The Pulse

Sri Lanka’s Political Future Arrives at a Crossroads

Will Sri Lanka chose a return to corruption, misrule, and near-authoritarianism?

Sri Lanka’s Political Future Arrives at a Crossroads
Credit: Flickr/ Vikalpa

On Monday, Sri Lankans will vote in parliamentary elections, ten months ahead of schedule. The election comes nearly 8 months after Maithripala Sirisena unexpectedly beat Mahinda Rajapaksa in early presidential elections. The election will pit the  Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led (SLFP) United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) group of parties against the more right-leaning United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), a new grouping of political parties led by the right-wing United National Party (UNP), including parties representing Muslim and Tamil interests. Broadly, this parliamentary election may mark a crossroads for Sri Lanka between a return to the heavy-handed authoritarian-leaning governance style espoused by Rajapaksa, or the broadly more inclusive and deliberative style of his successor and the incumbent president, Sirisena, and his electoral opponent, Ranil Wickremsinghe.

Rajapaksa, long regarded among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese population as a hero for his role in leading the government to victory against Tamil separatists in the country’s decades-long civil war, is contesting a parliamentary seat in Monday’s election. Indeed, the relationship between Rajapaksa and Sirisena is complicated given that they both are UPFA members. Indeed, Sirisena was a former minister in Rajapaksa’s government before he declared his presidential run. Sirisena, as president, remains neutral in theory during this election, and reportedly favors a continuing role for the current prime minister Ranil Wickremsinghe and, by extension, the United National Front for Good Governance. Sri Lanka’s non-Sinhalese population, including the country’s not-insignificant Tamil and Muslim minorities, would also favor this outcome.

The former president’s chances are unclear. With a perfunctory glance, it appears that the odds are stacked against him. Recently, a murder investigation into the death of Wasim Thajudeen, a former Sri Lankan rugby player, has implicated the president—allegations have been made that government security forces murdered the athlete. Meanwhile, scrutiny of Rajapaksa’s family continues in Sri Lanka. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former defense secretary, and Basil Rajapaksa, the former top economic official, are both siblings to the former leader—both men are the subject to varying probes into their use and misuse of power under the old regime. Similarly, Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, is under investigation for corruption. Beyond this, a litany of other cases involving either Rajapaksa or those close to him have been at the forefront of Sri Lankan politics lately, despite the former president’s bid to return to politics.

As a recent report by the International Crisis Group highlights, the outcome of Sri Lanka’s election will have important implications for the country’s political trajectory and, concomitantly, for its foreign policy. Sirisena and his more open mode of governing the country face a referendum on Monday. The outcome of the elections could give clarity to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa split within the UFPA, where varying constituents support one over the other. Rajapaksa loyalists are eager to see his return while the president’s supporters want a strong UNFGG showing to buttress ongoing reform efforts. Reportedly, depending on Rajapaksa’s showing in the election, UFPA legislators loyal to Sirisena, including members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, may join the UNFGG to support the current government. Indeed, the politics of this election remain complex given the divides within the UFPA over Sirisena and Rajapaksa, but the results will be critical for Sri Lanka’s political future.

The outcome of this election will no doubt be watched with great interest by observers in New Delhi and Beijing. In broad strokes, Sri Lanka was seen as largely pro-China and ambivalent to India during Rajapaksa’s tenure. India’s Tamil constituency saw Rajapaksa’s treatment of the country’s ethnic Tamils as unconscionable, leading to considerable domestic pressure within India on the central government to scale back its engagement with the Sri Lankan government. In the meantime, the Sri Lankan government awarded lucrative contracts to Chinese firms. However, since Sirisena’s ascent, many of the Rajapaksa-era contracts for Chinese firms have come under review (I wrote on a particular case of this in greater detail recently). Additionally, Sirisena chose India as his first stop abroad after his electoral victory in January. Sirisena hasn’t quite taken the island state away from China altogether—indeed, he visited Beijing and has carried on productive cooperation between the two countries. Rather, his foreign policy has been more measured and balanced, with the view that good ties with both India and China are crucial for Sri Lanka’s security and prosperity.