Sri Lanka presidential election: With reconciliation relegated to background, pre-poll rhetoric takes country back to turbulent past

  • One cannot completely deny the fact that Sri Lanka tried to restructure its polity and economy in post-war years

  • But these measures, as it appears, were not enough to build a political consensus on a solution to the three-decade-long ethnic reconciliation issue

  • Another key issue is the economy of Sri Lanka. Both parties have blamed the other for the economic slowdown and the debt burden

The manifestos, debates and election campaigns of political parties in the 16 November presidential election in Sri Lanka, indicate that the turbulent past has never left the country. International, as well as domestic, concerns of the liberal voices within Sri Lanka regarding the future of the multi-ethnic nation are mostly sidelined in the election euphoria, where the Sinhala political parties are trying to prove who is more nationalistic than the other. The Tamil political parties have mostly confined themselves to their age-old demands on devolution and the need for reconciliation, knowing well that they lost the opportune time in the past five years.

Sri Lanka is once again debating the same issues based on the need to protect the sovereignty of the nation due to such factors as the imminent security threat mostly posed by non-State actors; the possible introduction of a new Constitution with federal features; corruption; foreign interference in reconciliation and finally the economic and debt burden. The positive momentum of the 2015 polls is long lost, due to a lack of domestic consensus on the issues faced by the nation as well as the inability to come out of war rhetoric and look to the future.

One cannot completely deny the fact that Sri Lanka tried to restructure its polity and economy in post-war years. The coming together of the main Sinhala political parties — the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), who believed in different political ideologies — to keep the Rajapaksa family away from power was a big step taken at that moment. The broad political alliance that was formed with the help of minority Tamil and Muslim parties and civil society groups helped in forming the National Unity Government and it has yielded few positive outcomes. Some of these are the setting-up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and Office of Reparation, the draft of the new Constitution was placed before Parliament for debate after public consultations and powers of the executive were restricted through the 19th Amendment.

But these measures, as it appears, were not enough to build a political consensus on a solution to the three-decade-long ethnic reconciliation issue. The political differences between the president and prime minister over the state of the economy badly affected by the war and on the buildup of post-war economic infrastructure development led to disenchantment among common people belonging to the majority as well as minority communities. The local authority election results in February 2018 and October 2019 were a glimpse of what may unfold in the current presidential election.

 Sri Lanka presidential election: With reconciliation relegated to background, pre-poll rhetoric takes country back to turbulent past

Representational image. Reuters

Mahinda Rajapaksa's party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), won with a comfortable majority in the Sinhala-dominated areas. The Island is clearly divided between the majority and minority votes and the SLPP is well aware of the political advantage it can grab in such a context.

For example, the manifesto of the SLPP tries to capture the disenchantment of the rural and middle-class Sinhala voters. The manifesto is called a policy document prepared after a consultation in 25,000 villages of Sri Lanka, and offers a "prosperous and resurgent country" if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is voted to power. By enlisting a detailed road map for national security, sustainable development and people-centric economic development, the manifesto consciously appeals to the majority voters. The emphasis on the need for strengthening national security, protection of the unitary nature of the State, abrogation of the 19th Amendment and introduction of a new Constitution without the undue interference of NGOs and interested foreign parties, the release of armed personnel sentenced for various offences during the war, and also referring to the remaining LTTE cadres charged with terrorism, says it all.

The incumbent president Maithripala Sirisena paved the way for the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, by slowly distancing himself from the leadership of the UNP as well as from his own SLFP leaders such as the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who helped him to win the last election. By making an unsuccessful attempt to bring back Mahinda as prime minister, by dismissing Ranil Wickremesinghe, he openly sided with Mahinda, giving a push to the newly-formed SLPP.

The SLFP, in this election and for the first time, remained in the backdrop, as most of its leadership who remained with the party lost its popular base in the past few years. The Easter Sunday church attacks by radical Islamic elements only resulted in the further fragmentation of society on ethnic lines and the Muslim community of Sri Lanka became the ethnic 'other'. Gotabaya Rajapaksa's citizenship issue, as well as his involvement in human rights violations during his tenure as defence secretary under the Mahinda government, seemed to have lost its impact. A lack of unity among Sri Lankan Tamil parties may also work in Gotabaya's favour. The Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) have already extended their support to him.

The National Democratic Front (NDF) led by the UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa on the other hand is trying to repeat the positive gains of 2015 elections, with clear support from minority Tamil and Muslim parties — the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) — as well as from civil society. Sri Lankan Tamil parties see a hope, by aligning with the UNP as the manifesto promises to return land to actual landowners and devolve power to the provinces, taking into account the considerations and the proposals made under the government of Ranasinghe Premadasa, Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa.

The realisation that the complete implementation of UNHRC resolution may not be possible, particularly the transitional justice mechanisms is obvious for Tamil parties and they have decided to provide unconditional support to the UNP candidate, despite not being assured of implementation of the 13-point plan prepared by Tamil Parties. There is also a hope that a UNP-led government will cooperate with maximum UN mechanisms on reconciliation, unlike the SLPP. The hardline Sinhala politics that surfaced, in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack in April 2019, against the Muslim community became a cause of concern for the community. The release of hardline Bodu Bala Sena leader Gnanasara after presidential pardon in May 2019 did not go down well with Muslim political leaders.

In the wake of the support of minority parties to UNP, Mahinda challenged the UNP to oppose federalism. By choosing Premadasa as a candidate, the UNP as a party emerged as a unified party, unlike the SLFP whose leadership is divided about support to a presidential candidate.  However, the challenge for the UNP is to garner maximum Sinhala votes. The Central Bank Bond Scam and the incumbent government's inability to deal with corruption cases involving Mahinda's family, as promised in the last election, are projected as a failure in its implementation of the good governance promise. It remains to be seen whether the UNP can gain from the support of minority parties as well as from the projection of a new leadership.

The other issue is the economy of Sri Lanka. Both parties have blamed the other for the economic slowdown and the debt burden. The SLPP promised a State-controlled economy and the NDF a more liberalised economy based on a private-public partnership. In the post-war years, since the focus of both parties has been to rebuild the economy by developing coastal and port infrastructure, inland transportation and tourism, their economic policy differences are more or less blurred on these issues. The incumbent government’s U-turn on China-funded infrastructure in the country is one such example.

Both parties promised to follow a non-aligned foreign policy and may focus on commercial diplomacy to place Sri Lanka as an important player in the Indian Ocean. Unlike the last few presidential elections, India and China did not figure much in election campaigns. This may be to do with India’s development assistance programmes that are now found throughout the country and the stand taken at the multilateral forums in support of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts as well as acceptance of China’s economic role in the island nation by both parties.

It seems that the increasing strategic and political interest of US in the Island nation in the past few years is not welcomed by all sections and political parties. The SLPP raised concerns and the JVP opposed the signing of the $480-million Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) agreement approved by the Cabinet of Sri Lanka in October 2019 with the US for the development of transport and land projects. A lack of transparency in signing the agreement before the elections without informing the public has been questioned by the Opposition.

As the reconciliation has been relegated to the background, the presidential election in Sri Lanka is mainly being fought by the SLPP to regain lost ground for Mahinda's brand of politics and to create a perceived strong nation. The advantage the UNP has in this election is the new leadership and by projecting himself as a victim of terrorism, Premadasa is also driving home the point that national security is his party's top priority  along with democratic consolidation. It remains to be seen whom the voters of Sri Lanka will choose to lead the nation among the 35 presidential candidates. The election results will also determine the result of parliamentary elections as well as the future course of democracy in the country.

The author is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs 

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Updated Date: Nov 14, 2019 10:08:41 IST