Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, has been keeping a close watch and writing extensively on the elections. In this Exclusive, first off the bat article for The Citizen he analyses the political message of the polls, and the challenges for the new government ahead.
COLOMBO: The victory of the coalition of parties with the ungainly name of United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Monday’s General Election will ensure that the changes brought about at the Presidential Election of January 2015 will be sustained.

During the seven months since the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka has seen a dramatic shift from a highly centralized and national security-focused governance that concentrated power in former President Rajapaksa and his immediate family. A highly charismatic figure, Rajapaksa ruled the country like a family concern. Those from his family and his loyalists were generously rewarded, at state expense, and acted with impunity. Since his unexpected defeat at the January presidential elections, several cases against members of his family and close associates, which had been suppressed, are in the process of being investigated. These include allegations of corruption and also of murder.

At the recently concluded general elections the same coalition of parties, as well as some others, that helped to elect Maithripala Sirisena as President, fought the elections on the basis of a commitment to good governance and ensuring the rule of law. On the other hand, the defeated United People’s Freedom Alliance (UNPFA) led by Rajapaksa warned of the division of the country by Tamil separatists and stalling of massive and mostly Chinese-funded development projects if they did not win the elections.

The election results closely paralleled the results of the presidential elections. The UPFA won in the predominantly Sinhalese rural and suburban areas but with a significantly reduced majority. It lost heavily wherever there was an ethnically mixed population. It appears that the disclosures of corruption and other misdeeds had an impact on the electorate. So was the inability of the UPFA to utilize the state machinery to engage in media propaganda and hand out gifts drawn from state coffers.

In the Tamil-inhabited North of the country, the main issue was whether the voters will support Tamil nationalism, and a confrontational posture against the government that is elected, or an accommodation with the government. The northern Tamil dominated electorate had a choice of parties that are prepared to work with the government as well as those that are more geared to opt for confrontation and have the support of the separatist section of the Tamil Diaspora. The election results, which showed the dominance of the moderate Tamil National Alliance, which has said it will work with the UNFGG with issue-based support, indicates that the moderate approach prevailed.

If the Rajapaksa-led coalition had triumphed, it would have set the stage for a showdown with President Sirisena who made it clear during the election campaign that he would not appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister under any circumstance. It would also have set the stage for confrontation with the Tamil and Muslim polities which demonstrated that they wished no truck with him at these elections. Therefore the defeat of the UPFA means that Sri Lanka would not enter into a period of political instability.

However the margin of victory for the UNFGG is small. The outcome dampening nature of the proportional system of elections used in Sri Lanka has meant that the winning coalition was unable to obtain a majority in Parliament. It is likely that a section of the UPFA, with the support of President Sirisena, will break ranks to join the UNFGG in a government of national unity and provide it with a working majority.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is a man with a clear notion of what he wants and how to do it. However, he will be leading a potentially fractious coalition of parties, which includes Sinhalese hardliners, Muslim and Tamil parties party and those who have crossed over from the UPFA. This will make it difficult for the new government to tackle the fundamental problems of the country. These include finding a political solution to the long festering ethnic conflict, whose worst outcome was three decades of internal war. But those who support a reform agenda and the rule of law would heave a sigh of relief at the outcome of the election.