Sri Lanka Decides 2015: What is the Story?
9th January 2015 saw for the first time an incumbent President - lose an election, and Sri Lankan voters elected a new President in a heated race that took place over a relatively short period of time. Before I delve into the story (which really begins in 1977) let me give you a list of abbreviations used in relation to the political parties in Sri Lanka with some background that will be referred to in the piece for ease and clarification.
SLFP - The Sri Lanka Freedom Party: The party of which Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently the head, started by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike in 1951 and one of the major political parties of Sri Lanka. It has also seen former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga contesting under its banner as head of the Party and winning. Up-until this election, the ruling and most powerful Party.
UNP - The United National Party: Another major political party in Sri Lanka that has seen heads of the Party elected as Prime Ministers and Presidents, currently headed by Ranil Wickramasinghe. Ranil repeatedly contested in elections (Parliamentary, Presidential and others) as head of the Party - facing a string of loses, save for a spell as Prime Minister under Chandrika Kumaratunga's reign as President in 2002, when the UNP won the Parliamentary elections. This Parliament was dissolved in two years. To quote Wiki - "The UNP is a conservative party to the right of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, favouring a more neo-liberal market-oriented economy"
JVP - Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇ: Wikipedia is very concise here, as they say it is a "Marxist-Leninist, communist party in Sri Lanka. The party was involved in two armed uprisings against the ruling governments in 1971 (SLFP) and 1987–89 (UNP). After 1989, it entered democratic politics by participating in the 1994 parliamentary election"
JHU - Jathika Hela Urumaya: Widely considered to be a hard-line secular Sinhala-Buddhist Party, formed in 2004 and led by Buddhist Monks
SLMC/TNA - The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Tamil National Alliance: There two represent their respective ethnic minorities in Sri Lankan politics. Members hold positions ranging from Members of Parliament, Ministerial portfolio's, positions at a local government level etc.
The story of the 2015 election really begins in 1977, when the then elected Prime Minister (from the UNP) J. R. Jayawardene, led the UNP to a crushing Parliamentary victory which gave them nearly 5/6th's majority in Parliament. In 1978 he then passed a new Constitution which created the Presidential system and granted the Executive President wide-sweeping powers. During his reign - in 1983, the violent riots against the nations minority Tamil's took place - strengthening the terrorist group the LTTE and officially plunging the nation into a 3 decade long civil conflict.
The 90's saw President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (often referred to as CBK) elected as President for two terms. She is a landmark politician being the daughter of two former Prime Ministers and the wife of a leading politician. Both her father and husband were victims of assassinations and she herself has lost vision in her right-eye due to a terrorist attack by the LTTE. In 2002 she dissolved the UNP parliament led by Ranil Wickramasinghe (who was then Prime Minister), and it was known the two shared a strained working relationship. It is reported that she also had a strained relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa, and it was grudgingly that she gave him the nomination to be the party's Presidential Candidate in 2005.
Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickramasinghe went head to head in the 2005 Presidential elections. There is a widespread belief (corroborated with some evidence) that had the LTTE not prevented Northern and Eastern voters from voting, Ranil would have won. However, with no or little turn out from those districts - Mahinda secured a narrow victory and was sworn in as the President of Sri Lanka. In 2009, he was the Head of State when the LTTE was defeat and went down in the annals of history for being the only Head of State to conclusively defeat a proscribed terrorist organization. His popularity was at its peak and the nation hailed him as their savior and hero.
In the 2010 Presidential Elections - the first major rift from within his inner circle came to life. Sarath Fonseka the the Army Commander credited with being of of the integral people aiding in the defeat of the LTTE, appointed by President Rajapaksa, to contest against him as the Common Candidate. He was supported by UNP and soon JVP would join the coalition in a campaign that ran on the idea that Fonseka was the real war hero, and that the Rajapaksa Government would clamp down on minorities and fail with concern to good governance. They were unsuccessful however and President Rajapaksa won the election for a second 6-year term with a resounding victory. Fonseka was court-martialed for treason and stripped of all his civic rights.
In September 2010, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed - which removed the two-term limit and allowed a Presidential candidate to contest for unlimited terms. This would be become the backbone of the Oppositions campaign in 2015. Elections in 2015 were called by President Rajapaksa two years ahead of the ending of his term for numerous reasons. It is widely agreed that the alleged widespread corruption, nepotism and Sri Lanka's tenacious foreign relations were eroding the President's popularity. With the Opposition in one of its weakest states and his astrological predictions claiming a one-horse race - it seemed like the wisest move. In the mean time, Chandrika, the JHU and the UNP had joined forces and talks were being reported about one of them (with a few other names) standing as a common candidate for the unlikely coalition. Chandrika had at this time been removed from the SLFP and her privileges as former President removed. Despite these surprising and unlikely joining of forces, there seemed to be no candidate who seemed capable of even posing a credible threat to the incumbent President's victory.
On the 21st of November, in a twist move that would drastically change the game - Maithripala Sirisena who held the position of the Health Minister as well as general secretary of the SLFP defected from the party and announced he would be the Common Candidate for the Opposition alliance. Along with him several leading politicians - Ministers, MP's etc crossed-over to challenge the incumbent President. This article from The Economist: A Fault in His Stars, provides an excellent outline of the feeling and situation at the time. Sirisena's move was key - as his defection was from the President's inner circle - and his campaign claimed that everything in Sri Lanka was controlled by one family and that the country was heading towards a dictatorship with rampant corruption, nepotism and a breakdown of the rule of law.He has pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected, repeal the controversial eighteenth amendment, and appoint Ranil as Prime Minister. The President ran on a platform of continuity, citing the great amount of development that had taken place since he took office, as well as the fact that it was he who led the end of the conflict against the LTTE. The election gained in heat and traction in the short time (just over a month and a half), with cross-overs to both sides becoming an almost daily occurrence.Soon JVP, and towards the latter part of the election - SLMC and TNA would also announce their support for the Coalition Opposition.
The following post by one of the most popular bloggers in Sri Lanka - Indica - outlines why many people supported the Opposition.
Traditional forms of media, especially State media is considered to be heavily controlled in Sri Lanka, and it seemed that this would be one of the greatest hurdles for the Sirisena Campaign. Social media platforms the became key - the tag #PresPollsSL for example - and this was heavily utilized as a platform especially by the nearly 1 million first-time voters. The Opposition had by no means an easy fight - with the fact that so many parties had joined hands raising doubts to voters. Many people questioned if there would be a power struggle between the diffrent ideologies once victory was secured, without the common enemy of the ruling party to bind them. The fight was close to the very end - and when polling day arrived on the 8th of January, a prediction was near impossible to make. But change was at the doorstep for Sri Lanka - and many voters stayed up through the night - waiting to see what era Sri Lanka would now enter. At around 6.30am the incumbent President left his official residence and placed a call to Sirisena, signaling to many that the fight was over. It is now known that Maithripala Sirisena was elected the 7th President of Sri Lanka with 51.3% of the votes.
This is seen as a win for democracy in Sri Lanka, coupled with the fact that the actual election itself was largely peaceful with no foul play (Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya is being highly commended for this). But the road is just beginning - politics makes for strange bedfellows with different agendas and ideologies and the Opposition has a myriad of promised to keep. Many deep-seated issues in Sri Lanka, including racial divides, were exposed during the election and much needs to be done to fix this nation. The voters have spoken - and now they will have to hold their representatives accountable.