Election Revives Sri Lanka’s Democratic Spirit
January 14, 2015
This past week the citizens of Sri Lanka demonstrated their extraordinary resilience by voting overwhelmingly for a new president. Belying all fears of large-scale violence on election day, the voting process was exceptionally smooth, with a record turnout of 81.5 percent at the polling centers. Just one month ago, it seemed that incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa would coast to an easy victory and retain his authoritarian hold on Sri Lanka’s electorate once again. But his electoral calculations went awry with the emergence of a worthy rival from his own camp, former Minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena, who was put forward in November as the “common candidate” by a suddenly rejuvenated opposition.
Though the outgoing regime did everything in its capacity to fight back, the rising clamor for change, the will of the people prevailed in the end. And for all those who were lamenting the demise of democratic spirit in Sri Lanka, the recent elections have shown the tenacity and ingenuity of ordinary citizens in making a difference. And for those who were riding the waves of hubris, a very humbling fall.
The initial moves of President Sirisena instill hope and raise expectation that he means business. At a ceremony held at the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, President Sirisena, in calm, considered tones, voiced “the country needs not a King, but a true human being, a servant of the people,” a sentiment that resonated loudly with many people in Sri Lanka. Incidentally, his first name, “Maithri,” means loving kindness in Buddhist tradition, and the tagline for his campaign – vote for a “maithri” government – was not just a play of words, but also a more poignant reflection of what was needed. President Sirisena continues to speak in these tones of reconciliation. He has encouraged his newly appointed cabinet not to crave the power of position but to seek to serve the people, forge relationships with those who did not vote for them, and focus on getting the country back on a path of good governance, and more importantly, protect democratic values.
At the swearing in ceremony of Cabinet Ministers this week, President Sirisena also commented on several incidents of post-election violence that “disappointed” him. He went on to indicate that the perpetrators would face legal action and then issued a stern warning that those who break the law or engage in corruption, fraud, or malpractice, would be treated in the same way, be it a cabinet minister or an ordinary citizen. He further advised his cabinet, in keeping with the trust placed in them by the people, to set an example through their own conduct and behavior. This is a remarkable variation from the pomp and pageantry that accompanied previous swearing-in ceremonies in the recent past. For the 6.2 million voters (51.3%) who voted for Sirisena and his coalition of opposition parties, Sri Lanka has woken up to a new dawn. However, the larger challenge looms ahead – the art of governing a large coalition that reflects a complex hue of political colors.
President Sirisena must now prove that he can manage this disparate coalition and stay on course to achieve the daunting tasks set out in the new government’s 100-day plan. A council of advisors must be set up, oversight committees established in Parliament, a constitutional council to appoint independent commissions, and an all-party committee established to review the electoral system. These are just some of the immediate tasks needed to begin setting right some of the gross aberrations rendered in the country’s recent past. The first test of the government will come on January 20 when the Parliament reconvenes – with party loyalties being traded frequently, it is the numbers that will matter in the end. Will President Sirisena be able to mobilize enough support in the new Parliament to abolish the presidential system and push through the critical constitutional changes that are being proposed? Moreover, as news emerges indicating that the election day transition of power as results were announced was not quite as smooth as initially reported, it is increasingly clear that the Rajapaksa clan is not going to make an elegant exit from power.
As the euphoria of an unanticipated victory dies down, Sri Lankans are bracing themselves for the rocky road ahead as the incumbent government readies itself for the gritty mechanics of governing the country. There is also the formidable task of transforming a highly politicized, fractured, and polarized society. The expectations are high and it remains to be seen whether the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe leadership will be able to tackle these challenges. For now though, the visit of Pope Francis this week is giving Sri Lankans a moment of respite, to bask in the glory of their electoral achievement and show a more optimistic, multi-religious face of unity to the world. But very soon, the new leadership and the people at large will have to rise up to meet the challenges ahead.
Dinesha de Silva is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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