An extraordinary election result gives the country a chance to heal deep wounds
Jan 17th 2015
SRI LANKA’S astrologers are probably not among those celebrating the country’s election result. It was after consultation with some of their profession that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, called an election for January 8th 2015, two years ahead of schedule. This turned out to be a big mistake. Mr Rajapaksa had ruled since 2005 and, along with his family, several members of which occupied the country’s most powerful posts, had given the impression of settling into power for eternity. To his astonishment, his countrymen did not relish this prospect and turfed him out. He seems to have explored the possibility of a coup, but the attorney-general, chief justice and, crucially, the army, were not game.
For Sri Lankans, Mr Rajapaksa’s defeat is excellent news. It is a triumph for democracy after a long drift towards corrupt authoritarianism. The new president, Maithripala Sirisena (pictured), is the first leader in two decades to have the backing of Tamils and Muslims as well as a large number of the country’s Sinhalese majority (see article). This will help him in the task of bringing about reconciliation still lacking six years after the end of a brutal civil war in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed along with the Tamil Tigers.
That will be the central issue of Mr Sirisena’s presidency, and it is a highly contentious one. Drawing huge crowds in Sri Lanka this week, Pope Francis called for the “pursuit of truth”. Many have gone further, demanding that the Rajapaksas and senior army officers be investigated and tried for war crimes.
That is not likely to happen. Mr Sirisena, briefly defence minister at the end of the civil war, said in his campaign that he would not go after Mr Rajapaksa for war crimes. It would also be wrong for Sri Lanka. The loyalty of the army, which has been remarkably supportive of democracy during this transition, would be tested, and trials would impede the search for truth and reconciliation.
Mr Sirisena should focus on those goals. The investigation that Mr Rajapaksa ordered into the end of the war descended into farce and only increased the bitterness of the bereaved. Mr Sirisena should establish one that can bring the country closure. And he should end the army’s repressive occupation of the Tamils’ northern homeland and return seized property to its rightful owners.
Mr Sirisena’s other priority should be to reverse the slide towards dictatorship. Mr Rajapaksa had increased the powers of the presidency at the expense of those of the parliament. Changing direction will be hard in his promised 100-day programme, not least because he needs a two-thirds parliamentary majority to alter the constitution before taking the changes to the country in a parliamentary election he plans to call in April. He should make a start by shifting powers to the prime minister and strengthening parliamentary oversight.
What the neighbours think
Asia’s great powers will be divided about Sri Lanka’s election result. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, will be delighted. Under the previous president, Sri Lanka had formed a close alliance with India’s geopolitical rival, China. At the same time, the suffering of Sri Lanka’s Tamils angered southern Indian Tamils. China, which has been building a grandiose array of often ill-considered infrastructure in Sri Lanka, faces the consequences of cutting murky deals with dodgy leaders who get turfed out when voters see how massive corruption is undermining their country.
As for the West, it should offer to rebuild the ties that were broken under Mr Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka has struck a blow for democracy. It deserves generous help.
Posted by Thavam