A Vote for Change

Cover Story

The recently-concluded presidential elections in Sri Lanka reinforce the value of democracy. The will of the people reigned supreme leading to the rise of 63-year-old Maithripala Sirisena as the seventh president of the island nation. Amali Wedagedara finds out how the change in leadership will shape the country’s future trajectory, its bilateral relations with China and India and the approach of the government to the national question

A few weeks before Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, a tuk-tuk driver in Kandy town said, “It will be a secret vote this time. People would silently cast their vote for change.” This statement is evidence of the kind of environment that prevailed during the presidential election campaign. People were not very vocal about their dissent for the fear of being reprimanded. In the midst of ‘white-vans’ and disappearances, a lot of people adopted self-censorship. People who desired change could not show their support explicitly at the micro-level as Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters were far ahead in terms of the level of campaigning. Despite all odds, more than 620,000 Sri Lankans voted in favour of Maithripala Sirisena as the next president of Sri Lanka.

Life and politics in Sri Lanka during the last couple of years was subjected to the control of an authoritarian, one-party state led by a family oligarchy and a corrupt bureaucracy. In the face of deteriorating human freedom and deepening ethnic and religious polarisation, certain groups, particularly the youth, ethnic and religious minorities faced the risk of being pushed towards more radical and violent options to secure their rights. Lopsided economic growth driven by external debt, stagnant production and agricultural base, and rising consumer tax had aggravated living standards of ordinary people. It is in this context that civil society groups mooted the idea of a Common Candidate as early as 2012. Even though the Common Front failed to become a mainstream movement until very late due to the absence of a credible face, they managed to mainstream ideas on the need to abolish executive presidency, curb corruption and ensure good governance in the country. With Maithripala Sirisena coming forward to be the common candidate, the opposition’s campaign mustered strength and ultimately defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena’s victory symbolises a rare occasion of ethnic and religious unity in Sri Lankan history divided along ethnic and religious lines.

The New Democratic Front (NDF) government is backed by a broad coalition which comprises the United National Party (UNP), Democratic Party (DP), Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and dissent of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with Tamil and Muslim political parties. It is an interim government which will be in power until the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will take place after April 2015. They have presented a ‘100-Day Programme’, an ensemble of policies on welfare and social protection, promoting national economy with various incentives to local producers such as guaranteed prices, financial assistance and improved international market access. The base of the common front was built on the discontented masses across the country, in the north and east, in urban and semi-urban spaces, in plantations and in universities etc. Designed by incorporating common grievances with the forthcoming parliamentary election in mind, the NDF government will prioritise successful execution of the 100 day programme.

What do people in Sri Lanka want from the change? How would this change shape the country’s future trajectory? How would the NDF government approach the ‘national question’? Would the change in government affect Sino-Sri Lankan relations? How would Indo-Sri Lankan relations fare under the new government?


The concentration of power in the position of the executive president and the manner in which it has evolved over the years assuming an overarching authority has enabled executive presidents to shape the entire government apparatus. Ever since it was introduced in 1978, individuals who assumed the position of the executive president have tried on limits of the limitlessness of powers vested in the executive presidency. As a result, the position has grown to be a giant octopus like being with a strong grip on all aspects of human life, whether political, economic, social, cultural or religious. This stronghold was further tightened during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Assisted by his family members, he extended the influence of the executive president to every aspect of policy creation, implementation and adjudication. Promotion of the president as the ultimate saviour of people resulted in a personal cult leading to the degradation of processes and institutions. Post the 18th Amendment, Sri Lanka, devoid of checks and balances, witnessed the peak of executive powers. Centralisation of power was linked to increasing levels of corruption and deterioration of human freedom.

Subsequent to these negative developments, civil society and some sections of the political society began agitating against the process of centralisation. The idea of the common candidate to abolish the executive presidential system was proposed by the Movement for Social Justice led by a Sinhalese Buddhist monk, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero in 2012. Later, JVP launched a parallel movement, ‘No Third Term’.

Having voted for a democratic space, people hope and expect Maithripala Sirisena to abolish the executive presidency. The interim NDF government is expected to bring the 19th Amendment, one of the minimal expectations from the government in the first 100 days.

The National Question

A political solution to the traditional grievances of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population is trapped in electoral politics. Although promises were made on the 13th Amendment and 13 Amendment plus, they continue to remain only promises.

In the run-up to the polls, the ‘national question’ was not addressed on election platforms. Civil society, media and allies of Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) continued to misinterpret the political solution as a plot to divide the country, while the opposition chose to maintain a silence for the fear of facing consequences of upsetting the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank. Lack of synergy between politicians, civil society and the general public on the national question has made its progress stagnant. The elected party must recognise the unique contribution made by ethnic and religious minorities to its victory.

What the newly elected government will do to address the concerns of the Tamil people is yet to be seen. A good first step has been made by replacing the military governor of the Northern Provincial Council with a civilian, Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Secretary HMGS Palihakkara, who was also a commissioner of the LLRC. To realise the true potential of the provincial councils, the centre must empower all provincial councils. Extending the centre’s influence over the subjects devolved to the provinces has overshadowed the role of the provincial political leadership.

Foreign Policy

The section on foreign policy in Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto begins stating that ‘[t]he whole world knows that our foreign policy is in disarray after the military victory in 2009 [...] It has become an urgent and imperative need to free the country from this situation’. In the face of escalating international pressure, and the Indian estrangement, it is evident that Sri Lanka must fix its foreign policy apparatus. It would require a complete structural makeover starting from the bureaucracy to refashioning the ideology behind foreign policy making. Key focus areas as articulated in the manifesto are strengthening and expanding relations with Asian neighbours and mending ties with India.


The new government’s first diplomatic exchanges were with India, the first country to felicitate the new president. While the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka was the first foreign delegate to congratulate Sirisena; the Indian prime minister and president were among the first state leaders to communicate their best wishes. Moving forward, the new Minister of External Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera visited India first. The media coverage on his visit was warm and the announcement of the likelihood of PM Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka in March indicates that India-Sri Lanka relations are improving.

Referring to historical experiences during the tenure of former President JR Jayawardene, many Lankans emphasise the importance of maintaining good relations with India. But the question remains whether they will be ready to adopt a liberal approach towards the prolonged Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), Sampur power plant, and the national question. It was reported that the Chinese President Xi Jinping signed 27 cooperation agreements, including the mega deal on the port-city project during his visit. If PM Modi visits Sri Lanka in March, India will want to arrange a significant event to mark the same.


China has always enjoyed a benevolent image in Sri Lanka. Profited by positive projection through symbols like the Bandaranaike Memorial Convention Hall (BMICH), and Lotus Pond Arts Theatre (Nelum Pokuna) located in the heart of Colombo and state backing for being a friend in need, China and Sri Lanka share a strong bond. During the past decade, Sino-Sri Lankan relations deepened rapidly. China is not only a principal source of external finance, but is also the biggest investor with mega deals such as the Hambantota deep sea project, Colombo Port City project, Northern highway etc. Greater public awareness of Chinese-funded projects, particularly their opaque nature and corruption, has created a sense of public resentment in society, which has impelled the new government to review Chinese projects.

A rift between Sri Lanka and China would be appealing to Western countries worried about the rise of China. However, it is up to Sri Lanka to understand its actual needs. Scrapping agreements will not reflect positively to the private sector and foreign investors. As a small country with little economic and political influence, it is imperative that Sri Lanka balances its actual needs with strategic autonomy.

Human Rights

Sri Lanka’s relations with the West have gradually deteriorated over the issue of human rights. In an attempt to repair ties with the West, Sri Lanka has announced its readiness to engage the UN constructively and offer a domestic mechanism. The NDF government has sent positive vibes to members of the Sri Lankan diaspora by inviting all Sri Lankans in exile, including human rights defenders and journalists, to return home.

There is a widespread belief that this is a good opportunity to set everything right – starting from strong institutions and processes, an independent bureaucracy, and communal harmony to the creation of a positive image on the world stage. Having burnt their fingers in 1994, civil society, which played a crucial role in bringing the NDF government into power, is eager to ensure that the momentum continues and the government acts on its promises.

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