A foreign-policy balancing act

The Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) won 145 seats in the 5 August parliamentary election, and its allies won five seats, giving the SLPP-led political alliance an unprecedented 150 seats and a two-thirds majority in Sri Lanka’s 225-member parliament. The parliamentary election took place only months after the country’s presidential elections in November 2019, which saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa, representing the SLPP, elected as Sri Lanka’s president. Following the parliamentary election, his brother, Mahinda, will be formally appointed as Sri Lanka’s prime minister for a five-year term.

The election – the first to be held in South Asia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – took place amid extraordinary circumstances. Health concerns forced the postponement of the poll twice after President Rajapaksa dissolved the country’s parliament in March 2020. Using their own pens to mark ballot papers, wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing, all voters had a role to play in ensuring that the election, which had a 71% turnout, was safe to go ahead.

The extra measures meant that this was the most expensive election in Sri Lanka’s history, estimated to cost US$53 million, compared to US$40m previously. Positive views of President Rajapaksa’s response to the pandemic, aided by divisions within the opposition, contributed to the SLPP’s large margin of victory.

Domestic changes and challenges

With its two-thirds majority victory, the Rajapaksas’ party will now be able to make key changes to Sri Lanka’s constitution. Most notably, the SLPP will seek to reverse a constitutional amendment passed by the previous coalition government in 2015, or potentially implement a new constitution, which the SLPP states is needed to successfully implement President Rajapaksa’s policies.

Reversing the 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution – which shared power between the president and prime minister – would strengthen the power of the president, in relation to the parliament, judiciary and independent commissions. Although opposition parties would reportedly support selective changes to the 19th amendment, they fear that this would reduce the level of democracy in Sri Lanka. The victory of the Rajapaksas’ Sinhala-nationalist party by such a large margin, combined with a weak opposition, has also raised concerns about minority representation in Sri Lanka.

Central among the Rajapaksa government’s domestic challenges will be the need to revive the country’s economy. The World Bank expects Sri Lanka’s economy to contract by 3.2% in FY2020–21, with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the country’s tourism industry, which had already faced a downturn following the devastating April 2019 terrorist attacks.

Major-power engagement

To help address these economic challenges, including rising foreign debt repayments totalling US$55 billion, as well as meeting its infrastructural development needs, the Rajapaksa government will continue to engage with major powers – notably China, India, the US and Japan – which have sought to increase their own influence in the strategically located island nation.

Each of its international partners has provided financial and medical assistance to Sri Lanka during the pandemic, including a donation from China of 100,000 face masks for the parliamentary election. Colombo has also sought to reschedule its debt repayments to China and India. China’s engagement with Sri Lanka’s political parties and Buddhist leaders is likely to increase. In June, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee held a video conference with Sri Lanka’s main political parties, to strengthen bilateral relations. Additionally, Chinese infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka will continue, with other major powers, including India, unable to match the level of spending offered by Beijing.

For India, unless its project execution improves and it provides a viable set of alternative infrastructure projects, China’s presence within Sri Lanka will increase. New Delhi will also seek to increase security cooperation with Colombo.

However, Indian infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka – including a joint venture with Japan –  faced domestic opposition during the election campaign, with objections centring on the notion that Sri Lanka would be ‘ceding control of national assets’ to India. With the Rajapaksas winning a parliamentary majority, questions remain whether they will now allow the India–Japan project to proceed as planned. Washington’s planned grant of US$480m for development projects in Sri Lanka has also faced setbacks, due to domestic political concerns.

Major-power relations with Sri Lanka will likely improve with a stable government and a united Sri Lankan president and prime minister, which contrasts with the previous coalition government. Although Sri Lanka’s key international partners may not agree with some of the Rajapaksa government’s policies, major powers will continue to engage with the Sri Lankan government. For the Rajapaksas, balancing their engagement with the major powers is their primary foreign and security challenge. (IISS)

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