On 10 February, Sri Lanka held elections for 341 local government institutions. The polls were the freest and the most peaceful in living memory. The newly established Election Commission managed the polling process. The police implemented the law with a level of impartiality unfamiliar to Sri Lankans. No one died and there were no major outbreaks of violence, before, during or after the voting. This, too, was unprecedented for the country.
In many ways, this should have been a moment of triumph for the unity government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The United National Party, or UNP, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, or SLFP, assumed office with Sirisena at its helm in August 2015, after Sirisena defeated the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to win a third presidential term a few months before. After delaying it for over two years, the government finally delivered on the implementation of a new hybrid electoral system, which combined both proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. The passing of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution—arguably the most democratising piece of legislation enacted in the country till date—is the greatest achievement of the current administration. Some of the amendment’s key stipulations ensure the creation of a new presidential term limit and independent commissions to oversee public service, police, human rights, as well as to manage elections.
Although the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s commitment to strengthening democratic institutions ensured for Sri Lanka its unprecedented free and fair elections, a plethora of unfulfilled political promises resulted in a humiliating defeat for them in the local elections. The prices of consumer essentials—including rice, the staple of most Lankans—were soaring; a promised one million jobs had not materialised; legal action had not been taken against those accused of war crimes during the Rajapaksa regime, and the government was mired in its own corruption scandals. But perhaps the biggest contributing factor was that the two constituent parties turned on each other, succumbing to an extended fit of infantile squabbling. It appeared as though the actual contest was between Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickremesinghe’s UNP rather than between the unity government and its real foe—Rajapaksa and his recently formed party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.
The SLPP romped to victory in a majority of councils, with the UNP a distant second. The SLFP performed even more abysmally, ending up a poor third in most councils. The combined vote share of the two ruling parties, however, was higher than that of Rajapaksa’s party: 46.01 percent of the national electorate compared to the SLPP’s 44.65 percent. Had they contested together, they would have beaten the SLPP by a margin of 1.36 percent—a narrow victory, but a victory nevertheless.
By the morning of 11 February, Rajapaksa—who is determined to return to power at the earliest opportunity—had declared himself the winner. The same evening, he and his allies were laying claim to the postion of opposition leader in the national legislature, currently held by R Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of various Tamil political parties. The next morning, Rajapaksa held a media conference and demanded the immediate dissolution of the parliament and new elections on the grounds that the unity government had no mandate to govern after its disastrous performance.
Perhaps the most heartening outcome of the election was the extremely high voter turnout in Sri Lanka’s war-torn northern and eastern provinces, areas populated by a Tamil majority. While the national turnout averaged at 65 percent, turnouts in every northern and eastern district, apart from Jaffna, ranged between 75 and 83 percent.
For more than a quarter of a century, the leader and founder of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was the determinant factor in Lankan Tamil politics. A Tamil could be a confirmed Eelamist—a separatist—and even a proven member of the LTTE, but if they did not accept Prabhakaran’s leadership, they would be automatically excluded from the community. Prabhakaran was more than a leader: he was a phenomenon, the living embodiment of extreme Tamil nationalism, whose final goal was to carve out an independent state.
Prabhakaran achieved this status by mounting an existential threat to the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. By defeating him and the threat he posed, Mahinda Rajapaksa also gained a similar place in Sinhala politics. You could love, fear or hate both men, but neither could be ignored. Voters’ stance on Rajapaksa was the main line of demarcation in Lankan politics in 2010 and 2015; it remains so today and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Post January 2015, Tamils began peaceful methods of protests to make their discontent and their demands heard. Last year saw an increase in such protests. Most of them focussed on two issues: discovering the fate of the people who were disappeared in the 26-year civil war that ended less than a decade ago, and freeing civilian lands from military occupation. Until the post local elections cabinet reshuffle, there had not been much progress on the first issue, primarily because of the military’s success at stalling and obfuscating judicial processes and the government’s unwillingness to get involved. The second issue has seen more progress. For instance, the biggest popular protest, led mostly by women, against land occupation by the armed forces, ended in success recently when the military withdrew from the village of Keppapilavu, a former LTTE stronghold, allowing the people to return.
In August 2017, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that federalism is not separatism. The three-member bench was responding to a 2014 petition by a Sinhala man, which asked that the court declare Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi—part of the Tamil National Alliance—a separatist party. The TNA had supported negotiations with the LTTE and the struggle for an independent Tamil state before the war ended. Since then, it has dropped the demand and now instead advocate for regional self-rule. The landmark decision should have given rise to both jubilation and anger, of which neither materialised. The muted response indicated a general lack of mainstream interest in a political solution to the decades-long ethnic polarisation that has been the basis of deep conflict in the country. A new constitution is on the cards, but it is unlikely to contain any federalisation provisions, or any meaningful measure to effect a devolution of power in earnest.
This situation places the TNA in a bind, since it seems to have placed all its eggs in the political-solution basket, rather than prioritising the socio-economic needs of the people. The economic problems common to all Lankans are particularly acute in the war-torn north and east, with high levels of poverty and unemployment. Of the five districts most severely affected by the drought that hit the country in 2016, three are in the northern and eastern provinces. The TNA failed to face these challenges adequately, and Tamil voters, like the Sinhalese, used the local government elections as a means of sending a warning.
In the 2015 parliamentary election, the TNA emerged as the undisputed leader of the Tamils, winning nearly 5 percent of the national vote. In February 2018, its national average fell to just about 3 percent. The alliance led in several districts but failed to reach the 50 percent mark in any of them. Late last year, many Tamil political factions banded together to contest as a united front against the TNA, which further fragmented the Tamil vote. The new combine did not do well, often finishing behind the SLFP and the UNP in Tamil-majority areas.
The most surprising development of the election is how well the SLFP and the UNP fared in Tamil-dominated areas. In many districts the two parties came second and third, behind the TNA and ahead of other Tamil parties. The UNP won the Mannar district, pushing the TNA into second place. The UNP and the SLFP could have won the Batticaloa and Vavuniya districts had they contested together. Even Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP did unexpectedly well, winning council seats everywhere, including in Jaffna.
Has the TNA’s dominance in Tamil politics ended for good, or is this merely a protest vote, a signal for the TNA to get its act together? The answers will depend on the provincial and national elections. But the unusually pluralist voting pattern in all northern and eastern districts indicates a decrease of racial and survival angst on the part of Lankan Tamils, greater confidence in their place and an increasing willingness to engage in political experimentation.
Freed of the LTTE and of the Rajapaksa regime, Tamil politics is evolving. The path it will take is hard to predict. Regardless, for it to move permanently beyond the racial-ghetto, democratisation must increase and spaces for engagement and protest must expand—this is where Tamil politics intersects with Sinhala politics, as always.
The Rajapaksa resurgence in the South can impede the north’s journey to democratic normalcy. At his post-election media conference, Rajapaksa held up a map of Sri Lanka with the areas won by SLPP marked in maroon, and said, “See, even Eelam has been reduced.” This remark demonstrates that he continues to see those Tamils who oppose him as Eelamists. Since most Tamils do oppose him, this attitude will create a serious bar to reconciliation. A Rajapaksa return would mean a drastic shrinking of democratic space in the north. If there’s no room for protest and engagement, if the military is once again in command, Tamils may have little choice but to return to the predicament from which they have just begun to emerge. That retrogression would be one of the most tragic consequences of a Rajapaksa comeback, one of national and perhaps even regional import.
So where is the south headed? Rajapaksa and his supporters have finally realised that their demand for an immediate dissolution of parliament is constitutionally impossible. According to the nineteenth amendment, the president cannot dissolve the parliament until four-and-a-half years after a general election. The parliament can dissolve itself with a two-thirds majority vote, but such a vote is unlikely at this moment. The UNP and the president seem to have come to an agreement to continue to govern together, with some changes, including a cabinet reshuffle. A special panel has finally been set up to investigate war era disappearances. Deprived of a governmental change, Rajapaksa and the SLPP are likely to focus on the upcoming provincial council election; rendering the government unstable and the country ungovernable.
Time is running out, both for Sri Lanka and the government. Rajapaksa holds the initiative and the only way it can be regained is if the unity government renews its political vows and focusses its energies on fulfilling its basic promises, starting with reducing living costs. The outcome of the February election demonstrates that the new political landscape is here to stay. The choice is between the continuation of Sri Lanka as a flawed democracy or its regression into a patrimonial oligarchy. Lankan democracy can be saved only if Sirisena and Wickremesinghe and their respective parties unite again. The UNP and the SLFP lost to Rajapaksa because they failed to face him together. Further disunity will exacerbate rather than resolve the post-poll crisis. When democracy fails to bring about an improvement in people’s lives, extremism—whether ethnic or religious—wins. That was how the Arab Spring was lost—a tragedy that could well be repeated in Sri Lanka.
Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan political commentator based in Colombo.