Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election has created excitement with President Mahinda Rajapaksa facing challenge from his ex-colleague, Maithripala Sirisena, who promises reforms to curtail executive powers. Alan Keenan is International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director. Speaking with Sameer Arshad, Keenan discussed the significance of the first major challenge to Rajapaksa in a decade, threats of election-day violence against minority groups and fears of Rajapaksa using extra-constitutional methods to retain power:
What is the significance of Maithripala Sirisena’s challenge to President Rajapaksa?
Well, for the first time in years, there’s open political debate and a sense that change is possible. The sudden emergence of credible, energised opposition has opened a new space in the media and public discourse to challenge power concentration in the president and his family and allegedly high levels of corruption. These topics were previously grumbled about but not given the prominence they now have.
The fact that the opposition is led by an ex-member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet has given criticism more credibility and emboldened many other ruling party members to express their grievances.
What does such opposition unity mean for Sri Lanka’s civil society and minorities?
The newly energised opposition has to some degree contributed to a renewal of civic space severely curtailed under Rajapaksa – an opposition victory might open new space for debate and dissent.
An increase in democratic space would benefit Tamils and Muslims, who have suffered from rights violations. Tamils, who live under effective military rule and whose political representatives have been systematically cut off from power, could gain a lot from a new government committed to democracy.
Unfortunately, the opposition appears to have no plans for post-war reconciliation or accountability for war-time rights violations, devolving greater power to Tamil and Muslim areas or ensuring equal status of Tamils and Muslims in a Sinhala-majority state. This has disappointed many Tamils and Muslims it may discourage some from voting.
Some analysts suggest radical Buddhists may target minorities to lower their turnout at the polls – your view?
The fear is understandable, given the impunity with which militant Buddhists have been allowed to attack Muslims, evangelical Christians and opponents of the government.
That said, the violence encouraged by groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was unpopular with many Sinhalese and Buddhists so, a return to violence would carry risks for the Rajapaksa candidacy, which BBS has endorsed.
How real are fears of Rajapaksa resorting to extra-constitutional means for retaining power?
These fears are well-founded. Sri Lanka has a long history of violence before, during and after elections. The past few weeks have seen at least two dozen violent incidents, almost all of them against opposition supporters.
Equally worrisome is potential for fraud. Rajapaksa is reportedly using public resources and enlisting civil servants in unprecedented and illegal ways. This has added to fears that the election won’t be free and fair and that Rajapaksa could find extra-constitutional means to deny Sirisena a victory, either through the courts, widely seen to have lost their independence, or through the military, which is controlled by the president and his brother. (TOI)