Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to win an unprecedented third term as president has triggered a realignment of the political equations in Sri Lanka. His call for snap polls in January was followed by a series of defections from his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and one of the defectors, a longstanding minister in the Rajapaksa administration, Maithripala Sirisena, has emerged as the common opposition candidate. On Monday, 36 political parties, including the main opposition, the United National Party, endorsed his candidature. The support of the influential Buddhist monk Sobitha Thero and a section of the SLFP, including former president Chandrika Kumarathunga, could help Sirisena split the Sinhala-Buddhist base of Rajapaksa. These factors could arguably give him the political edge that war hero General Sarath Fonseka lacked when he was the common opposition nominee in 2010.
At the core of Sirisena’s campaign is the promise to revoke the “executive presidency”, which vests sweeping powers with the president, within 100 days of gaining office. The powerful presidency has been blamed for the oppressive character of the government in Colombo and critics have accused the Rajapaksa family of misusing presidential powers to further family interests.
There is scope for a reforms agenda, like Sirisena’s, to be extended to an overhaul of Colombo’s relations with its provinces and minorities. The 13th amendment that followed the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 could be the blueprint to address the question of political devolution. The defeat of the LTTE in 2009 ended Tamil militancy, but the factors that led to the alienation of the Tamils persist. With the Sinhala-Buddhist vote divided, Sirisena could be the candidate to reach out to Tamils and other minorities, whose support could prove decisive. It would also make the presidential poll a more inclusive affair.