Report from Sri Lanka: Parliamentary Elections
August 26, 2015
After a hotly contested campaign, Parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka concluded peacefully last week in a vote hailed by local and international observers as one of the most free, fair, and peaceful in Sri Lanka’s recent history. The 70 percent turnout fell short of last January’s 82 percent, possibly due to the monsoon rain that arrived two hours before polls closed on Monday, August 17.
The United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremasinghe, won 93 seats, with 13 bonus seats awarded under the proportional voting system for a total of 106. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa led a major attempt to return to power as prime minister, but his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won just 83 seats and12 bonus seats. Among lesser winners, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) made a strong showing in the Northern Province and the Batticaloa District of the Eastern Province with 16 seats; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) won six seats; the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won one seat; and the EPDP, a Tamil party led by ex-militant group leader Douglas Devananda that has been associated with the Rajapaksa regime, won one seat.
Amidst the political cross-overs and convoluted alliances that have emerged in recent months, it appears that the citizens of Sri Lanka have voted with their heads to consolidate the changes they ushered in last January. Voters resisted attempts to stoke ethnic discord and fears of a return to war, voting largely along national rather than ethnic or regional lines. Many of the ethnic parties, such as the SLMC and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC – associated with the upcountry Indian Tamil community), fared poorly in this election.
The TNA showing is extremely significant, revealing Northern voters’ firm support for more moderate Tamil politics. There were several new alternative parties comprising former LTTE associates, but none of the former rebels won a single seat. Similarly, the Bodu Bala Sena party, newly established by a controversial Buddhist monk who had been closely associated with extremist Sinhala Buddhist politics and the Rajapaksa regime, barely secured 20,000 votes. Moderation, accountability, and the yearning for stability appear to have won the day.
The Election Commissioner’s office, established after the January 8 elections, was a strong force during this election, working closely with the police to enforce voting rules and handle election violations. Following the March 12th Movement, a widespread civil society campaign encouraging voters to base their choice on the integrity and past performance of the candidates, many longstanding members of Parliament lost their seats. It is unfortunate that, having heard the voice of the Sri Lankan electorate on January 8 and August 15, the leading parties are now attempting to use the National List appointment process to bring back losing candidates. One of the most disappointing aspects of this election is the relative absence of female candidates. Perhaps the National List process would be better used to bring in a few more female representatives.
The question going forward is whether the legislative reforms placed on the agenda in January can continue in the new Parliament. Despite its plurality, the UNP will need to work closely with smaller opposition parties, particularly the TNA, to pass new legislation. The presence of former President Rajapaksa, as well as his son, Namal, and brother, Chamal, may be a disruptive force, particularly if they mobilize close supporters to block the reform agenda.
For now, the new prime minister has offered positive and conciliatory statements urging the country to move forward as “one family” and away from the divisive politics of the past. The Sri Lankan electorate has declared its interest in continuing the good governance agenda that President Maitripala Sirisena inaugurated in January. A memorandum of understanding signed this week between the UNP and UPFA to form a “national government” may blur party lines even further. We will be watching in the coming months as the newly elected government comes to grips with this new electoral configuration and gets to work on the challenging agenda it has set for itself.
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, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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