The Rajapaksas are out of power but Maithripala Sirisena’s new government faces fundamental problems
The long reign of the Rajapaksa family, which had seemed until very recently to stretch dismally into the far future, is over in Sri Lanka. The country’s democratic system, though damaged and eroded by the increasingly authoritarian, unconstitutional and coercive practices of the Rajapaksa clan, was still capable of a mighty heave which has brought decisive change. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brothers and the younger family members who may have hoped in time to inherit their power and privileges have not necessarily been entirely ejected from Sri Lankan politics. But, discredited and liable to investigation on a variety of charges, including a possible attempt to stage a coup to prevent the transition, they will form a weak opposition with little chance of returning to office.
Three cheers for that. But that does not mean extending an unqualified welcome to the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, and his disparate coalition. What has happened in Sri Lanka was not a revolution nor, at least not yet, a restoration of the democratic checks and balances of the past. It was instead an uprising within the dominant party in government against the high-handed style of the Rajapaksas.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had undermined the opposition parties, the judiciary, the provincial authorities and the media. More and more people were being excluded from the political process. But when this process of marginalisation began to impinge on the senior members of the Sri Lanka Freedom party themselves the president went too far. They had not protested when he curtailed freedom of speech, impeached the chief justice, altered term limits so that he could stay in office, persecuted critics of the government, used violence against demonstrators, and ignored the need for reconciliation with the Tamils after the end of the civil war. Or, if they had, it was privately, and ineffectively. But when they saw that the family was in the process of excluding them from what they saw as their rightful share in power and the benefits which come with it, while taking decisions that could ultimately prove disastrous for the country, they became first restive, then mutinous. Mr Sirisena had been long serving, loyal, obedient and close to the Rajapaksas. But, with previous SLFP leaders advising him, with the help of minority parties that had been brought into the government fold but were less than happy there, and with public discontent over the rising cost of living providing a favourable context for change, Mr Sirisena set out to reverse what he saw as a hijacking of the party by the Rajapaksas.
It would be wrong to say that this was only a power play, replacing a bad government with a somewhat better one. That aspect is important, but there is also evident a genuine desire to restore the democratic ways that Mr Rajapaksa had discarded.
Mr Sirisena has promised major changes. These include reducing the powers of the executive presidency and a return to the parliamentary system, the re-establishment of independent oversight bodies emasculated by the Rajapaksas, an end to unrestricted wire-tapping and interference with the media, and vigorous pursuit of corruption cases. On some of these fronts, improvements can be expected almost immediately, as the new president indicated on Sunday in his first address to the nation.
But the constitutional changes will require large majorities in parliament. They may be hard to achieve. Harder still will be to agree on what action should be taken on the fundamental problem of how to heal the divisions which have vexed the island since independence, and which led to political breakdown, to civil war and, indirectly, to the quasi-dictatorial rule of the Rajapaksas. In spite of saying very little about what he plans in this absolutely critical area of policy, Mr Sirisena got a majority of votes among the minorities of Tamils, Muslims and Christians. But his coalition includes elements adamantly opposed to that devolution of power which seems the only way of reconciling competing Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim aspirations. And, if and when it overcomes that obstruction, it is likely to face an opposition, possibly led by the Rajapaksas, all too ready to play the ethnic and religious card.