When Mahinda Rajapaksa called a fresh presidential election two years ahead of the scheduled January 2016 end to his second term in office, he did so because he was confident of being voted back for another six years. There was no real challenger on the horizon at that time, and Mr. Rajapaksa, who had made the 2009 military victory over the LTTE the main theme of his government, believed that Sinhalese voters would once again repose their faith in him. Indeed, so entrenched had he become that few imagined he would lose, and that too to a relative unknown like Maithripala Sirisena, who was the Health Minister in the Rajapaksa Cabinet. Mr. Sirisena’s sudden emergence as a candidate of an opposition alliance took Mr. Rajapaksa by surprise. He had been unable to see, surrounded as he was by a cabal, that his one-family authoritarian rule had angered senior members of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and taken the shine off his image among the majority Sinhalese as the President who ended a 30-year war. The Tamil voters in the North and East, alienated as they were by the Rajapaksa government’s abject failure to face up to the challenges of post-war ethnic reconciliation, were always going to vote against him. The foot-dragging on investigations into alleged war crimes, the militarisation of the Tamil-dominated North, the hardships that this posed for the people, and the huge political failure on devolution of powers all ensured that the Tamil vote would go against him. Another significant minority, the Muslims, also shifted their allegiance away from Mr. Rajapaksa as a thuggish group of Sinhalese hardliners, the Bodu Bala Sena, went on the rampage against the community every now and then, with no apparent attempt by the government to crack down on communal violence even after a bout of deadly rioting in 2013. The departure of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress from the ruling coalition to the Sirisena camp just days ahead of the election, was the final blow against the Rajapaksa regime.
Mr. Sirisena rode to victory on an out-and-out anti-Rajapaksa vote that rendered irrelevant his own perceived handicaps: the absence of personal charisma; a late start; doubts about whether a candidate of a diverse opposition group could provide a stable leadership; and the lack of resources in comparison to what the incumbent had at his disposal. He had to his advantage a rural base in the north-central districts of Sri Lanka, and aside from the backing of a ginger group of the ruling SLFP that defected along with him, the backing of the main opposition United National Party, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party of Buddhist monks. With this he managed to poll nearly half of all Sinhalese votes cast, sweeping up in addition the Tamil and Muslim votes to win 51.28 per cent of the vote share compared to his opponent’s 47.58. The outcome is an unequivocal victory for democracy and a lesson to the whole region in peaceful regime change.
The new President of Sri Lanka has his work cut out. To begin with, the focus is bound to be on Mr. Sirisena’s campaign promise to abolish the powerful Executive Presidency, which will require a constitutional amendment supported by two-thirds of Parliament, a difficult proposition. One option before him is to dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election a year ahead of schedule. The coalition itself is made up of disparate and mutually antagonistic parties that must learn to work together. UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe has already been named the new Prime Minister. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who, after retiring from politics in 2005 re-emerged on the scene to mentor the SLFP defectors, may well emerge as a third power centre. Quickly, Mr. Sirisena will need to repair the much-eroded confidence in Sri Lanka as a country that respects the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and media freedom. Most importantly, the new dispensation must waste no time in addressing the Tamil demand for a just peace, because on this hinges the future of the country itself. With his vast powers, Mr. Sirisena can immediately redress some long-standing demands including returning to Tamils the land owned by them that the Army took over in the 1990s and has stubbornly refused to vacate. Devolution of powers to the Northern Province should also be high on his list of priorities, and if a new Constitution is being planned with a Westminster-style government, just power-sharing with the Tamil minority should find a place. The new dispensation will also need to move speedily on addressing alleged war crimes, starting with ascertaining how many Tamil civilians actually died in the last phases of the war. But Tamil stridency on these demands will hinder rather than help matters. As the main and most credible political representative of the Tamils, the Tamil National Alliance must play a responsible role.
Tamil Nadu’s political parties must desist from fanning any extremist demands, for which there is no place on either side of the Palk Strait. For New Delhi, the change in Sri Lanka presents the opportunity to build a bilateral relationship that is based on mutual trust and honesty rather than on mutual suspicion. In recent months, the growing military relationship between Colombo and Beijing was one of the big concerns in New Delhi. As a sovereign country, Sri Lanka must be free to choose its friends and allies. But the least New Delhi can expect is that its defence concerns will not be compromised by a friendly neighbour. India’s relations with Sri Lanka are civilisational, not contractual, and despite all the ups and downs, the ties between the people of both countries, based on culture, religion and trade, have continued to flourish. Both countries have a common strategic interest in a peaceful Indian Ocean. It is from this large base that both must now work to strengthen mutually beneficial ties.