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Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Focus on Divisive Politics and Beyond

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The Pulse

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Focus on Divisive Politics and Beyond

On November 16, Sri Lankans go to the polls to elect their next president. 

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Focus on Divisive Politics and Beyond

A supporter of presidential candidate of Sri Lanka’s governing party Sajith Premadasa cheers during their maiden election campaign rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lankans go to the polls next month to elect a new president. The election is widely expect to be a tight contest, with significant implications for peace and stability in the country.

A record 35 candidates have filed nominations for the November 16 polls, with former Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) a front-runner, according to local reports. He has been backed by incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Another strong contender is Sajith Premadasa, housing minister in the current governing coalition and deputy leader of the ruling United National Party (UNP). For the first time in Sri Lanka, neither a sitting president or prime minister nor leader of the opposition will contest the election for the highest office in the country.

A stuttering economy, national security, corruption allegations and a polarized ethnic and religious environment are dominating themes at the upcoming polls. April’s Easter attacks, which killed more than 250 people and injured several hundred more, has boosted Rajapaksa’s prospects. Rajapaksa, who launched his candidacy recently on a national security platform, was in charge of the security forces during the end stages of the long civil war, which ended in 2009.  Many within Sri Lankan’s Sinhala Buddhist majority have praised his role in winning the 26-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists. 

While a frontrunner, a Rajapaksa victory is not a certainty. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency between 2005-2015, was bedeviled by allegations of rampant corruption and human rights abuses, which could still play on minds of voters this time around. Moreover, it is likely Premadasa, who also has considerable political pedigree as the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in 1993 by the Tamil Tiger rebels, may mop up a higher proportion of the Tamil and Muslim minority votes, which make up a quarter of the electorate. 

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is unpopular in Tamil majority areas in the north and east of the country, over his handling of the civil war. The Muslim community, on the other hand, might be divided, analysts say.  As such, Rajapaksa would need to carry a significant proportion of the Sinhalese vote, although even here, such calculations are complicated by Premadasa’s reputation as a grassroots politician which may resonate with the rural masses among the majority Sinhala Buddhists. 

Likely rattled by such concerns, Rajapaksa has launched a vocal rebuke of Premadasa, his main opponent, calling his party, the UNP, an anti-national outfit. For his part, Premadasa has attempted to counter his rival’s strong national security message, by projecting former army chief Sarath Fonseka as his candidate for national security chief if elected. It was under Fonseka’s command that the Sri Lankan Army decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. 

Incumbent president Sirisena has decided not to seek re-election. His winding-down presidency has been marked by unfulfilled expectations of good governance, ethnic reconciliation and economic progress. Political differences between Sirisena and premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, have also stood out in an overall picture of a government in drift. The country’s economy has vastly underperformed, while the government came under fire, too, for a series of security failures that contributed to April’s terrorist attacks. 

With his political future looking bleak, Sirisena has pledged his party’s support, and significant voter base, for Rajapaksa’s candidacy, perhaps in the hope of gaining an influential position in the next government. His decision to not contest is also seen as an attempt by the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to stay relevant after losing a majority of its loyalists to the breakaway SLPP party, which Rajapaksa is using as a platform to contest this election. It is the first time that the SLFP, the country’s second-largest party for over 60 years, from which former presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sirisena emerged, has not fielded a candidate in a major national election. 

Although the next president has to operate with fewer powers than his predecessors, following a 2015 constitutional amendment that handed greater powers to the prime minister and parliament, a tightly contested election this time around has raised concerns that various camps might stoke religious and ethnic tensions for political expediency. 

Following the Easter attacks, a climate of heightened tensions generated much anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, and fueled calls among hardliners in the Sinhala-Buddhist community for a strong leader who can effectively tackle national security threats. The worry is that the looming election could turn into a contest about who is tougher against Islamist militancy, which might, in the aftermath of the polls, invigorate both Sinhala Buddhist hardliners and minority extremists.

Despite the defeat of the LTTE insurgency, ethnic and religious fault lines continue to run deep in Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Scholars also note that over decades, Sinhala politicians have played up a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which holds that the island is home to Sinhala Theravada Buddhism and that minorities are only tolerated if they accept Sinhala hegemony. Such attempts to reinforce a particular nationalism to win elections have adversely affected the peaceful co-existence of multiple identities. Some Tamil and Muslim dominated political parties also exacerbate inter-ethnic divisions to entrench themselves within their respective communities. 

Although essentially a two-person contest, alliance building involving other contenders and various nationalist and communal parties, will be part of the process in the upcoming polls. Muslims make up nearly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people. About 12 percent of the population are Hindu, mostly from the ethnic Tamil minority, while over 70 percent of the populace are Sinhala Buddhists.

The main presidential candidates have pledged to create a safe security environment for all communities. Some candidates have also sought to position themselves as “moderates” and credible alternatives to an “authoritarian” Rajapaksa regime, although beneath this veneer, many in the past had resorted to divisive nationalistic messages to gain an advantage at the ballot. In the long term, with parliamentary elections also slated in 2020, divisive politics will have to be reined in, or achieving genuine reconciliation between the ethnic and religious groups will prove elusive, with potentially severe long-term security and economic implications for the country.

Amresh Gunasingham an associate editor at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a specialist center within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).