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