Pluralism winner in Sri Lanka’s edgy polls
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.