By Gautam Sen*
The August 2015 parliamentary elections have installed Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP) in power. They have also ensured that Wickremesingh’s political cohabitation with the anti-Rajapakse liberalist President Maithripala Sirisena will continue. The UNP has secured a total of 106 parliamentary seats, through the direct nationwide election process and on the basis of party-wise proportional votes received. The United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), of which the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is the dominant constituent and within which former President Mahinda Rajapakse exerts substantial influence, is slightly behind with 95 seats. The elections indicate that the SLFP, which has won 83 directly elected seats as against the UNP`s 93, still holds sway over many southern and central districts. Therefore, it may not be inappropriate to construe that the Rajapakse factor will continue to influence Sri Lankan politics for some more time to come. It remains to be seen how this scenario plays out, and whether Rajapakse is able to advance his political fortunes.
The challenge posed by Rajapakse and his dominant faction in the SLFP has been overcome in a commendable way by the UNP and its broad coalition of nearly 100 political parties (though many enjoy only minuscule electoral support), civil society groups, the Sirisena faction of the SLFP, trade unions, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress – all forming an United Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). Though the pre-election posture of Sirisena and his supporters was marked by an air of confidence and lack of apprehension about Rajapakse, the political situation in the pre-election phase seemed rather fluid to many observers. Now it appears that the political configuration and the concomitant support base which brought Sirisena to power as President in January 2015 is still intact.
Notwithstanding the UNP victory, the parliamentary election results also show that Rajapakse and his supporters will continue to wield substantial influence within and outside parliament. They cannot be ignored in matters of state because of their parliamentary strength and thus the potential ability to stall the implementation of basic reforms in constitutional governance. They have the capacity to impede the smooth implementation of the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was intended to re-introduce the Westminster form of parliamentary government (this part of the Amendment has not taken effect as per the judicial pronouncement of the Supreme Court and the former Sirisena government`s acceptance for the present), limit the presidency to two terms, and put in place a Constitutional Council to bring about multi-partisanship in select areas of governance as well as promote public confidence in the constitutional and state machinery.
The 19th Amendment had been passed on 28 April by the previous parliament and constitutionally validated by the Supreme Court after certain clauses which required approval through a referendum (e.g. in regard to institution of executive presidency and empowering the prime minister to determine the size of the cabinet), were dropped by the government. It needs to be noted that Rajapakse and SLFP parliamentarians who supported him had, in the previous parliament, successfully ensured that an executive presidency was retained in the fond hope that a successor prime minister and Sirisena may not always follow convergent policies and end up at loggerheads on which political mileage can be derived.
Rajapakse’s impact will also depend on how successfully the UNP government is able to deal with a number of issues including: constitutional challenges on federalism and decentralisation, minority rights, women`s rights, reverse centralisation of political power and its concentration with a few related individuals, undo the politicisation and interference in the judiciary by executive and legislative authorities. These are formidable tasks, but the process of initiating a positive turn on these issues seems to have begun. The successful enactment of the 19th Amendment is a hopeful sign. The Sirisena presidency needs to be commended on its mature approach when, in the face of a challenge before the judiciary by Rajapakse`s supporters, the government agreed to do away with those provisions incorporated in the 19th Amendment that would have necessitated a referendum as per the existing Constitution.
There is nevertheless further scope for Rajapakse to create discord in the new governance structure, through participation in the re-incarnated Constitutional Council. The revamped Council, which will also consist of the Leader of the Opposition, i.e. Rajapakse, can disturb the process of appointment of members of a number of commissions being accorded statutory status such as the Election Commission, Audit Commission, Public Service Commission, and Bribery Commission, to name a few. Moreover, the Rajapakse combine will have the capacity to mobilise the masses against the policies and administrative measures of the Wickremesinghe government, thus checkmating the anti-Rajapakse political interest groups. In short, the new government can reasonably expect, at least for some time, concerted efforts by Rajapakse and his SLFP faction to thwart the implementation of progressive policies in the socio-economic sphere and in matters of national reconciliation.
The UNP government can, however, gradually overcome the Rajapakse factor by decentralising governance, instituting genuine devolution to all the provinces, and adopting a wide array of socio-economic measures to improve public welfare and economically empower people across provinces and regions. Though not endowed with substantial natural resources, Sri Lanka does not have an adverse per capita resource ratio. The new government should endeavour to enhance the value-addition capacity of its domestic units and enterprises, and build upon the high human development attributes of its population. Countries like India, Singapore, South Korea and Japan could provide suitable assistance towards upgrading human resources and entrepreneurial support as well as promote institutional capital investment flow. If re-oriented along the above lines, the new government`s economic policies and welfare measures will pay political dividends. This will undercut oligarchical and political family-based institutions as well as mafia-type groups (which were promoted extensively by the earlier Rajapakse regime) and inhibit their activities. Rajapakse may then find it difficult to contend with such a new political challenge from the UNP government backed by the Sirisena faction of the SLFP and functioning within a canopy of a broad UNFGG, with an active former president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, networking the urban elites against him.
*A former Additional Controller General of Defence Accounts, the author had served in the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheRajapakseFactorafterSriLankasParliamentaryElections_gsen_070915.html