Sri Lanka completes its upheaval

There have been a few surprise election results this year, but nothing yet to rival the first election for the year, when Maithripala Sirisena became president of Sri Lanka by narrowly defeating the authoritarian incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sirisena and Rajapaksa came from the same party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, but Sirisena was supported by the opposition United National Party and upon taking office he appointed its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as prime minister. Most of the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party has apparently remained loyal to Rajapaksa, although Sirisena is now nominally its leader.

That made things difficult for the Wickremesinghe government in parliament, where the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its allies, grouped as the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), still had a large majority – 144 of the 225 seats. So it was no surprise in June when the president dissolved parliament for an early election in the hope of securing a more sympathetic reception for his reform program.

This gave rise to a lot of talk about a comeback for Rajapaksa, who staked his claim to be made prime minister if the UPFA won a majority. But there never seemed much likelihood that Sri Lankans would re-embrace his brand of nationalism so soon after they had rejected it. And sure enough, they didn’t.

The election, held on Monday, saw the UPFA reduced to 42.4% of the vote (down 17.9% from 2010) and 95 seats, while the alliance led by the United National Party, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), won 45.7% and 106 seats. The Tamil National Alliance – which in a crunch can be counted on to support anyone but Rajapaksa, widely held to be guilty of war crimes in the Tamil areas during the last phase of the country’s civil war – has 16 seats and three smaller parties have shared the remaining eight.

(The official results are here, but there’s no summary page so rather than adding them up myself I’m trusting that the media reports are basically right; Wikipedia, as usual, has the most detail, including some nice maps.)

Sri Lanka’s electoral system is very democratic: MPs are elected from 22 multi-member constituencies on an open list system, with another 29 seats allocated according to nationwide totals. But it still advantages parties whose vote is heavily concentrated. The Tamils, with negligible support outside the north and east, won 16 seats (14 in constituencies and two nationwide) from 4.6% of the vote; the far-left People’s Liberation Front (JVP) actually had more votes, 4.9%, but finished with only six seats.

So while the election might not have provided everything that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe would have wanted, there’s no doubt that the government will be able to carry on with a workable majority. No-one seems entirely sure how many of the UPFA MPs are loyal to Sirisena rather than Rajapaksa, but it seems likely to be enough – and the Tamils are always there in reserve if it’s not.

That’s bad news for Rajapaksa and those who benefited from his rule: as the New York Times puts it, it leaves the country “firmly in the hands of officials intent on dismantling most of his policies and completing corruption inquiries that have been closing in on him and his family.”

It also gives Sri Lanka the chance to finally work out its constitutional position. Since 1978, power has theoretically been shared between president and prime minister, along the lines of the French system. But in practice the president has usually had the upper hand, a situation that was formalised by constitutional changes during Rajapaksa’s second term. Those changes were reversed earlier this year, and Sirisena has made clear his preference for a Westminster-style parliamentary system.

But with the legacy of authoritarianism, corruption and civil war to be dealt with, he probably has higher priorities at the moment than constitutional revision.

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