Fault lines have emerged in Sri Lankan society which can only be mended through responsible governance that addresses all religions and ethnicities.
The Sri Lankan ruling party UNP has effectively blocked the way of former President Rajapaksa to stage a comeback by winning the general elections held on August 17. The party won 106 seats of the legislature as against 95 seats won by the alliance led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Though the UNP has fallen short of 7 seats to gain a majority, it is believed that the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would still be able to form a stable government.
The elections were viewed as an epic struggle between democratic forces represented by the UNP and anti-democratic forces led by the SLFP. Political analysts believe that a victory for the UNP would provide a life-time opportunity for the Sri Lankans to resolve some of the fault lines that had made their way in Sri Lanka’s conflictridden society, whereas a triumph for the SLFP would maintain the status quo. However opinion polls had already put the UNP ahead of its
rival. The results vindicated the preelection predictions.
To understand the significance of the elections in their true perspective, it is perhaps essential to get a brief insight into the political landscape of Sri Lanka and why it finds itself at a cross-roads even after more than six decades of independence in 1948.
Sri Lanka is a religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse country. More than 70% of its population subscribes to Buddhism, 12.58% to Hinduism and 9.66% belong to Islam, while Christians constitute 7.62%. Ethnicity-wise, the majority of the Sinhalese are Buddhists, Tamils are Hindus and the Moors are Muslims. The political landscape of the country has been dominated by two parties - the Sri Lankan Freedom party (SLFP) and United National Party (UNP). They have ruled Sri Lanka by forming alliances with other smaller parties thus giving Sri Lanka a culture of coalition politics. Nevertheless the power dynamics in the country have been essentially characterized by ethnic considerations, a legacy of the colonial era. After independence, the elite that dominated the political and economic arena during colonial rule continued to enjoy the same status. The politicization of the ethnic identity led to a predominance of the Sinhalese, giving birth to a system which failed to protect minority rights and deepening of a sense of deprivation among the minority communities as well as eruption of armed struggles against the Sinhalese-dominated governments.
The foundation for insurgencies was laid with the limiting of citizenship rights of the plantation community of the Tamils in 1948, passage of ‘The Sinhala Only Act’ which declared Sinhala as the sole official language replacing English and university admission reforms which put the Jaffana Tamils at a disadvantageous position by blocking access of the minority communities to state employment. The was followed by granting of a special place in the constitution to Buddhism. All these factors contributed to the widening of fissures in Sri Lanka’s multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society. The SLFP and UNP which are both Sinhalese-dominated political outfits have actually played a central role in perpetuating the ethnic conflict. They have both regularly used the terrorism of Tamils as a strategy to win votes at elections, further dividing the nation on ethnic lines.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) under former President Rajapaksa, which ruled Sri Lanka between 2005 and January 2015, won a military victory against the Indian backed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, courtesy military assistance from China and Pakistan. Riding on the popularity wave due to this victory, the UPFA also won the 2010 elections and Rajapaksa was elected for the second term. During the Rajapaksa regime, Sri Lanka took discernible strides in the economic arena. Rajapaksa, who felt on top of the world due to his victory against the LTTE and the performance of the economy, wanted to win another term as President but that was not feasible under the constitution which allowed only two stints to an individual.
To have his way, Rajapaksa first had the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka removed by the parliament and installed a person of his own choice as the Chief Justice who, in response to a reference made by Rajapaksa, ruled that he could run for the third term. Rajapaksa announced presidential elections two years earlier than the completion of his six-year term thinking it was the right time to capitalize on the popularity wave. But he probably miscalculated the whole thing and could not make a proper assessment of the impact that his policies of denying legitimate rights to the Tamils, attacks on Muslims, plundering of state resources through corruption, disappearance of journalists and political opponents, his authoritarian rule and mistreatment of his political opponents had created to erode his political credentials. As soon as he announced elections, the United National Party (UNP) which seemed in complete disarray, suddenly regrouped and Maithripala Sirisena defected to it. He was elected President in January 2015.
Sirisena, in his election campaign against Rajapaksa, promised reforms and building Sri Lanka as a state belonging to all cultural and ethnic entities and granting rights to the Tamils, the conditions on which he was supported by the civil and political organizations. The defeat of Rajapaksa in January paved the way for open political expression and the removal of an atmosphere of fear. Sirisena, in an attempt to fulfill his election promises, had the nineteenth constitutional Amendment passed by the parliament, reducing the term of the resident and parliament from six to five years, re-introduction of the two-term limit that a person can have as president, revival of Constitutional Council and establishment of independent commissions. However, he found the parliament dominated by UPFA which was resistant to other envisaged reforms. This forced him to dissolve the parliament and call for fresh elections.
The Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after the victory called on all the stakeholders to join hands in developing a civilized society, formation of a consensus government and building a new country. Whether the UNP would be able to muster enough support for its promised reforms only time will tell, as Rjapaksa is still a political force to be reckoned with. The task seems quite arduous. However, the fact remains that Sri Lanka cannot afford to fail in implementing the promised agenda of reforms.
Observers believe that defeat for Rajapaksa would keep Sri Lanka on a non-aligned course and loosen ties with China who pumped billions of dollars in trying to convert Sri Lanka into a maritime outpost, due to the fact that the incumbent President is a known pro-US leader and might show a tilt toward the US. By doing so he will not only be jeopardizing Sri Lanka’s credentials as a non-aligned country but will also harm long-term geo-strategic interests of the country. Building relations with the US at the cost of a regional power like China would be a big mistake. It is better if he stays away from the US-China tussle in the region and focuses more on his reform agenda, addressing the debilitating fault lines that have emerged in the Sri Lankan society.