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The empire strikes back: Rajapaksa triumphs in local elections, his shadow looms again over Sri Lank

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Article No. 008/2018

Courtesy: Times Of India

The shock waves of the landslide victory of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, backed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in local government (LG) elections held on February 10, has left the fragile coalition of President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) in total disarray. Many members of both parties are pressuring the leaders to quit the alliance and form the government on their own, while the two leaders are blaming each other for the debacle.

The election had built in uncertainties as this was the first time mixed voting system of proportional and first-past-the-post voting was adopted for LG polls. Moreover, the parties had to nominate women for 25% of their contestants. The two partners of the coalition contested separately on their own and there was a lot of acrimony between them during the campaigning. Sirisena tried and failed to win back SLFP members in the opposition who were supporting Rajapaksa. UNP’s own internal leadership squabble affected its performance.

70% of 15.8 million Sri Lankans voted to elect a total of 8,293 members to 340 local bodies (24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 275 divisional councils) in the election. According to official results, SLPP secured 44.65% of votes and captured 231 local councils, UNP was a distant second polling 32.63% votes to secure only 34 councils; the Sirisena-led SLFP and its National Peoples Freedom Alliance (NPFA) got the worst drubbing, polling a dismal 13.38% votes to capture only 9 councils. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) – the lead party of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – captured 41 local councils.

Undoubtedly, SLPP’s vote mostly came from southern Sinhala rural voters indicating the former President Rajapaksa has maintained his support base in the Sinhala heartland. Though LG elections do not necessarily reflect political trends in parliamentary polls, Rajapaksa seems to have retained much of the 47.6% votes he polled in the presidential election in 2015.

Though local issues dominate LG elections, they serve as a barometer of political parties’ strength at the grassroots. Moreover, the much delayed LG elections were also a mid-term reality check on the performance of the ruling national unity coalition which had defeated Rajapaksa not once, but twice, in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. If Rajapaksa’s current revival continues, he may well bounce back on political mainstage when elections for nine provincial councils and parliament are held in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

The main reason for the failure of UNP and SLFP appears to be people’s disillusionment with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition for failing to deliver upon their promises of good governance. Perhaps, the most glaring failure related to the inordinate delay in punishing those responsible for misuse of office, corruption and cronyism during the Rajapaksa regime even though 34 such cases involving Rajapaksa family members and their cohorts have been investigated. On the other hand, Sirisena government had its own baggage of scams like the one involving Raja Mahendran, governor of Bank of Ceylon in issuing sovereign bonds in 2015 and inclusion of tainted members in the coalition.

The government’s co-sponsorship of a UNHRC resolution to investigate human rights excesses and war crimes allegedly committed by the army during the Eelam War probably hurt the nationalist sentiments of many southern Sinhala voters. Sirisena is now reported to be trying to force Wickremesinghe to step down from the PM’s post. On the other hand, Wickremesinghe is said to be contemplating a government on UNP’s own strength.

Finance minister and UNP leader Mangala Samaraweera said, “LG polls 2018 is a timely wake-up call to Yahapalana [good governance] government to get back on track.” Civil society leaders are pressuring both parties to work unitedly, as they do not want Rajapaksa’s autocratic rule once again.

Fall of Sri Lanka’s unity government would be of some concern to India. India owes it to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition which restored balance in the country’s relations, skewed in favour of China during Rajapaksa’s rule. It suits India that TNA has been broadly supportive of the halting efforts of the national unity government to address the Tamil question.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gone the extra mile to win back Sri Lanka’s confidence, with success. Squeezed by China’s debt burden, Sri Lanka needs India’s helping hand more than ever before. So, we can expect Sri Lanka to pursue its current policy on India even if there is a change in the ruling coalition.

However, there is a qualitative change in the strategic setting in Indian Ocean region in Sri Lanka’s vicinity, after Maldives President Yameen declared a state of emergency defying a Supreme Court judgment to release former President Nasheed and 11 other parliament members from prison. China has a huge stake in the Yameen government and has explicitly warned India to desist from “interfering” in the internal affairs of Maldives.

Though such a contingency in Sri Lanka does not appear within the realms of possibility, India will have to watch developments in Sri Lanka carefully as China is increasingly dominating Sri Lanka in many facets. The handing over of Hambantota port to the Chinese on lease legitimises China taking suitable measures to protect its interests. This has increased Sri Lanka’s importance in India’s strategic security architecture and India would always prefer a stable and friendly government in Sri Lanka.

[Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence officer, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group.The views expressed in this article are of the author. Email: Blog: ]

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