Rajapaksa paid price for authoritarianism

Even a few months ago, defeating Sri Lanka’s all-powerful President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seemed impossible. But on Thursday, Sri Lankan voters did just that by voting out Rajapaksa, installing the joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, as their new president.

This is a historic event in the island-nation’s history and Sri Lankan voters deserve praise for their use of the ballot box to end Rajapaksa’s anti-democratic streak.

Rajapaksa was credited with defeating the LTTE and ending Sri Lanka’s 25-year-long civil war. It earned him immense gratitude from the Sinhalese. However, in subsequent years his support base eroded as his governance became synonymous with nepotism and corruption.

Moreover, Rajapaksa’s governance bordered on the authoritarian. He manoeuvred a constitutional amendment to seek re-election for the third time which did not go well with the people.

He failed to initiate a genuine process of healing vis-à-vis Tamils and avoided a political solution to the conflict. Not only Tamils but Muslims too were aggrieved under his rule and they played a crucial role in ensuring Rajapaksa’s defeat. The election result was clearly a mandate for change.

Enormous space for reconciliation and constitutional and political reform have opened up in Sri Lanka in the wake of Rajapaksa’s ouster.  Sri Lanka’s new President must initiate dialogue with the Tamils. He will come under pressure from Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist parties in the grand alliance that backed him to refrain from doing so.

Should Sirisena bow to their pressure, he will end up repeating mistakes of his predecessors. His main election plank was to reform the executive presidency and will need parliament’s support to achieve that.

He is expected to call for parliamentary elections to ensure passage of constitutional amendments. Rajapaksa packed state institutions with his loyalists and Sirisena can be expected to remove them.

But while this is understandable he must avoid the temptation to replace them with his own loyalists. There are problems ahead. It was a motley alliance that backed him in the presidential election.

Anti-Rajapaksa sentiment and determination to oust him held these parties and politicians together during the election campaign. With Rajapaksa gone, can this alliance survive? Sirisena is likely to be pulled in different directions especially on economic issues and the devolution question.

Under Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka tilted excessively towards the Chinese. Sirisena will need to restore some balance in foreign relations. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi built a close rapport with Rajapaksa, there were problems that hampered closer ties. He must reach out to Sirisena immediately. Delhi needs to nudge Sirisena to seek a political solution to the island’s conflict.

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