Takeaways from Sri Lanka general election
by R Hariharan on 29 Aug 2015 3 Comments
After the din of the recently concluded general election in Sri Lanka is over, the United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as prime minister. He is poised to work with a national unity government. There are eight takeaways from the election and its aftermath that can help in visualising the future course of events in the island nation.


Positive trends: A number of positive trends have emerged both in the conduct and in the aftermath of elections. People have shown that whipping up Sinhala nationalist rhetoric or holding up the bogey of revival of Tamil separatism is not enough to win elections. They would prefer clean governance than ostentatious of display of power by the rulers. The peaceful conduct of elections holds a lesson for other South Asian nations: if the national leadership is determined, it can ensure that the government, administration and election commission come together without working at cross purposes to conduct peaceful elections. An abhorrent trend of local politicians waving pistols and intimidating the public had invaded the body politics in recent times. The election has shown they will have to change their act.


Rajapaksa’s fault lines: The electoral defeat of the former president for a second time within six months showed he had not understood the dynamics of change that had become embedded in public discourse. Comparatively, Sirisena despite his low profile and soft rhetoric had done better. Of course, Rajapaksa will continue to be respected as a national hero for eliminating the Tamil Tigers. The southern Sinhala Buddhist constituency will probably continue to vote for him, but that will not be sufficient to win an election without an inclusive agenda. And the bogey of revival of terrorism of the LTTE kind probably carries only limited credibility. 


Rajapaksa’s failure showed the limitations of the personality cult. It is not enough to recoup credibility in public life; integrity in action is equally important. His reputation appears to have been badly bruised by allegations of corruption, misuse of office, family politics and cronyism. So Rajapaksa has to clean up his act rather than depending upon his cronies’ advice if he does not want to fade away from the political limelight. And keep family at arm’s length; they have already done enough damage to him.


Sirisena’s strengths: President Sirisena has demonstrated that he was unfazed by political obstacles in the run up to the election. Probably Rajapaksa and other SLFP leaders underestimated his courage of conviction to pursue his end goals with doggedness and push aside political obstacles. Though he was not strong within the party to prevent Rajapaksa hijacking the SLFP and the UPFA alliance, Sirisena showed enough mettle to express his determination to prevent Rajapaksa coming back to power.


Probably this created enough confusion among the leaders who jumped to the Rajapaksa camp to carry out damage control. Sirisena dissolved the Central Committee which was working against his interests as party leader at the first opportunity without the usual political palaver. If he can build upon his credibility, chances for the durability of the national unity government are bright. And that is necessary to fulfill the promises made to get the January 8th mandate from the people.


Ranil’s tough task: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has a tough task ahead. From his interview to The Hindu, he appears to be aware of it. Completion of the structural change process to improve integrity of national institutions; improve accountability of the government and administration to the people; complete corruption investigations and bring the culprits to book; refine the election process; resume the political process with Tamil leadership to bring it to a logical conclusion; and last but not least, build national consensus to produce a constitution to embed the changes made.


This a tall order for any political leader. Ranil had failed to take the peace process 2002 to a satisfactory conclusion; and President Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran were there to share the blame. But he has none to share the blame now. Can he succeed? He appears to be clear that the UNP and SLFP have to come together to fulfill his tasks. Though President Sirisena is with him, will SLFP stop sharpening their axes and rise up to the occasion to help the prime minister? It’s wait-and-watch time. 


Muslim polity: The election has shown that Muslim voters are no more the meek followers of their leaders. That means in future the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) will think twice before going along with Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa’s failure to attend to the concerns of Muslim community during anti-Muslim violence by fringe elements has cost him dearly in both the elections he faced. It could haunt him for some time despite all his skill at political maneuvering.  


Tamils want positive action: The Tamil voter wants an action-oriented rather than emotional approach to improve his lot. He is getting tired of empty rhetoric glorifying Tamils, notwithstanding the indelible and grim memories of the LTTE armed struggle for separate Eelam. The moderates within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership had excluded former LTTE cadres in their electoral discourse. But they cannot ignore their genuine grievances highlighted by their independent group, in any political dialogue with the Wickremesinghe government.


The TNA should work on an action plan to immediately improve the quality of life of the war-affected population still living on the fringe as well as take up development work without any delay. For this they need to adopt a nuanced approach than solely depending upon resumption of political dialogue process. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has indicated willingness to rework the federal format within the ambit of 13th constitutional amendment. Though this may not meet Tamil aspirations fully, Tamils should use this opportunity to work with him rather than against him lest they miss the opportunity when the constitution is recast. In a nutshell, Tamil leaders will have to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic in their approach.


No corruption: Rajapaksa’s failure shows people are not going to forget the allegations of massive corruption against him soon. This would come as a surprise for many because corruption is an endemic problem in Sri Lanka, just as it is in India or any other South Asian country. So political leaders of all hues will have to clean up their style of backroom politics. Such an environment would enable President Sirisena to introduce checks to root out not only corruption in public life and government but also break up the politico-bureaucrat-business nexus that has been the bane of Sri Lanka. 


Time for positive action from Tamil Nadu: The defeat of Rajapaksa has deprived Tamil Nadu politicians and TV anchors of their favourite whipping horse. Sirisena’s soft profile, lack of fireworks in Sri Lanka politics, and conciliatory noises at the UNHRC, have pushed Sri Lanka out of mainstream political discourse in Tamil Nadu. The success of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine in the parliamentary election has further downscaled Sri Lanka from the visual media’s TRP quest. The time has come for the ruling AIADMK to move away from political rhetoric and produce a broader positive action agenda to benefit Sri Lankan Tamils.


They could expand upon the positive vibes created by Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Jaffna to benefit Tamils trying to pick up their normal life. As a first step AIADMK should interact not only with Sri Lankan Tamil leaders but also with the people to understand their pressing needs. Tamil Nadu has the resources to undertake this task; what is needed is the will. Some areas that come to mind are increasing job opportunities for widows and youth by investing in new enterprises and opening up educational institutions in Tamil Nadu. Such positive action could reinforce the AIADMK’s political strength particularly at a time when opposition parties are in total disarray and state elections are on the horizon.


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (1987-90). He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and South Asia Analysis Group.

E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com; Blog: http://col.hariharan.info  

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