Rebound as a normal country
The defeat of the incumbent Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election on Thursday was neither completely unexpected nor was inevitable, as the narrow victory of his opponent Maithripala Sirisena testifies. But its significance is nonetheless far-reaching.
What happened may not have the look of a classic ‘regime change’ – ‘color revolution’ as in Georgia or a coup as in Ukraine – because the transition adhered to democratic principles, but without doubt outside powers had got involved discreetly (without being visible) and choreographed the rebound of party politics in Sri Lanka.
The success of that unspoken enterprise will ultimately need to be measured in terms of the policies (and their sustainability) that the Sirisena government is likely to pursue in the coming period. Given that country’s complex external environment, the contradictions in its political economy and of course Sri Lanka’s robust democratic traditions, the best-laid plots by outsiders can go awry.
In a manner of speaking, after the decade-long Rajapaksa era, Sri Lanka is once again becoming a ‘normal’ country – a vivacious democracy that got brutalized in civil war, but refused to go under.
No doubt, the new government will reset the compass of national and regional policies and its impact will be felt far and wide, since Sri Lanka happens to be one of the most coveted real estates in the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.
For the United States, Sri Lanka figures as a potential ‘lynchpin’ in its rebalance strategy in Asia; for Britain, its return to the east of Suez demands reclaiming the mentorship of the political elites in Colombo; for China, it is a vital hub in its Maritime Silk Road strategy; while, for India, that island falls within what it regards as its ‘sphere of influence’.
A good starting point, therefore, will be an understanding of what really happened. To be sure, Rajapaksa miscalculated by seeking renewed mandate two years before his term ended.
But then, he also knew from the outcome of the provincial elections in April in the western and southern provinces (dominated by the majority Sinhala communities who formed his power base) that popular discontent with his government was simmering and that he had alienated the country’s political class.
The alliance led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party [SLFP] won the two provincial elections, but lost a number of seats (dropping from 106 to 89) and in vote share (around 10 percent) in comparison with the 2009 provincial elections. The neo-liberal economic policies, especially reduction in fuel and food subsidies, combined with the perceived authoritarian style of the president had begun taking their toll.
Curiously, however, the opposition alliance led by the United National Party [UNP] under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe also failed to make any significant gains in the April elections. (In fact, UNP too lost seats and vote share.) Thus, Rajapakasa estimated that the disenchantment with his rule did not yet translate into support for the opposition and his decision to go for a mid-term poll rested on that calculation.
Ironically, both SLFP and UNP adhere to neo-liberal economic policies and while Rajapaksa unfailingly resorted to populist slogans, Wickremesinghe never cared to disown his image as a ‘business-friendly’ and elitist politician, which undercuts his party’s credibility in the eyes of the dispossessed poor.
Enter the United States and Britain. Drawing appropriate conclusions from the results of the provincial elections in April, an Anglo-American effort began discreetly to bolster the standing of Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister whose ‘pro-western’ outlook is well established.
The project aimed at helping him to build a new coalition that might enable him to return to power as head of a new government.
This required two things: on the one hand, Wickremesinghe needed to shed or at least dilute his elitist image, while on the other hand, Rajapaksa’s entrenched power base among the majority community, rooted in Buddhist-Sinhala nationalism, needed to be breached.
Thus, a veteran SLFP leader and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga was brought back from retirement to align with Wickremesinghe (although they used to be political rivals in the past) with the single objective of ousting Rajapaksa.
Kumaranatunga used to have an aura of being a ‘leftist’ and that and her family’s populist politics dating back to the 1950s still holds some nostalgia for the Sinhalese poor people – although she has come a long way in the recent decades and as an associate of the Clinton Foundation she is close to the US political and social circuit and doesn’t even espouse socialism anymore.
On the other hand, Rajapkasa was dealt a lethal blow when a senior cabinet minister and one of his trusted aides, Sirisena, defected. It was a double setback insofar as Sirisena was a seasoned SLFP leader and, more importantly, a hardcore Buddhist-Sinhala nationalist himself.
Simply put, it was a brilliant move on the part of Kumaranatunga and Wckremesinghe to make an offer to Sirisena that he possibly couldn’t refuse, namely, that he would be the common candidate of the opposition in the forthcoming presidential election if he defected to their side.
The deal involved Sirisena becoming president who would appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister heading a new government, while on a parallel track the country’s constitution would be amended to restore the Westminster-style political system that Sri Lanka used to have.
The ‘assets’ that Sirisena brought into the opposition camp have been the following. One, he took away with him a slice of Rajapaksa’s Buddhist-Sinhala nationalist constituency and a clutch of disaffected SLFP leaders and activists.
Two, he commanded support in the north-central region (which was colonized by Sinhala settlers during the SLFP governments in the past), which helped to neutralize to some extent Rajapaksa’s solid power base in the south.
Three, Sirisena brought in his image of being an unvarnished ‘native’ (he doesn’t speak English) – the perfect foil to the elitist, urbane, Colombo-based Wickremesinghe.
But the smartest thing that the western mentors of the anti-Rajapksa coalition managed to achieve was to get the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership to lend support to Sirisena. The Sri Lankan Tamil elites (drawn from upper castes) have been traditionally ‘pro-Western’ in their outlook and they seem to feel confident that the Western powers will get the Wickremesinghe-led government to redress their longstanding grievances of discrimination and state repression (where successive Indian leaderships proved ineffectual).
Indeed, Sri Lankan Tamil elites once before had enthusiastically cooperated with a western-sponsored peace process spearheaded by Norway in the first half of the last decade.
All in all, therefore, in Thursday’s election Rajapaksa faced a somewhat motley coalition comprising chunks of rural Sinhala communities (especially in the north), sections of Buddhist-Sinhala nationalists, urban Sinhalese, defectors from the SLFP, business community, Sinhalese intellectuals and Tamils from the north and east. The surprising thing is that even with the backing of such a coalition, Sirisena managed to secure just about 51.26 percent votes.
Paradoxically, it is the overwhelming Tamil support for Sirisena that ultimately proved the clincher – although he has been a staunch supporter of the hardline policies of the Rajapaksa government on the devolution of power to the Tamil-dominated regions or the easing of the military presence in those regions.
Clearly, Rajapaksa’s hardcore power base in the south largely remains intact – at least, as of now. This is important to understand, because what follows next will critically depend on the durability of the unwieldy rainbow coalition that Sirisena is leading.
For a start, Wickremsinghe and Kumaranatunge once before also had tried to work together and found it impossible and the big question is whether in the aftermath of Rakjapaksa’s fall, Washington and London will succeed in getting their co-habitation to continue.
Again, Sirisena has appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister but his own commitment to deliver on his electoral pledge to render himself a titular figurehead and revert Sri Lanka to the parliamentary system within one hundred days of becoming president cannot be fulfilled easily. The point is, Rajapaksa’s alliance still commands majority in the Sri Lankan parliament and it is difficult to muster support for a constitutional reform.
The parliamentary elections are due only next year and one possibility is that Sirisena may order a mid-term poll. But what if Rajapaksa’s alliance is returned in strength in a new parliament as well?
Meanwhile, it is useful to remember that Rajapaksa and Sirisena have been close associates within the SLFP up until very recently. Rajapaksa regarded Sirisena as his trusted colleague so much so that the latter was made the secretary of the SLFP and even was given the sensitive portfolio of defence minister for an interim period during the war against the LTTE in 2009. Suffice to say, Rajapaksa and Sirisena have much more in common with each other than either would have with Wickremesinghe or Kumarnatunga.
Politics do make strange bed-fellows and the Anglo-American project probably drew confidence from that dictum. But then, power is also an aphrodisiac and one hundred days could be a long time in politics.