By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Sri Lanka successfully concluded the much anticipated presidential election on January 8, 2015. The New Democratic Front (NDF), or the opposition alliance candidate Maithripala Sirisena, won the election. He polled 51.3 percent of the total votes cast and his rival, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, managed 47.6 percent of the votes. The successful conclusion of the election and the results were a victory for the people of the once vibrant democracy. The election was relatively free despite the abuse of resources and violence and the transition of power to the opposition coalition was smooth. Surprising many in Sri Lanka and abroad, President Rajapaksa left his official residence even before half of the results were formally announced.
Insiders, along with some leading members of the new government now claim that Rajapaksa, sensing the defeat, attempted to suspend the counting of votes with the assistance of the armed forces.
According to this theory, his brother who was the Defence Secretary, played a major role in this conspiracy or what some call the attempted coup. So far, military coups have not succeeded in Sri Lanka. This time also, insiders maintain that the commanders of the armed forces refused to collaborate. The military thus far has not refuted the claims that the president sought the assistance of the armed forces to suspend the election. If true, this is a serious issue, which needs to be investigated carefully. One could expect more details to emerge in the coming weeks.
Largely due to the alleged attempted coup, Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in immediately as the 6th Executive President on January 9th and the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinge became the Prime Minister. President Sirisena and his confidants are in the process of forming an all-party government. The problem, however, is that the opposition alliance does not have adequate seats in the 225 member parliament to successfully prove its majority when the national legislature reconvenes at the end of January. One way to handle this issue is to convince members of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), party of the former president, to join the new government. Reports indicate that some UPFA members have already agreed to support the new administration. Given the political culture of elected representatives in Sri Lanka, mustering adequate support to form and continue the administration will not be an impossible task.
Return of Rajapaksa
However, a turn of events took place when Rajapaksa suddenly came out of presumed retirement within one day of his retreat to his ancestral home and got his party supporters to declare him the president of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), dominant partner of the UPFA. Why did Rajapaksa return? So far, nobody from the Rajapaksa camp has given an explanation. One possible reason is the full comprehension of the election results. When Rajapaksa reached his ancestral home, he declared that he did not really lose the election, but was voted out by the “Tamils.” He probably meant minorities. It is possible that Rajapaksa quickly realized that he lost the election with a narrow margin and a substantial majority of the Sinhalese voted for him.
This factor is significant because the 51 percent of votes Sirisena received was generated by an ad hoc coalition. It is possible that at least some coalition partners will contest separately in the forthcoming parliamentary election. The JVP, which stayed out of the presidential race, will also contest. These votes therefore will scatter. Rajapaksa’s votes probably came from a unified coherent block of votes. In fact, they could be called Rajapaksa votes. If parliamentary elections are conducted in the near future, Rajapaksa may be able to win the majority of the seats in the national legislature and effectively challenge the Sirisena presidency. He only needed to retain control over his party, the SLFP. Hence, the return.
However, retaining control over the party in the long run will not be easy. There are two reasons for this.
One, Rajapaksa does not have a well-established or deep-rooted base within the SLFP. It was and to a certain extent is a party of the Bandaranaikes. In the last decade Rajapaksa effectively controlled the party solely due to his authority as the president of the state. Now he needs to compete for the control over the party with Chandrika Kumaratunga, daughter of the founding father of the party, S.W.R.D. Bandaraneike. Doing it without the powers and authority of the presidency will be challenging. The majority of the party stalwarts would probably prefer an alternative leadership due to the authoritarian style of governance by Rajapaksa.
Two, Maithripala Sirisena did not leave his party, the SLPF, to contest the presidential election. He was sacked by Rajapaksa. Sirisena maintains that he is still a member of the party and as the highest office holder, could claim right to the leadership. Therefore, this case could end up in a court of law. Sri Lankan judiciary is not fully independent and as proved under Rajapaksa, most of it became an extended arm of the government. The judiciary can easily be pro-incumbent. Therefore, if this case goes to the court, the decision probably will favor the incumbent president Maithripala Sirisena.
Nevertheless, the return of Rajapaksa has the potential to (1) slow down the democratization process the opposition alliance promised and (2) exacerbate ethnic polarization. These problems will become profound if Rajapaksa manages to sustain his present agenda and politics.
The idea behind Rajapaksa’s return is to enter parliament and lead the opposition to the newly-elected administration. The Sirisena led coalition promised to remove authoritative presidential powers and strengthen parliament. Strengthening parliament would allow Rajapaksa to return to power in the long run. This fear might slow down the constitutional reform agenda of the present administration. Also, active politics of Rajapaksa might necessitate tough actions against the former president and his allies, for example, on issues such as corruption and abuse of power. Any serious action against the former president and his company could and would entail not so democratic measures.
If Rajapaksa continues in active politics he would most probably use racial slogans against the present government and fear of the LTTE as a main weapon. Immediately after the election, Rajapaksa openly complained that it was the Tamils who defeated him. Pro-Rajapaksa elements also unleashed a campaign suggesting military camps in the North were stoned by LTTE supporters and LTTE flags are flying in the region (again). The campaign was so strong that the military had to come out and deny these reports. Any concession by the present government to the Tamils will be depicted as a sellout of the motherland. Rajapaksa is a master of street politics. Therefore, a Rajapaksa led opposition will mobilize masses on to the streets with protests and marches forcing the administration into a muted mode on this front.
What are the newly elected president’s options? First, he cannot make tactical errors in the early days of his presidency. When taking oath as president, Sirisena stated that he will not contest again and will be a one-term president. He repeated the same statement in his address to the nation from Dalada Maligava. This would no doubt boost the confidence of Rajapaksa and his supporters because they now know that they only have to survive for six years and then they can take another shot at the presidency. All Sri Lankan executive presidents who contested the second term have won. If one goes by this logic, President Sirisena will be able to win another term.
Therefore, the general expectation would be for him to occupy the office of the president for twelve years. In twelve years Rajapaksa will be too old to compete and succeed. This assumption will prevent people from rallying behind Rajapaksa. Therefore, even if President Sirisena intends not to contest for another term it is better not to talk about it until he consolidates his position and authority.
Second, taking full control of the SLFP would prevent Rajapaksa from using parliament as a means to challenge the programs of the Sirisena administration. It is suggested that parliament will be dissolved after 100 days, probably in April 2015. Dissolving parliament without full control of the SLFP would not be a smart strategy. If the 2015 presidential election results are of any indication, Rajapaksa with the SLFP and most of the UPFA under his command will win most seats in parliament as a single entity. An immediate parliamentary election would most probably favor Rajapaksa. Therefore, Sirisena may want to postpone the idea of dissolving parliament until he takes full control of the SLFP and proves his credentials as an effective and democratic administrator, especially to those who did not vote for him in the just concluded presidential election.
Third, as a presidential candidate, Sirisena started his campaign with the slogan to abolish the executive presidential system. His manifesto however, talked about reforming or trimming the autocratic powers of the president. The chances are that the executive presidency will remain with some reform. A reform program would necessitate a constitutional amendment. If President Sirisena could muster the required two-thirds majority in parliament, the new administration could introduce an amendment reintroducing the two-term limit applicable to the present president and all former presidents. This would shut down any hope of Rajapaksa returning to power and provide space for the new president to press ahead with his democratization agenda.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland