Turn­coats and About-faces

The Sri Lankan po­lit­i­cal scene reeks of lo­cal fac­tion­al­ism and big power ri­valry.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. Mubashir Noor

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.

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