Electoral shift towards ethnic pluralism:
Sri Lanka takes its second chance
The victory of the coalition of parties led by Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe at the General Elections on August 17 will ensure that
the changes brought about at the Presidential Election of January 2015
will be sustained.
The majority of Sri Lankan voters reaffirmed the choice they made in
January to reject the siren call of narrow nationalism. The main
significance of the election verdict is that it paves the way for
transition to take place in two key aspects of governance.
Firstly, it will consolidate the changes that have taken arbitrary
power away from individuals and vested that power, instead, in
institutions and systems. The sustainability of this process lies in the
fact that virtually all the political parties have agreed that the
systems of government need to be strengthened.
The majority of people chose the Rule of Law over the rule of men
that was epitomized by the previous UPFA government. The over
centralization of power during the second term of Mahinda Rajapaksa's
presidency led to allegations of gross abuse of power, corruption and
impunity. This was visible to the general population in the way he
sacked Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
There was also a climate of fear that affected those who were
political dissenters, so that people were afraid to voice their opinion
even on the telephone. The lifting of the sense of fear was the biggest
improvement that the change of government brought to the country. The
more politicized sections of the population, better educated urban
voters, civil society and the ethnic minorities combined to deny the
UPFA a majority.
In the seven months between the presidential and general elections,
the minority government headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe charted
a shift away from a highly centralized and national security-dominated
state structure that the UPFA government had constructed to a more
consensual mode of governance.
In keeping with his election promise, President Maithripala Sirisena,
with the backing of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, championed the
passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that reduced the power
of the presidency and the scope for the abuse of power and, strengthened
Parliament and state institutions such as the judiciary, public service
The second important transition that the country will be undergoing
is the transition away from the high level of militarization and
governmental antipathy towards ethnic minorities of the UPFA period, to
a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in its
decision-making and its choices.
But as this still remains a transitional process there needs to be a
lot of compromise and patience. As the leader of the opposition's
election campaign the former president did not appear to learn from the
presidential election that he and his allies had to rebuild the trust of
the ethnic minorities if they wanted their vote.
Instead Rajapaksa and his allies engaged in a strident Sinhala
nationalist campaign that portrayed the ethnic and religious minorities,
and their international connections, as threats to the Sinhalese
majority. This reinforced the sense of insecurity experienced by the
minorities and turned their vote against him once again.
How the war against the LTTE ended, and what happened to the Tamils
in its immediate aftermath, continues to be a bitter memory amongst the
Tamils. Although the end of the war also saw the end of the large scale
human rights violations against them, they continue to feel under
During the last period of the Rajapaksa rule, there was also a rise
in attacks against the Muslims, their places of religious worship and
businesses, which made all the minorities, including Sinhalese
Christians, feel insecure. These attacks, often led by nationalist
bhikkhus, were accompanied by police inaction. This smacked of
The very poor showing of the Buddhist People's Front (BJP), a bhikkhu-led
party at the recently concluded elections indicates that the anti-Muslim
sentiment of the past few years was not a bottom-up phenomenon, but
rather one that was being politically cultivated at higher levels.
It is noteworthy that the election results closely paralleled the
results of the presidential elections. The UPFA won in the predominantly
Sinhala rural and suburban areas where the lustre of the war victory
over the LTTE remains high and people appreciate the earthy style of
their former president. It lost heavily wherever there was an ethnically
mixed population. The main reason for this was the sense of insecurity
experienced by the ethnic and religious minorities during the final
period of the UPFA government.
The former president's ability to win the presidential election in
2010 on a Sinhala nationalist platform was only possible because the
victory over the LTTE in the war in 2009 unified the Sinhala electorate
to vote for him. But that was an exception. His fate is a salutary
lesson to all Sri Lankan politicians who hope to reach the pinnacle of
They need to realize that Sri Lanka is indeed a multi ethnic and
multi religious country where the ethnic and religious minorities amount
to 30 percent of the population. Not only is there a moral
reprehensibility in discriminating against and marginalizing minorities,
they also cannot win national and country-wide elections without a
substantial fraction of the minorities voting for them.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a man with a clear notion of what he
wants and how to set about it. But he will be leading a potentially
fractious coalition of parties, which includes Sinhala hardliners, Tamil
and Muslim parties and those who have crossed over from the UPFA. He
will also face an opposition whose most prominent members who obtained a
large number of votes are those who championed ethnic Sinhala
This will make it more difficult for the new government to quickly
tackle the fundamental problems of the country. It needs to revive the
economy that became debt-ridden especially to China, and cope with the
international attention on what happened in terms of human rights
violations at the end stage of the war. It will also need to address
longstanding grievances of the Tamils.
Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have
pledged to establish a government of national unity which would ensure
de-concentration and sharing of power. But they need to be given time.
When the government stabilizes, these two leaders together can engage in
constructive problem-solving in a manner that has eluded their
The immediate challenge the new government faces will be to respond
to the UN report on war crimes that is due any day. The visit of US
Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal to Sri Lanka next week is
likely to be in relation to this issue.
The Rajapaksa government's unwillingness to deal with this issue, and
its persistent denial of serious human rights violations, exposed the
country as a whole to the world in an unfavourable light. In addition,
by confronting the UN system, whose primary backer is the United States,
and believing that China and Russia would stand by its efforts to deny
the past, the previous government made a bad situation worse.
This confrontational stance taken by the Rajapaksa government was
absolutely irrational and harmful to the national interests of Sri
How the new government deals with the war crimes report and addresses
international human rights concerns in Geneva next month will define the
nature of Sri Lanka's relationship with the international community.
The way forward would be to establish a credible national mechanism
to deal with the issues of the past, but which also meets international
standards. Many countries - not least South Africa, which even sent Vice
President Cyril Ramaphosa as its special envoy to Sri Lanka - stand
ready to assist.
If they see that the new government is genuine in its intentions, and
is rational in its approach, there is reason to believe that the
international community will give an extended timeframe to Sri Lanka to
deal with the resolutions and reports that have come and are to come