The January 2015 presidential election in Sri Lanka has delivered its verdict, bringing the curtain down on the rule of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa and opening a new era in Sri Lanka’s domestic and foreign policies. Although optimism over the new administration must be tempered for the time being, the election of Maithripala Sirisena provides an opportunity for Sri Lanka—especially to deal with its two pressing internal issues: corruption and reconciliation with the Tamil minority.

Frederic Grare
Grare is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s South Asia Program. His research focuses on security issues and democratization in India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Previously, he led the Asia bureau at the Directorate for Strategic Affairs in the French Ministry of Defense.
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But the election of a new president also has foreign policy implications, especially in relations with China and India, which in turn may have significant implications for the fight against corruption and the promotion of reconciliation. For the same reason, the election should also be a chance for the United States and Europe to revise their policies vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and to use this window of opportunity to help the country move in the right direction.

An Unexpected Victory

Despite the government’s poor record on human rights and democratic governance, few expected the recent election to be anything more than the coronation of Rajapaksa. But Maithripala Sirisena’s defection from the government, after serving as health minister, alongside that of some 20 members of Parliament, turned what should have been a formality for the incumbent president into a tightly contested campaign as opposition groups, including the main Tamil party, decided to back Sirisena’s candidacy. On January 9, the Department of Elections announced that Sirisena, the leader of the opposition coalition, had won 51.3 percent of the vote, with 47.6 percent going to his adversary. Rajapaksa consequently conceded defeat.

In his campaign against Rajapaksa, Sirisena laid out his new government’s priorities as a direct contrast to the incumbent regime and spoke out in particular against the cronyism of the Rajapaksa administration. The growing concentration of power in the hands of Rajapaksa’s family members and acolytes alienated a substantial part of the population, including those in Rajapaksa’s own party, with even senior ministers expressing their frustration over being deprived of any meaningful authority.1 Sirisena gained support against this backdrop of cronyism, opposing the president’s clan, which manipulated the state and the economy for its own benefit. His election manifesto promised, among other things, to dismantle Rajapaksa’s autocratic executive presidential system and to amend the constitution to guarantee democracy by establishing “independent Commissions in order to secure the impartiality of institutions such as the judiciary, police, elections, auditing and the office of the Attorney-General.” The manifesto also promised a development economy and a moral society.

Sirisena’s manifesto outlined a vision of foreign policy that revolved around stronger relationships with Sri Lanka’s Asian neighbors and a willingness to have “closer relations [with India] with an attitude that would be neither anti-Indian nor dependent.” This last issue, improving relations with India, could be integral to the new administration’s commitments to tackling corruption and reconciliation, two crucial and sensitive issues in Sri Lanka.

A development economy and a moral society were the two responses proposed by Sirisena in his electoral manifesto to fight corruption in the country. Despite the highest economic growth rate in the region, a booming tourist industry, and billions of dollars in Chinese loans, the public was discontented by the high cost of living and unemployment. This discontent largely resulted from the government’s domestic policy, which favored costly infrastructure projects that produced few jobs at the expense of public services including health and education. As a result, while Rajapaksa ended the prolonged Tamil insurgency in the north by crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the general population never saw economic improvements alongside the new peace.

The absence of any meaningful reconciliation process and continued discriminatory policies alienated not only Muslim and Tamil minorities but Christians as well. Each group was the target of a campaign of intimidation and violence condoned by the government. Unlawful killings by security forces and government-allied paramilitary groups, often in predominantly Tamil areas, were common.

The India and China Factors

The foreign policy of the new Sri Lankan government might be relevant beyond simply its role in any regional India-China rivalry. Sirisena’s election is generally seen as a blow to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and is thus welcomed in New Delhi, which has grown increasingly concerned about the docking of Chinese submarines in Sri Lankan ports.

Such infrastructure projects led to complaints of massive corruption from those who resented the impunity of the politically well connected. But the projects were also closely linked to Sri Lanka’s relations with China. During the electoral campaign, Sirisena strongly criticized his predecessor for incurring heavy foreign debts, indicating in his manifesto that he would “prepare the Sri Lankan economy to prevent international assaults by diversification of investment, non-reliance on investments from a single country and re-investment.”

Once elected, the new government cautiously maintained that Beijing, the largest foreign investor in the country, remained a friend. But officials of the United National Party, whose leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe, is now prime minister, declared that the new government would review all major infrastructure projects. Party officials also observed that “many of these projects in question happened to be Chinese,” suggesting that Chinese companies also had a role in the infrastructure-related corruption. Colombo might be tempted to distance itself somewhat from China, although few doubt that Beijing will soon rebuild its relationship with the new administration.

Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationship with India is deeply linked to the other sensitive domestic issue: reconciliation with the Tamil minority. India had previously helped the Rajapaksa regime battle the LTTE, but the promised reconciliation with the Tamils never materialized. This not only impacted domestic politics in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, but it also embarrassed India internationally, as New Delhi continually felt compelled to support Sri Lanka in international fora, in particular the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In his manifesto, Sirisena alluded to resetting relations with India and taking a different approach to the Tamil issue, calling for “due consideration to the diversity of India.” An improved policy toward the Tamil minority in the new government, as promised in the election manifesto, would benefit India’s domestic politics.

Indian analysts continue to warn against expectations that Sirisena—a member of the majority Sinhala ethnic group who shares a common political background with Rajapaksa and who escaped five assassination attempts by the LTTE—might drastically change domestic policy toward the Tamils. But Sirisena’s election was made possible by overwhelming support from the nation’s minorities, including the Tamils. New Delhi can therefore be cautiously optimistic about the prospects for an improved relationship.

The election of Sirisena is, at this stage, merely a positive development for Sri Lanka, and the country’s future continues to be fraught with uncertainty. The ability of the new government to deliver on its promises remains an open question. Sirisena’s political history seems largely free of allegations of corruption, which undoubtedly lent credibility to his principled campaign. But Sirisena may find it difficult to secure the two-thirds majority in Parliament necessary for the constitutional reform required to guarantee a proper system of checks and balances. During the election, his political coalition united largely around its desire to remove Rajapaksa from office, and it could be difficult for the new president to move forward on many policy issues.2

Reconciliation could be a test of the solidity of the government coalition, especially after taking into account the fact that Rajapaksa received substantial support from Sinhala rural areas, where he remains very popular. In the current environment, relations with India could facilitate domestic reconciliation. New Delhi is unlikely to play a direct role in any negotiations, but the development assistance it provided to the Rajapaksa government to help rehabilitate the Tamil areas should now reach the target population.

A Role for the International Community

The international community could also play a positive role in Sri Lanka’s progress toward reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States and Europe were notoriously bad during the Rajapaksa regime, but the election creates the opportunity for a revision of U.S. and European policies vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.

To help control corruption and promote reconciliation, it may be time to consider relieving some of the pressures on Sri Lanka applied by the United States and Europe. Gradually unfreezing development aid and giving Sri Lanka enhanced trade benefits under the GSP+ trade agreements if Sri Lanka works toward achieving genuine reconciliation and fighting corruption could be steps in the right direction.

Rajapaksa’s departure from power undoubtedly opens a window of opportunity for Sri Lanka. While it is the responsibility of the new government to take advantage of this moment, it might be wise for foreign nations to help Sri Lanka resolve its long-standing domestic concerns.

Notes

1 Two of the president’s brothers held key executive branch posts, as defense secretary and economic development minister, while a third brother was speaker of the Parliament.

2 Sirisena has the backing of the main opposition party, the United National Party. He also drew support from the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHL), the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), as well as smaller parties representing the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities.