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Sri Lanka votes for democracy

Sri Lanka
Sirisena's inauguration

Sirisena's inauguration was watched by thousands in Independence Square. Indi Samarajiva under a Creative Commons Licence

On 8 January Sri Lanka voted for a new president in an election hailed by international monitors as being peaceful and free of the violence that has typically characterized the country’s past polls. The Chennai-based Hindu newspaper’s editorial declared the outcome an ‘unequivocal victory for democracy and a lesson to the whole region in peaceful regime change’. The Elections Commissioner came in for praise from many quarters for ensuring the integrity of the poll, which saw Sirisena take 51.28 per cent of the vote and Rajapaksa 47.58 per cent, and which had a record turnout of more than 81 per cent.

The opposition’s campaign was fuelled by widespread allegations of corruption and nepotism in the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena, also from  Rajapaksa’s  Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had stepped up to lead the various opposition parties as a ‘common candidate’ in response to the chorus of disgruntled elements both in and outside government. Promising to restore good governance and rule of law, Sirisena’s ‘100-day programme’ pledged to reduce the powers of the executive presidency, transfer powers to parliament and establish independent commissions for institutions such as the police, judiciary and public service.

Having defected from government to challenge Rajapaksa, the former health minister is supported largely by the centre-right opposition United National Party (UNP), whose leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister at Sirisena’s oath-taking ceremony. The other key player in his team is former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, another member of the SLFP, who ushered him in as Rajapaksa’s challenger.

Sirisena’s camp had the backing of the main parties representing interests of minority Tamils and Muslims in parliament. Analysts say Tamil and Muslim votes played a large role in swinging the outcome in Sirisena’s favour. His highest vote shares were in the north and east of the country, where these minority communities are concentrated. Voter turnout in the north more than doubled.

‘The new president has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honourable resolution of the national question, to enable the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka to be true beneficiaries of democracy,’ a congratulatory message from the Tamil National Alliance said. Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Rauff Hakeem said: ‘This is a victory for democracy, the rule of law and the restoration of harmony among communities.’

Some analysts see the division of the vote along ethnic lines as potentially destabilizing. ‘The election results have indicated a most dangerous divide,’ former diplomat K Godage wrote in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror. ‘The diversity of the various groups that supported President Sirisena presents an unparalleled management challenge to the president.’

One of the parties in the new coalition is a hard-line Buddhist nationalist party unsympathetic to making concessions to minorities, while the UNP and SLFP have always been political rivals.

Religious harmony and national reconciliation have, however, been dominant motifs in the opposition campaign. In his address to the nation, President Sirisena called on all political parties in parliament to join hands and form a ‘national unity government’. Apart from the need to advance ethnic and religious harmony, there is another reason why such a coming together of diverse groups has become necessary. Some of the key reforms in the opposition manifesto, such as reforming the presidency, would require approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament, which Wickremesinghe’s UNP lacks, even with the support of minority groups. At least 26 government lawmakers defected to the Sirisena camp before the election, and others continue to switch loyalties in the 225-member legislature even after the election. This has resulted in split in the SLFP, as lawmakers do not automatically lose their party membership when they cross sides. With a continuing saga of political crossovers, many of which are patently opportunistic, the balance of power in parliament will remain uncertain until a parliamentary election is called and a new government formed. 

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