Electoral Earthquake in Sri Lanka

With the fog having cleared away from Sri Lanka’s Jan. 9 election, there is cautious optimism that the country, devastated by one of the longest and bitterest ethnic conflicts in history followed by a thuggish dictatorship, may be on the road to democratic recovery.

If the new president, Maithripala Sirisena – who defected from the previous administration with 20 other leaders – can pull off everything he says he intends to do, it would portend a political earthquake the likes of which hit Indonesia last July with the election of reformist President Joko Widodo. Certainly it was a democratic revolution.

It is uncertain if such a movement could take place, but seven years after the end of the civil war and the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the country’s social institutions have remained stunted, with little reconciliation between the Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up 74 percent of the population, and Tamils, who comprise 18 percent. Sirisena, in addition to offering to clean up corruption, has promised a domestic inquiry into human rights abuses.

“It’s not like the 'new' bunch aren't corrupt,” said a western businessman with interests in the country. “They are, but hopefully they will tone it down as the numbers had gotten really crazy. A number making the rounds in Colombo is that one politician has over US$5 billion in an account overseas.” That appears to have been a veiled reference to ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

At that, the election of Sirisena, formerly the health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, is considered remarkable because his coalition included not just Sinhalese but Tamils who came together to give him 51.3 percent of the vote to Rajapaksa’s 47.6 percent – although Rajapaksa carried majorities in Sinhalese districts..

Sirisena defected from Rajapaksa’s cabinet just two months ago. He has promised independent oversight commissions to oversee the police and public services as well as passage of a freedom of information act and reform of the electoral system.

There are signs that along with the domestic change, there may also be an international shift, with India the beneficiary to China’s disadvantage, including a revisit of the planned “port city” project in Colombo, the capital, that is widely believed to have vastly enriched Rajapaksa. Other China-funded projects are under the microscope because of their exorbitant cost and the loan repayment terms, made on a commercial basis with Chinese banks.

The spotlight on the projects could play conveniently into the hands of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in recent weeks has started to go after corruption by Chinese officials in other countries. Sri Lanka, coming out from under a massively corrupt regime, could provide an excellent place for Chinese investigators to go hunting.

“In the ouster of a government by a free and fair election, Sri Lanka has ... proved that despite serious assaults by executive presidents, its basic democratic structure remains intact,” according to a statement by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

The human rights commission called for an independent graft watchdog modeled after Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption and a mechanism to look into what it called “government-authorized extrajudicial killings, including enforced disappearances, routine practices of torture at all police stations, the entrenched habit of issuing death threats to all opponents of the government, and the failure to investigate and prosecute offending officers, whether they be military, police, or paramilitary officers."

Rajapaksa was hailed as a hero after he ended 26 years of brutal civil war in 2009. But his subsequent reign was characterized as authoritarian, brutal and corrupt. He appointed his brothers to high office and ran the country as a fiefdom. He engineered the jailing of his first challenger, Sarath Fonseka, the general who played an integral role in defeating the rebels.

There were widespread rumors that the ousted president had attempted to order a coup to remain in office after the announcement of his defeat. However, the Army Chief of Staff, Jagath Jayasuriya, appears to have refused to go along with his orders. The attorney general, who was told to prepare documentation for the issuance of a state of emergency, also seems to have refused to act. Rajapaksa has subsequently denied that he intended a coup.

The largest opposition coalition in the country’s history also signal that disgust with the previous administration overcame an overwhelming incumbency advantage. Scores of opponents of the regime have been disappeared since the Rajapaksa clan took power. At least 25 journalists have been killed in the country since 1992, many of them since the Rajapaksas took power. Sri Lankan journalists have privately described a reign of terror against independent, objective reporting.

While Sirisena is from the same Sinhalese chauvinist circles as Rajapaksa, he is considered to be more pragmatic in coming to terms with the Tamils, who remain downtrodden and who were to a large extent left out of the ambitious rebuilding program that the government put in place after the civil war.

Following the Tamil defeat in 2007, the government embarked on an ambitious economic development plan financed by loans from China, which have been visible in considerably improved infrastructure and the restoration of historic buildings dating back to Colombo’s days as a British-administered colony.

The government says it has resettled more than 95 percent of the civilians displaced during the brutal final phase of the conflict. The vast majority of former Tamil Tigers have been released from captivity.

If the reform is real, it will require the modernization and de-politicization of the police, revitalizing a judiciary that has been beholden to the Rajapaksas and rebuilding the civil service, all daunting tasks.

In particular, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, Mohan Peiris, the chief justice who was appointed after the previous chief justice was forced out by Rajapaksa, must either resign or be impeached.

“His black career has in it more than enough grounds for his impeachment,” according to the commission. “And, with this, all steps should be taken to remove the habit of political interference in the process of appointment, transfer, and removal of judges.”