UNP prevails, but Rajapaksa could still be thorn in their side
On the morning after Sri Lankans voted in their general election, the
smell of sulphur was hanging in the air outside a sprawling building in
a Colombo suburb. It was the residue of firecrackers lit to echo the
jubilant mood within the building - the headquarters of the United
National Party, which bagged the most seats in the 225-member
This triumph had been forecast by the party's strategic political
bureau - a team of wonks who had packed a small room in the rear of the
compound and tapped voter sentiment across Sri Lanka for weeks via
12,500 party agents. One senior operative of this closely-guarded bureau
told the Nikkei Asian Review 10 days before the August 17 election that
the UNP was set to secure 108 seats in parliament. Their confident
outlook was proved correct, though the party missed the forecast by two
seats, gaining in fact 106.
Nevertheless, they are numbers to savour. The voters' verdict sees
the moderate and right-of-centre UNP receiving a mandate to govern after
spending 17 of the last 20 years, filling the parliament's opposition
The more than five million votes it received - representing 45.66% of
the ballots cast - was also an endorsement for the status quo, since the
UNP has been running a fragile caretaker government for seven months
following a presidential election in January.
"The verdict is a refreshing breath for this country, because the
people want to take forward the concept of good governance," Daya
Pelpola, the UNP's legal adviser, said. One of the main pillars the
party campaigned on was good governance, along with transparency and
inclusive politics, just as it had with a political coalition at the
January polls. "Sri Lanka's political map has shifted."
His boss, UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is a
personal beneficiary of that shift. The 66-year-old political veteran
received a record 500,566 preference votes in the Colombo District. Such
a groundswell to Wickremesinghe will help him deaden the criticisms that
have dogged his political career since the early 1990s - that of being a
perennial loser at the polls and a cold, out-of-touch patrician.
On the other hand, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country's former president,
has more than his pride to swallow. The general election is the second
drubbing in a year for Rajapaksa, the so-called 'warrior king' who
dominated Sri Lankan politics with muscle for nearly a decade.
The current scenario is one that few dared to imagine on the eve of
January 8, when the all-powerful president sought an unprecedented third
term from the 15 million registered voters and a mandate to extend his
authoritarian-style grip. He lost the presidency to Maithripala Sirisena,
a soft-spoken member of Rajapaksa's own party, who led a coalition of
political parties which included the UNP.
Rajapaksa's quest for a political comeback as prime minister in the
August election opened up an emotive fault line during the campaign. The
69-year-old campaigned as if his January defeat had never happened, with
all the chest-thumping rhetoric he is known for.
His spin ranged from playing up what the military achieved during his
government - defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and ending a bloody
30-year civil war - to portraying himself as the best defender of the
country's majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community.
But this appeal proved to have reached its limits, with the party
which he headed as de facto leader, the United People's Freedom
Alliance, receiving 4.73 million votes - a drop of more than a million
from the 5.79 million ballots it received seven months ago.
That translated into 95 seats in parliament, down from the 144 seats
Rajapaksa secured as the war-winning leader at the 2010 general
The election results mean the country can breathe a collective sigh
of relief as they regard the new political landscape beyond Rajapaksa's
heavy-handed style of governance.
"This month's election was more of a consolidation of the electoral
gains in January, which was to move beyond divisive politics," says
Gehan Gunatilleke, research director at Verite Research, an independent
"It is an indication that the majority in the country has moved away
from the Rajapaksa slogans." Sri Lanka's minority ethnic groups, which
accounted for 30% of the votes cast, further broaden the contours of the
electorate. The UNP's gains in the polls were underpinned by support
from Tamil and Muslim strongholds in the many multi-ethnic pockets
across the country, as was the case for Sirisena in January.
"The larger issues of existence have pushed minorities towards the
UNP," says Javid Yusuf, a former member of the Human Rights Commission
of Sri Lanka, a national rights watchdog.
Yet, neither President Sirisena nor Premier Wickremesinghe can afford
to sit back in triumph and watch Rajapaksa lick his political wounds.
The political foundations that these elections have laid need to be
built upon with a spirit of compromise, and these leaders need to form a
coalition government for political stability. The two appear to have
established a cordial working relationship during the seven-month
Going forward, Wickremesinghe has to depend on Sirisena's allies in
the UPFA and other smaller parties to give him numbers in the
legislature, since his UNP fell just short of the 113 seats needed for
an outright parliamentary majority. Little wonder, therefore, that some
international agencies are jittery. "(A) coalition government will make
effective policymaking hard to achieve," remarked economic research
consultancy Capital Economics in a post-elections assessment.
Free trade clashes
But such political math discounts the deals already being struck by
the parties sitting in the new parliament, including a historic
agreement signed on August 21 by the UNP and the major bloc in the UPFA
to form a national government.
Another confidence booster for the UNP comes from the backing of a
Tamil nationalist party, with 16 seats, and a left-wing party, with six
seats, to take on any parliamentary challenges posed by the Rajapaksa
faction in the UPFA.
The first test of that will be the selection of the speaker, when the
parliament begins its sessions in September. Another test will be the
UNP's promised political reforms to strengthen independent institutions,
which were steamrolled during the Rajapaksa administration.
The UNP's election manifesto, however, provides clues to possible
clashes that lie ahead with hardline Sinhala nationalists, whose causes
include economic nationalism. After all, the UNP, which supports free
markets, has pledged to push ahead with the Comprehensive Economic
Partnership Agreement (CEPA), a free trade agreement between India and
Sri Lanka that includes goods, services and investment, as part of its
vision to boost foreign direct investment, expand Sri Lankan exports by
500% (from its current US$11 billion), and increase job creation.
While one pillar of the CEPA - trade - was implemented in 2000, the
other two - services and investments - have been pummelled by protests
led by Sinhala nationalists and local industrialists.
"It took some courage for the UNP to include CEPA in its manifesto,"
says Rohan Samarajiva, head of LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based economic think
tank. "They realized there is a need to embed Sri Lanka in global value
chains to help our economy, and you cannot do so without such
A similar showdown is likely when Sri Lanka receives a United Nations
Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report in September, detailing alleged war
crimes that were committed by government troops and the Tamil Tigers
during the final stages of the war.
Some observers expect Rajapaksa to adopt a prominent role in this,
given his boasts that he is willing become a martyr in order to shield
troops from any international trial. "On behalf of the country, if they
ask me to sit on the electric chair, I will happily do it," he has said.
So, while the political outlook is certainly different post-election,
Sri Lanka may not have seen the last of Rajapaksa. His presence as a
parliamentarian elected by the Kurunegala District still provides him
with a platform to growl at his political foes. In fact, he has already
been egged on by some hardliners in his bloc to take on a bigger role
from the opposition benches.
Given his record, Rajapaksa could end up spoiling some of the
political plans Sirisena and Wickremesignhe are laying down for a 'new
Sri Lanka' and a political requiem for the now-diminished 'warrior king'
may have to wait a few more years.