Winds of change breeze through Lanka
With the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the just-concluded Sri Lankan parliamentary election, not only is the island nation likely to go through a political overhaul but its strategic implications would also influence the course of events in parts of South Asia. The United National Party (UNP) led United National Front for Good Governance( UNFGG) has come out victorious in this all-important election.
On the eve of polls, Rajapaksa was certain that the UPFA, of which his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was a major partner, would bag up to 117 seats, a clear majority in the 225-strong parliament. On what basis he came to this conclusion is not clear. Perhaps he had hoped his chauvinistic charisma and the war hero image would wipe out the four percent vote deficit he had suffered in the presidential election earlier this year.
But he has been proved wrong. Unlike the presidential election, the parliamentary poll did not focus on personalities, still the difference in vote share between the UPFA and the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNFGG has remained wide enough, indicating that even the ethnic Sinhala majority, Rajapaksa’s main electoral base, is now divided over supporting the former president.
Rajapaksa and his team of advisors, which included a majority of the leading lights of the SLFP - except the President Maithripala Sirisena - should have realized that in the six months that have elapsed since the last election, Sirisena has not committed any grave mistake that would dent his credibility. The president became a key factor in the parliamentary election with his announcement that he would not appoint Rajapaksa as the prime minister even if he and his UPFA won the poll. The was due to Rajapaksa’s image of a human rights violator, break down of rule of law during his tenure and grave corruption charges against his family and his coterie.
As the combination of Maithripala Sirisena and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe could present a better alternative before the electorate, Rajapaksa’s chances receded further. Although Sirisena has not yet been able to fulfill much of his electoral promises yet he has publicly committed himself to root out corruption, build up independent institutions and establish rule of law, diminish the military’s role, set in motion the process of reconciliation and justice and put a stop to ethnic and religious divisions.
Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa hail from the SLFP, although the former had won the presidential election as the opposition candidate. During electioneering, he had promised immunity to Rajapaksa and his family from corruption charges. This was obviously an attempt to take away a significant slice of the majority ethnic Sinhala votes. Here lies the key to the downfall of the Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA as the ethnic Sinhala community constitutes nearly 75 percent of the electorate and even en bloc voting by the Tamils and the Muslims would not be able to sail any candidate through. Except in some totally Tamil-dominated districts, significant numbers of Sinhala votes have swayed towards the UNP in this election.
With Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, the strategic balance in South Asia, particularly in the Indian Ocean region, is likely to again shift in India’s favour as both are expected to conduct a non-aligned foreign policy which may be quite opposite the openly pro-China line that Rajapaksa had adopted. Perhaps, at the 11th hour, Rajapaksa had realized that this pro-China foreign policy would cost him dearly and that is why the foreign policy part of UPFA’s election manifesto had belatedly spoken of the need to improve relations with India.
There is now a distinct possibility that Rajapaksa will gradually fade away from Sri Lankan politics and he has only himself to blame. His ties with China have opened up allegations of corruption against him. In April, his brother Basil was arrested on corruption charges and warrants were issued against Gothabaya, another brother. In June, Rajapaksa’s wife was also interrogated by the administration’s anti-corruption bureau.
On the other hand, Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s principal bête noir, has left some healthy marks. By the 19th amendment of the constitution, he has limited the presidential tenure to a maximum of two terms and has also put restrictions on the president’s power to dissolve parliament and call for snap polls at his will. The same amendment has also ended the absolute immunity of presidential actions from judicial scrutiny and has given the prime minister significant powers over appointing his cabinet.
By these actions, Sirisena has started the process of moving away from an executive presidency to a Westminster-style of government. However, there are still large powers vested with the president and it will be interesting to watch how this dual system works.
But he has still a long way to go. He still belongs to the SLFP and must show courage to clean its Augean stables.