When Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election results were announced on August 18, there were few celebrations on the streets of Colombo. Many Sri Lankan citizens had voted for the incumbents simply for want of something better. On August 17, when they cast their votes to elect MPs, they had a clear choice: A return to the iron grip of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, or a mandate to continue and consolidate the changes set in motion in January 2015.
A sizeable number of citizens (45.7 per cent) opted to continue the partial changes brought about by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s minority United National Party (UNP) government. The UNP-led coalition, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) won 106 seats. If this was a victory for change and a verdict that stymied Rajapaksa’s hopes of staging a Vladimir Putin-style comeback, it is not as resounding a victory as the UNP needed. Still, a UNP-led government — with Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party as its coalition partner — with Wickremesinghe as PM was sworn in.
Rajapaksa’s performance was nationally insufficient but shows that he has not lost all his support among the Sinhalese Buddhist community, which is clearly still seduced by the language of patriotism. This rhetoric lost him votes, however, in areas with significant ethnic and religious minority communities, where his party fared even worse than in January.
Sri Lanka’s democracy has been invigorated in the eight months since Rajapaksa’s nine-year spell in power ended. Since January, people have been made aware by a free press of the sinister aspects of the Rajapaksa regime and its embroilment in scams and unsavoury episodes. It is no accident that this election has been hailed as exemplary, well-administered and credible by foreign election monitors.
The January and August elections can shift the country in a new direction. But it is difficult to discern signs of Wickremesinghe’s so-called “silent revolution”. Apart from a few new faces in parliament, the same uninspiring candidates from the two main parties will continue to represent the people. The UNP victory resembles more a revolt within the ruling classes than a revolution. There is, for instance, little difference in the economic policies of the two main parties, except for a less explicit reliance on Chinese loans to finance infrastructure development and a more balanced foreign policy by the UNP. Where the government will need to tread carefully is in its engagement with the UN Human Rights Council report on alleged war crimes, due in September. While the last few months saw positive signs in the north and east, where civilian administration was restored, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine was careful not to mention any federal option during the election campaign. The new government needs to keep its word and manoeuvre cleverly to ensure support in parliament. Indeed, for constitutional reforms to be enacted, the government needs a two-thirds majority. But if the UNP’s position on devolution of power is at odds with that of some Rajapaksa loyalists within the SLFP, the two mainstream parties share the same unappealing vision of a Singaporean hyper-urbanised and consumption-driven future for the island. Consensus politics have completely overrun ideology and political utopias.
People are eagerly waiting to see if the new administration will keep to its promise of good governance by investigating deals signed by the previous government and prosecuting those involved in corruption. But vigilance is in order. During its eight months in power, Wickremesinghe’s administration was not immune to charges of corruption and favouritism. The report of the Committee on Public Enterprises on insider trading of bonds was not tabled in parliament as it could potentially indict the governor of the central bank, an ally of the PM. Wickremesinghe will need to disprove allegations that a “Royal College mafia” of his friends is replacing Rajapaksa’s rule by clan. Hopefully, with a free press and strong opposition, the new administration will be kept under scrutiny if it fails to fulfil its mandate of devolution of power and good governance.
The writer is professor of modern South Asian studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands and author of ‘Sri Lanka in the Modern Age: A History’.