Sri Lanka election – what next?

On 26 December 2014, Sri Lanka commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Asian tsunami.

It was quite a muted affair given its symbolic place in history, largely overshadowed by an unwanted presidential election campaign. No one, though, would have predicted the political tsunami that saw close to 82% of people take part in the election on 8 January; saw a new president voted in; the army refuse to instigate a coup and the incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa having to concede defeat when only 3 million of an estimated 15 million votes had been counted.

Called two years ahead of time, the presidential election was always going to be a gamble taken by the incumbent to shore up popularity among the traditional Sinhalese Buddhist vote, and establish a platform to carve out his family dynasty in politics – largely reminiscent of what happens in south Asian politics.

However, six weeks after the campaign, that gamble backfired in what can actually be termed a shock defeat. Sri Lanka has a new president – Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister, who gathered 51% of the vote after an unprecedented turnout at the polls. The mood of course is quite jubilant and for once there is hope, evidenced by the turnout to see the inauguration of the new president.

So what went wrong with the re-election of the incumbent president for a third time? The analysis of this election has to be done based on how the incumbent lost, rather than necessarily focussing on what the challenger did to win.

First, people have been talking about a need for change. The fact that corruption and nepotism had got so rampant, that press and general media freedom had got so bad, that the conduct of the politicians had become untenable and that there was the danger of the regime going down the route of authoritarianism, prompted people to talk about change.

Coupled with this was the feeling of isolation among the minority ethnic Tamils and Muslims and a growing intolerance of Sri Lanka’s multi-faith landscape by radical Buddhist monks (operating with impunity from the state), it was clear that the incumbent would have a lot to answer for. Because of this, there have been claims by many that he only lost the minority votes and hence the election.

However, the incumbent also lost votes from his traditional support base (going down from over 6 million to 5.7 million), allowing the new president to win the election with over 70% of the votes from the majority community. Numbers aside, the hope and aspirations are for change.

So what does this ‘good news’ story mean for Sri Lanka? The new president will have an uphill struggle on his hands. So much anticipation and expectation has been created that this could be difficult to handle if not managed properly. There will be the task of ensuring a political solution to the grievances of the minorities in a way that ensures that the country moves forward after 20 years of conflict. There will be a need to contain the Sinhalese Buddhist elements who seem intent on hammering the Sinhala nationalist identity home at the loss of the minorities’ stake in the country.

More importantly, however, there will be the task of arresting the moral and intellectual corruption that seems to not only pervade the political scene, but has also trickled down into society as a whole. Yet neither of the main candidates has presented a clear proposal for the reconciliation and integration of the society.

This is perhaps the gap that International Alert is best equipped to fill.

Over the last few years, our work in Sri Lanka with young political leaders, faith leaders and Sri Lankan youth based in the UK, has been about creating spaces for people to talk about a ‘positive peace’.

What this means in practice is about setting the conditions right for people to get to talk to each other, understand each other and eventually work with each other to solve their problems. Now more than ever, a window of opportunity has arisen for a paradigm shift in attitude for people to make a principled ‘change’. This principled change will have to insist on a radical overhaul of the whole system of party patronage, ethnic nationalistic representation and political ‘one-upmanship’.

This is the aspiration of the citizens of Sri Lanka (regardless of whether they are the majority ethnic and religious community or the minority; whether they are the urban elite or rural working class), that spoke loudly on 8 January.

Alert’s experience in supporting such dialogue and conversation could be vital in further strengthening local initiatives in realising these aspirations for a more inclusive and just political system and society.