Sri Lanka’s Former President Still a Threat

Although support for former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is waning, as exemplified by parliamentary elections on Aug. 17, he remains a significant force and reform president Maithripala Sirisena must play his cards carefully to remain viable, according to a new report by the Hong Kong-based Asianomics Ltd. financial advisory firm.

In political terms, the election was significant because, for the second time in eight months, the Sri Lankan electorate rejected Mahinda Rajapaksa. By returning the opposition United National Front as the single largest party in the new Parliament, “the electorate has dealt Rajapaksa and his supporters a body blow although not quite a knockout,” according to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the Executive Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, an independent, non-partisan Sri Lankan public policy institute focusing on democratic governance who wrote the report for Asianomics.

Under Sirisena, Sri Lanka has embarked on arguably the most dramatic turnaround towards democracy in Asia. On ascending to office in January – as a member of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lankan Freedom Party, he promptly appointed the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, a previous two-time Prime Minister, as head of a coalition government.”

He vowed during the first 100 days to reduce the powers of the executive presidency, reintroduce independent oversight commissions for the police, public service, elections and, in particular, human rights, change the electoral system to a mix of proportional representation and first-past-the-post and to introduce Right to Information legislation.

He has been unable to keep all of those promises, partly because he heads a minority government and the members of his own party, at Rajapaksa’s urging, were determined to frustrate it in anticipation of a return to power with or without Rajapaksa at the helm, as well as the hope that incumbency and unfulfilled promises would ensure the government’s unpopularity with the electorate in the ensuing period. But he has succeeded in an amendment to reduce the imperial presidency and made strong progress on corruption.

By returning the United National Front as the largest party in the new Parliament, the electorate, according to Saravanamuttu, “has dealt Rajapaksa and his supporters a body blow although not quite a knockout.”

However, he said, “Rajapaksa’s appeal is diminishing but it is not finished. He commands a core vote that responds to his majoritarian populism liberally laced with fear about the fate of the Sinhala community under the United National Front and of war heroes being turned into war criminals.”

Rajapaksa brought the 26-year Sri Lankan civil war to a brutal end in 2009, with the army driving north mercilessly into Tamil territory, killing thousands. He has been hailed as a hero by the majority Sinhalese population and proceeded to rule as a near dictator following the defeat. Numerous journalists and civil rights activists were abducted, beaten, murdered or jailed.

The Rajapaksa family, one of the country’s most powerful, was accused of stealing US$18 billion from the government and stashing the money in four countries overseas. The government is seeking to repatriate as much as possible. So far, only US$2 billion has been traced, according to government officials. Interestingly, unlike the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia, Sirisena seems to be making a real effort to repatriate the stolen funds and restore them to government coffers.

Despite Rajapaksa’s diminished standing, “fear is still the key for him,”Saravanamuttu wrote. “He has announced that he would take the lead in the new parliament on national security issues. Failure on the part of the Sirisena/Wickremasinghe combine would provide him the opportunity to keep the Rajapaksa dynasty alive.”

It remains to be seen as to what measure of governance reform and accountability can be achieved with Rajapaksa and his loyalists forming a sizeable minority in the parliament biding their time for the moment “and going, albeit reluctantly and in some quarters with some recalcitrance, with the flow.”

Challenges for the new government abound, in effect building an all-but-destroyed political and constitutional architecture for all Sri Lankans, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, and a sound framework for economic prosperity.

The next challenge is long-delayed report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, which deals with allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phase of the war. The report will be formally presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in the last week of September but shared with the government soon. It is expected to be a strong condemnation concluding that such crimes did take place.

“The hope and expectation is that all of this will be made public, now that the election is over, and that there will be public consultations on what is being proposed,” according to the report. How that sits with the majority Sinhalese, with Rajapaksa saying his actions were necessary to subdue what was admittedly an equally brutal Tamil insurrection, clearly will be a challenge for Sirisena.

There are challenges on the economic front, which a UNF government might deal with differently if it commanded a simple majority on its own in the legislature. Those challenges include growth generation, dealing with a bloated public sector, debt and unemployment and the fact that Sri Lanka has an ageing population with all this entails for the health sector and pensions.

“The country is now living beyond its means through increased foreign commercial borrowing rather than highly concessional foreign aid,” the report says. “This is unsustainable. It places the country on a flight path to a Greece-style crash.”

There is unpleasant medicine to be swallowed on the economic front and therefore political support to underpin this will be crucial, especially with Rajapaksa and his followers lying in wait. “Will the government or a part of it, be able to carry the people with them? Since growth is the order of the day, will the government postpone austerity measures for later even though adopting them earlier might well be safer, politically?”

What the country has going for it is the commitment to governance and the bipartisan consensus that follows from its two main parties being in government together.

“Sri Lanka has had a remarkable eight months politically in 2015, of hitherto unthinkable change yet deep-seated challenge and unprecedented opportunity,” Saravanamuttu concludes. “In the ability of its government and its citizens to consolidate the first, address the second and grasp the third lies Sri Lanka’s fate and future as a unified and prosperous functioning democracy. The prospects for success could be better; on balance though they are promising.”