How Sirisena's reforms can change Sri Lanka
From tackling corruption to allegations about war crimes, the newly-elected president's agenda will attempt to strengthen Colombo's position on many fronts.
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The powerful political duo of president Maithripala Sirisena and incumbent prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa for a second time in six months thwarting his bid to stage a comeback to power with the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the parliamentary election held on August 17. The UPFA lost by a 3.8 percent margin to the Wickremesinghe-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG).
In Sri Lanka, 196 members of the 225-member parliament are elected through the proportional representation system from 22 electoral districts, in proportion to the votes secured by the party. The balance of 29 “National List” seats is allotted to parties in proportion to the votes they secure in the whole country.
A little over 77 percent of Sri Lanka's electorate participated in one of the most peacefully conducted elections in recent times. The UNFGG secured 106 seats with a vote score of 45.66 percent while the UPFA could capture only 95 seats as it polled only 42.38 percent. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) increased its parliamentary strength by two seats to win a total of 16 seats. Similarly, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) increased its tally by two seats to send six members to the parliament. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) won one seat each.
The UNFGG fell seven seats short of 113 seats required for a majority in parliament. However, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) chaired by President Sirisena signed memorandum of understanding with the United National Party (UNP) agreeing to join a national government for a period of two years. After this, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as PM on August 21, 2015.
This has created an anomalous situation on the role of UPFA as the opposition, while participating in the government! Some of the SLFP and UPFA parliament members, opposed the move to join the government, met president Sirisena to request him to be allowed to function as parliamentary opposition and allow the UPFA to elect their own leader in parliament. Sirisena agreed to both the requests. Despite this, some of the UPFA leaders like Udaya Gammanpilla, leader of a breakaway faction of the Buddhist right wing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Vasudeva Nanayakkara, leader of the Democratic Left Front, and Wimal Weerawansa, leader of the National Freedom Front are said to be considering the formation of new alliance with a separate name identity rather than continuing as partners of UPFA.
The UPFA’s fractured status, which commanded two-thirds majority in parliament before the parliament election, is a testimony to the political skill of president Sirisena in ensuring the UPFA does not go under the control of Rajapaksa. As corruption and misuse of office cases against Rajapaksa brothers Basil and Gotabaya are likely to be pursued with vigour, the former president is unlikely to be allowed political space to rally anti- Sirisena elements within the SLFP and the UPFA in the near term.
More power to Tamils
Prime minister Wickremesinghe, in a detailed interview to The Hindu, has indicated his hope to complete the process of producing a new constitution based on the consensus of all political parties within six months. He has also indicated his readiness to grant maximum powers to Tamils within the ambit of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
However, as the TNA is seeking a federal status for the provinces it is unlikely to be satisfied unless land and police powers which have been withheld so far are given to the provincial councils.
Sirisena’s big reform agenda
Peoples’ rejection of Rajapaksa bid to come back to power through the parliamentary election indicates their affirmation of president Sirisena’s January 8 reform agenda.
Apart from the Tamil issue there are a few complex issues inherited from the previous government which would be engaging the government. These include the taming the bloated Sri Lanka economy, follow-up action on corruption investigations against members of the Rajapaksa regime, bringing to book those responsible for white van abductions and disappearances and the handling the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution.
The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka’s accountability for alleged war crimes and human rights excesses during the last Eelam War would be discussed when it meets next month. Both India and the US are likely to extend all the support to the Sirisena government at the international forum as it is responding more positively than the Rajapaksa government ever did. India had always supported a domestic inquiry in preference to an international one envisaged in the UNHRC resolution. India can be expected to maintain the same while actively supporting Sri Lanka.
According to the Sri Lanka foreign ministry spokesperson when the UNHRC meets, it would consider the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) on Sri Lanka and bring forth a resolution on it. The US has already informed the UNHRC that it would offer a resolution on Sri Lanka to follow up the new Sri Lanka government’s efforts to promote post war reconciliation and accountability and on the OCHR resolution. So we can expect the international inquiry to be shelved in favour of a domestic inquiry by the Sri Lanka government. This is likely strengthen the standing of the Sirisena government both at home and abroad.
Tamil Nadu’s political response to the Sri Lanka general elections has been tepid perhaps due to preoccupation with the reported move of chief minister Jayalalithaa to advance the state assembly elections. Moreover, the failure of Rajapaksa who had been the target of local politicians further downgraded their interest in Sri Lanka. However, the octogenarian DMK leader M Karunanidhi not to be outdone condemned the US decision to bring a resolution at the UNHRC supporting Sri Lanka’s domestic enquiry into the war crimes allegation. As expected, the perennial Sri Lanka baiters Vaiko and Ramdas pitched upon the issue of India gifting a coast guard ship to Sri Lanka navy to condemn New Delhi. As opposition parties are in disarray, we can expect Sri Lanka to again figure in the campaigning during the run up to the elections in Tamil Nadu for what it is worth.
(Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, September 20015 Volume 9 No 9. Read here.)