INVINCIBLE Mahinda Rajapakse (69) has conceded defeat. His attempt to get an unprecedented third term as president was dashed on January 8, when his challenger Maithripala Sirisena garnered 51.3% votes from Sri Lanka's 15 million voters.
Rajapakse's second six-year term was supposed to ends in November 2016. But suddenly last November, the president announced fresh elections. His decision to seek a fresh mandate was linked to several motivations -- astrological considerations; the divided and fragmented opposition; Supreme Court's ruling that he could seek a third term; likely adverse UN Human Rights Council's report in March 2015, which could make him unpopular during the remaining period of his tenure.
Elected for the first term in 2004, Rajapakse had two major credits to his presidency. He waged war against the Tamil Tigers and defeated Velupillai Prabhakaran's LTTE in May 2009. That ended the 26-year old insurgency. The victory led to his reelection in 2010. The second credit was that the economy had grown at the rate of 7% per year since then.
The issues that worked against Rajapakse were high handedness of his executive presidency, authoritarianism, staggering corruption and appointment of family members in powerful positions of the administration. Rajapakse failed to pursue a reconciliation policy to bring the defeated Tamils into mainstream politics. International accusations of war crimes against the Tamils during the LTTE war haunted him, with UN Human Rights Council going after him repeatedly.
Rajapakse amended the constitution (18th Amendment) to remove the two-term limit on presidents. He impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandarnayake and appointed pliant Attorney General Mohan Peiris as the new chief justice. His three brothers occupy high positions -- Gotabaya Rajapakse is the defense secretary, Chamal is Speaker of the Parliament and Basil Rajapakse is minister for economic development. He had too much power concentrated in his hands.
The voting pattern was marked by some significant changes this time, which upset the election result. In 2010 the Tamils, who constitute 13% of the population, and Muslims who make 7%, abstained from voting, because they did not have any trust in chauvinist Rajapakse. This time around, leaders of both communities promised to support Sirisena. A significant portion of the Sinhalese vote, which traditionally supported Rajapakse, split and went to Sirisena. Disenchanted first time youth voters also voted for Sirisena.
Sinhala Buddhist Maithripala Sirisena (63) comes from a peasant background. Jailed in 1971 during the communist insurrection, Sirisena rejoined mainstream politics through the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Though he lacks charisma he is soft-spoken and seen as a sober and serious person who can undo the bad precedents set by his predecessor.
Sirisena has promised major political reforms. The MOU signed by him with NDF component parties pledges to abolish the executive presidency, repeal the 18th Amendment and appoint Ranil Wickremasinghe as prime minister of a full all-party government. It was the amendment and the Supreme Court's ruling that encouraged Rajapakse to go for the election. He also pledged to hold fresh parliamentary elections within 100 days of assuming power.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon applauded the “peaceful and credible elections” and affirmed UN support for “development, reconciliation, political dialogue, and accountability in Sri Lanka.” Washington, which had strongly criticised Rajapakse for alleged crimes related to the LTTE war, also endorsed the results and said it would work with the new president. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also felicitated the new president.
Now that Maithripala Sirisena has taken over let us see what challenges he is likely to face. His first task will be to keep the disparate group of 40 parties in the NDF united. The motley NDF includes ethnic, religious, Marxist and centre-right parties, and Sirisena may end up being ineffective in his efforts to accommodate their varied demands. Bringing the ethnic minority communities -- Tamils and Muslims -- alongside the mainstream Sinhala will require inclusive policies. Maintaining the economic growth rate unhindered will require strict and efficient management of fiscal and monetary policies. The NDF component parties have not yet agreed on a common economic policy. Curbing pervasive corruption will be a daunting task for the new president.
Under Rajapakse, Sri Lanka had tilted more towards China ignoring neighbouring India. Because of criticisms, Rajapakse shunned the West and tried to thwart all attempts to investigate his government's war crimes. Sirisena will have a serious task to rebalance his foreign relations -- mending ties with India while not upsetting the Chinese, who are involved in massive funding of mega development projects. Speaking to Hindustan Times Sirisena remarked: “India is our first, main concern. But we are not against Chinese investment either. We will maintain good relations with China too.”
The election passed off rather peacefully, with a few stray incidents. Sri Lankan Department of Election led by Mahinda Deshapriya deserves full credit for organising a clean election. One has to praise Rajapakse for allowing the holding of free and fair election despite all the negative predictions that he was invincible and would employ every means to hold on to power. He will command wide respect from all for handing over power peacefully, respecting the wish of the people.
Can we in Bangladesh learn from the Sri Lankan experience on how to conduct a free and fair election and how power can be transferred peacefully?
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.
Source: The Daily Star, 12 January 2015