The Future of Sri Lankan Democracy

Members of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena’s fragile coalition, which played a crucial role in the outcome of the 2015 presidential election, have called for the current president to rethink his bid for reelection stating that “I now think your time has passed.” As his own party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), continues to repudiate him, President Sirisena’s hopes for reelection dwindle, opening up a path for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s family to return to power. 

In 2015, Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), took advantage of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rapidly deteriorating reputation, a product of his increasingly authoritarian policies and the charges of Human Right’s violations against him, to convince Maithripala Sirisena, the secretary general of Mr. Rajapaksa’s own party, to defect. Together, they formed an unlikely coalition against the reelection of Mr. Rajapaksa. However, since their victory, the two have found little common ground in terms of how to run the country.

The tension within the government’s leadership culminated in last year’s constitutional crisis. Beginning with Sirisena’s party’s decision to leave the unity government, the crisis only escalated when Sirisena appointed Mr. Rajapaksa as the prime minister in late October, ousting Mr. Wickremesinghe. Sirisena quickly dissolved parliament, in which Mr. Wickremesinghe and the UNP held a majority, in order to prevent Parliament from declaring Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment unconstitutional. Only upon the Supreme Court’s ruling that Mr. Sirisena did not possess the power to dissolve Parliament before the end of their term did Mr. Rajapaksa agree to step down and allow Mr. Wickremesinghe to be reinstated, ending this 2 month long crisis. 

The turmoil of 2018 and its adverse effects on Mr. Sirisena’s popularity was only amplified by this year’s Easter Sunday bombings, which resulted in the death of over 290 people and left countless others injured. Gamini Viyangoda, a well known civil activist, claims that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are to blame for the attack, suggesting that they failed to act on inadmissible evidence and multiple warnings. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith verified these rumours stating that warnings of a possible attack were issued as early as April 4 by Indian intelligence. These reports, including a 6:45 AM phone call the day of the attack, were continually ignored. Ranjith criticized the “serious lack of responsibility on the part of the government” and the “bickering going on between the sides.”

President Sirisena’s irresponsibility and childish deadlock with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP along with his failure to follow through and install Mr. Rajapaksa as Prime Minister upon the SLFP’s break from the unity government has politically isolated him. Namal Rajapaksa, son of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa says, “With the current situation, the people have rejected the current leadership of the country,” alluding to the growing frustration and disillusionment with the current leadership among the voting population. 

With both the president and prime minister unlikely to garner enough support to win the presidency in this year’s election, the Rajapaksa family’s return to power seems inevitable. Due to the reinstallation of the two term limit on the presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa is automatically out of the running; however, his brother and former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, continues to harbor ambitions for the presidency and seems like the next logical choice. Despite his discordance with the minority parties who played a pivotal role within the coalition that elected Mr. Sirisena in 2015, he still stands a good chance of winning. His position as defense secretary in the final phases of the civil war between the ethnic majority Sinhalese and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) makes him a prime candidate to win over the growing number of ostracized Sinhalese voters.

With the political situation in Sri Lanka rapidly deteriorating, another Rajapaksa presidency is beginning to look increasingly likely, enshrouding the future of Sri Lankan democracy in uncertainty.

Photo Credit: The National