Sri Lanka elections buoy ruling party; Tamils sidelined

Voters in Thursday's Sri Lanka elections favored President Mahinda Rajapakse's ruling party, which prioritizes economic growth over reconciliation with the rebel Tamils after decades of civil war.

Manish Swarup/AP
Supporters of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's party United People's Freedom Alliance wait for the final results, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday. Sri Lanka's ruling coalition led early results Friday of parliamentary elections in which Rajapaksa, seen left in poster, is seeking to strengthen his grip on power by gaining a two-thirds majority.

Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition holds a strong lead in Thursday’s parliamentary elections, buoying a government that aims to prioritize economic development over political reconciliation following decades of civil war.

With election returns still being counted on Friday, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was expected to capture around 140 seats in the 225-seat legislature. That would fall short of a two-thirds supermajority. But the total could grow through coalition or party crossovers.

The ruling coalition, led by newly reelected President Mahinda Rajapakse, had campaigned for greater power in order to put aside political division in the pursuit of growth following the Sri Lanka war. The government may indeed get such powers. But the possibility of a historically low turnout raises questions about whether the island nation really has unified around the vision.

“It may well be the case that some people saw it as a foregone conclusion, and others felt it was meaningless, pointless, and lost some faith in the electoral process after what happened in to the last election,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

System of checks and balances has been 'eroded'

The presidential election in January concluded with Mr. Rajapakse’s electoral win and arrest of his opponent, retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka, splintering the opposition. Mr. Fonseka remains in custody, awaiting a controversial court martial, but is expected to win a seat in the new Parliament.

Far from the 74 percent turnout for that contest, only 50 to 55 percent of voters participated Thursday, according to an early estimate by the Center for Monitoring Election Violence in Colombo. Usually 65 to 75 percent come out, the group noted.

Even if the ballot box fails to give the ruling coalition a supermajority, the UPFA could achieve it by buying off members of Parliament to their side, says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council in Colombo. That worries he and other analysts who suspect the UPFA wants the ability to change the constitution to remove the presidential term limits on Rajapakse.

“I’m worried. We are a country that has just come out of civil war, so I would prefer a more conscious, more conciliatory, more discussion-oriented polity or style of governance,” says Mr. Perera. “There is no system of checks and balances – that has been eroded over the last few years.”

Tamils steer clear of hard-line candidates

Perera sees positive signs from the voting by ethnic Tamils though. In the first parliamentary vote since the defeat of the rebel Tamil Tigers, the Tamil community did not cast their lot with “hard-line nationalist candidates,” Perera says.

Rather, Tamils voters backed a party that once was seen as the proxy for the Tigers but has since adopted a plank of autonomy within the Sri Lankan state. Voters did not follow a splinter group that has kept alive the demand for independence. The ruling coalition and the main opposition also took some seats in Tamil areas.

“The Tamils have voted in a way very pragmatically for those who are for accommodation with the government,” says Perera.

But Tamils voted at record low levels, according to the Tamil nationalist website TamilNet, which dubbed it a vote of “no confidence in democracy under Sri Lankan State.”

How to restore faith in Sri Lankan elections

The international community has been critical of the government’s human rights record and reconciliation efforts with the Tamils.

“I think it’s important for the administration of President Rajapakse to reach out to the Tamils,” said the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, in an interview with the BBC after the vote.

Mr. Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives says that to help restore Sri Lankan faith in the electoral process, the government should create independent commissions to oversee elections, the police, and the public service.

Rajapakse and his party “are positing that economic development should take overarching priority over a discussion about rights and governance,” says Saravanamuttu.

The last time the Sri Lankan government consolidated power around the president, in the 1970s, two insurgencies followed, he points out.

“It remains to be seen if the past will be repeated,” says Saravanamuttu. Some other Asian nations have coalesced around a more authoritarian style of government focused on rapid economic growth. “This time around there is much more of a strong nationalist rhetoric.… You might see a change to a more kind of Malaysian or Singaporean politics.”

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