal ethnic relationships.

Early priorities: governance and economic relief: Government-owned media published a detailed and daunting hundred-day agenda the day after the election. It stresses changing governance, economic relief, and anti-corruption. On the governance side, the new leadership proposes to replace a convoluted voting system based primarily on proportional representation with one that restores the single-member constituencies “with some proportional features.” It also says it will restore the independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary, police and its commissions on elections, anti-corruption, and public service that had been ended by a Rajapaksa-era constitutional amendment. This will undoubtedly be popular.

The Sirisena government’s plan to scrap the three decades-old Executive Presidency will be more difficult. The current system, similar to the hybrid parliamentary/presidential system in force in France, is not popular among voters. More than one presidential candidate has vowed to abolish it. Indeed, Rajapaksa promised “changes” in the system if reelected. None have taken any action. Sitting presidents found the power useful.

Any constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in parliament. Sirisena’s parliamentary strength is not known with precision, largely because he depends on people who left the previous parliamentary majority, and no one has a reliable count of those people. It is unlikely that he can muster two-thirds, especially if supporters of the outgoing president want to hand the new one a defeat.

Another obstacle to constitutional change has to do with Sri Lanka’s ethnic politics. Under present law, the presidency is the one office in Sri Lanka elected by the whole country. If the vote of the majority Sinhala Buddhists is divided – as it has been in every election – the minorities can affect the outcome. That clearly happened in the last three elections. Minority parties may be reluctant to give up this power.

The other major focus of the hundred-day plan is a long list of populist relief measures. There are salary increases and price controls aimed especially at lower-income people, farmers, and government servants. Sri Lanka’s economy has done quite well in recent years. These measures are likely to strain the budget. The plan also promises major investigations of corruption. This was clearly a popular feature of Sirisena’s campaign.

Foreign policy: Sirisena’s public record says relatively little about the issues that Sri Lanka’s friends in the neighborhood and in the West care most about. He will have an opportunity to reset Sri Lanka’s relations with India and the United States simply by virtue of the change in leadership. His manifesto refers to strengthening relations with India and China; people close to his circle talk about restoring “genuine nonalignment.” No Sri Lankan government will want to alienate China: that relationship has been a critical one for sixty years. However, the new government knows that the Chinese submarine visits in Colombo raised alarm bells in Delhi, and it wants to mend fences. The new leadership is likely to scrutinize both the level of Sri Lankan financial indebtedness to China and allegations of favoritism involved in a Chinese port-related project in Colombo.

Relations with Washington had become completely dominated by human rights issues, with the two countries talking at (rather than with) each other. Recalibrating this dialogue – so important for Sri Lanka’s economy and security – will require some tricky footwork. Sirisena will need to demonstrate to the home audience that any policy changes he adopts are made at home, not in Washington. And Washington will need to lower its voice.

The Achilles heel: a disparate coalition: The biggest challenge Sirisena faces is the extreme heterogeneity of his governing coalition. Minorities were critical to Sirisena’s victory, and his biggest vote percentages were in parts of the country with mixed or minority populations.

The other side of that coin is that Sirisena’s hastily compiled coalition has little in common except the desire to defeat Rajapaksa. The heart of it consists of dissident former party-mates of Rajapaksa and of the principal opposition party, the UNP, whose representation in parliament was devastated at the last election. It also includes the former revolutionaries from the Janatha Vimukta Peramuna (JVP); one party dominated by nationalist Buddhist monks; and the country’s largest Muslim party. The principal Jaffna Tamil party has pledged support, and other Tamils will be there as well. Putting all these parties together, Sirisena can probably create a majority in parliament, assuming that a reasonable number of members from the majority opt to follow him. He is already taking steps to gain control of the party machinery.

But a stable majority is a moving target. There is talk of a parliamentary election perhaps as soon as this April, though the current parliament can sit until April 2016. Rajapaksa has politics in his blood, and will doubtless be looking for ways to pick this disparate group apart. Sirisena’s populist agenda offers opportunities both to lure people to his coalition and to create arguments over who gets which share of the pie. Addressing the country’s ethnic politics is critical to Sri Lanka’s future, but will pit different coalition partners against each other and create a backlash from Rajapaksa’s base. Rajapaksa has already been making statements about how “the Sinhala Buddhists” voted for him – a clear signal of the political message he is trying to deliver.

The central issue: ethnic politics: Rajapaksa’s message will complicate what may be the most important thing Sirisena needs to tackle: the government’s political relationships with the country’s minorities, especially the Tamils. This will also affect the “resets” of ties with India and with the United States and, more broadly, the west.

Sirisena has said little about reconciliation or how he wants the political system to integrate minorities into the national fabric. However, his statement at a press conference the day after the election offers a potential way forward. He undertook to “work towards reconciliation of all ethnicities and religions according to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).” This commission was established soon after the end of the civil war in 2009 and consisted entirely of Sri Lankans. Its recommendations were cited as the benchmark in the resolutions passed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

This year’s meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Commission takes place in March. The annual Sri Lanka resolution has unleashed a torrent of vituperation against the West in Sri Lanka, despite the relatively mild language of the resolutions. Avoiding the resolution while the new government gets its bearings would make a huge contribution to improving Sri Lanka’s dialogue with the United States and Europe, and would avoid a tense debate with India as well. The easiest way to accomplish this would be for the United States, India and Sri Lanka to quietly work out a plan for implementing some of the most important LLRC recommendations. Paradoxically, this might make real reconciliation easier to start.

In the medium term, serious outreach to the Tamil political parties is critical. The Rajapaksa government’s dialogue with the Tamil parties produced many meetings but few results. Tamil politicians saw their cynical view of Sri Lankan politics confirmed. With a little help from Sri Lanka’s friends, a first step at the U.N. Human Rights Commission could lead to a more ambitious reconciliation agenda that could be truly “made in Sri Lanka.”

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