By R Hariharan –
The recently concluded Sri Lankan presidential elections belied President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s confidence as he was beaten by Maithripala Sirisena, former health minister and a long- term colleague of his. People seem to have preferred “unknown angel” Sirisena to “known devil” Rajapaksa, as he described himself in an election rally.
Rajapaksa was so confident of winning the people’s mandate for a third term that he advanced the election by two years before his second term ended. But Sirisena, general sec- retary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), emerged as a challenger on the eve of the election announcement.
According to the official results, Sirisena won by a 3.7 percent margin over the more crafty Rajapaksa and was preferred by 51.38 per-cent of the 121 million voters.
This may not appear to be a bad performance if we consider that in 2005, Rajapaksa’s scrapped through with a wafer-thin 1.86 percent majority over his rival Ranil Wickremesinghe to become president. But a decade later, Rajapaksa went to the polls with the enormous executive powers of a serving president. In 2009, he used the popularity he earned after the victory in the Eelam War to gain two- thirds majority in parliament for his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition and also handsomely wIn the presidential election for a second time in 2010.
Despite these advantages, Rajapaksa seemed to have lost direction and that cost him this presidency. But the central reason for his electoral debate has been the loss of support within his own party and the people at large, particularly minorities.
Two major aberrations—concentration of power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family and the misuse of executive presidency— marked his second term as president. Since 2010, he used his parliamentary majority to consolidate his power base. In the process, he manipulated it to pass the 18th Amendment to the constitution, neutralizing the 17th one which gave a role to parliament in appointments for national institutions such as the judiciary, election commission, etc, and which made the president more accountable. But the 18th amendment gave the president overriding powers to appoint candidates, who did the damage control caused by poor governance.
Typically, many mega projects like the construction of Hambantota Port and airport complex and Colombo port development were financed by Chinese loans offered at usurious interests and executed by Chinese contractors. The whole process lacked transparency, as there was no open bidding. There were also reports of widespread corruption in public sector bodies, draining the exchequer.
Opposition efforts to inquire into allegations of corruption came to naught. Instead, threat and intimidation were often used to discourage them. For instance, the opposition United National Party (UNP) Commission that looked into allegations of corruption in the Hambantota project was threatened in public by a pistol-waving SLFP deputy mayor. The Bribery Commission and the Police were ineffective in taking quick follow- up action in such cases. Scribes who criticized these aberrations were hounded out of the country. The army, instead of the police, handled trade union protests and other civilian activities, indicating increased militarization of public affairs.
The writ of the president’s two brothers, Basil and Gotabaya, who were minister for development and secretary for defense and urban affairs respectively, seemed to influence most government decisions.
Thugs and ruling party goons, often led by elected representatives, were involved in many a criminal case and disrupted political meetings of the opposition and terrorized the free press. This did not stop even in the pre- election period. Ruling party goons attacked the residence of former president and estranged SLFP leader, Chandrika Kumaratunga and the election offices of Sirisena and the UNP. The Campaign for Free and Fair Elections received a record 574 com- plaints of election-related incidents, including 500 cases of election law violation. There were 47 cases of election violence, 16 relating to the use of firearms.
Overall, Rajapaksa family’s enormous clout and its arrogant use of power seem to have alienated many senior leaders of the SLFP like Sirisena, who were sidelined in decision- making. The decline of Rajapaksa’s public image, coupled with his failure to carry his team, probably disillusioned Sirisena and as many as 26 MPs and scores of UPFA provincial council members crossed over to the opposition. This gave an opportunity for Chandrika Bandaranaike loyalists to encourage Sirisena to contest against the president. She joined hands with Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the UNP, and former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who gave up their own presidential aspirations to field Sirisena as a common opposition candidate.
Surprisingly, this seems to have energized other UNP leaders, who were wrangling for control of the party. Their sole aim was to defeat Rajapaksa using Sirisena.
Even the Buddhist right-wing party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a long-term ally of Rajapaksa and the UPFA coalition, deserted him to support Sirisena when he did not respond satisfactorily to its complaints of poor governance, cronyism and corruption.
Rajapaksa fared no better with his Muslim allies, who generally supported him. Muslims, who form about 10 percent of the island’s 20-million population, had their faith in Rajapaksa shaken after he failed to prevent anti- Muslim activities of Buddhist fringe groups. The Bodu Bala Sena led an anti-Muslim riot in Alutgama that quickly spread to Beruwala (close to Colombo) on June 15, 2014, leaving three killed, over 80 injured and nearly 200 houses and property of Muslims torched and destroyed. Over 2,000 were rendered homeless. This forced the two major Muslim partners of UPFA—the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress—to cut loose from the ruling alliance. Their support to Sirisena brought him the solid support of Muslim votes.
Despite Rajapaksa’s unchallenged power after the Eelam War, he didn’t kick-start a political process to resolve the Tamil minority’s long-standing grievances. He did not fulfil even the basic demands of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which captured power in the Northern Provincial Council elections. Though Sirisena offered no specific plans to address the Tamil issue, TNA decided to support him to remove Rajapaksa, and this paid him dividends, as the Tamils voted in his favor.
As promised in the election manifesto, Sirisena was sworn in as president and Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Siri sena’s manifesto focuses on three weaknesses of the Rajapaksa rule—corruption, cronyism and accumulation of power in the hands of the president and his family. It promises to replace the “present autocratic executive presidential system” with a “constitutional structure with an executive that is allied to parliament through the cabinet”. Sirisena hopes that within 100 days, he will form a multi-party National Unity Alliance government to address urgent issues, and then, hold parliamentary elections to repeal the 18th Amendment by bringing in a 19th Amendment to free national institutions from the president’s control in the next six years.
This is a tall order, because his New Democratic Front does not control the parliament. However, after defections, the UPFA’s strength has also come down. So Sirisena is likely to face a turbulent time in the next 100 days.
Whether he succeeds or not, democracy has succeeded in Sri Lanka, freeing it from the autocratic rule of Rajapaksa. Only time will tell if Sirisena can redeem the peoples’ faith in democratically setting things right.
*Col R Hariharan, is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia and served with the IPKF in Sri Lanka as head of intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: http://col.hariharan.info