Chris Smith
Dr Chris Smith
Former Associate Fellow, Asia Programme
Maithripala Sirisena’s election victory over incumbent president Mahinda Rajapakse is remarkable, but he must tackle entrenched political and social problems while holding together what seems an inherently fractious coalition.
Sri Lanka's newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena leaves after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo on 9 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.Sri Lanka's newly-elected president Maithripala Sirisena leaves after being sworn in at Independence Square in Colombo on 9 January 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

On 8 January the Sri Lankan electorate chose a new president, and in doing so rejected the autocratic regime of Mahinda Rajapakse that had dominated for almost a decade. Rajapakse’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, will need considerable political skill to hold together the newly formed coalition government and deliver significant change for Sri Lanka. Questions also remain about the continued influence of the former president, political stability given corrosive ethnic tensions and corruption, and relations with international partners.

Sirisena’s victory underlines voters’ frustrations with the concentration of power around the Rajapakse family that had been a hallmark of the previous president’s rule. Rajapakse’s role in ending 26 years of civil war – albeit in the most brutal way – had contributed to his political success. But the administration’s standing was gradually undermined by popular discontent over inequality and allegations of corruption. Positive development indicators and rapid economic growth – about 7 per cent a year – since the end of the war in 2009 were not enough to save the populist president. In this context, Rajapakse’s decision to call an election two years early in search of a third term seems to have been based on the hubristic assumption that the opposition was incapable of mounting a meaningful challenge. He may also have underestimated the extent to which increasing national wealth had failed to benefit the poorest.

The incoming president’s story is all the more interesting for the political intrigue involved. Maithripala Sirisena had previously been a minister in the Rajapakse government, but defected last November. His election victory was a slender one – he secured only 51.3 per cent of the vote, following a large turnout and a relative lack of violence – but Rajapakse’s failure to persuade the military to declare a state of emergency ensured the latter’s departure from office. Despite rumours about ill-health, Rajapakse has vowed to return to power. Whether or not he succeeds, Sri Lanka has certainly not seen the last of his clan.

Parliamentary elections are due in late April 2015, and expectations are high – Sirisena must deliver and quickly. There are some positive signs. Sirisena has already committed to a 100-day work programme based primarily upon improving governance and a smattering of populist measures, such as a Rs20,000 (£100) allowance to pregnant women to encourage better nutrition.

There are, however, serious challenges. The opposition was galvanized by intense opposition to Rajapakse, shared by both Sinhalese and those marginalized during his tenure. But the winning coalition’s members are uneasy bedfellows. At one end of the spectrum are the Tamil and Muslim minorities, whose vote was crucial for Sirisena and who are seeking fairer and better representation. At the other is the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a radical Sinhalese party which will be keen to see further ‘Sinhalization’ – that is, policies favouring the Sinhalese majority – in return for its support. Inevitably, parts of the coalition stand to be disappointed. Evidence suggests Sri Lanka’s minorities are the likelier candidates to lose out.

Against a background of simmering Tamil grievances over the killing of an estimated 40,000 civilians in the closing weeks of the war in 2009, along with allegations of war crimes, the new president as yet has had little to say on the crucial issue of Tamil-Sinhalese reconciliation. Despite promising an official enquiry, Sirisena has flatly refused to allow the involvement of the United Nations. This will be popular with the Sinhalese but clearly not with Tamils, either inside or outside the country. Absent any scope for compromise, the causes of conflict will remain, and could easily result in a return to armed hostilities over time. Sirisena has also been silent on the militarization of the north. The increase in the military’s business interests, and its confiscation of land in Tamil areas, bodes ill for future political and social harmony. Military spending has steadily increased since the end of the war.

Sirisena has also said little on important issues pertaining to the rule of law, and to the police in particular. There is little to suggest that the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act will be repealed. This act gives the security forces wide-ranging powers of arrest and detention, and immunity from prosecution. Poor protection of civil rights, torture and other abuses, commonplace under Rajapakse’s rule, look likely to continue. This must change if stable domestic government and constructive relations with foreign partners are to be achieved.

Above all, Sirisena will need to address the behaviour of the rich and powerful. Corruption in public life increased dramatically in the past decade. It remains pervasive through all levels of the civil service. Sirisena himself has a reputation for probity, which may help to raise standards. His election has caused jitters in the elite, moreover, which may indicate that he will attempt meaningful changes, including prosecutions.

The international community will be watching closely for signs of change in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. India will be keen to see a reduced Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, and in the interest of promoting good relations Sirisena’s first official visit may well be to New Delhi. He has spoken of the need to reduce foreign influence in the country but has said little about the role of China, perhaps in order to keep Chinese infrastructure aid rolling in for as long as possible. The United States backed Sirisena during his campaign, and will now be keen to see improvements regarding human rights and civil liberties.

Maithripala Sirisena’s election marks an undoubted turning-point in Sri Lankan politics, after a near-decade of Rajapakse family hegemony. But the new president will have to work hard to distance himself definitively from the regime of which he was so recently a member.

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