A dramatic shakeup in the highest ranks of Sri Lanka's leadership has thrown the South Asian country into turmoil as a former strongman returns to power. On Oct. 26, President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former rival and president, in his place. And to forestall some of the political fallout from the decision, Sirisena suspended parliament until Nov. 16 as part of a purported move to amass the support of at least 113 lawmakers to survive a likely vote of confidence.
Wickremesinghe, who refused to vacate the prime minister's residence, has called for an immediate parliamentary vote to prove his majority. Sirisena, meanwhile, addressed the nation on Oct. 28, justifying Wickremesinghe's dismissal by portraying him as selfish, impatient and corrupt. The president, who was allegedly the subject of a recent assassination plot, also upped the ante by accusing one of the erstwhile prime minister's Cabinet loyalists of complicity in the attempt on his life. But it won't only be Sri Lankans looking on as the country's politicians do battle — China and India will also be monitoring the developments with interest.
Sri Lanka is an island nation of 21 million people off the coast of southeastern India. Since emerging from a 26-year civil war against Tamil separatists in 2009, the country has embarked on an economic recovery that has drawn it into the wider competition between China and India. Unable to repay its Chinese loans, the country gave Beijing a majority stake in its Hambantota port in 2017. For New Delhi, preventing Colombo from drifting further into Beijing's orbit will remain a key objective of its "Neighborhood First" policy.
A Three-Way Power Struggle
The ouster marks the climax of long-standing tensions between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena — although it is not the first time the latter has made an about-face. In November 2014, Sirisena was serving as health minister under then-President Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist who became head of state in 2005, during which time he led the government to a decisive victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group commonly known as the Tamil Tigers that waged a 26-year insurgency for a homeland for the ethnic Tamil minority. Sirisena, however, suddenly broke away from the government that winter and joined the opposition — then led by Wickremesinghe — to challenge Rajapaksa for the presidency in January 2015. After succeeding, Sirisena expressed his gratitude to Wickremesinghe by naming him prime minister. Then, following parliamentary elections in August 2015 in which Rajapaksa failed to recapture the prime minister's post, Sirisena's center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremesinghe's center-right United National Party formed a tenuous unity government.
The coalition finally came crashing down on Oct. 26. A spate of challenges, including six consecutive quarters of economic growth falling below 4 percent, a Central Bank bond scam, slow progress on reconciliation and the administration of justice to Tamils displaced by the war, as well as a generally mixed governance record, suggests that Sirisena calculated that remaining in the alliance would hurt his chances for re-election in 2020 — especially after Rajapaksa's own Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party won 68 percent of local council seats in February elections.
Stuck Between India and China
Sri Lanka's geopolitical significance stems from its location astride key shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean. Monitoring Sri Lankan politics has become increasingly important to neighboring India, as it provides a bellwether about Colombo's attitudes toward Beijing. In July 2017, mounting debts forced Sirisena to sign over a majority stake in the country's Hambantota port to the China Merchants Port Holdings company under a 99-year lease that was initially negotiated by Rajapaksa. The move raised New Delhi's fears that Beijing, its principal strategic rival in Asia, was poised to snap up strategic assets in cash-starved nations around India's periphery, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives — all signatories to China's vast Belt and Road Initiative.
More recently, Wickremesinghe met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss the status of India's housing projects in Sri Lanka, a key component of India's soft power push across South Asia, following Colombo's decision to reassign a housing contract from a Chinese firm to an Indian one.
Several questions remain in what is sure to be a volatile month for Sri Lankan politics. As India and China seek to avoid any diplomatic flare-ups, how will the two position themselves in response to the Sri Lankan crisis? Rajapaksa's return, meanwhile, will undoubtedly unnerve the Tamil population, which sees him as a standard-bearer of virulent Sinhalese nationalism. This could reduce New Delhi's standing in Colombo given the historical connections between Tamils and southern India. Whatever the outcome, the island nation of 21 million people is emblematic of the wider contest for influence between India and China across South Asia and the Indian Ocean, in which India's internal obstacles and inability to match China's access to deep pools of capital will result in New Delhi's "hegemony by default" gradually weakening in the region.