Stanley W. Samarasinghe – Sri Lanka: A Vote For Change

This is a guest post by Stanley W. Samarasinghe, Adjunct Professor at the Payson Center for International Development at the Law School in Tulane University

Sam Samarasinghe

Sri Lanka’s 7th Presidential Election – A Vote for Change

Sri Lanka voted for change in the country’s 7th presidential election held on Thursday January 8th. The common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena (MS) won the presidency polling 51.3% of the vote to United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate and incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa’s (MR) 47.6%. This was a swing of 10.3 percentage points against MR who polled 57.9% in 2010. The latter was first elected president in 2005. He was contesting the presidency for the third time having made a controversial amendment to the constitution in 2010 that removed the two-term limit.


Sirisena was a senior member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet and served as the Secretary General of the UPFA. His crossover to the opposition on November 21, about three weeks prior to the date of nomination took the country by surprise. The common opposition backing Sirisena consisted of the main opposition party United National Party (UNP) and several minor parties. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that represents the Sri Lankan Tamils (12% of the electorate) and the two parties that represent the Muslins (9%) and the radical People’s Liberation Front (JVP) also backed Sirisena.

Development vs. Good Governance

Winning the war in 2009 defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), continued vigilance against a recurrence of “terrorism” and mega development projects launched mainly with Chinese loan funds were the main arguments of the Rajapaksa for requesting a third term.

Sirisena rejected the possibility of a recurrence of terrorism. He argued that the Rajapaksa family and his main supporters were guilty of unprecedented corruption, that the mega development projects were largely wasteful, and that the regime abused power, violated principles of good governance and undermined democracy in the country.

Rajapaksa who deployed state machinery and misused state resources on an unprecedented scale for his campaign was confident of victory. According to reliable opinion polls Sirisena started the campaign at the end of November as the underdog with about 20% of the vote to Rajapaksa’s 44%. Over the next five weeks Sirisena gained on Rajapaksa who was stuck around 45%, the lavish campaign spending and deployment of state machinery in his favour notwithstanding.

Opinion polls that were conducted in the five weeks prior to the election showed an overwhelming 80% of the electorate recognized the 2009 war victory against the LTTE and the peace that it brought to the daily lives of people as a major benefit for which MR got most credit. About 36% of the voters also gave credit to MR for the mega development projects.

However, the voters were also concerned about three issues that stood against Rajapaksa. These were the high cost of living, inadequate income and corruption.

In the first three weeks of the campaign in December the opposition was relatively successful in keeping the focus of the voter on the cost of living and other economic woes of the voters. They also tried to tie the cost of living to two glaring shortcomings of the government. One was corruption. The second was waste of funds on unproductive mega projects such as the Mattala international airport costing $209 million and the Hambantota Port (Phase 1) costing $361 million.

In the last two weeks of the campaign Rajapaksa made a serious bid to move the debate to the issue of terrorism and national security where his credentials remain unmatched. The opposition’s argument that Rajapaksa was merely trying to resurrect an old-issue that has already been settled, in order to cover other shortcomings of his admiration resonated with many voters, especially those who belonged to the minorities, and the more educated urban Sinhalese voters.

Broad-based Win

Rajapaksa who polled 5.8 m. (47.6%) won the vote of the majority ethnic group Sinhelase (75% of the population) 52% to 48%. However, Sirisena who won 6.2 million votes (51.3% of the valid poll) did exceedingly well among the minorities polling as much as 80% of the vote. He also did very well in Colombo and some of its suburbs and in some of the provincial capitals. Sirisena’s win was broad-based. He not only won the endorsement of the minorities but he also did very well among the Sinhalese majority community.

Change in Action

In the one week that Sirisena has been in office he has appointed his cabinet that consists of members from all the parties in parliament except two, TNA and JVP. Both turned down offers to join the cabinet but have pledged to support Sirisena.

Some officials of the Rajapaksa regime who have been accused of bribery and corruption have fled the country. Some have resigned from office or have been removed.

Most countries have welcomed Sirisena’s victory. India and USA are likely to be particularly pleased because the heavy dependence of the Rajapaksa regime on Beijing would have caused them some anxiety.

Sirisena has a One Hundred Day Program. It includes, among other things, relief for consumers who are suffering from the high cost of living. Sirisena also wants to establish of a series of commissions to depoliticize the investigation of bribery and corruption, and make the police, judiciary, public service, and the conduct of elections independent and free of poltical interference. He also wants to amend the constitution to scale down the powers of the executive presidency, increase the powers of parliament, and reform of the electoral system.

There is considerable enthusiasm for the “change” that has occurred. But Sri Lankans also realize that the nation’s politics are in uncharted waters. President Sirisena expects to complete this One Hundred Day Program in three months and call for fresh elections to form a government of national unity. Whether such a government would be possible depends on the final outcome of the realignment of poltical forces that is currently taking place in the country following Sirisena’s victory.

Stanley W. Samarasinghe is Adjunct Professor at the Payson Center for International Development at the Law School in Tulane University. Prominent in the fields of Economics, International Development, and Conflict Studies, Professor Samarasinghe designs and teaches post-graduate courses in International Development, Development Economics, International Health and Ethnic Conflict. Previous positions include Director of the Payson Center’s office in Arlington, VA, and over 20 years of teaching at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In 2005 he visited the Tsunami countries in Asia for the UN and co-authored a UN report titled “Coordination of International Humanitarian Assistance in Tsunami-Affected Countries.” He is currently researching and writing on “Female-headed households in the former war zone of Sri Lanka.” He is also preparing a monograph on the “Political Economy of Development in Sri Lanka”.

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