A lot rides on Sri Lanka elections

In a few hours, Sri Lanka will have a new President, its eighth executive president. In 2015, an unlikely coalition of rival parties — the Left-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the free market supporter United National Party (UNP) — that was cobbled together by incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and supported by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, defeated incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) and led to the formation of the first National Unity Government (NUG). 

This began to unravel two years ago. The conflict and power struggle climaxed when Sirisena, in a constitutional coup, dismissed Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in 2018. It took the intervention of the Supreme Court to reinstate Wickremesinghe in December 2018. The conflictual relations between the executive head of state and the head of government has led to totally dysfunction governance and was the main reason for the Easter Sunday 21/4 (occurring on April 21, 2019) terrorist attack, Sri Lanka’s first since 2009, which sounded alarm bells that another internal conflict, this time against Muslims, might be in the making. Two parallel enquiries investigating the bombings were ordered by the President and the Prime Minister.

The rift between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe climaxed when Sirisena asked his defence secretary not to invite Prime Minister to National Security Council (NSC) meetings. Former Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne is the latest to confirm this in his testimony to the parliamentary commission. Political instability has taken its toll on the economy. Tourism has been crippled after the suicide bombings and caused a loss of Rs 20 billion. 

Political co-habitation between President and Prime Minister has just not worked. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the last President to use his all-powerful office to his advantage. He won the war but antagonised the western community and India by cosying up to China. 

The political impasse is expected to be broken by presidential elections currently on. The UNP is leading a major alliance, the National Democratic Front whose agenda is national security, democracy and the economy. UNP’s presidential candidate is the youthful Sajith Premadasa, minister for housing and construction. He is the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa who was assassinated by the LTTE. Sajith’s election could set the precedent for father and son becoming President of Sri Lanka. 

The SLPP is on a high after sweeping local body elections in February 2018. That Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, would be the presidential candidate was a foregone conclusion. Like his elder brother, Gotabaya (popularly known as Gota), a former Colonel in the Sri Lanka Army, is a strong and ruthless leader remembered for synergising the war victory against the Tamil insurgents, the LTTE, as defence secretary. He is a better known face than Premadasa but carries war-excesses baggage. Gota has in his favour, the backing of the Sinhala Buddhists and his reputation as a tough administrator. However, where he will lose out is the north and east which are dominated by minorities. By contrast, while Sajith Premadasa is seen by aspirational younger Sri Lankans as a potentially good administrator, he is also carrying the baggage of his party, which is blamed for the current economic woes of Sri Lanka.

The comprehensive mishandling of the Easter Sunday bombings by the fractured ruling coalition will provide Gota, if he wins, an opportunity to reset the country’s intelligence and counter terrorism grid. But there is more to national interest than just national security.

India was integral to an international effort in 2014-15 to dislodge Mahinda Rajapaksa, seen to be uncomfortably close to countries like China, Pakistan, Russia, Libya and North Korea. It was during his regime that China was able to spread its influence across south and central Sri Lanka with connectivity projects — ports, airports, expressways and an upcoming commercial city — and enhancing political and defence cooperation. The first Chinese  submarine docked in Colombo Port during the Rajapaksa era. Entrapped in Belt and Road debts, Sri Lanka has had to lease Hambantota Port to China for 99 years and the future Colombo Port city complex for 90 years. The UNP government was able to nominally arrest the rise and growth of China during its term.   

The Rajapaksas have been out of power for five years. Their victory will return strategic advantage to China.

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