For the second time in eight months, Sri Lankan voters have thwarted former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s quest for power. And that clearly is the biggest story of the just concluded parliamentary elections. The United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), contesting under the banner of the United National Party (UNP) led by incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, check-mated Rajapaksa by grabbing 11 of the 22 electoral districts. The United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by the latter won 8 districts while the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 3 other districts under the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) banner. The UNP polled 45.66% of the votes to secure 106 seats while the UPFA secured a 42.38% share for 95 seats and the TNA/ITAK secured 16 seats.
A clear verdict
The 8 districts won by Rajapaksa-dominated UPFA are primarily spread across the overwhelmingly Sinhala-dominated rural south-west and north-central Kurunegala and Anuradhapura districts. But in virtually every electoral division (sub-district) across the country, the UPFA lost ground compared to the 2010 parliamentary elections as well as Rajapaksa’s returns during the January 2015 presidential elections. For example, in Hambantota, the home turf of the Rakapaksas—on which they showered extraordinary largesse while in power—the UPFA’s vote-share was 53.8%, a significant decline from the 63% secured in January 2015 and in 2010. The UPFA won only 4 seats there, one less than in 2010, but the UNP still secured only 2 seats despite gaining almost 50,000 additional votes this time—the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) taking the other one.
Sri Lanka’s multi-member open-list proportional representation (PR) system means that the correspondence between votes and seats is not straightforward. The JVP’s 4.87% vote-share won it 6 seats but with a marginally lesser 4.67% vote-share, the TNA/ITAK won 16 seats. While the debate rages as to whether the PR system is indeed best suited to protecting the interests of smaller parties and minorities, it appears that within the Tamil and Muslim communities, electoral choices seem to have been guided by the imperative of keeping Rajapaksa out of power. By and large, the UPFA appears to have lost even more ground in electoral districts with significant minority populations—a replay of what was starkly apparent in the 2015 presidential elections.
But contradictions abound
Fundamentally, the 2015 general elections is also about the crisis within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP – the main constituent of the UPFA), precipitated by the decision late last year of its then General Secretary, Maithrapala Sirisena, to become a common candidate of the opposition at the January presidential elections.
His subsequent defeat of Rajapaksa and the use of his presidential powers to invite Ranil Wickremesinghe to preside over a minority UNP-led government also led to other senior SLFP-ers crossing over or supporting the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance from within the SLFP. Besides, since the SLFP constitution vests leadership of the party with any member who becomes President of the republic, Sirisena used his position to isolate and undermine Rajapaksa through well timed pre-election public condemnations and a reshuffling of the party leadership.
At the same time, the UNP of the 2015 general elections is also not the same party it was in 2010 or even late last year. In seeking to build an anti-Rajapaksa coalition, it has brought into its fold, through the UNFGG, both long-term former SLFP-ers and also radical Sinhala Buddhist elements such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). While the UNP/UNFGG victory may have served the purpose of politically neutralising Rajapaksa, at least for the moment, the question is for how long and at what—and whose—cost will the UNP sustain an alliance that includes conservative, majoritarian and even chauvinist Sinhala Buddhist elements, on the one hand, and Tamil and Muslim minority parties and partners on the other. The internal tensions and contradictions may well sharpen when confronted with the difficult question of finding political solutions that are needed to secure the peace as well as finding ways and means of redressing the gamut of war and post-war related justice claims.
The electoral success of the TNA/ITAK has reiterated its position as the political representative of the Tamil community in the north and perhaps also the east. That it won 16 seats can be seen as having strengthened the TNA’s hand not just in negotiations vis-à-vis Colombo but also with respect to other political forces, diasporic and domestic, that have criticized the TNA recently for not pursuing a more hardline nationalist politics. However the question is whether the TNA can resolve its own internal tensions and conflicts and ensure its greater electoral leverage translates into better outcomes, including in terms of enhancing the effectiveness of the Northern Provincial Council it presently controls.
Mandate for reconciliation
It is also important to consider Rajapaksa’s defeat as a blow to a politics centred on mobilising terror, fear, triumphalism and the valorisation of militarism. It is important to note that seeking votes on the basis of having ended a 30-year war or by stoking fears about the return of LTTE terrorism proved insufficient grounds for voters to elevate him to the office of President or Prime Minister. Rajapaksa’s twin defeats in a space of eight months open an opportunity to turn away from a politics trapped by majoritarianism and militarism. Since January 2015, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has shown a willingness to engage with questions of war-related justice claims, the need for national reconciliation and, more generally, to safeguard minority rights. Arguably, the UNP/UNFGG victory is also a mandate to continue and recommit to these efforts.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was, at best, only partially successful in implementing its agenda of fundamental democratic, constitutional and governance underlying its successful challenge to Rajapakse in January 2015. Nevertheless, its emergence was critical in so far as it interrupted the reproduction of a highly repressive, polarised, militarised and authoritarian political approach. The results of August 18 have to be seen as a reiteration of the results of January 9, and indeed President Sirisena himself had openly called on Sri Lankans to vote to protect what was won in January. And that call has been, it seems, answered in the affirmative.
The UNP/UNFGG, the TNA and the JVP are likely to work together, especially the first two, to ensure a simple majority in the 225-member parliament. Speculation is rife that a section of elected UPFA MPs are likely to cross over to the ruling side. Yet, the prospect of stability and transition must not allow attention to be drawn away from the dangers that lurk. Even in its brief term of office, the government has come under a cloud of a financial scandal surrounding the auctioning of central bank bonds and allegations of irregularities and manipulation for personal gain on the part of politicians and officials associated with the UNP. Its response have been far from convincing to most.
The question of economic justice also looms large because the Rajapaksa years witnessed rapidly rising economic informalisation, precariousness and household and national indebtedness. The economy, especially in the war affected north and east, remains in need of active state engagement. Given the UNP’s long-standing commitment to free-markets and alignment with global capital, the conflict along political economic frontlines—already sharpened during the Rajapaksa years—may well intensify. Given the UNP’s own history of imposing authoritarian capitalism and then drastically attacking fundamental rights and freedoms (especially of labour) between 1977 and 1994, it is perhaps just as well that it did not secure a sweeping victory in these elections.
Despite its brief tenure between January and August this year, the one front the UNP government did have success on is international relations. But the new UNP/UNFGG government will face its first major challenge in balancing complex domestic and external political pressures almost immediately with the publication due in September of a UN report on investigation into crimes committed during the final stages of the war that ended in 2009. How the tensions between the various different constituent elements of the UNFGG and their (conflicting) agendas will be managed may well set the tone for future engagement with questions of truth, justice, and reconciliation.
Given its stated and demonstrated commitment to rebalancing Lanka’s relationship with China, India is no doubt going to be more sympathetic and supportive to a UNP/UNFGG government. The possibility of enhanced cooperation and synergy with India as well as the significant electoral footprint of the TNA/ITAK can open crucial opportunities to address the problem of Indian trawlers in Sri Lanka’s northern waters that has long burdened war-affected communities, as well as addressing the rights of Lankan refugees in India and in some cases their possible return. The question is whether these openings will be embraced?
In many ways, the potential significance of the outcome of these elections was in sharp contrast to the lack of debate regarding the range of substantial issues at stake. These elections have been touted as the key to Sri Lanka’s transition from a post-war to a post-conflict country. Yet, to those who would see them, the elections also threw up other deeper questions about the Sri Lankan polity. Many of those who contested and won have engaged in cross-over politics, successfully protecting their positions of power by going with the winds of political change. Then there is the question of the patriarchal grip on public life reflected in the abysmal levels of representation of women—less than 6 per cent of nominations granted by the main parties went to women and even fewer of them won.
In the days to come, there will no doubt be more detailed analysis of the elections, its character and its outcome. While it would not be wrong to see the UNP/UNFGG, and indeed the TNA, as having benefitted from the there-is-no-alternative factor, it would also be a mistake to merely reduce their victory to that. People voted the way they did to make sure what they started on January 9 did not end abruptly on August 18. This is of great political significance for the project of democratic transformation in Sri Lanka.
Vijay K Nagaraj is a researcher based in Sri Lanka