Sri Lanka votes against fear and kleptocracy

The stunning ouster of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Jan. 8 was good news for that island nation of 20 million, and further evidence of a universal yearning for good governance.

After a decade in power, Sri Lankans chose to hold Rajapaksa accountable for extensive corruption and nepotism, and for presiding over a climate of intimidation. His relatives and cronies dominated key ministries and institutions, and abused their powers to raid the public purse and silence critics. One-family authoritarian rule under the Sri Lanka Freedom Party did not pass public muster and despite the challenger’s late start and lack of resources, democracy prevailed.

Calling a snap election two years early proved an unwise gamble as Rajapaksa sought a third term, but Sri Lankans are deeply attached to their democratic values and did not want a Raja for life.

In 2009, Rajapaksa brought an end to the devastating fratricidal war that engulfed his nation since the early 1980s, one that claimed as many as 100,000 lives, and he has since basked in the aftermath of his victory. However, what the opposition termed “foolish family nepotism” undermined his legitimacy. People whispered about his relatives running the government like a fiefdom — and his reliance on criminal elements — but even so, Rajapaksa’s victory seemed inevitable.

But then Maithripala Sirisena, his health minister, resigned from the Cabinet and cobbled together an unlikely coalition that tapped into widespread anti-Rajapaksa sentiment. He won the backing of the main opposition United National Party, while Tamils in the north and east — the bastion of the defeated Tamil Tigers — also rallied in support. Those areas are frustrated with Rajapaksa’s utter failure to promote postwar ethnic reconciliation — stonewalling investigations into war crimes committed by security forces against Tamil civilians — and the ongoing military domination of the largely Tamil north, which includes dubious seizures of property. Moreover, Rajapaksa failed to deliver on promises of the devolution of powers and instead concentrated them in his executive presidency. Muslim voters also turned on Rajapaksa as his government failed to act against attacks by Sinhalese extremists, which instigated communal violence and deadly rioting in 2013.

In the final tally Sirisena won 51.28 percent of the vote versus 47.58 percent for Rajapaksa, but gained less than half of the majority Sinhalese vote, a slim margin of victory that will put a premium on reconciling a very polarized nation. He urgently needs to restore the rule of law, judicial autonomy and press freedoms while pursuing accountability and promoting transparency, but has to overcome a decade of debilitating damage. The Tamils have waited too long for peace with justice and surely welcome the president’s rapid decision to dismiss the ex-military governor in the north. He should follow up by stripping the military of land it has illegally sized in the province and rescind the Prevention ofTerrorismAct, which allows security forces to act with impunity. He also must demonstrate that thuggish Sinhalese chauvinist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena will be held accountable.

Now that he is in power, Sirisena has the daunting challenge of meeting voters’ divergent expectations, holding a fissiparous coalition together while promoting good governance, divesting his office of excessive powers and delivering on the impressive vision laid out in his lengthy manifesto. In this process, allegations that Rajakapsa tried to enlist security forces in a coup to overturn the election results and the enrichment of the Rajapaksa family merit special scrutiny — not as part of a witch hunt, but to demonstrate that the law applies equally to the powerful.

The international community seeks progress on addressing the war crimes agenda. Clearly a reckoning is overdue and there can be no reconciliation without justice, but it may be wise to give the new government the benefit of the doubt and wait for it to take the initiative in socializing accountability processes to gain wider acceptance.

Sirisena’s main task over the first 100 days will be undertaking constitutional and electoral reforms aimed at diluting the powers of his office. Parliamentary elections are expected in April and it remains to be seen if one of the main parties can win outright or if there will be a return to unstable coalitions. As a result, Dushni Weerakoon, deputy director of the Institute of Policy Studies, says the economic outlook remains unclear.

“Quite frankly, the hard work of delivering on promises will be the most difficult part for the new president,” she says.

According to Weerakoon, it appears unlikely that any single party will gain a majority in the parliamentary elections, meaning coalition government and less chance for robust economic reforms.

There is also considerable speculation about the international implications of Sirisena’s victory. Rajapaksa promoted close ties with Beijing, opening up the spigot for loans and infrastructure projects, in ways that were unsettling to India, Sri Lanka’s giant neighbor. In addition to a seldom-used airport in Rajapaksa’s home region in the southeast, China helped develop the Hambantota Port, which is described as part of Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy enabling it to project naval power in the Indian Ocean.

In his manifesto, President-elect Sirisena raised the alarm over foreign domination of Sri Lanka and accumulating foreign debt, not-so-subtle references to China’s growing dominance. He also tapped into environmentalists’ concerns about a major land reclamation and port development project in Colombo that is sponsored by China, while warning that future generations would be reduced to debt servitude if Rajapaksa’s style of sweetheart deals persisted.

Sirisena’s manifesto also promises a major housecleaning of the nation’s foreign service: “The whole world knows that our foreign policy is in disarray after the military victory of 2009. On the one hand we have no proper foreign policy while on the other hand accomplices with no knowledge of diplomacy have been appointed to the Foreign Service. They try to maintain international relations in the same way as they attend to domestic work in their villages by resorting to bribery and thuggery.” Some will be squirming.

Sirisena also made much of Sri Lanka’s growing isolation in the international community, suggesting that Rajapaksa’s foot-dragging on war crimes accountability and his strategic shift toward China have undermined the national interest. This has raised expectations in New Delhi, Washington and Tokyo about wooing Colombo and finding out more about Sirisena’s expressed desire to establish equal relations with regional powers. One expects that this will come up during U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to New Delhi later this month.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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