Blow­ing Hot and Cold

Caught be­tween two lead­ers, Sri Lanka still treads the del­i­cate path be­tween democ­racy and dic­ta­tor­ship.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Lubna Jerar Naqvi

There is a tug-of-war be­tween democ­racy and dic­ta­tor­ship.

As the say­ing goes, ev­ery­thing must come to an end. So af­ter a decade of an in­ter­est­ingly long ten­ure, Sri Lanka ex­pe­ri­enced a po­lit­i­cal change. The ap­par­ently strong Pres­i­dent and head of the Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP), Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s decade-long rule came to an end in Jan­uary when a mem­ber of his own gov­ern­ment, in fact his Health Min­is­ter, Maithri­pala Sirisena, got more votes.

Ra­japaksa was com­fort­able that he would win the elec­tions, which is why af­ter mak­ing con­sti­tu­tional changes and ex­tend­ing the two-term limit to three, he called for elec­tions two years be­fore time. He had no rea­son not to be­lieve that he would be voted back into of­fice. He had helped the coun­try move to­wards the bet­ter and he had the Sin­halese ma­jor­ity votes on his side af­ter the crush­ing of the Tamil in­sur­gency in 2009. This had helped

im­prove the over­all sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try.

It was dur­ing Ra­japaksa’s rule that Sri Lanka built bet­ter ties with China and more fo­cus was placed on de­vel­op­ment in the coun­try. On top of that, the tourism in­dus­try flour­ished and things im­proved over­all as the eco­nomic growth rate be­came one of the high­est in the re­gion. De­spite all this, Ra­japaksa’s crit­ics ac­cused him of cor­rup­tion dur­ing his au­thor­i­tar­ian rule. He did run a strict shift. Free­doms were cur­tailed, es­pe­cially for the media which suf­fered a lot of cen­sor­ship and jour­nal­ists were put un­der ex­treme pres­sure and even pros­e­cuted. But the pos­i­tives seemed to out­weigh the neg­a­tives. On the whole Sri Lanka seemed like a great place to be in. But the vot­ers ap­par­ently didn’t think so when in a shock­ing elec­tion re­sult, Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa was be­hind his op­po­nent in the Jan­uary 2015 elec­tion.

But the elec­tions proved un­pre­dictable and even af­ter al­low­ing a third term op­tion, Ra­japaksa couldn’t win. Maithri­pala Sirisena – Ra­japaksa’s for­mer ally – re­placed him by se­cur­ing 51.3 % of the votes. An­a­lysts say that Sirisena’s suc­cess was pre­dom­i­nately sup­ported by Mus­lim and Tamil vot­ers, but he also had the sup­port of a por­tion of the Sin­halese votes.

When Ra­japaksa saw that he was lag­ging be­hind, he de­cided it would be bet­ter if he con­ceded de­feat and al­lowed the peace­ful tran­si­tion of power. But it seemed that he was des­tined for a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. The vet­eran politi­cian may have lost his pres­i­den­tial seat but he landed in the po­si­tion of leader of the op­po­si­tion. Even in this role, Ra­japaksa has been ac­tive dur­ing the six months sit­ting on this side of the aisle. Now he is all set to take part in the Au­gust 17 par­lia­men­tary elec­tion. One would have thought that Sirisena’s gov­ern­ment was a lib­eral one, mainly since its main sup­port­ers be­longed to this group and it was be­cause of their votes that the new gov­ern­ment pol­l­vaulted into power.

Mahinda Ra­japaksa be­came the pres­i­dent of Sri Lanka af­ter he won the 2005 elec­tion and ruled the coun­try for a decade with an iron hand. He made sev­eral changes dur­ing his long rule which some con­sid­ered to be tee­ter­ing on the wrong side of democ­racy. How­ever, the new setup un­der Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena and Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­ra­mass­inghe didn’t fare well. In fact in the short time of six months it be­came ap­par­ent that there were fault lines that they could han­dle. The coun­try was fac­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal is­sues be­cause the new gov­ern­ment couldn’t pass any key po­lit­i­cal re­forms.

The new gov­ern­ment has been un­able to main­tain the strong econ­omy built dur­ing Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa’s tenures and is fast de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. This could be one of the gov­ern­ment’s weak­nesses. Ap­par­ently, the ‘demo­crat’ Sirisena could not main­tain the achieve­ments gained by the ‘dic­ta­tor’ Ra­japaksa. There has also been news that Sirisena is back­ing the re­turn of Ra­japaksa, which might also play a role in dis­il­lu­sion­ing his more lib­eral vot­ers, who had sup­ported him in the Jan­uary elec­tions so to bring a change in the coun­try by break­ing the dic­ta­tor­ship.

If it is true that Sirisena is back­track­ing on his prom­ise of bring­ing a demo­cratic revo­lu­tion in the coun­try then he will be in deeper trou­ble in this elec­tion. He has de­nied any news that he is sup­port­ing Ra­japaksa and vowed to stop him from com­ing back into power, adding that he will ful­fil the prom­ises he made in the Jan­uary elec­tions. His prom­ises ring hal­low since the vot­ers are still wait­ing for him to live up to his elec­tion prom­ises. But in re­al­ity the last six months are not very as­sur­ing.

How­ever, the Au­gust 17 par­lia­men­tary polls are not go­ing to be smooth sail­ing. Re­ports from dif­fer­ent sec­tions re­veal that Ra­japaksa might be con­test­ing elec­tions un­der the coali­tion of the rul­ing party, which Sirisena de­nied. Pres­i­dent Sirisena is com­pletely against for­mer pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa and has said that he will use his pres­i­den­tial pow­ers to stop Ra­japaksa from com­ing into power by be­com­ing the next prime min­is­ter. He could very well achieve this goal, as he gets to se­lect who will be the next PM.

Ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts, Ra­japaksa lost the Jan­uary elec­tions be­cause of his in­cli­na­tion to­wards China, which did not sit well with cer­tain sec­tions of the po­lit­i­cal elite, who are in­clined to­wards the West. It is also thought, that the po­lit­i­cal power shifted from China-friendly Ra­japaksa to the West- (es­pe­cially the US) friendly Sirisena, which has noth­ing to do with democ­racy or dic­ta­tor­ship.

The strug­gle with con­tinue since China-US-EU has a stake in the rich ex­port mar­ket of Sri Lanka. Bet­ter re­la­tions with one side will ham­per ties with the other. The coun­try can­not af­ford to of­fend any of the su­per pow­ers and there­fore the two par­ties will con­tinue to strug­gle. As things stand, it seems that Sirisena, de­spite his in­cli­na­tion to­wards the US, will not get votes. The fact that Ra­japaksa is gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity just six months af­ter he left of­fice, points to the fact that things are not go­ing very well for the present gov­ern­ment. Sirisena’s 100day ac­tion plan was not a good idea. Achiev­able and re­al­is­tic goals need to be set, es­pe­cially when a new regime is voted in on prom­ise of change. Vot­ers are not stupid and they want to see re­sults. On top of that, the IMF wants the gov­ern­ment to tighten its belt, which will fur­ther alien­ate the peo­ple. This could be another blow for Sirisena and his claims of a stronger democ­racy may not cut it with the voter. At this point, Ra­japaksa’s au­to­cratic rule prob­a­bly looks more savoury to the peo­ple.

Sirisena’s gov­ern­ment is not as le­nient as it is be­ing pro­jected to be. It hits hard where needed and takes strict ac­tions against the peo­ple in a very un­demo­cratic style, mak­ing the vot­ers re­alise that they are not get­ting a taste of democ­racy as they were promised in Jan­uary 2015 elec­tions. The out­come of the elec­tion is of course al­ways un­pre­dictable, but the truth is that the po­lit­i­cal field is open to the voter and the out­come could be quite sur­pris­ing. They have prob­a­bly re­alised that nei­ther leader will bring democ­racy to the coun­try; which means they will prob­a­bly vote for the can­di­date who can pro­vide a bet­ter econ­omy for all. The writer is a se­nior jour­nal­ist based in Karachi.

The new gov­ern­ment has been un­able to main­tain the strong econ­omy built dur­ing Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa’s tenures and is fast de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

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