Sri Lankan politics: It is now final, Rajapaksa is out! What next?
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
The final results of the general poll in Srilanka held on August 17 has very eloquently showed that former president Mahinda Rajapaksa is no equal to the incumbent president Sirisena who not only defeated the former strongman for presidency but also drowned him in the Indian Ocean by defeating him elections meant for PM which has now gone to his nominee Ranil Wickremesinghe. Besides, Rajapaksa’s future also looks sealed once for all.
Thus Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hopes of returning to power hung by a thread yesterday, as he first appeared to concede defeat but then backed away and said he wanted to await official results of the SL parliamentary vote. However, the outcomes forced him to finally accept his defeat. But in an interview with Reuters later in the day, Rajapaksa stopped short of conceding, saying only that he was unlikely to lead Sri Lanka’s next government. “I will support good policies and oppose bad things,” he said.
The results have strengthened his arch rivals, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the odd-couple political partners who joined forces to oppose Rajapaksa. The election, held peacefully with high voter turnout, will determine the makeup of Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament.
In January they struck the first blow against Rajapaksa by defeating his quest for an unprecedented third term as president. In the months since they have teamed up to begin tearing down Rajapaksa’s most cherished project – building an elaborate hierarchy that gave him and his family immense, unchallenged power over the nation’s military, economy and news media.
Rajapaksa, who was president of the island nation for over nine years till January this year, was the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)’s prime ministerial candidate for Monday’s polls. Though the UNP has not secured a simple majority, the formation of the next government with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister looks only a matter of formality, given that several smaller parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, support him. Besides, there is talk in political circles in Colombo that a section of lawmakers elected on the UPFA ticket would leave the front and join hands with the UNP.
For the UPFA, the final result meant loss of one seat, compared to the 2010 elections. That the opposition UAFA has a strong contingent of 96 seats in the parliament indicates a healthy parliamentary work for the island nation. Though he failed to win the premiership, Rajapaksa’s UPFA, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, gave a stiff fight and obtained 96 seats, including 12 under the national list. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA)/Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi got 16; Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), six; and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party, one each.
Rajapakse, with the support of allied Sinhala chauvinist parties, mounted a shrill anti-Tamil communal campaign, whipping up fears of a resurgence of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was defeated in 2009.
With Rajapaksa having lost, the country would be left firmly in the grasp of reformers intent on dismantling most of his policies and completing corruption inquiries that have been closing in on him and his family. The latest results reaffirm January’s rejection of Rajapaksa, the reforms proposed by President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe will continue, including nascent efforts to bridge deep divisions left when Rajapaksa brutally crushed a 26-year Tamil uprising in 2009.
The defeat for Rajapaksa also increased the likelihood that there will be a careful accounting of his decade in power, including his official and unofficial crimes targeting Tamils and hostile attitude to Tamils and other minorities. His opponents accuse him and his family of plundering billions of dollars from the national treasury – a charge that Rajapaksa has vehemently denied. But the roster of his former ministers and close associates under investigation is steadily growing, and several inquiries are now aimed directly at Rajapaksa and his wealthy family. Already, in April, Sri Lankan police arrested his brother Basil Rajapaksa, the former economic development minister, on charges of misappropriating public funds. The same month, another brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former defense secretary, was summoned to appear before the nation’s Bribery Commission. In June, his wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, was questioned by the newly formed Financial Crime Investigation Division.
This month, government sources accused one of his sons, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, of ordering the killing of Wasim Thajudeen, a member of Sri Lanka’s national rugby team, in a dispute over a woman. According to officials, three members of his father’s security detail have been identified as the men who abducted, tortured and killed Thajudeen in 2012 under state guidance and protection.
As part of his campaign this summer, Rajapaksa pledged to stop many of these investigations, portraying them as nothing more than a political witch hunt. Rajapaksa also sought to mobilize voters against a UN investigation into suspected war crimes during the last stages of the war against Tamil separatists. Rajapaksa is pushing President Sirisena to just save him and his powerful family by dropping all investigations. UN officials have estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the final assault on the Tamil-dominated north in 2009. “Are you going to vote to divide this country and take us to court in Geneva?” Rajapaksa asked at one recent pre-poll rally.
The results also have significant geopolitical ramifications. As president, Rajapaksa aggressively courted China, building economic and military ties that alarmed India and the United States and USA proclaimed Asia pivot scheme to contain China. Indo-US is keen for China not to gain a larger presence on an island strategically located along the maritime trade routes between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have put the courtship on pause, saying the relationship with China needs to be “rebalanced.”
There is view that the ousting of Rajapakse is part of the broader US “pivot to Asia” aimed at undermining Chinese influence throughout the region and preparing for war against China. Washington was hostile to Rajapakse not because of his autocratic methods of rule but because of his close ties with Beijing. The US concerns have been reflected in significant coverage of the Sri Lankan election in the American and international media praising the Sirisena governance.
Sirisena, who resigned from the Rajapakse government to contest the January election, is a member and chairman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party—the main UPFA faction. He has already declared on two occasions that he will use his presidential powers to prevent Rajapakse becoming prime minister even if the UPFA were to win a majority of seats. The second opinion says Sirisena was just obeying Washington.
The UNP is also the oldest capitalist party in Sri Lanka with a long record of implementing pro-business policies and, like the SLFP, using police-state methods to suppress the opposition of working people. Rajapakse and his supporters represent newly rich sections of the business elite that have profited from Chinese investment and state backing. Rajapakse is bitterly opposed by sections of the Sri Lankan ruling class that have been marginalized by his cronyism and are fearful that alienating Washington will have damaging repercussions. The UNP is well known as a pro-US party and its leader Wickremesinghe has close connections in Washington.
Moreover, hundreds of international monitors have flocked to Sri Lanka, including observers from the US, UK, European Union, the Commonwealth and South Asian monitoring organisations. All of them have praised Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for their so-called democratic reforms and elections free of violence. This praise is not only to obscure the past crimes of these two pro-US politicians but the anti-democratic methods that they are already using to hang on to power.
Seven months after the presidential elections that saw President Mahinda Rajapaksa being defeated by a coalition of disparate forces, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party strongman has been dealt another blow in the parliamentary elections. United National Party leader and presumptive Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe’s United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), also endorsed by President Maithripala Sirisena, emerged as the largest coalition with about 46 per cent of the votes.
The UNP victory is a reiteration of the message from the presidential elections — against the authoritarianism associated with Rajapaksa’s tenure, and the narrow communal campaigning style he adopted in these elections. He resorted to a virulent campaign against the UNP and the presidency, playing on fears of a return of the LTTE and re-living the triumphalism of his tenure. His defeat reinforces the message for democratization and the politics of reconciliation that the electorate had supported in the presidential elections.
President’s rural electoral base played crucial role in UNP victory. The UNP victory is a reiteration of the message from the presidential elections — against the authoritarianism associated with Rajapaksa’s tenure, and the narrow communal campaigning style he adopted in these elections. He resorted to a virulent campaign against the UNP and the presidency, playing on fears of a return of the LTTE and re-living the triumphalism of his tenure. His defeat reinforces the message for democratization and the politics of reconciliation that the electorate had supported in the presidential elections.
The support of both the Singhalese and minorities to the coalition helped the President Sirisena’s UNP emerge as the single largest party with 106 seats in the 225-member legislature. The results suggest a healthy mandate and negation of the authoritarian and nepotistic trend of the Rajapaksa regime, which thrived on militarization. The UNP victory will enhance the credibility, internationally, of the government’s efforts to aid a process of reconciliation and rehabilitation of the war-affected Tamil minorities, something that remains unrealized six years since the end of the horrific civil war.
The fact that Rajapaksa’s party still managed to retain a nearly 43 per cent vote share suggests that the winners have no reason to be complacent.
The question is will the next government will accelerate the austerity agenda being demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Will it not hesitate to use repressive measures against the resistance of workers, youth and the poor?
The new government is duty bound to bring an early justice to state brutality against Lankan Tamils and guilty punished without showing any political mercy!
In fact, credibility of both President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe now rest on whether they push for punishing those who committed war crimes just like wild beasts do to small weak animals!
Remember, failure to deliver proper justice to Tamils now would certainly alienate Tamils and other minorities from the government as they have full faith in the Sirisena government.
New Sri Lankan politics could herald a new era of non-confrontational scenes in South Asia.