A shock sweep by a party backed by former President Mahinda Rajapakse has raised the spectre of the Sri Lankan government collapsing. Here is why India is watching the situation with concern.
What has triggered the sudden political turmoil in Sri Lanka?
On February 10, Sri Lanka held elections to 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 275 pradeshiya sabhas or divisional councils (equivalent of zilla parishads). In the run-up to the election, the constituents of the National Unity government formed after the 2015 parliamentary elections decided to contest independently. The main parties in the ruling combine — United National Party, United People’s Freedom Alliance (minus a faction owing allegiance to former President Mahinda Rajapakse), and the UPFA’s main constituent, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party — all contested separately, and against each other. The pro-Rajapakse faction in the UPFA migrated to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or Sri Lanka People’s Front, a party that is backed by the former President.
The results were a shocker for the ruling combine. Rajapakse, who had decisively lost the presidential election in January 2015, and the parliamentary election in August that year, with voters having punished him for his authoritarian and nepotistic ways, made a startling comeback. The SLPP swept the election, winning 231 of the councils; the UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, won only 34; SLFP and UPFA, both led by President Maithripala Sirisena, won 7 and 2 respectively. The results were immediately interpreted as a verdict against the central government.
Sirisena, who campaigned for both UPFA and SLFP, and against the UNP, asked Wickremesinghe, who heads the UNP, to resign. Nervous parliamentarians of the UPFA, SLFP and UNP, as well as the newly assertive pro-Rajapakse MPs, have been pushing for a new Prime Minister, a cabinet reshuffle, dissolution of Parliament, or a realignment of parties to form a new government from the existing Parliament.
So, is the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government about to collapse?
The Prime Minister has so far held his ground against the President, and the undertow of demands within his own party for his resignation. At a press conference on Friday, he conceded that the results of the local polls were a verdict against the failure to transform the economy and deal decisively with corruption, but asserted that his government still had over two years (in a five-year term), which was enough time for a course-correction. What perhaps damaged the UNP’s credibility the most was the alleged involvement of one its Ministers in irregularities in the sale of government bonds. The Minister resigned last August.
For now, the two sides have agreed that the present arrangement will continue, likely with a cabinet reshuffle. But it’s now clear that the initial bonhomie between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, which had been on the wane for some months, has now evaporated completely. The UNP had supported Sirisena as the joint opposition candidate when he sprang a rebellion against Rajapakse in the January 2015 presidential election, and declared himself as a contestant.
The National Unity government was formed on the promise that there would be a clean break from the authoritarianism of Rajapakse’s rule, more transparency in governance, a better economy, justice for Tamils who suffered military-inflicted atrocities during the war against the LTTE, and a just political settlement for the Tamil community through constitutional reform.
That idealism has vanished. The uneasy government that now exists is not very different from the one that came into existence in 2001, between then President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, who was Prime Minister at that time, too. Their power struggle ended in Kumaratunga dissolving Parliament using powers vested in her office.
But the Constitution has since been amended, and Sirisena does not have those powers. By the 19th Amendment passed in 2015, some of the President’s powers, including those introduced by Rajapakse to strengthen his grip on the country, were diluted. Sirisena can dissolve Parliament only if two-thirds of the House support it.
But can this government be forced to go in any other way?
Efforts continue to be made towards a realignment of parties in the 225-seat Parliament. The pro-Rajapakse group, with about 50 parliamentarians (known as the Joint Opposition), has urged the 43-strong pro-Sirisena group to ditch the UNP and join hands with it. The UNP — which, with its partners in the UNF, has 106 seats — is itself contemplating jettisoning the pro-Sirisena UPFA group, and seeking a realignment with anti-Rajapakse, anti-Sirisena members of the UPFA.
What the three principal actors — Wickremesinghe, Rajapakse and Sirisena — are really eyeing, is the 2020 presidential election. Rajapakse can no longer contest, as the two-term bar on running for office, which he had done away with during his presidency, is back through the 19th Amendment. His interest lies in advancing the 2020 parliamentary elections, otherwise not due until after the presidential election the same year. If this were to happen, the budget session, which will take place in November this year, could prove crucial.
Wickremesinghe’s advisers are suggesting that the present arrangement with Sirisena can only fray further, and may even paralyse the government’s functioning, thus putting off his voters. Their advice is that he should resign and allow the two factions of the UPFA to come together and form the government, so that he can go into the next elections without the burden of incumbency.
Whatever the combination, and even if the government continues in its current shape, Sri Lanka looks set for a period of political uncertainty.
Is there a real possibility of Rajapakse returning in the next elections?
Going by the SLPP’s showing in the local body elections, he does look poised to make a comeback in the next parliamentary elections. The SLFP and the coalition it heads, the UPFA, are likely to consolidate behind him. In the 2015 parliamentary election, the UPFA, despite the power struggle between Sirisena and Rajapakse, won slightly over 42% of the vote. In the local elections earlier this month, the Rajapakse-backed SLPP got over 44% of the vote, while the UPFA and the SLFP together made slightly over 13%. The UNP fell from its 45% in the parliamentary election to about 32%.
How is India viewing these developments?
New Delhi is known to have backed Sirsena’s rebellion against Rajapakse, and his candidature. In fact, Rajapakse holds India responsible for engineering the surprise Sirisena rebellion against him in November-December 2014, along with the United States. India saw Rajapakse as being too cosy with China, and too dismissive of its concerns on devolution to the Tamil minority. In New Delhi, there was hope that the UNP would put up a stronger fight in the local body elections. However, Sirisena’s tirade against his own government, as he sought to pin the blame for all the failures of the last three years on the UNP, and his campaign for the SLFP and UPFA, damaged the UNP’s prospects, while doing nothing for the President’s own party and coalition.
For now, the best outcome for India would be if Wickremesinghe and Sirisena patched up, and rededicated themselves to the 2015 mandate, which included an investigation into allegations of corruption against Rajapakse. New Delhi is said to be counselling both leaders against any precipitate action.
And where is China in all of this?
Watching, waiting, but whichever way this goes, it has little to worry about. Despite India’s hopes that Wickremesinghe would correct the previous pro-China tilt of the Rajapakse government, the National Unity government eventually gave the go-ahead to a Chinese project for an offshore city, and also handed over the Hambantota port to the Chinese in a debt-swap arrangement. Rajapakse flaunted his proximity to China’s who’s who, but ironically, protested against plans to hand over the port and land to the Chinese for a special economic zone.
Rajapakse: Defeat and comeback
Nov 20-21, 2014: Mahinda Rajapakse, President of Sri Lanka and chairman of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), announces presidential election in Jan 2015. SLFP general secretary and Sri Lanka Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena says he would challenge Rajapakse as the common opposition candidate for President of the country
Jan 8-9, 2015: Presidential elections are held, Rajapakse concedes defeat, hands over SLFP leadership to Sirisena. President Sirisena appoints Ranil Wickremesinghe of United National Party (UNP) Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe had been PM earlier during 1993-94 and 2001-04
Aug 17, 2015: Parliamentary elections are held; on Aug 21, Wickremesinghe forms government with support from United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MPs loyal to Sirisena. (The SLFP had been the senior partner in UPFA; the alliance split between the Rajapakse and Sirisena factions)
Nov 2016: An older party, Sri Lanka National Front, which had rechristened itself Our Sri Lanka Freedom Front (OSLFF) in 2015, was relaunched as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka People’s Front). It became home to pro-Rajapakse elements of the old UPFA. Rajapakse backs the SLPP, even though he is not a member, and holds no office in it
Feb 2018: SLPP sweeps local polls across the country, winning 231 of the 340 local authorities