Sri Lanka – Popular President Delivers

The honeymoon period for President Maithripala Sirisena elected on January 8th 2015 still lingers on. He polled 51.3% of the popular vote in January. With a job approval rating of about 65% he is easily the most popular political leader in the country today.

There are several reasons for his popularity. The most important one being the sense of honesty and integrity that he has managed to project to the country. He made a public commitment not to seek reelection. The people have interpreted that as the action of a man who is not power hungry. That has also given him more freedom to advocate his positions on constitutional reform and challenge those who oppose. He has also used his popularity to advocate a moderate position on ethnic relations that directly challenges the more extremist views on both sides of the ethnic divide.

19th Amendment to the Constitution

President Sirisena also scored a major success in getting parliament to pass the 19th amendment to the Constitution with 215 members in the 225 strong parliament voting for it. The amendment repealed the 18th amendment that the previous Rajapaksa administration got adopted in 2010 that armed the president with extra-ordinary powers. The major features of the 19th amendment include a reduction in the terms of President and Parliament from six years to five, re-introduction of a two-term limit that a person can have as President, the power of President to dissolve Parliament only after four and a half years (the previous provision allowed for dissolution after one year), and the establishment of ten independent commissions that would pave the way to strengthen of democracy, human rights and good governance.

In the presidential campaign Sirisena and his backers made the voters believe that the executive presidency would be replaced with a British style prime ministerial system. That has not happened. The 19th amendment curtails presidential powers but the office remains intact otherwise. Sirisena has managed to retain an executive presidential system while shaving off some of its more ugly features that led to bad governance.

Electoral Reform

In his campaign for the presidency Mr. Sirisena promised to dissolve parliament on completion of his One-Hundred-Day Program. The last major promise under the program that remains to be fulfilled is to change the current system of election to parliament. Sri Lanka currently has a district-based (Sri Lanka has 25 administrative districts for a population of 21m) proportional representation (PR) system to elect 225 members of parliament. Some oppose the PR system on the grounds that district-wide elections that require candidates to canvass for preference votes in a large area favor the richer candidates and lead to corruption. They claim that the single constituency first-past-the-post system is more suitable and produces parliamentarians that are more accountable to the constituency.

The United National Party (UNP) that was primarily responsible for Sirisena’s victory in January is not keen on a change in the electoral system at this juncture. It wants the president to dissolve parliament as soon as possible and hold fresh elections under the current PR system in the belief that it has the electoral upper hand. Smaller parties and ethnic minorities that have secured parliamentary representation under the PR system also oppose change. Sections of the opposition including some in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that Mr. Sirisena leads support an immediate change and demands that the next election must be held under the reformed system that may include some PR but would give more weight to first-past-the-post single constituency system. Supporters of the former president Rajapaksa have a similar view in the belief that they stand to gain electorally from abolishing the PR system.

The cabinet at a meeting held on June 8th has agreed to amend the system to elect 125 MPs from the constituencies, 75 under PR based on districts, and the remaining 25 from the National List also based on PR. However, the next parliamentary election that is due soon will be held under the current PR system.

Foreign Relations

In foreign relations President Sirisena has clearly signaled that he does not want to be almost totally reliant on Chinese economic and diplomatic support as his predecessor Rajapaksa was. However, by making his second foreign visit to Beijing – the first was to Delhi – he also signaled that he wants to protect Sri Lanka’s friendship with the emerging superpower. While doing so he has managed to repair diplomatic fences with USA and other western countries that were badly damaged during the Rajapaksa administration. He visited the UK in mid May. US Secretary of State visited Sri Lanka in early May, the first by a US Secretary of State after Colin Powell’s visit in 2005 soon after the Asian Tsunami devastated parts of the coastal belt of the country. Mr. Kerry indicated the willingness of the Obama administration to support Sirisena’s government both diplomatically and economically.

Post-War to Post-Conflict Transition

With the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 Sri Lanka entered a post-war phase that needs to transit into a post-conflict phase. The Rajapaksa administration (2006-2014) failed to grasp the vital difference between post-war and post-conflict. President Sirisena appreciates the difference and has made a serious bid in the past five months to appeal to the Tamil and Muslim minorities to join him in the task of nation building. However, that is not a task that the president alone is able to accomplish. He needs the backing of the legislature and a stable government that the country presently lacks.

President Sirisena faces at least three major political challenges. First, he has to make sure that the former president Rajapaksa fails in his effort to make a political comeback. Rajapaksa is drawing a great deal of media attention. He also has the support of a group of MPs that do not find favor with Sirisena. However, there is no hard evidence to suggest that there is major public support for Rajapaksa and his followers.

The second major challenge that he has to face is to retain his credibility as the leader of the SLFP while also not undermining the political future of the UNP and its leader present Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. The two parties have been traditional rivals. Sirisena has to placate both sides. His solution is to promote a “national government” that would bring together the two parties under his overall leadership. There is significant public support for this idea. Under the current PR system if there is a three-way – UNP, SLFP and Rajapaksa Alliance – contest for seats in parliament it is likely that the UNP would emerge with the largest number of seats followed by the SLFP, with the Rajapaksa faction coming a distant third. Then Sirisena would succeed in his plan to form a national government that may include not only the UNP and SLFP but also some of the smaller parties that represent Tamil and Muslim ethnic interests. With strong leadership and right mixture of policies such a government may be able to usher in a post-conflict Sri Lanka.

The third major challenge is economic. Sri Lanka’s economy produced high GDP growth rates in the past five years, largely thanks to Chinese-funded high profile physical infrastructure projects. Some of those projects such as the Mattala international airport were poor choices that have yielded low or no economic returns. Sirisena has to find a more viable alternative model that will create jobs and improve incomes of the middle class and the working poor. There are no signs of that happening under the unstable political environment that prevails today. Thus we can expect President Sirisena to dissolve parliament very soon and ask the people for a mandate for a new administration.


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