Plu­ral­ism win­ner in Sri Lanka’s edgy polls

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Sri Lanka’s just-con­cluded polls drew ab­nor­mal in­ter­est be­cause of Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s bid to re­turn as prime min­is­ter, barely six months af­ter he lost power as pres­i­dent of the teardrop­shaped is­land.

Ousted af­ter nine years when Maithri­pala Sirisena, a key mem­ber of his Cab­i­net, turned on him and suc­cess­fully fought the Jan­uary pres­i­den­tial poll, Ra­japaksa is a hero to the is­land’s Sin­hala ma­jor­ity for end­ing the Tamil sep­a­ratist war in 2009. He did this with jaw­drop­ping bru­tal­ity that was su­per­vised by his army chief, whom he promptly side­lined af­ter the war, and later jailed. Through­out his ten­ure, and par­tic­u­larly the post-war pe­riod, his gov­ern­ment was dogged by al­le­ga­tions of cor­rupt and cozy deals.

Con­tro­ver­sially, he took Chi­nese help to build a ma­jor port, air­port and other fa­cil­i­ties in his home dis­trict of Ham­ban­tota in Sri Lanka’s south­ern tip. In so do­ing, he cocked a snook not only at the Colombo es­tab­lish­ment that tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nates the na­tion’s pol­i­tics, but also at gi­ant neigh­bor In­dia, al­ways ner­vous about en­hanced Chi­nese pres­ence in its backyard.

Hence, from both lo­cal and re­gional per­spec­tives, there is cause to feel re­lieved that Ra­japaksa found lit­tle suc­cess again, as in Jan­uary. Vic­tory went to the ri­val United Na­tional Party (UNP) and its leader, Ranil Wick­remesinghe, a pil­lar of the Colombo elite and a nephew of the late pres­i­dent J.R. Jayewar­dene, Sri Lanka’s leader in the early stages of the civil war. In the 225-seat leg­is­la­ture, the UNP has won 106 seats but that lack of a clear ma­jor­ity is not a point of worry. Sev­eral smaller par­ties have an­nounced sup­port for Wick­remesinghe and a sec­tion of Ra­japaksa’s United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance, which got 95 seats, is ex­pected to cross over. Ra­japaksa’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture looks dim.

The re­sults hold lessons not only for Ra­japaksa — whose cam­paign­ing in the last few weeks had taken on trou­bling ma­jori­tar­ian over­tones — but for Sri Lanka too. The coun­try’s mi­nori­ties, chiefly Tamils in the north and east prov­inces and Mus­lims, seem to have voted en masse for Wick­remesinghe or his al­lies. The out­come shows that it pays to march to­ward a plu­ral­ism that em­braces all and leaves no cor­ner ig­nored. As in In­dia last year, vot­ers have also sig­naled a lack of tol­er­ance for cor­rup­tion and a de­sire for good gov­er­nance.

These are pos­i­tive fac­tors, along with its strate­gic perch in the In­dian Ocean and fa­vor­able so­cial de­mo­graph­ics com­pared with its re­gional peers, that Sri Lanka can draw upon to has­ten growth. What is also es­sen­tial is a sta­ble gov­ern­ment fo­cused on its peo­ple, rather than the pelf as­so­ci­ated with Ra­japaksa. The busi­ness­friendly new prime min­is­ter looks set to push ahead with use­ful re­forms. It is a mo­ment that must be seized. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished by The Straits Times on Aug. 23.

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