A Divided Sri Lanka Goes to the Polls

7 MINS READAug 17, 2015 | 09:30 GMT
A Divided Sri Lanka Goes to the Polls
A man rides past the United National Party candidate election campaign poster on Aug. 14 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Forecast Highlights

  • Sri Lanka's Aug. 17 elections will be followed by a larger political tussle over drafting a new constitution — a process that likely will extend for months after polls close.
  • The drafting process will likely put an end to the current cooperation between Sinhalese Buddhist parties backing President Maithripala Sirisena, the opposition United Freedom Alliance and minority groups under the aegis of the United National Front for Good Governance.
  • Former President Mahindra Rajapaksa will retain the support of nationalist Sinhalese stalwarts as he attempts to return to power as prime minister. His campaign will exacerbate Sinhalese-Tamil tensions and complicate negotiations over constitutional reform.

Sri Lankans head to the polls Aug. 17 to elect a new parliament after the authoritarian former President Mahindra Rajapaksa suffered a loss in January's presidential election. The upcoming 15th Parliament will oversee a proposed constitutional drafting process, which President Maithripala Sirisena touted in the January vote to gain political backing from Sri Lanka's Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim citizens who support constitutional change. The vote comes after a long delay; Sirisena originally promised a return to the polls 100 days after January's election.

The upcoming elections will be a crucial point in Sri Lanka's political evolution following the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War in May 2009. Whoever wins will take on the unenviable task of forging a national charter that is inclusive of both the country's Hindu Tamil minority and a Sinhalese Buddhist majority that is loath to divert resources or political authority to the Tamil north. International observers are predicting an electoral process that will be largely free and fair. However, the constitutional drafting process will give way to further debates and divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines.

Rajapaksa's Position

Rising opposition — even within his own party — to Rajapaksa's concentration of authority prompted the leader to call presidential elections two years early in a bid to secure another five-year term. Rajapaksa's electioneering efforts failed, and Sirisena, his former minister of health, successfully campaigned on an opposition ticket promising greater political inclusion of minority communities and development of Sri Lanka's predominantly Tamil northern regions.

More than 25 years of a sustained insurgency carried out by Indian-backed Tamil rebels have left vast swathes of the island underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure, education and economic opportunities. The slow trickle of government funds and development deals focusing on northern Sri Lanka after the end of the armed conflict in 2009 has left the Tamil population frustrated with the sluggish pace of growth. As a result, the Tamils in the north have been demanding greater inclusion in the island's economic and infrastructure development deals, such as the series of port and rail projects the Rajapaksa administration oversaw in the last 10 years that have benefited southern and western Sri Lanka.

But opposition to Rajapaksa leading up to the January election did not come solely from Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Some among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority have become disillusioned with their leader. It was the Sinhalese Buddhist majority that rallied behind Rajapaksa when he cemented his role as the overseer of a short-lived cease-fire effort that led to a pause in the civil war and attracted investment and infrastructure development projects after the 2004 Asian Tsunami. However, as Rajapaksa and his family accumulated more concentrated power, he started to lose allies among the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its umbrella coalition, the United People's Freedom Alliance. Much of the growing animosity had to do with political patronage: During Rajapaksa's presidency, his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as permanent secretary to the ministries of defense and urban development while brothers Basil (minister of economic development) and Chandra (secretary to the Ministry of Finance) maintained control over national finances. Other members of the family — Rajapaksa's sons, cousins and nephews — held various parliamentary and private sector positions, much to the chagrin of Sri Lanka's other political leaders.

It was this intra-party opposition that ultimately led to Rajapaksa's ouster. Rivalry within allowed Sirisena to gain support from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, along with its traditional Sinhalese rival the United National Party and minority groups.

Sri Lanka's Looming Constitutional Battle

Sirisena's presidential campaign was predicated on the promise of constitutional reforms, chiefly the reinstating of presidential term limits and the shifting of executive power toward a more prime ministerial, rather than presidential, system. Moreover, the island's ethnic and religious minorities, chafing after a decade of Rajapaksa's strongly pro-Sinhalese nationalist policies, have been looking for greater protections and powers under a new constitution. However, rising Tamil and Muslim aspirations have created a rift within Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and many Rajapaksa supporters have begun to flock back to the former president in search of a strong leader to protect Sinhalese interests. Among these groups is the Bodu Bala Sena, a far-right Buddhist organization that in recent years has been accused of inciting violence, especially against the Muslim population.

Rajapaksa will contest the parliamentary elections. Rather than run from his family's traditional seat of power in Hambantota, he has decided to base his efforts in Kurunegala. Like Hambantota, Kurunegala is heavily Sinhalese, but it is also home to many military families who staunchly support the Rajapaksa family's anti-Tamil and pro-military policies. The United People's Freedom Alliance is divided between those who support Rajapaksa and those who support Sirisena. Hoping to avoid friction within the party, Sirisena — current head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party — has had to accept Rajapaksa as the party's candidate, though Rajapaksa is unlikely to secure enough support to become prime minister. Moreover, even if Rajapaksa secures a plurality (or a more unlikely majority) of votes in parliament, Sirisena is not likely to name Rajapaksa as prime minister because doing so could drum up support for current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party, head of the United National Front Alliance. Despite their anti-Tamil positions and historical accusations of corruption, Wickremesinghe and the United National Party enjoy support from a majority of Tamil and Muslim voters.

As in January's presidential election, opposition to Rajapaksa is unifying a wide array of traditional political competitors, but such unity is inherently prone to weakness. As the surge of support for the former president indicates, the possibility of greater Tamil inclusion in the political system still effectively pushes some Sinhalese voters toward Rajapaksa. The former president's campaign has been accused of spreading rumors that Sirisena plans to establish a separate Tamil state, or even that a Tamil insurgency is returning.

International observers expect the Aug. 17 elections and coalition-forming process to be relatively free and fair. However, when Sri Lanka's increasingly diverse and divided political players debate whether or not to allow Rajapaksa's rise to the role of prime minister, alliances will begin to fray. Many of Sirisena's supporters within the United People's Freedom Alliance shifted their support away from Rajapaksa to secure their own political futures, not to usher in reforms and freedoms for the Tamil minority. Similarly, the country's Tamil population — backed by Tamil supporters on the Indian mainland — will not continue supporting a coalition that backs Wickremesinghe as prime minister without concrete protections under a new constitution, including greater local autonomy in the north and more access to central government funds.

Sri Lanka can ill afford a weak and divided central leadership. Rajapaksa's administration borrowed billions from China and the Asian Development Bank to fund several ambitious infrastructure projects, and Colombo has struggled in recent months to make loan payments. Construction at Colombo's port city complex nearly halted after Rajapaksa's electoral loss in January. The Sirisena administration is working to negotiate new terms and repayment agreements with Beijing, but China is resisting as it awaits the results of the Aug. 17 vote. Moreover, Colombo's economic position has made securing loans at lower interest rates elsewhere difficult — a situation Beijing continues to use to its advantage.

The parliamentary elections this month are unlikely to result in a lasting consolidation of the Sirisena administration's power, especially as stakeholders within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United People's Freedom Alliance resist attempts by archrivals in Wickremesinghe's United National Party to restructure executive power in their favor. As Sri Lankans continue to argue over the terms of a new constitution and the role of minority groups in a post-Rajapaksa era, Sri Lanka's political battles will continue to impede its economic recovery and infrastructure development plans.

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