Sri Lanka – President Grapples with International and Local Challenges

Following his election to the presidency on January 07th 2015 Maithripala Sirisena governed the country for over six months under an interim government.

The August 17th parliamentary election did not give a clear-cut victory to a single political party. The United National Party (UNP) that was mainly responsible for Sirisena’s victory in January won 106 seats, seven short of an absolute majority of 113 in the 225 strong parliament. UNP’s main rival United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa led secured 95 seats and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) 16.

This situation gave Sirisena and his main ally UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe room to maneuver to come up with what they have described as a “national” government. In effect it is a coalition of the UNP and a significant segment of the UPFA. About half of the elected members of the UPFA chose to remain in the opposition benches under the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership. However, Sirisena appointed the leader of the TNA Rajavarothiam Sampanthan as the as the Leader of the Opposition ignoring the protestation of UPFA members in the opposition. Sirisena’s action at once denied his former leader Rajapaksa the powers and privileges that the Leader of the Opposition enjoys, and at the same time gained him praise from other quarters for signaling to the Tamil community that he was ready to welcome the Tamils as active participants in the poltical process.


The term “national government” would have been more apt if the TNA had been a part of the government. Be that as it may, even with two parties Sirisena had the unenviable task of making everybody happy with ministerial portfolios to make his new coalition work. Sirisena in his campaign criticized Rajapaksa for having a large government of 106 members of ministerial and deputy ministerial rank and promised a cabinet of no more than 30. His new government has 88 members with 47 in the cabinet, 19 state ministers and 22 deputy ministers. There is a possibility that an additional 22 may be appointed as District Ministers. The numbers reflect sheer political expediency. To make matters worse some of the ministerial functions have been allocated ignoring the need for efficiency of management of government affairs. For example, the Ministry of Highways and the Ministry of Higher Education have been allocated to one minister. There is another minister that does not have single government department or agency to look after.


Sirisena and his government had to devote much of the month of September to the Thirteenth Session of the UN Human Rights Council that was convened in Geneva and the Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka (OISL).  The report can be traced back to a resolution that was originally presented to the Council in 2009 calling for an investigation of alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed during the last phase of the civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Mahinda Rajapaksa administration strongly opposed the resolution that had the backing of the USA and EU countries. Similar resolutions were tabled in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and the OISL was the final outcome of the process. The UN Human Rights Commissioner presenting the Report last month in Geneva referred to “findings of a most serious nature” in the Report and supported its recommendation for a “hybrid” investigative mechanism that combines international and Sri Lankan personnel to inquire into any possible human rights violations and crimes committed during the last phase of the war. Former president Rajapaksa and his supporters have rejected the report outright calling its findings and criticism to be baseless and the proposed hybrid mechanism a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The Sirisena administration took a more conciliatory view and agreed to have a domestic inquiry with some international input. The idea was to satisfy the international community while thwarting the criticism of the opposition. Sri Lanka signed on as a cosponsor of a resolution that was unanimously adopted by the UNHR Council last week that would set up the prosed mechanism and conduct the inquiry.

New York

President Sirisena participated in the UN General Assembly sessions last month. Although much of the negotiations between Sri Lanka on the one side and Geneva and the main sponsors of the resolution, most notably USA and UK, on the other took place through the office of the prime minister Sirisena’s visit to New York was perfectly timed for domestic consumption. He was given a hero’s welcome on his return home from New York as the man who “saved” the country from international condemnation and restored its due place in the comity of nations. The only blot in an otherwise successful diplomatic foray was Sirisena taking along his 18 year old son to New York apparently at state expense and accommodating him as a part of his delegation when the young man had no official status. Mahinda Rajapaksa drew a lot of flack for favoring his family in similar ways and this lapse on the part of Sirisena reminded voters that the new administration is perfectly capable of repeating the mistakes of the past that Sirisena criticized a few month ago in his campaign.


The government’s strategy appears to be getting its international relations sorted out so that it could embark on a sustained development program at home with the support of the international community. Sirisena visited Delhi last February. Prime Minster Wickremesinghe followed him with a visit to Delhi in September. The two countries generally have had cordial relations. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to see the full implementation of devolution of power to the Tamil areas under the 13th amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka that was enacted in 1987 at the insistence of Delhi. Sri Lanka’s prime minister has publicly assured that it would be done under what he calls the framework of a “unitary” state. The two countries have agreed to deepen economic relations. However, the much-delayed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries remained stalled and awaits renegotiation. The Sri Lankan business community has some reservations because it fears that cheap Indian goods and labor could swamp the Sri Lankan market. Sri Lanka is not keen on an Indian proposal to have a land route connecting the two countries across the Palk Strait.


At the time of this writing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is in Tokyo. The hope is that Japan that was the major donor to Sri Lanka before China took that place about eight years ago would come back with an offer of substantial assistance to the Sirisena administration.

Governance Capacity

Sirisena’s promise of good governance played a significant role in his successive election victories this year. But events now clearly show that he is finding it much harder to deliver on his promise. We noted above that the national government was more the result of poltical expediency than an innovative step to solve the problems of the nation. This has resulted in a government of varied ability and competence. The appointees to the cabinet as well as the sub-cabinet positions are a mix of competent and incompetent, the qualified and the unqualified, and the honest and the dishonest. There are some in government who have been accused of very serious crimes including narcotics smuggling.

A second major constraint is the lack of institutional capacity. For example, there has been a massive wave of crimes reported in the media in the past few months. The performance of the police has been less than professional in the handling of some of these cases. This deficiency can be seen in most government departments and state agencies.

Executive Power

Critics of the Sri Lankan executive presidency have viewed it as an office that concentrated power in the hands of one individual undermining democracy. Two previous holders of that office Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2006-2014) when they contested for office for the first time in1994 and 2005 respectively promised the voters that the office would be abolished. Both broke their promise with impunity. In 2001 when the UNP won the parliamentary election and formed a government while Kumaratunga still remained as president the 17th amendment to the constitution was enacted that curtailed the powers of the president. However, UNP lost the 2004 parliamentary election and Kumaratunga willfully undermined the implementation of the 17th amendment until she left office in November 2005. Rajapaksa who succeeded her not only broke his promise but did the opposite by enacting the 18th amendment in 2010 that enhanced the powers of the presidency and removed the term limit that barred any person from holding the office for more than two six-year terms.

Sirisena campaigned for the January 7th election on a promise to introduce a “ constitutional structure” that would create an “Executive allied with the Parliament through the Cabinet instead of the present autocratic Executive Presidential System.” To his credit he got the parliament to enact the 19th amendment last April. It establishes a Constitutional Council that takes over some of the powers, most notably appointments to key commissions, that the president exercised previously. It also reduces the presidential term from six years to five, restores the two-term limit and paves the way to the establishment of ten key independent commissions that are expected to ensure among other things, the independence of vital state services such as the public service and the police, protect human rights and fight bribery and corruption. These in effect would also reduce the powers of the presidency. The process of establishing the commissions is under way to be completed in a few weeks from now.

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