By: Bruce Matthews

The electoral ouster of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse on Jan. 8 appears to be a refreshing and ultimately hugely significant moment of destiny for what what Cosmas Indicopleustes, a seafaring Alexandrian monk, once called “this great island in the ocean.”

A new, smaller cabinet is being assembled, and with it, hopefully, a political will to change. The appointment of the liberal, culturally refined, and quietly westernized Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister will surely be a huge boost to the international profile of the country. As the 2004 UNP prime minister during Chandrika Kumaratunge’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party presidency, Ranil showed considerable imagination in trying to work out a deal with the LTTE, though sadly the initiative ultimately failed.

In addition, rank, privileges and pension have been restored by the new president, Maithripala Sirisena, to the former Army commander, Sarath Fonseka, who was jailed in 2010 by Rajapakse for having the temerity to run against him for the presidency.

The general election was called by Rajapakse, leader of the United Freedom People’s Alliance, out of an overconfident belief that he would be easily re-elected. The relatively peaceful balloting with a 70 percent turnout was called two years earlier than required.

Rajapakse had been in office since 2005.

Sirisena is a mild-mannered, low-profile former Minister of Health who broke with Rajapakese’s government. He heads a newly-formed political coalition, the National Democratic Front, also referred to as the National Unity Front. The Front is comprised of the once powerful right-of-center United National Party, several important ethnic minority parties such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and, somewhat incongruously, Marxist and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist parties. The key Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is also likely to be partner to this initiative.

The coalition campaigned largely on a return to good governance, a platform that surprisingly resonated with all levels of society, cutting across class, language and race, including the crucial Sinhala street. The results were relatively close but still decisive, with Sirisena gaining 51 percent of the vote, and Rajapakse 47.6 percent. 

There are several key observations that can be made about this hugely important sea-change in Sri Lanka’s government and society.

First, an extensive list of increasingly worrisome actions on Rajapakse’s part damaged the integrity of his reputation and undermined his long-term prospects for leadership. Widespread resentment of perceived nepotism and corruption reached a point of critical mass, and when even the crucial Buddhist prelates of the revered Siam Nikaya a monastic order located predominantly around the city of Kandy, withdrew support, a sudden, quite unexpected public energy for political change swept the electorate. Among the several turning points for Rajapakse, arguably the most significant was his fateful 2013 dismissal of the former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, an incident which marked both overt authoritarianism and the complete debasement of a compliant judiciary.

There was as well the failure of government to come to grips with the seething problem of various unaddressed issues associated with the tragic 1983-2009 civil war between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The wounds of war are still fresh for many on both sides. Human rights violations associated with the final days of that conflict have been ignored, and, apart from some infrastructure projects, nothing substantial has been done to make the Ceylon Tamil population, now about 12 percent of the nation – formerly 15 percent – feel welcome and participatory in rebuilding their shattered communities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Over one million Ceylon Tamils live in a worldwide diaspora, yet the economic power and goodwill of their vast constituency was largely ignored. This powerful community has excellent bona fides with the United Nations Human Rights Council, and has helped press for an international investigation into aspects of the war which long ago should have been responsibly addressed.

Both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have long accused the Rajapakse government of brutal repression of independent journalists, with nine murdered with complete impunity by forces believed to be aligned with the government. The two organizations, in a joint statement, said they welcomed the end of rule by the Rajapakse brothers, “who had been responsible for a great deal of violence against journalists since 2004” and said they would monitor the new government’s actions closely, since it includes some supporters of the previous regime. 

Chief among other provocative issues the Rajapakse government introduced was an increasing reliance on support from China, both financial and political, a worry for the business community. Regionally, it is also problematic for India, alarmed at the rate in which China seemed to be securing Lanka as a key part of its ‘string of pearls’ in the Indian Ocean.

There is now hope that President Sirisena will live up to his new coalition’s promises. His record as a former close associate of Sinhalese Buddhist hard-line nationalism is possibly problematic. He wears national dress for public occasions, customary for that office for the last 60 years. Foremost on Sirisena’s agenda must be post-war justice and reconciliation with the Tamil constituency, some of whom have stubbornly resisted political accommodation except on their own  terms. But ultimately the inability of Sri Lanka to address human rights issues has resulted in diplomatic isolation for Sri Lanka, greatly reducing the nation’s international image and prestige.

Likewise there is a need for a new constitution to undo former president JR Jayawardene’s fateful 1978 Executive Presidency, which concentrated far too much power in one individual. Subsequent presidents have promised to dispose of the executive presidency and return to Westminster-style parliamentary government, but once in office, this aim has been elusive.

Parliamentary elections (promised within 100 days) may afford the opportunity to make constitutional changes that provide for both a secure hand on government, as well as shared power with elected officials.  Current thinking is that the executive presidency will remain, but with reduced powers, a direction likely acceptable to the minority communities who are largely responsible for Sirisena’s victory.

A willingness to reengage a former constitutional amendment (17th) which ensured at least a degree of independence for public institutions such as the police and judiciary is also crucial.

Bruce Matthews is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada, with many years of research experience in Sri Lanka.