« Sri Lanka : Democracy at Work » by Eric Meyer

The South Asia Democratic Forum (www.sadf.eu) organized at the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, 21st January 2015, a post-electoral briefing on Sri Lanka, which was attended by an international audience including South Asians, and European MPs.
We publish here the text of the intervention of Eric Meyer, who was invited to present his views in the discussion panel.

1. RESILIENCE OF DEMOCRACY

In the decades after Independence, Sri Lanka used to be regarded as one of the most advanced democracies in Asia.

Then after 1971 (the first JVP insurgency and its suppression) and 1978-83-87 (the beginning of Eelamist rebellion and civil war, the establishment and manipulation of a presidential system, foreign intervention by India and its failure), Sri Lanka came to be branded as the sick man of South Asia.

After more than 40 years of civil war, of social and political violence and of growing lawlessness, the results of the presidential vote and the conditions of the transfer of power to the new President show the resilience of the democratic system in Sri Lanka, and a democratic maturity which was unexpected a few months ago by pessimistic observers.

Sri Lankans could share the words of Radhika Coomaraswamy (former U.N. Undersecretary general in charge of the rights of children) : « the elections made me triumphantly proud of my country ». But does it mean that Sri Lanka is back at square one ?

2. DEMOCRACY AT WORK : ANALYSIS OF ELECTION RESULTS

The high voter turn out, above 81.5%, is remarkable (the highest in the history of the country), as compared with the previous presidential elections of 2005 and 2010 (73-74%); even in northern Jaffna it was more than 66%, while in 2005 it was 1.2% because the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had imposed a ban on voting, and in 2010 it was 25% in the aftermath of the bloodbath and repression of the previous year. This progress is the result of a return to more settled conditions and of a political will for change.

The overall result shows a margin of 3.7% between the two candidates, rather similar to that witnessed in well-established democracies : 6,217,162 votes (51.28%) went for Maithripala Sirisena, the common candidate of the opposition who had resigned a few months before from the Rajapaksa government, against 5,768,090 votes (47.58%) for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Regional breakdown shows that the north, east, and the large cities, voted overwhelmingly in favour of Sirisena ; that the rural areas of the South voted in favour of Rajapaksa but with a reduced majority ; and that in the Centre and Centre north, the balance was rather equal. If one extrapolates to assess the vote of the ethnic groups, it is clear that the great majority of the Muslims, of the North/East Tamils and of the Up-country Tamils voted for Sirisena ; and that a small majority of the Sinhalese, especially in the countryside, voted for Rajapaksa (about 52%).

But it is also clear that between 2010 and 2015, Rajapaksa lost in the Sinhalese majority areas about 10% of the votes – and more than 15% in urbanized areas (Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Kandy, Galle) and in the north central rural districts (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa). Without this shift, Rajapaksa would have won even if all the minorities had voted against him. It is therefore inexact to affirm, as he did after the results, that he lost only because of the vote of the minorities.

There are no opinion polls age-wise or by occupation in Sri Lanka, but most observers consider that the young people who voted for the first time chose Sirisena, and the postal votes (open only to civil servants and members of the armed forces) follow the general tendency.

In a democratic election, the marginal difference is meaningful. What is the message sent by the voters who made the difference – the young people who voted for the first time, the members of the minorities who decided to cast their vote this time, the people of the large cities? Rajapaksa had at its disposal almost all the media which he had for the last six years forced into submission, but his opponent had young supporters using social networks, and many professionals such as lawyers who were outraged at his high-handed style. Family ‘bandyism’, growing corruption, unethical behaviour, lawlessness and impunity, price hikes of basic commodities were denounced by the various groups supporting Sirisena : it is significant that the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party founded by nationalist Sinhala Buddhist monks, on one side, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the party which before 2009 supported the Eelamists, on the other, abandoned their extreme nationalist rhetoric to focus on these common themes ; so did the well-organized Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which was behind the two revolutionary attempts of 1971 and 1987-89, and the pro-western United National Party (UNP). In addition, the atrocities committed by the Bodu Bala Sena, an extremist self-styled Buddhist Force encouraged by Mahinda’s brother Gotabhaya to outflank the Jathika Hela Urumaya, alienated the Muslim minority and many Christians.

3. DEMOCRACY AT WORK : THE TRANSFER OF POWER

According to press reports and a few independent testimonies, it seems that Mahinda Rajapaksa, under the influence of his brother Gotabhaya, was prepared, if the election was narrowly lost, to proclaim a state of emergency under the pretence of maintaining public order, to postpone the proclamation of results, and to stage a ‘legal’ coup d’état. For that they needed the support of the Inspector General of Police, the Army Chief, the Judiciary (Chief Justice and Attorney General) and the Elections Commissionner. The Chief Justice Mohan Pieris, who was with the President during the election night against every principle of separation of powers, seems to have been involved from the start, but the refusal of the Attorney General and of the other VIPs derailed the attempt.

Then Rajapaksa contacted Ranil Wickramasinghe (the head of the United National Party, whom he knew well) who decided to come to the President’s residence, where he was able to persuade Rajapaksa to finally accepted his defeat by giving him a few assurances. It may be that the visit of pope Francis four days later made it difficult to plunge the country into political turmoil. Finally, the main political actors acted with restraint and responsibility, in spite of temptations to the contrary : democracy passed its second test.

4. THE VICTORY OF DEMOCRACY IS FRAGILE

Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters still control of a part of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party electoral machine : they may win the legislative elections which are due in April – May, and try to reimpose their power, especially in view of the relative weakness of the UNP especially in rural constituencies. The question is whether Maithripala Sirisena will be able to get rid of the most corrupt individuals in the party (of which according to the statutes he is now the head instead of Rajapaksa), impose new leaders, obtain the support of the majority of the SLFPers, and consolidate his power. Or will Rajapaksas continue to pull the strings, claim to represent the majority, brand Sirisena as the traitor who owed his election to the vote of the minorities and was manipulated by the former President Chandrika Bandaranaïke ?

The illegal activities of members of the Rajapaksa entourage may continue. Private security firms connected with them, which employ ex-soldiers, had recently imported huge loads of firearms. In addition, various paramilitary groups (including Tamil ex-LTTE armed groups who defected to Government) are still roaming about the country. Civil disarmement is going to be a huge problem for the Sirisena administration.

Vested interests are likely to suffer high losses if the Sirisena administration succeeds in cleaning up the country – for which it was elected : new rich groups derive their wealth from building and transport contracts, but also from casinos, prostitution, drug trafficking. The army and navy are controlling a large part of the reconstructed economy and a share of the lands in the war zones of the north and east and members of the armed forces derive large benefits from it. It will be difficult to eradicate corruption in the political class.

Finally, the cost of electoral promises might prove difficult to finance : with a taxation system which allows a lot of tax evasion, the rise of the salaries of public servants, of the pensions, of social allowances, of the guaranteed purchase price of agricultural products and so on will require new resources hard to find.

5. CONTRADICTIONS IN THE SIRISENA PROGRAMME

Maithripala Sirisena was the common candidate of a very heterogeneous opposition alliance. Its programme envisioned a series of constitutional reforms by a caretaker cabinet during a 100-days period, and in a second stage after the parliamentary elections, a National government formula for at least two years. Among the immediate reforms, the repealing of the 18th amendment to the Constitution which allowed the indefinite candidature of the President in office, and gave him full control over the Police, Justice, Electoral, Bribery and Human Rights Commissions ; the return to an electoral system based on constituencies instead of the present Preference Vote system ; the revision of the current budget ; and the reestablishment of a civil administration in the former war zones.

But the components of the coalition differ on several basic issues which will come into the fore sooner or later. As regards economic policy, the UNP, which controls the key ministries in the caretaker cabinet, has a history of favouring free enterprise and foreign investments ; while the JVP and the JHU, although with different ideological/moral arguments, converge in their radical critique of global capitalism and multinationals and will put pressure on the government.

As regards the political reforms long promised by successive governments but never really implemented to give the linguistic and religious minorities better rights, especially the regional devolution envisioned by the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the position of the monks of the JHU (and of its present lay leader, Champika Ranawaka) is or was the opposite of that of the left-oriented intelligentsia (illustrated by the interview with the Indian press of the new Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera who promised to fully implement the 13th amendment)

On other issues such as the role played by the army in the reconstruction of the North East, the place of Buddhism and Buddhist monks in the polity, the activities of International NGOs in the country, opinions also differ.

The National Advisory Council just set up by the President, is going to be the forum to discuss and hopefully settle some of these issues. It comprises : Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickramasinghe, the Prime Minister, leader of the UNP, Chandrika Bandaranaike, the former President (1994-2005), Champika Ranawaka, leader of the JHU, Anura Dissanayake, leader of the JVP, General Sarath Fonseka, who led the Army against the LTTE, lost the election of 2010 against Rajapaksa and was emprisoned by him, R. Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA, Rauf Hakeem and R. Bathiuddeen, leaders of the main Muslim parties.

Rebuilding democracy after one of the bloodiest civil wars in Asia, and decades of authoritarian rule and attack on human rights is a difficult exercise which is being undertaken by the Sri Lankans themselves. The burning issue of war crimes committed during and especially in the final phase of the conflict is constantly raised by the Tamil diaspora and by Human Rights organizations abroad. The Sirisena programme does not elude the question but considers that it must and can be tackled by the Sri Lankans themselves*. The sensible but too limited proposals of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by the Rajapaksa regime were never seriously implemented. Whether the Sirisena administration will be able to do it will be the third and most difficult test of democracy. European democrats should give it enough time and support to pass it, while monitoring the progress of human rights in the country and keeping a tab on undemocratic activities abroad.

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* « Since Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome statute regarding international jurisdiction with regard to war crimes, ensuring justice with regard to such matters will be the business of national independent judicial mechanisms »


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