FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Behind Sri Lanka's vote for change
, January 31, 2015
In an utterly unexpected election outcome, the people of Sri Lanka have decisively rejected incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, electing in his place a former associate of the former president, Maithripala Sirisena, who had accused Rajapaksa of corruption and nepotism, and of wanting to establish a dictatorship.
Sri Lankan President
Rajapaksa had installed relatives in some of the most sensitive posts, including his younger brother Gotabhaya as defence minister.
In turn, Rajapaksa accused Sirisena of being in league with the Tamil Tigers, the militant group which staged a bitter 37-year war for the independence of northern Sri Lanka before being defeated in an extremely brutal finale in 2009, in which thousands of people were killed.
President Rajapaksa refused to permit an independent inquiry into the civil war, despite widespread criticism internationally.
In an extraordinary twist, the incoming foreign minister accused Rajapaksa of trying to stage a military coup after the election was held, but before the outcome was released.
Mr Mangala Samaraweera, a close aide to the incoming president, said that Rajapaksa had in fact tried to persuade the army and police chiefs to help him stay in office with the use of force.
“He stepped down only when the army chief and the police inspector-general refused to go along with him,” said Mr Samaraweera.
He also revealed that diplomatic pressure had been brought to bear on Rajapaksa, who came in for international criticism, during his near-decade in office, over his administration’s human rights record.
“Some world leaders also spoke with President Rajapaksa and prevailed on him to ensure a peaceful transition,” Mr Samaraweera added.
In an address to the nation, Sirisena appealed for a government of national unity to carry out the political and economic reforms he promised in his election campaign.
The new president wants to establish independent commissions to run the police, the public service and the judiciary and to transfer many of his executive powers to parliament.
He has promised that, within his government’s first 100 days in office, he will transform Sri Lanka from a near autocracy into a democracy, one in which the president will share power with parliament.
“I hope all the parties will accept my invitation and join hands to ensure good governance, rule of law and carry out the reforms we have promised to improve the quality of life for our people.”
The president invited all parties to join his cabinet, which is expected to be finalised by January 19, when parliament will open.
He reiterated a call to normalise relations with Western nations and neighbouring India.
President Sirisena had already received the backing of more than 40 lawmakers previously loyal to Rajapaksa, virtually assuring approval for his program of constitutional reforms.
“We now have more than we need in parliament,” the new president’s spokesman, Dr Rajitha Senaratne, told the media.
Sirisena previously had the backing of 89 lawmakers and needed another 24 for a simple majority in the 225-member house.
The new leader, who is himself a defector from Rajapaksa’s party, has already pledged to reverse many of the constitutional changes made by his predecessor, which gave huge powers to the president.
Even Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan Freedom Party has said it would support Sirisena’s constitutional reforms, making their enactment a formality.
Sirisena quit Rajapaksa’s cabinet in November to emerge as an opposition unity candidate in the January 8 polls, triggering a mass defection from his party.
While Rajapaksa retains significant support from the majority Sinhalese community, anger among these people, particularly the poor, had been growing over rising levels of corruption.
It goes without saying that the two significant minorities in Sri Lanka, the Tamils in the north and the Muslims in the east, voted against Rajapaksa.
The challenge facing the new president is to make good on his promises. President Sirisena wants to establish independent commissions to ensure that the police, judiciary, elections committee, audit office and the attorney-general are impartial.
But the problem is that there are serious allegations of misconduct involving the Rajapaksa administration, as well as the conduct of the war with the Tamil Tigers.
President Sirisena was himself a former Defence Minister in the Rajapaksa government.
Among its first moves, Sri Lanka’s new government has announced the lifting of a ban on foreign nationals visiting the island’s former war zones and the scrapping of an economic embargo on Tamil regions.
President Sirisena has also said he wants to reduce Sri Lanka’s economic dependence on China, which has become a major investor in Sri Lanka.
However attractive this is to India and Western nations, unless other nations lift their investment in Sri Lanka, the effect could well be damaging to the rapidly-growing Sri Lankan economy, and particularly, to the people who voted for change.