Sri Lanka continues toward reform

Sri Lanka has dodged the proverbial bullet with the party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe winning enough votes in parliamentary elections to hold onto power. The outcome is a defeat for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had hoped to avenge his defeat in a presidential vote in January and use the prime minister’s position to return to power.

Rajapaska governed Sri Lanka for a decade as a Sinhalese nationalist strongman, defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency, yet he failed to build national reconciliation after that victory. He was stunned when voters denied him a third five-year term as president at the beginning of this year, opting instead for Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally who broke with him over his hard-line policies.

In the Aug. 17 parliamentary election, Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) won 45.7 percent of the votes, doubling its representation to 106 seats, seven short of a majority in the 225-seat legislature. It is anticipated that the UNP will claim an outright majority when disaffected members of Rajapaska’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) cross the aisle to join a national unity government. The SLFP won 95 seats in the vote, a substantial fall from 144 before the ballot. It is not clear if the UNP will gain enough partners to have the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional reforms.

While Sirisena was not on this ballot, he urged voters to continue the electoral revolution they began in January by backing the UNP. In a letter to his predecessor, leaked to the press, he accused Rajapaska of “blatant racism” against Tamils and Muslims. The new president seeks to reduce the power of his office, promoting accountability and transparency in government. He would like to see Rajapaska sidelined; if the two defeats do not do the job, an investigation into corruption during his presidency might. Rajapaska denies all charges.

The new government must focus on the urgent task of national reconciliation. That will be a broad offensive, one that includes justice for individuals who suffered from war crimes during the Tamil insurgency and more political representation for minority groups, as well as the safeguarding of minority rights in general. Of course, economic development has to be part of the package and friends of Sri Lanka should do their utmost to assist the new government in its efforts. Japan should be in the front of that line.