There were two striking developments after voters in Sri Lanka went to the polls on Jan. 8 to select their president. First, the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, lost. To the surprise of virtually every poll watcher, he was ousted by former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena. Second, and perhaps even more surprising, Rajapaksa handed over power when the results become clear, rather than clinging to office, democracy be damned.
The fights are not over, however. Rajapaksa still holds considerable power in Parliament and he is likely to use that as a base to battle the new president and whatever government he selects. Moreover, there is keen outside interest in Sri Lanka, and foreign governments may try to meddle in its domestic politics to protect their investments.
Rajapaksa is a larger than life figure in Sri Lanka, having first entered Parliament in 1970, where he served for seven years until losing his seat and returning to the practice of law. He was re-elected in 1989. He served as prime minister for a year in 2004 before being elected president in 2005 and was head of state since then. He was the architect of the victory over the Tamil Tigers in the civil war that raged from 1983 to 2009 and claimed as many as 100,000 lives.
After prevailing in that bloody conflict, he focused on developing Sri Lanka’s economy. The island economy has grown an average of 7 percent annually since 2009 — the fastest-growing GDP in the region — to reach $67 billion.
Many Sri Lankans were alarmed by the way the president’s family — one brother is a Cabinet minister, another is speaker of Parliament, a third is secretary of defense, his older son is a member of Parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister — and entourage benefited personally from that explosive growth, a tendency that looked even more ominous as Rajapaksa consolidated power, lifted term limits and dismissed judges who disagreed with him.
Confident of the outcome, the president called an election two years early, expecting to coast to a third term. He apparently did not count on Sirisena, a former friend and political ally, breaking with him to lead an opposition alliance in the presidential ballot. Rajapaksa exploited all the powers of his office to woo voters, using the media, his substantial financial assets and even violence. On election day, an impressive 81.5 percent of voters cast ballots and denied the incumbent president a third term.
Although the president is said to have conceded the election, it was reported that Rajapaksa first canvassed military leaders and senior government officials about whether they would support a coup. When they refused, Rajapaksa acknowledged defeat.
Sirisena’s platform is a simple one: a weaker presidency. He offered voters a choice, he said, between a king and “a real human being.” That is easier said than done. While the civil war is over, ethnic divisions are deep.
Rajapaksa is credited not only with destroying the Tamil guerrilla movement, but with promoting a Sinhala chauvinism that ignored many Tamil grievances as well as those of Sri Lanka’s Muslims, the country’s second-largest ethnic minority. Even though Sirisena is a Sinhalese, he was seen as much more receptive to their complaints. Given the relatively small margin of victory — 450,000 votes out of 12.26 million cast — a high turnout among Tamils, who have not participated much in previous elections, was an important factor in Sirisena’s win.
Still, it is not clear how far the new president will go to address Tamil concerns, especially if it requires taking power from the Sinhala majority. Sirisena must also manage a fractious coalition of political allies. Fortunately he is working with Ranil Wickremesinghe, head of the United National Party, who was sworn in for the third time as prime minister immediately after Rajapaksa conceded defeat.
The new prime minister must first muster a coalition that commands a majority in Parliament, then keep it together in the face of what is sure to be Rajapaksa’s furious opposition. Fulfilling the new president’s pledge to revise the constitution and to abolish the strong presidency will require a two-thirds majority. That will be tougher still to corral.
A third challenge for the new president will be his promise to investigate the huge infrastructure projects that have driven Sri Lanka’s growth.
Many of those deals, which are alleged to have enriched the former president and his family, were supported by China, which was a major backer of the former administration. China accounted for 20.7 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign loans and grants in 2013, up from 2.8 percent in 2003. Sirisena’s promise of “equal relations” with other major countries — read: India, Japan and Pakistan — risks offending Beijing.
China’s support for Rajapaksa has also helped him fend off international calls to investigate charges that war crimes were committed during the 26 years of fighting. This remains an open wound for Sri Lanka, and one that must be addressed in some form.
While Sirisena has said he wants to build a new image for Sri Lanka, one based on Buddhist principles of nonviolence and compassion, it is not clear if Sirisena is prepared to go so far as to commence an investigation. Friends of Sri Lanka must be prepared to support him if he does, but he will be busy enough without it.