Sri Lanka’s Next Step

Sri Lanka map1-873x1024Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called a snap election two weeks ago, giving voters until January to decide whether to grant him an unprecedented third term. Despite his achievements, Sri Lankans may decide they need a different kind of leadership.

When Mr. Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, Sri Lanka was locked in a decades-long civil war. He succeeded in defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, and that triumph guaranteed him a huge margin of victory when he ran again in 2010.

Yet Mr. Rajapaksa’s second term saw a rise in alleged abuses of power. Just weeks after the election, the authorities jailed the losing candidate—a leading general in the struggle against the Tamil Tigers. The government curtailed press freedom and locked up reporters. It also took legal action against the opposition and critics.

Mr. Rajapaksa also appointed two of his brothers to head major governmental ministries and two cousins to serve as ambassadors to Russia and the U.S. Another brother is Speaker of Parliament. The President says he did nothing wrong, yet this concentration of power has turned many Sri Lankans against the family.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s party saw its share of the vote plunge in by-elections and provincial elections earlier this year. Despite his loss of popularity, Mr. Rajapaksa evidently believed he stood a better chance of another six-year term if he held elections early rather than two years down the road.

But his calculation is already going awry. The day after the election announcement, Health Minister Mithripala Sirisena quit the cabinet and announced his candidacy. This move is even more surprising because Mr. Sirisena was No. 2 in the president’s party. His sudden alliance with the opposition led to a flurry of lesser defections.

Mr. Sirisena promises major political reforms if elected. Noting that Sri Lanka was “moving towards a dictatorship” under Mr. Rajapaksa, Mr. Sirisena wants to abolish the Presidency. He also plans to restore the judiciary’s independence.

Mr. Rajapaksa isn’t making such bold campaign pledges. He has already overseen an economic renaissance and promises more of the same. With 7.3% growth last year and a burgeoning tourism industry, many citizens have benefited from his tenure.

But the campaign period may expose Sri Lanka’s darker side. Election-related violence has begun, including five non-fatal shootings. There are also allegations of government employees postering for Mr. Rajapaksa, which is illegal under Sri Lankan law.

Sri Lanka has yet to heal from a civil war that cost more than 80,000 lives. Mr. Rajapaksa deserves credit for winning the war and jump-starting the economy, but he also must shoulder the blame for riding roughshod over the country’s democratic institutions. If he does win another term, the President will have to do considerably more to secure the peace. (Wall Street Journal)

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