Sri Lanka's Political Establishment Faces a Challenge

6 MINS READJan 8, 2015 | 05:17 GMT
Sri Lanka's Political Establishment Faces a Challenge
Supporters cheer as they hold up placards with the image of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa during an election rally in the Colombo suburb of Piliyandala on Jan. 5

Sri Lankans head to the polls Jan. 8 in what has become one of the most serious electoral challenges President Mahinda Rajapaksa has faced in his 40-year political career. With the success of Tamil opposition parties in northern Sri Lanka and increasing criticism directed at what has been described as his authoritarian leadership style, Rajapaksa announced Nov. 17 that elections would be held in January 2015 — two years ahead of schedule. Rajapaksa still enjoys strong support from the core Sinhalese Buddhist population, despite the increasing popularity of his rival, former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, who has appealed not only to Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims but also to Sinhalese opposition and former Rajapaksa voters.

But even if Sirisena were to win the election, he would face an uphill battle in claiming power from the deeply entrenched Rajapaksa political machine, especially since the early election would have him face government institutions and a parliament still dominated by the incumbent's United People's Freedom Alliance party. Sri Lanka is looking at considerable political upheaval in coming years, especially because parliamentary polls are scheduled for 2016 and an increasingly emboldened opposition is eager to challenge Rajapaksa's longstanding control over government expenditures and development projects. 

After September 2013's historic local elections in the island's traditionally restive Tamil northern region, Sri Lanka's opposition parties have been gaining popularity and have become increasingly vocal in challenging the cronyism and corruption of the Rajapaksa government. State police and security forces have dealt with protests handily. However, condemnation of the ouster of Sri Lankan Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake (who sought to impose constitutional restrictions on Rajapaksa's actions) in January 2013, followed by the Tamil parties' electoral successes, illustrated an increased willingness both within and outside of Sri Lanka's traditional political elite to openly criticize the president, who has modeled himself as the country's savior and father figure.

Growing Discontent With Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan Tamils have long opposed the Rajapaksa family and traditional Sinhalese politics because of the island's history of internal violence. Over the past two years, an increasing number of moderate Sinhalese Buddhists have questioned the direction of Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa, especially because a Tamil insurgency has not threatened the country's stability since the 2009 peace accords. Rajapaksa can still rely on backing from the military, most of Sri Lanka's conservative Buddhist leaders and the island's economic elite. He also has support from the sizable portion of everyday Sinhalese Sri Lankans who credit him with ending the civil war in 2009 and with the economic growth and infrastructure development that followed the formal end of hostilities.

Ethnic Groups In Sri Lanka

Map - Ethnic Groups In Sri Lanka

However, Sri Lanka has not seen an equitable distribution of wealth and authority under Rajapaksa. So far, the president has been able to dismiss the concerns of minority groups such as the Tamils and Muslims, who together make up approximately 20 percent of the population, but frustrations are growing within the president's own party over the lack of upward political mobility for those outside his small circle of trusted relatives and aides. The upcoming election and the candidacy of Sirisena, a former member of Rajapaksa's party, reflect this discontent.

The island's Muslim community has traditionally supported the government, but now it is shifting away from the United People's Freedom Alliance. This reflects the growing communal tensions following the rise of right-wing Buddhist religious organization Bodu Bala Sena. Much as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has relied on the support of the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to mobilize a core base of supporters, Rajapaksa's critics claim the administration has turned a blind eye toward the Bodu Bala Sena's intimidation, violence and demonstrations against Sri Lankan Muslims.

Meanwhile, more Sinhalese Buddhists are questioning the value of Colombo's rising dependence on Chinese loans for large-scale infrastructure development projects. These projects have not yet delivered on promises to diversify Sri Lanka's manufacturing base or increase foreign investment in industries that hire local Sri Lankans. While overall gross domestic product growth has been strong in recent years, the average Sri Lankan still struggles with high fuel costs, uneven infrastructure development across the island and a high degree of income inequality.

Support for Sirisena

Sri Lankan Tamil voters, eager to back a former establishment Sinhalese candidate against Rajapaksa, have welcomed Sirisena's candidacy. Sri Lankan Muslims also have largely come out in support of the former health minister. However, Sirisena has had to keep a strict campaign line of continuing to maintain a Sri Lankan troop presence in Tamil-dominated areas of northern Sri Lanka, as well as supporting the island's powerful Buddhist religious organizations. Sirisena's electoral strategy is predicated on appealing to Sri Lanka's Sinhalese Buddhist majority and calling for slow, careful change.

Rajapaksa has overseen an increase in GDP growth from around 2 percent during the final years of the civil war to more than 7 percent in recent years, fueled primarily by large-scale infrastructure projects funded by the Chinese and some renewed investment into Sri Lanka's textile and garments industry. The textiles industry is the most significant contributor to Sri Lanka's GDP, accounting for more than 40 percent of exports and 60 percent of industrial output. Sri Lankan production and exports of ready-made garments have risen in recent years, posting double-digit growth (nearly 13 percent) between 2012 and 2013 alone, when the total value of ready-made garment exports reached $4.9 billion. Yet unequal development and human rights concerns have stymied investment. In comparison, Bangladeshi ready-made garment exports have consistently topped $20 billion in the past few years, with 2014 estimates placing that figure close to $26 billion.

Critics of the Rajapaksa administration charge the president with pursuing prestige projects using foreign loans instead of creating more foreign investment opportunities in the manufacturing sector to take advantage of Sri Lanka's geographic position and relatively low wages. Sirisena has been appealing to these sentiments, promising to scrap plans for a proposed project with China to expand the port in Colombo. While the rhetoric has proved popular with Rajapaksa's detractors, Sri Lankan economic advisers and the business community have questioned the efficacy of such a move.

Even if Sirisena wins the election, Rajapaksa, his siblings in the Cabinet and in parliament, and the United People's Freedom Alliance party political machine that Rajapaksa's family has helped manage for decades could weaken the new president's attempts at forming and managing a government. Similarly, if Rajapaksa were to win the Jan. 8 election without a commanding margin of victory, Sri Lanka's upcoming 2016 parliamentary elections could give opposition groups another opportunity to increase their presence in the government and attempt to weaken Rajapaksa's hold on power. This situation would create an extended period of political uncertainty that would hobble foreign investment inflows and attempts to expand Sri Lanka's manufacturing base.

Moreover, Rajapaksa's deliberate rescheduling of elections means that Sirisena would have to engage the Sri Lankan parliament in order to name a Cabinet of ministers that would work with him. Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance won 144 of 225 seats in 2010, giving the president a commanding majority that he used to pass a constitutional amendment enabling him to seek a third six-year term. Sirisena has been able to persuade only about two dozen of his former colleagues from the ruling party to refrain from backing Rajapaksa, and smaller numbers of Muslim and moderate Buddhist groups have not been able to erode Rajapaksa's majority in parliament.

However, Sirisena and his party have promised to dissolve parliament within 100 days of the election and hold fresh elections if they win. Their ultimate goal is to rewrite the Sri Lankan Constitution and return the country's government to a prime ministerial model, abolishing the presidency in hopes of preventing another autocratic style of government. They also want to improve Sri Lanka's ties to other regional powers such as India, Australia and Japan.

Regardless of who wins the election, protests and demonstrations will likely take place in the coming weeks, especially if Sirisena is the victor and Rajapaksa does not cede power immediately. Rajapaksa's loyal police and military force, accustomed to eliminating domestic dissent, will likely crack down on anti-Rajapaksa protesters. Sri Lankans may be heading to the polls, but the future of the country's political elite is far from decided. The powerful Rajapaksa family continues to struggle in managing the shifting political demographics and Sri Lanka's transition away from the clear divisions of the civil war period that have shaped its politics for decades.

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