The Pulse

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Heats Up

Incumbent Rajapaska is still the frontrunner, but high-level defections are cause for concern.

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Heats Up
Credit: Vikalpa | Groundviews | Maatram | CPA via

First elected president in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa was widely credited with winning the civil war, which helped him get reelected to a second term in 2010. Nonetheless, while it’s good that the fighting is over, the South Asian nation has faced a myriad of challenges since that time. Ongoing human rights violations, rising authoritarianism, relentless militarization, pervasive lawlessness, and increased violence against minority groups are all cause for concern.

Rajapaksa recently called a snap presidential election two years early, principally because the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance – the political grouping led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party – has become increasingly unpopular. Hoping to be reelected before losing even more support, Rajapaksa must have been surprised to discover that someone in his cabinet and a senior member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party would be running against him. Other high-level defections also give him good reason to worry. With Sri Lanka’s presidential election slated for January 8, the campaign is now in full swing.

The joint opposition recently agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding. If challenger Maithripala Sirisena wins he would get rid of Sri Lanka’s presidential system and replace it with a parliamentary system within one hundred days. Additionally, the 18th amendment to the constitution would be repealed, meaning that crucial institutions – including the police and the judiciary – would regain their independence. (Passed in 2010, the 18th amendment also eliminated presidential term limits, paving the way for Rajapaksa to run for this unprecedented third term).

If properly implemented, the reforms proposed by the opposition would diminish executive power and make Sri Lanka less authoritarian. The opposition has also said they will address broad topics including the rising cost of living, wages, corruption, the rule of law, and the welfare state. This all sounds good, but the election remains Rajapaksa’s to lose.

Indeed, the way forward for the opposition will not be easy. For starters, if the challenger Sirisena were to be elected, he would supposedly be transferring executive power shortly after coming into office. Voters may have concerns about who they’re actually voting for. Related to that, the prominent campaign role of former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has already been met with consternation. Though very well-known, she and Ranil Wickremasinghe both bring significant baggage. (Wickremasinghe is a former prime minister who leads the United National Party, the country’s main opposition party and, evidently, is the man who would be appointed prime minister if Sirisena wins.)

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Another issue has to do with Tamil and Muslim voters, two ethnic groups whose support Sirisena really needs if he’s going to pull off an upset on January 8. (Approximately 75 percent of Sri Lankans are ethnic Sinhalese and the vast majority of them are Buddhist; Tamil and Muslim people are the country’s two largest ethnic minorities).

Sirisena recently came out and said that, if he won, he wouldn’t allow Rajapaksa, his family, or any Sri Lankan soldiers to be tried internationally for war crimes allegedly committed during the nation’s civil war. (The Sri Lankan military is almost exclusively Sinhalese).

Sirisena has also rejected the idea of a federal system of devolution (of power) for ethnic Tamils and stated that Buddhism’s preeminence in the constitution would be kept in place. While statements like these will placate the largely Sinhala-Buddhist electorate, they don’t go down well with the Tamil National Alliance or the Tamil community more generally, the group that suffered the most as a result of the war.

By weighing in so clearly on all of these issues, Sirisena seems to have made several calculations. In addition to gaining support from extremist Sinhala-Buddhist elements, it’s likely Sirisena believes that running on a platform that focuses on good governance, the abolition of the executive presidency, and the return to parliamentary democracy simply isn’t enough to turn the tide against the supremely nationalist Rajapaksa regime – and that the common opposition will need to emphasize their Sinhala-Buddhist credentials more prominently, something Rajapaksa has done so skillfully throughout his presidency.

Something that’s received less attention is the fact that, since Sirisena himself is hardly new to Sri Lanka’s political scene, why didn’t he decide to defect earlier? The problems he’s highlighted with Rajapaksa’s rule – including nepotism, corruption, authoritarianism, and the denigration of the rule of law – have been evident for many years now. Sirisena could have chosen to speak up earlier, act out earlier, or defect earlier and yet he chose not to do so. Put bluntly, there’s always the possibility that Sirisena is neither a reformer nor a democrat.

While it’s important that domestic and international election observers are present on voting day, consistent violations of election laws or an upsurge in political violence in the coming days would come as no surprise. Given the regime’s track record of intimidation, crushing dissent, and condoning ethnically and religiously motivated violence, now is the time to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

If nothing else, Sri Lanka’s presidential election – like the country’s current struggle with authoritarianism – looks far from over.

Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.