Challenges before a new President
The timing of Sri Lanka's
parliamentary elections has significant ramifications for the country's
domestic politics and Colombo's relationship with the international
Sri Lanka's transfer of power in early January came as a surprise to
many, although the lasting effects of Mahinda Rajapaksa's electoral
defeat are far from clear. Newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena
promised to implement bold, ambitious reforms.
Pic: ANCL library
The new government is off to a decent start, although Sri Lanka's
political situation is likely to remain precarious until Sirisena
dissolves parliament and holds parliamentary elections.
Additionally, the timing of that election has significant
ramifications - both in terms of the country's domestic politics and
Colombo's relationship with the international community, not least
because a long-awaited report, focused on wartime abuses during the
country's civil war, will finally be released during the 30th session of
the UN Human Rights Council, which runs from September 14 to October 2.
During a speech in Colombo last month, US Secretary of State John
Kerry alluded to parliamentary elections being held in the near future.
During his prepared remarks, Kerry said, "We want to help support you in
the upcoming electoral processes. Timely elections will be yet another
sign of the government following through on its commitments."
In April, June had been floated as the most likely time for that
election. The Economist recently reported that aides of Sirisena have
intimated that elections would likely be held in August. In late May, a
Sri Lankan weekly cited August 27 as the likely day that elections would
be held. How much does the timing of a parliamentary poll matter? What's
really going on here?
War crimes report
First, let's briefly consider why the UN report's release was delayed
from March until September. The delay was requested officially by the
newly elected Sirisena administration. More specifically, it was due to
a confluence of factors: namely, Sri Lanka's precarious political
situation, the Sirisena administration's own promises about a domestic
accountability mechanism (and heightened engagement with the UN more
generally), and the fact that a parliamentary election was supposed to
happen in April (or shortly thereafter).
During Kerry's recent visit to Sri Lanka, he brought reassurance that
the warming of US-Sri Lanka ties was genuine, but the Sirisena
administration must follow through on at least some of its promises.
Indeed, Kerry's brief reference to 'timely elections' was most likely
borne out of Washington's sincere desire for that to actually happen -
not least because it's hard to argue that the current parliament most
accurately represents the will of the people. Sirisena is a longtime
member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), although his rise to power
would not have been possible without the support of the rival United
National Party (UNP).
Sirisena challenged Rajapaksa because he had grown tired of the
corruption, nepotism and centralization of power that had become
trademarks of Rajapaksa's tenure. During the presidential campaign,
Sirisena was supported by a broad alliance, although most members of the
SLFP did not support his candidacy. Yet, it is the SLFP that currently
holds the most seats in parliament.
Moreover, like the coalition that brought him to power, the â€śnational
governmentâ€ that Sirisena formed in late March (when Sirisena gave many
Cabinet positions to SLFP members) is an unsustainable, awkward
alliance. Finally, dissolving parliament had always been an important
part of Sirisena's plan - a promise (among others) which he's already
fallen behind on.
For now, the plan appears to entail getting the 20th Amendment to the
Constitution (which deals with electoral reforms) passed, after which
Sirisena would dissolve parliament. If it happens, getting the 20th
Amendment passed could take time, yet it's hard to tell with accuracy
how much time. A detailed agenda for the UN Human Rights Council's 30th
session hasn't been released, though if elections are not held by the
end of July, one of the key reasons for delaying the forthcoming UN
report could again rise to the forefront. (Let's keep in mind that the
report is expected to be delivered to the Sri Lankan Government in
August and it is almost certain that a copy would be subsequently leaked
to the media.)
And while some observers may feel that further delays regarding
parliamentary elections would compel Washington (or others) to encourage
another delay of the UN report, this line of thinking is misguided.
Furthermore, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights, has made it clear that there will be no further delays. Since
Sirisena was elected on a wave of UNP support, the UNP is likely to
benefit if elections are held sooner rather than later, especially since
the 19th Amendment - which trims presidential powers - was passed in
late April. Right after that legislation was approved, the UNP called
for Sirisena to dissolve parliament. Sirisena, understanding that
postponing elections would probably help his party, could decide to
delay the vote indefinitely.
Besides, the SLFP remains deeply divided and Mahinda Rajapaksa's
political future is still uncertain. What has become increasingly clear
is that the recently ousted authoritarian remains a force to be reckoned
with, and Sirisena continues to have trouble controlling his party. In
that context, it's understandable that the majority of the SLFP would
prefer that elections be delayed indefinitely.
This is an awkward state of affairs.
Sirisena would strongly prefer that the SLFP perform well in the
elections, something that becomes more likely if polls are delayed.
On the other hand, Sirisena doesn't want to backtrack on too many of
his promises, and refusing to hold a parliamentary vote promptly would
undermine his legitimacy internationally. International approval is
important to Sirisena and he's made it clear that he wants the country
to pursue a more balanced foreign policy and improve ties with
Washington and New Delhi specifically. Regardless, Sri Lanka's political
situation will remain delicate as long as a general election is looming.
Even though Sirisena promised to dissolve parliament and hold elections
in late April, the current parliament could run until April of 2016.
The release of the forthcoming UN report is a significant event, one
that will test Sirisena's leadership skills, foment tension within Sri
Lanka, and probably compel the government to show some progress
regarding its own domestic accountability mechanism.
Nonetheless, it would be unfortunate if elections are not held before
that report is released. After all, such a scenario could open the door
to a resurgence of more hardline elements within the country. It also
has the potential to further weaken Sirisena's grip on his own party,
result in heightened polarization during a forthcoming electoral
campaign and make the prospects of dealing with the most controversial
issues surrounding accountability, devolution and reconciliation even
Lastly, it would be a notable setback for Colombo's rapprochement
with Washington and other members of the international community. As a
longtime member of the SLFP who held a position in Rajapaksa's cabinet,
Sirisena is no stranger to politics, and a degree of skepticism
regarding how much the country will change under his watch is still
Nevertheless, the challenges before him remain immense and would test
even the shrewdest of politicians.