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A New Era in Sri Lanka’s Politics?

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow (SS) at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Brig (Retd) Rumel Dahiya was Deputy Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 12, 2015

    The election of Maithripala Sirisena, the common opposition candidate and Health Minister in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government until November 2014, as Sri Lanka’s sixth Executive President is remarkable on many counts. When Rajapaksa announced his decision to seek a third term as president by amending the constitution, almost two years before the completion of his term, no one believed that he would lose the election. The main opposition party – the UNP – was internally divided and there was no credible opposition candidate in sight to challenge Rajapaksa. Although the signs of Rajapaksa’s reducing popularity were apparent during the Provincial elections conducted last year in March (Southern and Western Provincial councils) and September (Uva Provincial Council), his decision to advance the presidential election was based on two related assessments: one, the opposition would not be able to put up a credible common candidate; and two, he would be able to get re-elected before his support base dwindled further.

    But the defection of Sirisena in November 2014 proved to be a political coup. Further, factors such as corruption, nepotism, arrogance, inflation and dynastic politics all worked against Rajapaksa. Power was completely monopolised by the Rajapaksa family and his cronies, and it was exercised blatantly. State agencies were involved in a number of attacks on journalists and critics of the regime. Rajapaksa appointed close family members in State-owned companies and leased out prime land in Colombo to foreign companies allegedly for a price. He also blatantly attacked the judiciary, curtailed its independence and impeached the Chief Justice when she objected to his move to introduce the Devi Neguma Bill that would have subverted the power of Provincial Councils. Rajapaksa also abolished the provisions to create independent commissions by steamrollering the 17th Amendment. Further, the 18th Amendment to the constitution effectively nullified any institutional checks and balances. As a result of all this, many people who hailed him as the saviour of the Sinhala nation when he defeated the LTTE grew chary of his autocratic tendencies.

    At the same time, Rajapaksa also alienated the minorities. The orchestrated attacks on Muslims by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), especially the Aluthgama episode, and the attack on a church in Galle were grim indicators of the prevalent state of affair. The Tamils were also completely disillusioned. The promised political settlement was nowhere in sight. Rather, the Rajapaksa government reinvented the LTTE threat to justify the militarization of the North and East. And by granting greater power to the retired general and war veteran G.A. Chandrasiri, the Governor of Northern Province, Rajapaksa made the Northern Provincial Council politically defunct.

    Tasks and Challenges before Sirisena

    Though Sirisena cannot perform a miracle and resolve the numerous political and institutional crises, the most important task before him is to reduce the powers of the Executive Presidency, which had been introduced by J.R. Jayewardene in 1978 to safeguard his power from “the whims and fancies of Parliament”. But no other President exercised the overwhelming power vested in the Presidency and displayed arrogant authoritarian tendencies as Rajapaksa did, and that too after the end of the civil war and the decisive defeat of the LTTE. Sirisena will be expected to restore both the institutional checks and balances which saw an erosion as a result of the 18th Amendment to the constitution and the faith of minorities in the pluralistic character of Sri Lankan society. According to Sirisena’s election manifesto, “The new constitution structure would be essentially an Executive allied with the Parliament through cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System”.1

    Sirisena is also likely to face some major challenges. The most important one is the management of the divergent interests of the coalition that supported him and ensured his victory. He will need to balance between two mutually contradictory elements within the coalition: on one side stand the JHU and JVP, the champions of Sinhala nationalism, who are against any devolution of power to the Tamil provinces; and on the other is the Tamil National Alliance, which has pinned its hope on devolution, demilitarization and release of land under the Army’s occupation. Since Sirisena has the support of the UNP and of former President Chandrika Kumaratunge, it appears that there may not be major opposition to his attempt to address the genuine concerns of the Tamils within the framework of the constitution. However, he will need to address the concerns of the JHU and JVP as well. The TNA, while announcing its support for his candidature, did not ask for any assurance on its long standing grievances because it did not wish to create unnecessary difficulties for Sirisena. In the short term, the TNA is likely to focus on issues of immediate concern: the reduction of the presence of the military, military interference in the provincial administration, the release of land held by the military in the High Security Zone, and possibly even the removal of the Governor of Northern Province which will have a salutary effect on the lives of the Tamils; but devolution would be its long term goal.

    Another challenge before Sirisena will be to address the ethnic and religious polarization that Rajapaksa had engineered in order to divide and rule. The continued projection of the Tamils as the ‘ethnic other’ coupled with the effort to demonize the Muslim community as the ‘religious other’ have led to societal polarisation. For their part, of course, the Tamils need to marginalize the extremist voice within their community that feeds into this ethnic stereotype.

    In addition, the new government needs to engage the international community and particularly the West. Sirisena’s government will have to handle the issue of the ongoing international investigation into the final phase of the civil war and address a number of questions that have been raised about the conduct of that war.

    Finally, the immediate task before the new ‘National Unity Alliance Government’ is to strike a balance between different institutions, namely, President, Prime Minister and Parliament, and make the President responsible to the Parliament. It would also need to take steps to abolish the 18th Amendment to the constitution, which would restore the independence of various commissions that were originally envisaged under the 17th Amendment to the constitution.2 The process of democratization would also require limiting the excessive powers enjoyed by the central government and enhance those of the Provincial Councils to perform basic municipal functions. The unfettering of democracy would work to the advantage of all the stakeholders with an interest in fostering a multi-ethnic and plural polity and maintaining democratic stability.

    Implications for India

    It appears that India-Sri Lanka relations are set to see better days with the impending visit of President Sirisena to India next month as the destination of his first foreign visit. Sirisena does not have the political compulsions of Rajapakse and is unlikely to play the China card to put pressure on New Delhi.3 Since the minorities have contributed significantly to his election, it is likely that the new president would make an attempt to address the long standing grievances of the Tamils. And this time around the “home grown solution” would not take a decade to germinate. This too would contribute to the forging of mutually beneficial ties between India and Sri Lanka.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. The new President has said in the manifesto that he would consider the proposals floated by both the Movement for a Just Society headed by The Venerable Sobitha Thera and the Pivituru Hetak Jatika Sabhava headed by The Venerable Atureliya of JHU to abolish the Executive Presidency under the proposed 19th amendment. The United National Party has proposed some amendments to these proposals.
    • 2. The 17th Amendment passed in October 2001 proposed the establishment of Constitutional Councils (previously article 41A) to recommend appropriate persons to the various independent commissions. It laid down elaborate procedures for their appointment to ensure that they are free from political influence. The commissions in question include the Public Service Commission, Judicial Service commission, National Police Commission, Commission to investigate Bribery and Corruption, Election Commission, Human Rights Commission and Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Constitution Council consisted of the President, Prime Minister, Leader of Opposition, one person appointed by the President, five persons appointed by the Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition, and one person nominated by Parliament or appointed by President. The President cannot appoint the Chairperson of any commission without the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. The name of the Constitutional Council was changed to Parliament Council under the 18th Amendment. It stated that “in appointing members to the Council, the President “shall seek the observations of the Parliament Council.” Under this amendment members of independent Commissions can be appointed by the President and removed by him.
    • 3. Rajapakse projected himself as Dutugemu, the ancient Sinhala king who defeated the powerful Tamil king Elara. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, he built his political base on Sinhala nationalism and this resulted in extreme ethnic polarization. While he promised to build a national consensus to resolve the Tamil problem after the civil war, he did everything to subvert the emergence of a consensus. His answer to India’s insistence on resolving the ethnic conflict was to engage China. Some believe that his response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s suggestion to resolve the lingering Tamil problem was to allow the berthing of two Chinese nuclear powered submarines.