The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential election is good riddance for the troubled island. It opens up possibilities of a hopeful future for its people and for the Indian Ocean Region.
That a man of absolutist dictatorial intentions compared by lackeys to the legendary Sinhalese warrior king Dutugamunu, could finally be ousted through the ballot box is an indicator of the corrective power of democracy, which had gone into deficit in Sri Lanka over the last decade.
What is most heartening about Mr Rajapaksa’s shocking loss is that the Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka, which constitutes 75 per cent of the population, did not fall a third time in a row for his majoritarian votebank strategy that had worked in two previous elections, in 2005 and 2010.
Though the vote was split along class and rural-urban lines, many Sinhalese rejected
Mr Rajapaksa and his tight knit clan of brothers who patronised Buddhist chauvinism and pursued an unabashed agenda of terrorising religious minorities. While Mr Rajapaksa did sweep 10 Sinhalese electoral districts, he lost to his surprise opponent Maithripala Sirisena in Sinhalese-majority districts like Badulla, Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam and Polonnaruwa.
The fact that the Sinhalese vote was fractured and disinterested in Rajapaksa’s social polarisation has created space for the new President, Mr Sirisena, to resolve the “national question” of ethnic accommodation and justice.
Even though Mr Sirisena allied with the hardline Sinhalese Buddhist political party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), his politics of expediency did not deter minority Tamils and Muslims from choosing him over Mr Rajapaksa, whose reputation as the butcher of the north and east during the final years of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels is a permanent stain.
After Mr Sirisena’s triumph, the JHU bragged that its contribution to the electoral outcome was decisive and that its presence in the anti-Rajapaksa rainbow Opposition coalition “made the Sinhala voter confident that their aspirations and rights would always be protected under the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena”. JHU and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has a Sinhalese chauvinist background and supported Mr Sirisena, will surely try to block the new President from undertaking political liberalisation and decentralisation of the polity.
Until his 11th hour defection, Mr Sirisena had crafted his political career within Mr Rajapaksa’s majoritarian Sinhalese Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Prior to the elections, he did not promise the moon and the stars to minorities on their critical issues, viz. withdrawing the military from the north and east and devolving powers from an over-centralised Colombo to the toothless provincial governments.
The unitary structure of the Sri Lankan state, which was particularly abused by the Rajapaksa brothers, is not going to be transformed by Mr Sirisena unless he is prodded and pushed by the Sri Lankan people, concerned social movements and India, a long-time foreign advocate for implementing the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which outlines provincial autonomy from the Central government. Instead of being cynical and pessimistic about mainstream Sinhalese politicians like Mr Sirisena ever trusting or being fair to minorities, this is a moment to focus on the promise of change. The main window of opportunity is Mr Sirisena’s election campaign vow to abolish the institution of the executive presidency within 100 days of taking office.
This executive presidency, which gives paramount authority to the President at the cost of the legislature, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and other arms of the state, has been in place since 1978 and produced elected autocrats like J.R. Jayawardena, Ranasinghe Premadasa and, most obnoxious of all, Mr Rajapaksa.
Under Mr Rajapaksa, who converted the executive presidency into an imperial presidency, Sri Lanka’s press freedom slipped to 165th out of 180 countries according to Reporters Without Borders. The Rajapaksa chapter in Sri Lankan history witnessed the country inching closer to the worst ranking of 7.0 in civil liberties and political freedoms in the index compiled by Freedom House.
Mr Sirisena can be expected to redress the culture of disappearances, political prisoners and browbeating of free thought that had become common under the Rajapaksas. With a moderate and pragmatic Prime Minister like Ranil Wickremesinghe in tow, Mr Sirisena can make Sri Lankans of all ethnicities feel relatively free and safe.
The fall of the Rajapaksas is welcome news for India and a strategic setback to authoritarian China, which had invested heavily in propping up a regime that resembled the mind control system that the Chinese Communist Party operates at home.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has already reached out to Mr Sirisena and proposed “lifting the China-Sri Lanka strategic cooperative partnership to higher levels.” But the diplomatic, financial and even military largesse that China had laid on a platter for the Rajapaksas to feast upon is so unpopular in Sri Lanka today that Mr Sirisena is likely to walk the talk on his commitment to pursue a more “balanced foreign policy”, including scrapping problematic Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.
Sri Lanka is an example of how China often overdoes its chequebook diplomacy of favouring strongmen in developing countries and then runs into grassroots resistance. Although zero-sum games should ideally be avoided, China’s loss in Sri Lanka is India’s gain because Beijing has been deliberately working to weaken New Delhi’s sphere of influence in South Asia.
Mr Sirisena and Mr Wickremesinghe’s encouraging stances on reopening a domestic war crimes inquiry that had been doctored by the Rajapaksas, and on setting up a “truth-seeking mechanism where there will be apologies and forgiving”, are verbal signals that resonate in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message to Mr Sirisena hit the right chords by reminding the latter that “genuine and effective reconciliation” is badly needed in a fractured, post-war society like Sri Lanka. With the blackmailing menace of the Rajapaksas, who used to bring in China as a foil to India, now out of the way, New Delhi can regain lost leverage in its southern flank through proactive diplomacy that has civilian and military dimensions.
The fall of the Rajapaksas bodes well for all except China. It is up to India to be a catalyst of Sri Lanka’s positive evolution.
The writer is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs