Sri Lanka’s bleak political outlook in 2017

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s President and Prime Minister mark two years of their “unity” government in January with their uneasy coalition facing mounting challenges to its stability and cohesion.

Our political correspondent examines the possible outcomes in 2017.

Best case:

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will sink their differences over the government’s perceived failure to prosecute high profile individuals of the previous regime accused of corruption and murder. Killers of Lasantha Wickramatunga and Wasim Thajudeen will be brought to justice.

The rule of law will be strengthened with the Police Commission and the other independent bodies taking a more pro-active role in living up to the expectations of people who voted for change in January 2015.

Neither leader will try to undermine the other nor will allow their aides to do so. President Sirisena will strengthen his hold on the fractured Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). With Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the two main Sinhalese political groups will approve a new constitution that will devolve more powers to the provinces, including the Tamil-majority north.

The government will escalate reconciliation moves and set up the long-delayed mechanism to investigate allegations of war-time atrocities. Both the SLFP and the UNP will support prosecution of war criminals and Sri Lanka will win back the support of the international community. International investor confidence rises and Sri Lanka will be truly on its way to becoming a rapidly developing economy despite adverse global conditions.

Worst case:

Tensions between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will escalate over the government’s failure to pursue allegedly corrupt high profile individuals of the former regime.

Wickremesinghe will support opposition MPs such as Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila to prevent the two SLFP factions coming together. Despite UNP attempts, the two SLFP factions unite and engineer defections from the UNP to oust Prime Minister Wickremesinghe through a no-confidence resolution in parliament. Sirisena forms an SLFP-led government and appoints a strong loyalist as his Prime Minister.

The 2015 agenda for constitutional reform is abandoned. There is no move towards reconciliation, accountability or a political solution to the decades-long ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka regains its international pariah status, will rely even more heavily on China for economic and diplomatic support to stave off international censure.

High profile corruption and murder investigations are stalled and the judiciary goes back to its old ways. Nationalism rises and the country adopts protectionist economic policies, market manipulators return and, paradoxically, the stock mark starts to rise, albeit artificially.

Most likely outcome:

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe keep up public appearances of a coherent unity administration despite escalating tensions. The President will struggle to increase his hold on the SLFP, but former president Mahinda Rajapaksa will remain a key factor that divides the party.

Despite his rhetoric, the Rajapaksa faction will not be able to take full control of the SLFP to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The government is unlikely to be able to push through a new constitution that will address minority demands for sharing greater political power at the provincial level because of opposition from powerful nationalistic elements within the two main political parties.

However, Sri Lanka will be able to buy more time at the March UN Human Rights Council sessions, but the international community’s patience with Sri Lanka will wear thin by the end of the year. There will be little progress on reconciliation and even less on ensuring accountability for war crimes given the strong nationalistic forces within both the SLFP and the UNP.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), despite its 16 seats in parliament will not be able to make an impact on the government to push constitutional reforms. Former president Rajapaksa’s vow to topple the government in 2017 will help him remain relevant within his group of supporters, but he will not have the means to achieve his objective. The economic front will also be challenging.

The government will not be able to get its “Agency for development” established as provincial councils have already shot it down. Sri Lanka will rely on Chinese funding, but apart from that getting foreign direct investment will be a serious challenge given the domestic political risks and the global economic complexities.

Voter frustration will rise as the government is unable to conclude any of the high profile cases dragging for many years. Judicial integrity will be a key issue in the New Year with Sri Lanka set to face censure over two judgements that saw members of security forces accused of high profile killings go scot free. The New Year will see a period of drift, both economically and politically with no party able to drastically change the status quo.