In Sri Lanka, the Political Opposition Remains as Fragmented as Ever

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In Sri Lanka, the Political Opposition Remains as Fragmented as Ever

As Sri Lanka prepares for presidential and general elections, where do the various parties stand?

In Sri Lanka, the Political Opposition Remains as Fragmented as Ever

Supporters of Sri Lanka’s main opposition shout slogans during a protest rally against high taxes and increases in electricity and fuel charges, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 30, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Like a number of other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka will hold elections this year. Both the government and the opposition are busy preparing themselves for polls. Presidential elections are expected to take place in September or October, though timelines have not been announced yet. Some analysts believe general elections will follow a presidential election, while others believe they will precede it.

The island nation, which faced its worst-ever economic crisis in 2022, has managed to bring about some political and economic stability – though this stability remains fragile and superficial, if not deceptive.

The government, headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, has seemingly managed to get things back in order. The country has imposed on itself several painful austerity measures, with assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and Asian Development Bank, in addition to support from other countries, including India. 

Since 2022, Sri Lanka’s economy has seemingly fared well. The country managed to secure an agreement with the IMF on an Extended Fund Facility (EFF) program in 2023. While the economy grew by 1.6 percent in the third quarter of 2023, inflation, which stood at 56 percent in December 2022, came down to 4.2 percent a year later.

However, while the situation has improved on some fronts, political uncertainty looms large over the island, as policy decisions have fueled polarization nearly everywhere. They have also ruptured conventional political divisions and patterns. 

So far, Sri Lanka has made progress on restructuring around $11 billion of bilateral debt. It expects to come into an agreement with private creditors and bondholders, though the latter remain cautious if not wary.

One of Sri Lanka’s main economic pillars, tourism, has achieved much growth. Foreign tourist arrivals surged from 194,495 in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, to 1,487,303 in 2023, partly due to an ambitious tourism promotional campaign that involved a prominent international influencer.

Once starved of tourists, the country is now witnessing an explosion in hotel bookings, well beyond existing capacity. Indeed, in a strange twist, the Department of Immigration and Emigration recently issued a notification requesting Russian and Ukrainian tourists to leave the island within 14 days, reportedly on account of a “White Only” party that had been organized in a Russian cafe in the Southern Province. This is a far cry from 2021 and 2022, when the government was virtually begging for tourists.

However, while there have been improvements in these sectors, they are seen as benefiting a certain privileged class. The opposition and sections of the public have opposed the government’s economic reforms, including the restructuring of the country’s state-owned enterprises, which is expected to be completed shortly.

Tax reforms have also garnered criticism. Recent hikes in income and Value Added Taxes have imposed a huge burden on the country’s lower and middle classes, including professionals and small and medium business owners.

Not surprisingly, these moves have polarized politics in Sri Lanka. That trend has been furthered by the regime’s lurch toward authoritarianism. The recent Online Safety Bill, for instance, has sparked criticism from civil society. Scandals, particularly one involving a former health minister, who has since been remanded, have taken center stage.

All these have made the government more vulnerable, yet the opposition remains as fragmented as ever.

The Main Opposition: Samagi Jana Balawegaya 

The country’s main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), performed modestly at general elections in 2020, gaining 23.92 percent of the vote. Its leader, Sajith Premadasa, once an ally of Wickremesinghe, has become a fierce critic of his government.

Capitalizing on widespread discontent, the SJB has vowed to reverse many of the policies being enforced by the government. Yet the party faces a tricky situation. On the one hand, as the main opposition, it has organized numerous protests against the regime’s austerity measures and tax hikes. On the other hand, many of its MPs have aligned themselves with the economic ideology underpinning those reforms.

A recently unveiled economic policy document states that the party supports engagement with the IMF. This has led left-wing MPs to accuse the SJB of being no different from the government. The SJB, in turn, has accused these MPs of being “clueless” about economic reforms, opening further divisions within the opposition.

Complicating matters further, the party has invited to its fold several individuals who were associated with the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party. These include ex-military officials. The SJB itself is chaired by a former Army commander, Sarath Fonseka. The inclusion of ex-SLPP stalwarts has driven a wedge between Fonseka and Sajith Premadasa, to a point where Fonseka is now touting himself as a presidential candidate in his own right.

Swinging to the Left: National People’s Power 

Widely seen as the most popular party in Sri Lanka, the National People’s Power (NPP) is tipped to be a frontrunner at the upcoming elections

More than any other political outfit, it is the NPP that has tapped into public discontent with the government. It has based its campaign on promises of eradicating corruption. This, of course, was one of the themes of the protests that drove former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of power in 2022. Anti-corruption continues to resonate with the country’s youth, the peasantry, and the working classes, vast swathes of whom have swung to the left.

Ideologically, the NPP is seen as favoring public ownership, state-led industrialization, and nationalization. It is fiercely opposed to ongoing economic reforms. Its stance on debt restructuring, though, remains less than clear. While the NPP is opposed to the austerity that restructuring has imposed on the middle and lower classes, it has stated that upon coming to power it will renegotiate, not abandon, the IMF agreement. The IMF itself met with its MPs last January. Details of the meeting, however, have not been released.

The NPP is the parliamentary wing of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was formed in the 1960s as an anti-establishment outfit, in opposition even to the mainstream left. At the height of the country’s ethnic conflict in the 1980s, the JVP was banned by the then-government. This pushed it out of the democratic mainstream, leading to a protracted insurrection that  was motivated, and driven, by Indian intervention in the country.

Since entering democratic politics in the 1990s, the JVP has softened its stances, though on several issues – especially the India-imposed 13th Amendment – it remains of the same opinion as before. It frequently denounces mainstream political parties, though it too has taken part in coalition politics. Yet it is seen by the country’s youth and lower middle classes as being clean and free of corruption, a cut above the rest.

In that sense, the Indian government’s decision to invite the NPP to Delhi, where the party delegation met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, affirms its growing importance not just at home, but also abroad.

Minority Politics: ITAK

The success of these parties will depend a lot on the alliances they can forge. Though nationalism, particularly Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, has played a major part in elections in Sri Lanka, almost all parties have dallied with minority outfits. In 2019, for instance, the SLPP openly courted Muslim votes, even in the backdrop of the Easter attacks, while the United National Party (UNP), of which Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader, secured support from Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party.

Since the 2020 general election, however, there has been a seismic shift in minority politics. This has been especially evident with Tamil politics. The biggest Tamil political party, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), witnessed a change in its leadership, from a figure widely seen as a moderate to a more militant hardliner.

This prefigures a pivotal shift in the tactics of Tamil parties. Earlier, minority parties pursued negotiations with major parties with the objective of obtaining concessions on issues like devolution of power and, in the country’s Northern Province, the return of lands now owned by the military to their previous owners.

The situation has changed dramatically today. At the last general election, ITAK retained its dominant position in the Northern Province. Yet two rival parties – the Tamil National People’s Front, formed in 2010, and the Tamil People’s National Alliance, formed in 2020 – secured enough seats to enter Parliament. Both have gone beyond ITAK’s politics of compromise, advocating for autonomy for Tamils.

S. Sridharan, ITAK’s new leader, is a fitting symbol of these shifts. Described by the press as a “die-hard apologist of the LTTE” – the separatist outfit that waged a war against the Sri Lankan government for 30 years – Sridharan has insisted on a new and more viable solution to the problems of his community.

One of the first things he did as party leader was to visit a cemetery for LTTE cadres in Jaffna. Since then, he has expressed reservations about the 13th Amendment and highlighted the need to go beyond devolution of power. Like his counterparts in other Tamil parties, he has pushed for a federal state. Crucially, Sridharan has stated he will do all he can to mobilize Tamil nationalist forces “as they were before 2009” – that is, before the LTTE’s military defeat at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

So far, neither the government nor the opposition – be it the SJB or the NPP – has responded to Sridharan’s calls. Yet alliances with minority parties have become a sine qua non of Sri Lankan politics. It is hence likely that government and opposition will vie for minority votes through these parties closer to the election.

However, at a time when Sinhala-dominated parties from both sides are mobilizing nationalist sentiments against one another, it remains to be seen how far the major parties will go to court minorities. While Wickremesinghe himself has made overtures to ITAK in the past, convening a meeting of Buddhist monks and members of the Tamil diaspora, Sridharan’s victory signals a rupture in minority politics in the island. In the long term, that will dampen prospects of a rapprochement between Tamil parties and the government.

The situation is the same with the opposition. Both the SJB and NPP are courting disaffected voters from the SLPP camp. Some of these groups, such as ex-army officials, disagree heavily with the politics and ideologies of parties like ITAK.

The opposition faces a dilemma here. On the one hand, these groups could help erode the SLPP’s hold over nationalist votes. On the other hand, they could also erode the opposition’s prospects within minority communities. While it is unlikely that minority parties will fully give up cohabiting with mainstream outfits, the SJB’s and NPP’s outreach to ex-military types may cost both parties support from outfits like ITAK.

The Future: A (Very) Big Question Mark

Sometimes described as Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka faces a rather tricky crossroads this year. With rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific and the prospect of a forever war in the Middle East, the island’s domestic politics will do much to shape its foreign policy.

Of course, it is economics, not foreign policy, that has taken center stage for now. The big question on everyone’s lips is when Sri Lanka will begin to recover.

Such questions, however, cannot be answered or resolved easily.

Different parties have proposed and presented different solutions to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. At the center of it all are two related issues: How long can the country continue inflicting austerity on itself, and how long can the government survive?

Colombo-based economists argue that IMF reforms should be continued and amplified. Yet the backlash those reforms have generated will doubtless be picked up by opposition parties – even those which are fundamentally in agreement with them.

Thus, while the leader of the SJB has publicly stated that he will renegotiate Sri Lanka’s agreement with the IMF if he comes into power, party MPs have advocated for careful engagement with the IMF. Such contradictions are natural in a country where parties face different electorates and try to pander to all of them.

As for the government, it seems content to continue advancing narratives of stability. This is a line few people seem to be buying. While the situation has changed from what it was in 2022 – there are no miles-long queues for fuel and gas – that offers little consolation in light of the price and tax hikes that most people have had to put up with.

The situation has become so divisive, in fact, that a video of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu describing Sri Lanka as a comeback story provoked outrage across social media, with several Sri Lankans questioning how he could remain indifferent to, and ignorant of, the realities on the ground.

Against such a backdrop, it is difficult to say who will win elections and what the winner will do with the country. Certainly, the NPP has gained ground, while the SJB’s confused response to economic reforms has cost it popular support. Yet the NPP remains derided by mainstream parties, including the main opposition.

Critically, none of the three major parties battling for votes – the SLPP, SJB, and NPP – has fully reached out to minority parties, in particular to Tamil parties.

The SLPP and SJB have, to be sure, forged alliances with certain groups. This is far from the case with the NPP. The NPP has so far been content in promoting its corruption-free record everywhere. The question is how effective such messaging will be with voters in the island’s North and East, who have traditionally supported communal parties.

It must be admitted, on the other hand, that disaffection with the mainstream has grown so much that people are shifting to the left, particularly to the NPP. To a considerable extent, this disaffection has cut across ethnic and religious divisions.

Whether that will translate into votes, of course, remains to be seen. But it has certainly boosted the NPP’s prospects. This has made it a clear frontrunner, in an election that is sure to be dominated by much uncertainty, chaos, and speculation.