by James Crabtree, Financial Times, London, August 18, 2015
As former president Mahinda Rajapaksa comes to terms with his second electoral defeat in eight months, many in Sri Lanka are also predicting what once seemed unthinkable: the final political demise of a leader who, until just a year ago, seemed to hold an iron grip on their country.
Mr Rajapaksa hoped Tuesday’s result would herald an unlikely comeback — allowing him to seize the office of prime minister while simultaneously avenging his downfall at the hands of former party ally Maithripala Sirisena in presidential elections in January.
Instead, his Sri Lanka Freedom party trailed in second behind the centre-right United National party. The result leaves the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe set to return as prime minister, having claimed victory on Tuesday, and form a new coalition government in the island’s 225-member parliament. Analysts say Mr Rajapaksa’s departure — after a 10-year rule — could herald a new era, one in which Sri Lanka faces up to brutality of its past and distances itself from its once cosy relationship with Beijing.
Mr Rajapaksa’s loss stemmed in part from a slick and well-funded UNP campaign, aided by advice from Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who masterminded David Cameron’s victory in Britain’s general election earlier this year.
Mr Wickremesinghe’s message bore many of the hallmarks of Mr Crosby, who flew in and out quietly during the election. Where once Mr Rajapaksa’s image dominated Sri Lanka’s media, this time blunt UNP adverts blanketed local newspapers, offering a stark choice between “good governance” and “jungle law” under the ex-president.
As in January’s contest, Mr Rajapaksa’s appeals to the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority failed to rack up enough votes to overcome more liberal-minded urban voters, alongside those backing Tamil parties, which won overwhelmingly in the island’s north.
At a deeper level, however, analysts said the result represented a rejection of themuscular nationalism embodied by Mr Rajapaksa’s rule, borne of his role as victor in the island’s civil war, which ended in a crushing defeat for the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009.
The hope must now be that a double defeat means Sri Lanka can move on– Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group
“The hope must now be that a double defeat means Sri Lanka can move on, and begin to solve some of the issues of post-war reconciliation and devolution of power that have been so difficult,” says Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group.
Making good on promises of better governance will be one early challenge, and one of direct interest to Mr Rajapaksa himself, as he braces for an array of corruption investigations. Opponents claim the Rajapaksa’s family-dominated regime siphoned away huge sums during its decade in power, including from the many Chinese-backed infrastructure schemes that symbolised Sri Lanka’s post-war economic boom.
Instead, Mr Wickremesinghe talks of a market-friendly economic policy, placing less emphasis on financial ties with China, and more on tempting global companies to use the south Asian island as a base for export-led manufacturing. He is likely to keep rebalancing Sri Lanka’s international relations too, patching up ties with India and the west after a decade in which Mr Rajapaksa cosied up to Beijing.
But before any of this, Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe must grapple with the thornier problem of Sri Lanka’s troubled history. Next month the United Nations will publish a report examining allegations of atrocities during the civil war’s closing stages, in which up to 40,000 are estimated to have died.
“It is going to have detailed accounts of the most horrendous crimes, with dates and facts and names,” says one government adviser. “It will be very hard to handle.”
To move forward, Mr Wickremesinghe plans a new “credible domestic mechanism” into wartime abuses, similar to South Africa’s post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission. Unspecified measures to devolve more power to the Tamil-majority north are also expected.
Delivering these promises is sure to prove fraught. On the one hand, any wartime investigation must be sufficiently comprehensive to win over the UN Human Rights Council, as well as global human rights bodies and domestic Tamil parties, who tend to favour an international process.
On the other, the new government will want to avoid appearing to bend to international pressure, which would risk a backlash among the Sinhalese, who remain wary of both foreign meddling and resurgent ethnic separatism.
All of this in turn leads back to Mr Rajapaksa. His return to power having been thwarted, and his image of invincibility thoroughly broken, he is now certain to face calls for accountability over his own position as wartime commander-in-chief.
Mr Sirisena has previously said his rival will be protected from international prosecution. But any domestic investigation will nonetheless have to consider the former president’s role, potentially stirring up old enmities among those many Sri Lankans who view him as both patriot and war hero.
“Politically he is a spent force,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political analyst based in the northern city of Jaffna. “But a lot of attention is going to remain on him . . . as the government tries to bring about a just investigation into the crimes of the past.”