Following a surge of support for the Sri Lankan PM’s reform-driven agenda, Neville de Silva considers what his recent election victory will mean for the country and its relations with both neighbouring India and the West.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister- elect Ranil Wickremesinghe shortly after the latter won the crucial August 17 parliamentary election, upstaging former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s come-back bid.
Modi’s Twitter account said he spoke to Wickremesinghe and hailed him for the ‘wonderful performance’ of his alliance.
Those not entirely acquainted with the chequered nature of Indo-Lanka relations during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, especially in the later years, might well attribute Modi’s response to Wickremesinghe’s victory as a pro-forma exercise in diplomatic courtesy and good neighbourliness.
The more thoughtful, who have followed the ups and down of bilateral relations between the two close neighbours, will see more than a grain of sand in this grain of sand.
Modi said he was confident that under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, bilateral relations ‘will get stronger’. That was not just a diplomatic nicety. It was a genuine hope based on a perceptible shift in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since early January this year, when Maithripala Sirisena, a one-time cabinet colleague of Mahinda Rajapaksa who defected, defeated him at the presidential election and set Sri Lankan politics on a new course.
Having provided the necessary political dynamism to his Defence Secretary brother Gotabhaya’s hardening military muscle to take on and defeat the separatist minority Tamil insurgency, he found New Delhi offering some diplomatic support to Western demands for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan forces in the last months of the war.
Moreover the raucous clamour of Tamil Nadu, especially under Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram, on behalf of the Sri Lankan Tamils in general and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in particular, made the Rajapaksa administration increasingly reliant on China diplomatically and financially to ward off blatant Western pressure.
But the shift came with Maithripala Sirisena, who quite rightly chose India for his first visit abroad as president. This was reciprocated by Prime Minister Modi, who visited the island neighbour in March, becoming the first Indian leader to undertake a bilateral visit in 28 years.
So early in Sirisena’s stewardship, he indicated where precisely he feels Sri Lanka’s priorities should lie within the framework of non-alignment which he supported and felt should be the bedrock of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is likely to follow suit and make India his first port of call as the re-elected Prime Minister because his aim is to recalibrate the country’s foreign policy and rebuild fences with India and the West which were breached under Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe knows that India and the West are critical if he is to pursue reconciliation with the Tamil minority at home and to open up the country’s economy with more foreign investment and assistance from the West.
Speaking to the media the day after his election victory, Wickremesinghe confirmed what some observers had already anticipated when he said that a new chapter is opening in Sri Lanka and good relations with India is a part of it.
It is not Sri Lanka’s foreign policy adjustments that will pose a problem but rather domestic issues, especially how Mahinda Rajapaksa will play the hand the election has dealt him, which is weaker than what he had expected when he entered the fray as the presumptive Prime Minister of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
There is, of course, the issue of the report by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, who is due to present to the Human Rights Council in September this year the investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights abuses at the tailend of the military conflict with the LTTE.
While Sri Lanka has vigorously opposed an international inquiry into the alleged offences, any domestic investigation that the new government establishes, as it had promised to after Sirisena’s election victory, would need to be viewed as credible in the eyes of the Western nations led by the US, which called for UN action.
But with a West-friendly government now in place, Colombo will hope that the US-led chastisement of Sri Lanka in the past will be muted and the pressure on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo for accountability trials against any named offenders will be less.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP)-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), which won 106 seats in the 225-member House, falling short of a working majority, will need to act quickly on the international front to deal with any adverse fall-out.
Since any alleged violations of international law will relate to military action undertaken during the Rajapaksa presidency, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration would need to handle the issue very delicately so as not to be seen as selling down the river a political-military establishment that many Sri Lankans in the south believe rescued the country from terrorism and chaos.
The parliamentary election showed, as did the presidential election seven months earlier, that the Sinhala majority voted heavily for Rajapaksa, seen as a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist who defeated the separatists, protecting Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity.
If the UN report calls for some kind of punitive action against those it might claim to have committed offences, the new government has to ensure they cannot be dragged before an international tribunal. Otherwise the repercussions on the domestic front could be seriously unsettling.
There is also unfinished business at home. With a political agenda pledged by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe partnership at the presidential election last January incomplete when Sirisena dissolved parliament ahead of the April 2016 deadline, the new government would need the parliamentary support of opposition forces if it is to push through some of its promises.
This is particularly so with the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which seeks to effect electoral reform returning to the first-past-the-post Westminster style voting system, with some proportional representation retained to allow smaller parties an opportunity to enter parliament.
Before parliament was dissolved, 20A was discussed but it ran into difficulties with the Rajapaksa loyalists in the House insisting, among other changes, that the number of seats be increased from the current 225 to 255, which was strongly resisted by the Wickremesinghe administration.
If the electoral reforms are to go through, this will require a two-thirds majority in parliament. The only way the government can muster that is if the Rajapaksa-led UPFA supports the amendment. That will require further negotiations and a more conciliatory approach by the Rajapaksa opposition.
Though the UNP government does not have a parliamentary majority, it will not be surprising at all if President and Prime Minister working in tandem attract some of the MPs now in opposition. Those most likely to perform the political long-jump would be from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main constituent of the UPFA and now led by Sirisena as party chairman.
The 19th amendment to the constitution passed by the last parliament limits the size of the cabinet to 30 ministers and 40 state and deputy ministers. But there is provision to expand this if the two main parties in parliament agree to form a national government.
Ministerial office is the most attractive carrot that will be waved before some of the 93 UPFA/SLFP members who have won but would not find it profitable to sit on opposition benches for the next five years.
The temptation to join a newly-elected government, especially if there are benefits to accrue, will be strong. At the time of writing and before the dust has settled on the election, I believe there could be anything between 12 and 20 opposition members who will be won over in the coming days or weeks, providing the government with a working majority.
Rajapaksa should not be surprised at such a turn of events. He himself has done just this in the past, attracting UNP MPs disgruntled with Wickremesinghe’s stranglehold over the party.
If this happens, and it surely will, Rajapaksa’s hold over its parliamentary majority will slip and even if he was to become leader of the opposition when the new parliament meets for the first time on September 1, his ability to influence events in the legislature will diminish.
This election also proved salutary in that extremist parties at either end of the ethnic spectrum were decisively defeated. The Sinhala-Buddhist extremist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS-Buddhist Force), contesting under the label Buddhist People’s Front and the Tamil National People’s Front, strongly supported by former LTTE activists and pro-LTTE supporters in the Tamil diaspora abroad, failed to make the slightest dent in the voting. Not a single candidate of either group was elected, a sign that the Sri Lankan voter has rejected extremism of one side or the other.
This appears a healthy sign for future efforts at national reconciliation. Rajapaksa loyalists should read the tea leaves and modulate their Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, as must those in the Tamil minority who still cling to the mirage of an independent Tamil Eelam.