Sri Lanka Perspectives 2018: A year of discreditable performance
by R Hariharan on 04 Jan 2019 0 Comment

Undoubtedly, 2018 will go down as a discreditable year for Sri Lankan politics, if we go by the 51-day political impasse created by President Maithripala Sirisena’s ill-conceived actions to dismiss Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and install former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. The Rajapaksa government flaunting all the perks ruling the country for 51 days, without a parliamentary mandate, was the height of political ignominy. However, refusal of the parliament to endorse Rajapaksa as PM and the Supreme Court striking down all actions of the President that created the political crisis as unconstitutional, showed there is hope for democracy to survive in the coming year.


Though Sri Lankans don’t eat ‘the humble pie’ as they prefer hoppers, President Sirisena had to do just on December 15, 2018 when he swore-in Wickremesinghe once again as PM, after declaring, not once but twice a month ago, that he, “will not make him prime minister ... not in my lifetime.” Also forgotten were his comments at his party meeting: “He [Wickremesinghe] is corrupt. His economic policies are not good for local industries. He pursued an extremely liberal form of government that is not compatible with our culture.” Perhaps the President forgot that people voted him to power because they wanted a liberal government after President Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.


The President also directly attacked PM Wickremesinghe for appointing Arjuna Mahendran as the Central Bank Governor and the Bond scam, which was against the very principles on which the UNF government was elected in 2015. He said “Today the main suspect (Mahendran) is absconding and the Yahapalanaya Government and the UNP partners have been slow to act, thereby protecting the corrupt. They stifled investigation or subjected those investigating to threats.”


Evidently, this Bond issue will be milked to the full in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe tug of war in the run up to the next general elections; but the moot point is will the politicians involved in the scam be prosecuted and punished? Successive governments in Sri Lanka have never covered themselves with glory in this regard. A recent example is the slow progress in a large number of criminal cases filed against the Rajapaksa family members. Despite all the political rhetoric and publicity, it is still work in progress.


Going by all indications the political situation is unlikely to improve even after Wickremesinghe’s return as PM. PM Wickremesinghe was clearly outwitted when Sirisena and Rajapaksha hatched the plan to dethrone him from power. Earlier, in his political career, Wickremesinghe has demonstrated his inability to astutely read political developments in real time. Can he overcome this leadership weakness?


Even in the recent political crisis it is the overwhelming public and civil society’s protest against President Sirisena’s cavalier action in sacking Wickremesinghe that strengthened his hand. This showed there is a strong, vocal public constituency that still believes in Yahapalana ideology. The media had also picked up the public mood and made common cause with them against the President’s actions.


PM Wickremesinghe’s success in 2019 would very much depend upon his ability to retain the support of this constituency. So the key question is can he meet their expectations, that is, fulfilling the incomplete agenda of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine. A few incomplete parts of the agenda have defied easy solution; these include drafting a new constitution which could satisfy the aspirations of Tamil minority while maintaining the unity of Sri Lanka.


The US, European Union and Japan had rallied to the support of Wickremesinghe during the political crisis in the hope that he would meet their expectations on implementing the UN Human Rights Council resolution on a host of issues of accountability for human rights aberrations, including alleged war crimes and forced disappearances of civilians. 


These politically loaded issues require commitment and the ability to carry the government and the coalition to resolve them. Does the PM have the commitment to do so? If PM Wickremesinghe wants to make a difference, he has to find answers to these troubling questions. 


Rajapaksa may be down, but not out. Despite the recent setback in his political bid to become PM, Rajapaksa’s loyal support base among southern Sinhala rural constituency is intact. A strong-willed leader Rajapaksa will do his best to bounce back to power. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has decided to form a broad political alliance with the SLPP and other partners of the UPFA coalition including the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Communist Party, Lanka Sama Samaj, Nation Freedom Front etc. The weakness of this combine is the lack of adequate support from minority parties.


And the recent political impasse had exposed Rajapaksa’s limitations in attracting the support of minority Tamils and Muslim parties. When Rajapaksa was in power, he had indulged in political double speak in handling Sinhala Buddhist fringe elements which whipped up violent anti-Muslim activities. These Buddhist fringe groups might be encouraged to stage a comeback in the coming months, taking advantage of the political turbulence.


Though political headwind is blowing in PM Wickremesinghe’s favour, reviving his presidential ambitions, there are too many uncertainties that could dissipate the advantage as the presidential election is due only in November 2019.


Overall, the year has ended with disillusionment for the people, who voted Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine to usher in good governance. After three and a half years their dream is shattered as good governance seems to be illusive because politicians do not seem to have changed their change their style. In this pessimistic environment, one can only hope the year 2019 will be a better one.


Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, January 2019,

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