FIFTEEN million Sri Lankans today go to the polls to choose a president in an election that had appeared set up as a victory parade for Mahinda Rajapaksa, 69 and in his 10th year in the job. Rajapaksa, who is credited with ending his country’s catastrophic 26-year civil war, had sought to capitalise on strong economic growth of 7 per cent a year, with official unemployment at just 4 per cent, when in November he called an election two years early.
But just six weeks ago, Maithripala Sirisena, who was Rajapaksa’s health minister and general secretary of his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, broke ranks and became a candidate. This posed an immediate threat because Sirisena, a 63-year-old veteran parliamentarian with 25 years’ experience, took several other ministers with him among 21 MPs, and is set to win the support of a substantial minority of SLFP voters. He has also gained the backing of the major opposition group, the United National Party, as well as of the Tamil National Alliance.
The scene is set now for a close and intense election day, with both leading candidates in with a chance. None of the remaining 17 candidates is likely even to garner 1 per cent of the vote, if the 2010 election is a guide.
Rajapaksa’s supporters have branded Sirisena a traitor, while the President himself has urged even Tamils — whom he is accused of having persecuted — to back him as the “known devil”. “The President is a charismatic campaigner who has worked assiduously at using the advantages of incumbency to secure his tenure,” says Australian economist Peter Drysdale. “He’s built what looks, to many, like something of a personality cult, with giant hoardings of his smiling, well-oiled image along the highways and a family mausoleum in his home town,” Drysdale writes on the website he edits, East Asia Forum.
All four of Rajapaksa’s brothers are politicians — two of them are the serving defence and economic development ministers and a third is the parliamentary speaker — as is his son. “The devil you know is better than the unknown angel,” he said last weekend on his 11th visit as President to Tamil centre Jaffna. “We gave you electricity, we gave you new schools, and now want to give you proper water supplies.”
There have already been many allegations of abuse of government machinery, including the army and police, in attempts to influence the result. But former Indian chief election commissioner SY Quraishi, the most senior of a large number of international poll observers, says that despite these claims Sri Lanka’s electoral commission remains confident it will hold a free and fair election today.
What is at stake? In international terms, Rajapaksa is perceived as being especially close to China, with Sri Lanka playing an important strategic role in the development of President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road.
Anushka Wijesinha, a research economist at Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies, says many of the projects that have driven postwar growth have been fully or partly funded through Chinese loans, with China also becoming the largest foreign direct investor.
Most of the new investment has gone into real estate and tourism, Wijesinha says, and little into industry, although Australian firm Ansell’s rubber products plant at Biyagama is one of the largest foreign investments in manufacturing. Education, he says, “continues to be a critical constraint in Sri Lanka’s forward and onward march”. Australia has three tertiary education involvements in Sri Lanka — Monash College, an affiliate of the university; the Australian College of Business and Technology, an affiliate of Edith Cowan University; and a distance learning program provided by the University of Southern Queensland through Sri Lanka’s Institute of Chartered Accountants.
The aspirations of Sri Lanka’s people are changing, Wijesinha says, and “catering to those desires, particularly in the growing urban class, will be a key challenge”. As basic needs are met, “people’s aspirations of greater political rights and freedoms will come strongly to the fore”.
Rajapaksa is disconcerted by persistent attacks from Western countries over human rights issues, with advocates still focusing on the concluding campaign of the civil war. Large Sri Lankan Tamil communities exist in Canada (200,000), Britain (120,000), India and France (100,000 each), Germany (60,000) and Switzerland (50,000).
The government has, however, developed especially close relations with Australian administrations, both Coalition and Labor, actively striving to prevent asylum-seekers setting out on boats to Australia.
Rajapaksa said during the campaign: “We won the war; we restored stability. I did not want to mix up my priorities.” He says he dedicated his first term to that aim. Now his focus will be on tackling corruption and poverty, relying on his “action man” image rather than on a suite of policies. “Achieving results,” he says, “is good governance. Not achieving results is corruption.” The strategies of the government made voters “partners in this pattern of progress” and the private sector should take its “rightful place in the forward march”.
Sirisena, on the other hand, is no proxy for Western human rights campaigners: “I have no intention of withdrawing the army from the north,” he said during the campaign. “As president, national security will be my responsibility.” He says he would not allow the country to be divided. And his track record would support that: he was acting defence minister during the final days of the civil war. He is backed in his presidential bid by Sarath Fonseka, the general who led the victorious campaign and who won 40 per cent support at the 2010 presidential election (after which he was jailed for two years for “military offences”).
Sirisena said in launching his campaign: “I came out because I could not stay any more with a leader who has plundered the country, government and national wealth.” The clean-living candidate, who campaigns against smoking and has renounced alcohol, presents himself as the voice of the country’s farming heartland. He has pledged to cancel a $1.7 billion deal with China Communications Construction to build a port city, and to cancel three casino licences held by foreign companies. One of the licences has been granted to James Packer’s Crown group, which plans a $450 million resort in Sri Lanka through a deal that includes a 10-year tax break.
Sirisena promises to establish an independent agency to consider war crimes allegations, as well as independent commissions to oversee the judiciary, police and public service. He also advocates a radical constitutional restructuring, with most of the government’s executive powers held through parliament rather than through the office of president.
IPS deputy director Dushni Weerakoon says that whoever is elected president today, perceptions of continuing political stability will be crucial: “Even the best-laid economic reform package will fail to deliver on long-term prosperity if the country loses this most significant postwar asset.”
Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, who comes from Sri Lanka, tells The Australian: “The Rajapaksa regime is credited for not only ending terrorism but for preventing a revival. “Since the Rajapaksa regime restored peace five years ago, the weak opposition has steadfastly organised and gathered momentum. Today, rebuilding the economy and strengthening governance are the key issues.
“ There is no real difference between government and the opposition — both advocate a free market economy. The exception is that the opposition seeks closer ties with the West.”
Irrespective of who comes to power, says Gunaratna, the government will ensure that security remains a priority. “Co-operation with Australia will continue, as it has strengthened Sri Lankan intelligence and operational capabilities to fight both terrorism and crime.”
Future Sri Lankan security depends on maintaining a robust security platform in the northeast, he says. “As long as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement is intact overseas and its proxy the TNA has not abandoned separatism, the threat of resurgence is very real.
“Although most Tamils advocate peace, a segment of the diaspora that supported the LTTE for 30 years is determined to revive the LTTE at home.”
Gunaratna says Sri Lanka learned from “the failure of the world’s finest armies in conflict zones”. In Iraq and Afghanistan, after victory was declared, terrorism re-emerged because security forces did not maintain a presence. “Sri Lanka’s success,” he says, “was in developing and sustaining wide-ranging programs to rehabilitate and reintegrate terrorist fighters, de-mine, and economically develop the north and east. The continuing security presence is critical for Sri Lanka’s long-term national and strategic interests, and the stability and security of the region.”
Although the war has receded, Monash University economics professor Sisira Jayasuriya — who is in Sri Lanka — tells The Australian that the cost of living and corruption have emerged as major issues. But the war remains a powerful pro-Rajapaksa factor and government propaganda focuses on this.
“The consensus here is that it will be very close,” he says. “A clear swing for change is discernible.” Jayasuriya expects that people will be less inclined than before to vote on ethnic lines. “But among the Tamils, the scars of war are still very strong, and this will mean a strongly anti- Rajapaksa vote,” he adds. “The sense I get is that a significant, previously pro-Rajapaksa stratum want to move on to a more normal postwar situation. Everything depends on how big this group is.”
He does not expect a major change in the relationship with the Australian government or on the asylum-seeker issue, whoever wins — although the apparent “pro-Rajapaksa bias of Tony Abbott” has been an irritant.
Larry Marshall, a research associate at La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue, who was born in Sri Lanka, says that although the appreciation for bringing the war to an end remains strong, General Fonseka, “who was a respected part of the victory”, is back as part of the broad, and growing, opposition coalition — also joined by former president, prime minister and SLFP leader Chandrika Kumaratunga.
While the tendency to vote along ethnic lines is breaking down, says Marshall, ethnic voting remains strong among “minorities that feel betrayed by the regime — the Muslims who have come under attack from extreme Sinhala/Buddhist nationalists, and many Tamils still waiting for recommendations of the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to be implemented to help them feel a part of this new ‘united’ Sri Lanka”.
Some voters, he says, “feel that the benefits of postwar development are not trickling down, with major issues of massive corruption and abuses of power seemingly commonplace”.
Many want a transition to a postwar climate that includes real reconciliation and some careful power-sharing between the centre and the provinces, which would reduce the boatpeople push factor.
Today Sri Lanka faces a possible turning point that stands out as an uncommon moment in international politics: an election whose outcome is genuinely unpredictable.