Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities

icgSri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.

Surprising many observers, Sri Lanka’s 8 January presidential election between incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former ally Maithripala Sirisena looks set to be a close contest. Promising to abolish the executive presidency and revive parliamentary democracy, the opposition offers a different vision from that of the government, which is increasingly entrenched in power. In its latest briefing, Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities, the International Crisis Group examines the challenges facing Rajapaksa and the opposition, and how domestic and international actors can mitigate the risk of political instability.

The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:

  • The sudden emergence of a viable joint opposition is welcome, but the heightened competition raises the likelihood of election-related violence and fraud in an increasingly authoritarian political context, where all state institutions are under the tight control of the executive. Sri Lanka’s international partners should support a significant election-monitoring presence – from the Commonwealth and the EU – as early as possible, insist it have full freedom of movement and provide funding to local election monitoring groups. They should deliver pre-election warnings to all political leaders to avoid serious fraud and election-related violence.
  • Particular concerns will focus on whether the extremist Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) movement will be marshalled to solidify the government’s Sinhalese base, or intimidate or provoke the Muslim electorate. Likewise, Tamil-majority areas in the north and east remain under tight control; as with the 2013 provincial elections, there are fears that campaigning will be heavily controlled there and the authorities could resort to intimidation or worse.
  • Should Sirisena gain power, his plan for constitutional change will face significant obstacles. His coalition will be divided on a series of crucial issues put on hold by Rajapaksa: devolving power to Tamil-majority areas, protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, addressing the legacy of wartime human rights violations – still, rightly, a focus of the UN human rights system – and reducing the military’s size and role in civilian affairs.

“The opposition’s attempt to reopen democratic space also brings with it risks of violence and instability” says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Senior Analyst. “The tighter the race, the more violent it threatens to be”.

“Whoever wins in January, issues of devolution of power, accountability and reconciliation, and of the equal status of Tamils and Muslims in a Sinhala majority state, will remain contentious”, says says Jonathan Prentice, Chief Policy Officer and Acting Asia Program Director. “Navigating this terrain will require political skills and statesmanship by all parties, with the cooperation of Sri Lanka’s international partners”.

OVERVIEW

Sri Lanka’s presidential election, scheduled for 8 January 2015, looks set to defy the predictions of many and be a true competition. As such, the polls threaten risks and promise opportunities for long-term stability and post-war reconciliation. The sudden emergence of a strong opposition candidate caught many, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, by surprise. Running on a platform of constitutional reforms to limit executive power and restore independent oversight bodies, the opposition coalition led by former Rajapaksa colleague Maithripala Sirisena seems set to pose the first strong challenge to Rajapaksa in nearly a decade. Amid a restrictive climate for civil society, for Tamils and for religious minorities, the risk of serious election-related violence merits close international attention and active efforts to prevent political instability, including the possibility of extra-constitutional means by Rajapaksa to retain power.

Reacting to disappointing results for his coalition in a series of recent provincial polls, Rajapaksa’s 20 November announcement of an early election for a third term was designed in part to strike while the opposition was still divided. To the surprise of many, a coalition of opposition parties announced that its common candidate would be Maithripala Sirisena, the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). A number of key SLFP members joined Sirisena and more defections have followed, dealing a major blow to the president. While he is still the frontrunner, for the first time since the end of the war in 2009 it can no longer be taken for granted that Rajapaksa – and with him his powerful brothers and other family members – will remain in power indefinitely. Should additional senior members of the SLFP or other constituents of the ruling coalition abandon the government, the pressure will mount. For the first time in years, the opposition, together with critical voices among Sri Lanka’s beleaguered civil society, are sensing that political change is a real possibility.

At the same time, the sudden emergence of a viable joint opposition increases the chances of severe election-related violence and other malpractices. The Rajapaksas are almost certain to deploy the full resources of the state – money, vehicles, state-owned radio, TV and newspapers, civil servants and the police – in support of Mahinda’s re-election, and are widely expected to do whatever is needed to try to maintain their power. The tighter the race, the more violent it will be.

Many fear that the radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, or BBS) may be used to produce a violent incident designed to distract from other malpractices, or to lower Muslim turnout, or to provoke a Muslim backlash that the government would use to solidify its Sinhala base. Some suspect BBS could also be used to destabilise a new government should Sirisena win.

With the northern and eastern provinces still under tight military control, security forces could, as in last year’s provincial election, be used to restrict campaigning by opposition parties and intimidate Tamil and Muslim voters to reduce turnout. Restrictions on travel by foreigners to the northern province, re-imposed in September 2014, will make it harder for media, diplomats and international organisations or aid workers to monitor and report on any violations.

Should Sirisena win the vote, the president and his brothers could find other means to retain power, including resorting to the politically compliant Supreme Court to invalidate the result, or using the military as a last resort. In this volatile pre-election context, foreign governments and international institutions concerned with Sri Lanka’s long-term stability – among them, China, India, Japan, U.S., the UN, European Union (EU), World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) – should seek to limit the risks of serious political violence, before, during and after the election; and help create as level an electoral playing field as possible, to increase the chances for real debate and fair competition. To these ends, they should:

  • support a significant election-monitoring presence – from the Commonwealth and the EU – as early as possible, insist it have full freedom of movement and provide funding to local election monitoring groups;
  • deliver pre-election warnings to all political leaders to avoid serious fraud and election-related violence, including support for militant Buddhist attacks on Muslims and Christians.

Amid Sri Lanka’s authoritarian drift and institutionalised impunity, that a real political competition is in the offing provides unexpected hope for the future. Within the current opening, however, lies potential for serious conflict given how much is at stake for all involved. The opportunity should be seized to make sure that the next government has the broad national credibility, internationally endorsed, to begin the process of knitting together the Sri Lankan society battered by its recent traumatic history. Whoever wins in January, core questions around national identity – issues of devolution of power, of accountability and reconciliation, and of the equal status of Tamils and Muslims in a Sinhala majority state – will remain contentious. They will require deft handling if greater instability is not to result.

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