A chance to return to democracy

ElectionsThe defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 8 presidential election in Sri Lanka, and the emergence of Maithripala Sirisena with a clear vote of nearly 52 per cent, gives the country a clear shot at returning to the path of normal democratic politics after

Mr Rajapaksa had essayed an executive presidency most noted for its autocratic governance with family rule as its key ingredient.

Mr Sirisena has promised to undo the 18th Amendment, which defines the executive presidency of his predecessor. Undoing this in one hundred days, as he promised in the election campaign, calls for deft politics to consolidate the somewhat eclectic and contradictory alliance he leads, and extract the best in terms of his own agenda from Mr Rajapaksa’s followers, who command a majority in Parliament, where election is due only by the end of next year.

Mr Sirisena triumphed on account of emerging as the candidate of a united Opposition coalition. Until November, he was Mr Rajapaksa’s health minister. He broke off, with a section of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party defecting with him. He could also rally the principal Opposition, the United national Party, to project his candidature. The Tamils and the Muslims, in the north and the east of the country, backed the SLFP defector in order to get rid of the “dictator”, as Mr Rajapaksa had come to be portrayed in many narratives.

The executive presidency can be undone in Parliament if this group hangs together and shows it can harvest Mr Rajapaksa’s support in the House. Democratic compromises will need to be reached. The new President will stand a realistic chance of success if this can be done while undoing the virtual military cantonment style rule in the Tamil north, working toward a genuine devolution of powers to the Tamil minority, and holding back the Sinhala communal elements of the Bodu Bala Sena who had wreaked violence on the Muslims with impunity during Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency.

This process can be helped in some measure if parties in Tamil Nadu don’t become strident and vituperative on the Tamil issue in the island republic. That will also afford Prime Minister Narendra Modi the opportunity to extend President Sirisena political support in dealing with questions pertaining to devolution of powers to the Tamils, and gain in turn the prospect of restoring a lost equilibrium to Sri Lanka’s foreign relations which had tended under Mr Rajapaksa to lean toward China militarily and in economic terms.

President Sirisena appointing UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe his Prime Minister is being seen positively in this context and in the context of repairing ties with the West. However, New Delhi should tend relations with the new Sri Lanka with care, taking nothing for granted. (Asian Age)

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