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Sri Lanka Between Elections
Sri Lanka Between Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere
Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere
Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Report 272 / Asia

Sri Lanka Between Elections

Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.

Executive Summary

A half year after Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning defeat of President Mahinda Raja­paksa raised hopes for democratic renaissance, the complexities of partisan politics, and Rajapaksa himself, have returned to centre stage. Sirisena’s initial months with a minority government led by the United National Party (UNP) have opened important political space: robust debate and criticism have replaced the fear under Rajapaksa, and important governance reforms have been made, but much remains undone. By initial steps on reconciliation, the government set a more accommodating tone on the legacy of the civil war and the ethnic conflict that drove it. But divisions within government and Sirisena’s failure to take control of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) prevented deeper reform and allowed Rajapaksa and his supporters to mount a comeback. With Sirisena opposing Rajapaksa’s return, the 17 August parliamentary elections will test the continued appeal of the ex-president’s hardline Sinhala nationalism and give a chance for the fresh start that lasting solutions to the country’s social divisions require.

Before running out of steam in June, Sirisena’s first six months saw notable achievements. Most important was parliament’s April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution. Largely fulfilling the central pledge of the joint opposition campaign, it considerably reduced presidential powers and established independent oversight commissions. Though the original draft was watered down, the amendment is a welcome move away from authoritarianism and could assist in re-establishing the badly-damaged rule of law. As promised in their election manifesto, Sirisena and his UNP partners also launched scores of investigations into alleged major fraud and abuse of power by officials of the former government. While the unprecedented scale of the anti-corruption drive raised public expectations, the lack of indictments thus far has fed rumours of backroom deals and growing doubts that the institutional and political obstacles to effective prosecutions can ever be overcome.

The bright hopes of the government’s initial months were increasingly tarnished by unclear, ad hoc policies, frequently contradictory policy statements and missed deadlines for pledged reforms. As parliamentary elections, originally promised for June, were postponed, the coalition that elected Sirisena began to fragment. While the UNP and smaller parties urged him to dissolve parliament and hold elections after passage of the nineteenth amendment, he spent months trying and failing to win over the SLFP, whose nominal leadership he assumed after winning the presidency, following a decade of Rajapaksa at its helm.

The SLFP, which has a large majority in parliament, resented Sirisena’s unprecedented experiment with a “national government” dominated by its arch-rival UNP. Many SLFP parliamentarians remain loyal to Rajapaksa; others see the ex-president as the party’s best chance to retain its majority in the next parliament, given his popularity among Sinhala voters. After months of resisting Rajapaksa’s selection as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), lack of support in the party forced Sirisena to yield in early July.

Sirisena has since made it clear he opposes Rajapaksa’s candidacy and will not appoint him prime minister, even if the UPFA wins an unlikely majority. The ex-president’s opponents within the SLFP, along with smaller parties, have joined a new version of the UNP-led coalition that brought Sirisena victory in January, now re-energised by the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback. With the UPFA arguing the UNP threatens national security and supports Tamil separatism, the election will test the strength of Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala nationalism, as well as the depth of public concern over corruption and abuses of power. Even if he cannot become prime minister, Rajapaksa’s leadership of a large Sinhala nationalist bloc in parliament could make it harder for a UNP-led government’s to act as promised on reconciliation and accountability.

The Sirisena-UNP government set a new, less Sinhala triumphalist tone on ethnic issues and took some steps for reconciliation: releasing a number of Tamil political prisoners and limited amounts of military-occupied land in Tamil areas, while reducing the presence, though not size, of the military and its involvement in governing the north and east. Despite growing frustration among many Tamils, larger moves have been put off until after elections, as has action on alleged war crimes by both the military and the defeated Tamil Tigers. The government promises a credible domestic inquiry that meets international standards, but doubts about its willingness and ability to tackle institutionalised impunity and prosecute war crimes are widespread and well founded. Successful prosecutions require significant legal and institutional reforms and management of resistance from military leaders and nationalist parties.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) is due to deliver its long-awaited war crimes report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) before it meets in September. At that session, the newly-elected government should commit to the legal reforms needed to effectively prosecute serious human rights violations suffered by all ethnic communities, including war crimes; to pursue prosecutions with adequate witness protection and international involvement; and to consult widely with victims, survivors and community groups on its longer-term program of transitional justice, including a possible truth commission. To be effective, these processes will require consistent international scrutiny and participation, including OHCHR assistance to investigations and continued monitoring and reporting to the HRC.

The parliamentary elections offer voters the chance to renew the mandate for change they gave Sirisena and the UNP in January. A strong showing by the Raja­paksa-led UPFA, however, would complicate the president’s plans to form a broad-based “national” government between the UNP, smaller parties and the reformist wing of the SLFP and place obstacles to further progress on much-needed governance reforms and reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s chance to finally start on the road to a sustainable resolution of the country’s decades-long ethnic strife, including a negotiated political settlement, depends on the outcome.

Colombo/Brussels, 12 August 2015

Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere

Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine

The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.
 

 

In January 2015, the shock electoral defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, rescued Sri Lanka from a slide into increasingly harsh nationalist authoritarianism. The victory of a broad coalition representing Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims gave hope that the country could begin to address its longstanding political challenges: remedying the 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power in the Sinhala majority island and restoring for all the rule of law, damaged by decades of politicization, bitter ethnic bias, and impunity for grave abuses committed during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

The momentum of the early months soon slowed, as deep political dysfunctions reasserted themselves in the face of reforms meant to shake up entrenched political practices and policies. Two years on, the bloom is off. Time is running out for any reform at all. Government leaders should remember how easily they were sidelined when Rajapaksa’s triumphalist majoritarian politics held sway. For their own survival and to deliver on at least some of their big promises, they must collectively reject narrow chauvinistic politics and daily bickering and invest their remaining political capital in promoting an inclusive vision to build a more accountable political order and mitigate the risk of future conflict.

Sirisena’s first nine months as president saw real progress. With his electoral coalition, anchored around the United National Party (UNP), strengthened by the support of a large section of his – and Rajapaksa’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he won the needed two-thirds parliamentary approval for a key electoral pledge: a constitutional amendment to reduce the presidency’s enormous powers and restore the independence of oversight commissions for the police, judiciary, and human rights. The government ended censorship and intimidation of the media and partially scaled back the heavy military presence in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the island. The military was convinced, reluctantly, to return some of the huge swathes of private land it had seized during and after the war.

Sirisena’s election was followed in August 2015 by the narrow victory of a UNP-led coalition over a grouping led by former President Rajapaksa and including much of the new president’s Sirisena’s own SLFP. This allowed Sirisena to reassert enough control over the fractured SLFP to convince the majority of the parliamentary group to form an unprecedented national unity government with its long-time rival UNP, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The grand coalition reaffirmed the parties’ ambitious agenda to revive the beleaguered economy, investigate alleged corruption and political murders under the previous regime, promote reconciliation and, most important, draft a new constitution. Key aims of constitutional change were to check centralization of power in presidential hands, adopt a new electoral system and expand the powers devolved to provinces to address Tamils’ long-standing demands for autonomy in the north and east.

Read the full text at The Diplomat Magazine