Two cheers for Sri Lankan democracy

Democracy may not be the best system in the world but so far there is nothing to better it as the voters of Sri Lanka have just proved with their rejection of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempted return to power.

This outcome gives Sri Lanka a breathing space, albeit a limited one, to try and establish some kind of a national consensus on a government that will take the nation forward on a less fractious path. ‘I invite you all to join hands,’ Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a statement. ‘Let us together build a civilised society, build a consensual government and create a new country.’

That Sri Lankans know full well the election marked the building of a bridge to a new political dispensation rather than the end of a process was apparent by the restrained atmosphere in Colombo when the results-showing that Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) had fallen short of an outright majority and would need coalition allies-came in.

The ruling party’s success was a triumph for President Maithripala Sirisena, who beat his former ally Rajapaksa in the presidential elections in January and called the elections to strengthen his mandate for reforms.

But Sirisena’s back-stabbing of Rajapaksa prior to the polls at the beginning of the year served to illustrate the continued intense rivalry in the Sinhala elite which the elections have done nothing to alleviate. The new government will be dependent on the support of the Tamil and Muslim minorities to rule, leaving a considerable body of Rajapaksa’s Sinhala supporters feeling left out in the cold. Nor has the eight months of UNP government produced any hint of a change in the attitude to the Tamils, so the main strands of the nation’s problems have seen no relief. Those difficulties are now coupled with increased uncertainty for the economy since the former president’s closeness to the Chinese has provided considerable investment support in the past. The fact that Sri Lanka will now be dubbed ‘non-aligned’ is likely to mean that it will become an unattractive destination for foreign investment unless regional friends can be persuaded to help out.

The investigation into the civil war deaths, which took place under Rajapaksa, who is credited with bringing the conflict to an end, is just one of many charges on a long sheet that his opponents will want resolved. Still outstanding is the United Nations report into the civil war. But those expecting a full accounting by international investigators appear likely to be disappointed. A document leaked from the UN appears to have been created by that body in conjunction with the Sri Lankan government, and outlines plans to set up a purely domestic inquiry into human rights violations.

Two unresolved murder cases that have been laid at the door of Rajapaksa and his associates are at the top of the list of domestic complaints. Even as the election campaign was drawing to a close, the body of a former rugby star, Wasim Thajudeen, was being exhumed in a fresh investigation into his mysterious death three years ago. His body was found in a burning car in Colombo in 2012. Police declared it a motoring accident but as allegations of a cover-up persisted, President Sirisena claimed he was murdered by security forces linked to the former regime. Thajudeen had been a friend of Yoshitha Rajapaksa, the former president’s second son, and the pair had played rugby together at the elite St Thomas’s school and for the national side. But they apparently fell out in a dispute over a woman, who apparently had a relationship with the president’s son after a fling with Thajudeen. Police investigations appear to confirm that the accident was faked.

The other longstanding allegation against the former president is that his brother, Gotobhaya, who previously served as defence minister, had run a death squad among whose victims was the founder of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunga, a leading critic of the regime who was shot dead by four men on motorcycles while driving to work a few days before he was due to testify in a legal case filed against him.

Dealing with these issues will demand all the ingenuity at the government’s command but tackling the country’s economic plight will require little short of a miracle.

Sri Lanka’s external economic prospects are grim: international exports for tea and rubber are badly hit while sales of clothing to the US and Europe have fallen as youth unemployment has risen.

Debt servicing is running unfeasibly high with payments running at 95 per cent of revenue and a stratospheric national debt. Borrowing from the International Monetary Fund is now imperative but, true to form, the IMF has demanded deep spending cuts as a pre-condition for any new loan. The incoming government will doubtless have to cut wages and tighten working conditions and spending. But had not democracy delivered Sri Lanka a brighter future, the outlook might have been even worse.

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