Turncoats and About-faces
The Sri Lankan political scene reeks of local factionalism and big power rivalry.
The current political crisis in Sri Lanka comes down to one word: “Yahapalanaya” (good governance). On January 9, 2015, a motley coalition brought together by the United National Party’s (UNP) Ranil Wickramesinghe dug out the well-entrenched President Mahinda Rajapaksa after almost a decade in office. Spearheaded by Rajapaksa’s former health minister and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) turncoat, Maithripala Sirisena: this “rainbow” alliance found an audience in voters tired of corrupt authoritarianism. Bolstered by nationalists, monks and Muslims, Sirisena and Wickramesinghe rode the anti-Rajapaksa wave to electoral success. Rajiva Wijesinha, a junior coalition partner, said his side won because “the last government only cared about cement."
Fast forward to June 5 and 113 members of the 225-strong Sri Lankan parliament filed a no-confidence motion against now Prime Minister Wickramesinghe. They demanded the dissolution of parliament after February’s Treasury Bond scandal and the controversial appointment of Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran as the Central Bank Governor. Former President Rajapaksa then happily noted, "The blatant falsehoods, corruption and persecution of opponents under this government is what has led to this."
On assuming office in January, Finance Minister (F.M) Ravi Karunanayke had outlined his mission to not simply "minimizing corruption,” but “eliminating it fully." In hindsight, Wickramesinghe’s government fell victim to its own lofty ambitions.
In a recent interview with CNBC, F.M Karunanayke rubbished the motion as something championed by a “handful of extremists in parliament,” and concocted by a former President who “lost his political control.” He also blamed Rajapaksa loyalists for making “life difficult for the new president and this economic recovery.” On March 8, the incumbent President Sirisena had ordered a detailed probe into the Central Bank’s dodgy bond sale, which surprisingly cleared Governor Mahendran of any malfeasance. Then, to completely waylay public scrutiny, a Rs.2700 billion “misappropriation” charge was leveled against Ajith
Cabraal, the bank’s Rajapaksa-era chief.
The alleged Central Bank coverup is part of a bigger image problem facing the government. Governor Mahendran is still accused of “insider trading” to help his son-in-law reap illegal profits, while F.M Karunanayke was charged with money-laundering a few years ago and the case remains open. To this effect, Singapore refused to lend $1.5 billion to Sri Lanka in April, saying it could not make a deal with “two individuals facing charges of financial corruption.” Furthermore, Dr. Muttukrishna Saravananthan, a development economist, believes: “crony capitalism and borrowing to fund public investment by the previous regime have caused huge external debt."
Although P. M Wickramesinghe’s charge-sheet revolves around corruption, there are other reasons for the impasse. The incumbents came into power promising the dissolution of parliament in 100 days and new elections immediately after. To date, however, no firm schedule has emerged on either promise. There are reports that President Sirisena will dissolve the Parliament in August but this radio silence may have something to do with Rajapaksa. It is likely Sirisena wants to dismantle his political future and a sure-strike strategy could be brewing in the background.
The proposed Twentieth Amendment also worries the opposition. On June 9, the Sri Lankan Cabinet unveiled its final draft, leaving the smaller political parties both “surprised and disappointed.” A high quota of first-past-the-post seats was expected, but the size of the parliament remained unchanged. Whatever political counter-culture thrived under a Proportional Representation system would now become extinct, or be absorbed by the UNP or SLFP. The election watchdog, Campaign for a Free and Fair Election (CaFFE), however, blamed the "extremely corrupt political culture" for sabotaging reforms that could stabilize the Sri Lankan democracy.
Modeled after the French Fifth Republic, Sri Lanka’s system of government often complicates things. It puts the President and Prime Minister at opposite ends of the executive seesaw and uses their political weight to provide check and balance. In Sirisena’s and Wickramesinghe’s case, their respective parties are traditional rivals. A coalition united to oust Rajapaksa may have worked in January, but ideological fault-lines run deep. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, warns that if “the government’s popularity keeps eroding, Rajapaksa becomes an obvious choice for disgruntled voters.”
Former President Rajapaksa’s January defeat is, of course, the main reason for this mess. After ascending to the hot seat in 2005, he got reelected by vanquishing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), thereby ending Sri Lanka’s long and bloody civil war. However, by emphasizing Sinhala nationalism, Rajapaksa’s goodwill with the minorities gradually eroded. Consequently, the Tamil and Muslim communities largely voted for Sirisena in the elections. Rajapaksa’s marked tilt towards China also irked America and India. He would later blame both from his downfall, saying, "The U.S and India openly used their embassies to bring me down.”
P.M Wickramesinghe’s misfit coalition also got the better of China. During Rajapaksa’s reign, China had pumped $5 billion into the Sri Lankan infrastructure and planned to create a $1.5 billion “port city” in Colombo. President Sirisena’s course correction on foreign policy has seen this project suspended until further “reexamination.” Being a one-party state, China was happy to indulge Rajapaksa’s power trip as long as his autocracy advanced its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean. That dream is now dead, after the Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith Perera told AlJazeera “It is a priority that Sri Lanka and India return to a close relationship."
There were broad smiles in India the day Rajapaksa lost. Its paranoia at China’s growing influence being a mere 35 miles away exploded when Chinese submarines docked in Sri Lanka last year. Working with Chandrika Kumaratunga, Rajapaksa’s estranged SLFP matriarch, intelligence agents from India allegedly sabotaged the former President’s third term in office. Besides China, India was also unhappy with Rajapaksa’s “us and them” attitude towards Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, a people also living in its southern states. President Sirisena’s February trip to India, his first state visit, confirmed that the relationship had rebooted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wholeheartedly agreed: "This is a new beginning for relations between India and Sri Lanka."
America is also happy to be rid of Rajapaksa, not least because of its “pivot” towards the Asia Pacific. The former Sri Lankan president’s coziness with China worried the White House and the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe victory was very good news. U.S Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland has hailed the new setup for moving “the country away from divisive politics toward a new path of reconciliation.” Ironically, America had heartily backed Rajapaksa’s brutal methods against the LTTE until the China connection became bothersome. Then, in a quick about-face, Washington threatened Colombo with sanctions for its “human rights abuses.”
P.M Wickramesinghe is playing wait-and-see for now. It is obvious that President Sirisena wants to enact electoral reforms and this parliament may be his best opportunity to do so. The government is likely to dither on a firm election schedule for the same reason. The PM will need Sirisena to lobby the pliable chunks of Rajapaksa’s faction so he can survive the noconfidence vote. Till then, his loyalists can use an old American political trick and “filibuster” this opposition move. It all comes down to how badly Sirisena wants a future “national” government, as without Wickramesinghe and his UNP that possibility does not exist. The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer.