Nimmi Gowrinathan: One Nation, Under Rajapaksa? Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election

Last week, the United States welcomed the re-election of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who won the nationwide presidential election by an 18 percent margin over opposition leader General Sarath Fonseka.
In a statement issued after the final results were announced, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs P. J. Crowley commended the country for "the first nationwide election held in decades." Despite cautious praise of the electoral process, what remains to be seen in this deeply divided nation is whether the second term policies of this administration will be truly "free and fair."
Under the rule of President Rajapaksa (and his three brothers), the ruling party has been credited with ending the 30-year civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the process of this brutal military campaign, it also earned widespread condemnation for its disregard for human rights norms, rampant corruption, and excessive militarization. Unfortunately, it is likely that the Rajapaksa regime will interpret the election results as a renewed mandate to reinforce its policies of the past.
Even more unfortunate, however, is the reality that Sri Lanka’s presidential system (which both candidates claimed they would abolish) provides virtually no checks and balances on the all but unrestricted power of the executive branch. Capitalizing on this power, the president has already declared that he will dissolve Parliament in an effort to secure a ruling coalition to reinforce his decisions.
While Rajapaksa’s leadership will now last for six more years, it is likely that severe internal and external challenges facing the regime will emerge in the very near future.
The final few weeks of this bitter battle between Rajapaksa and Fonseka (once former allies) served to define the national issues that are of most relevance to the country’s voting public. For the island’s minorities, this election was widely touted as a long-awaited opportunity to exercise their democratic privileges. The issues that weighed heavily on the minds of these voters—primarily the ethnic Tamil community in conflict-ridden districts in the northeastern stretches of the nation—may have differed from the issues drawing large numbers of citizens from the majority ethnic Singhalese community to the polls in southern districts.
Central among these were the “Tamil question” (addressing the underlying grievances of the ethnic minority), justice and accountability (for war crimes, repression of the media, and extrajudicial killings), and foreign policy (primarily the island nation’s ties to India, China, and the United States). A closer look at poll results from these regions reveals a pessimism over the possibility of change—a sentiment reinforced by any examination of this administration’s policy past.
Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared his commitment to unite the nation. With the support of India, China, and Pakistan, among others, the military victory was bloody, but apparently quite definitive. However, as the results of the presidential election reveal, the barriers between two distinct nations cannot be pierced by military might alone.
Voter turnout remained below 20 percent in areas recently captured from LTTE control, for two main reasons. The first was a pervasive fear of political engagement (reinforced by small explosions near polling centers) and logistical obstacles to casting a vote. According to reports, many recently displaced persons were unable to obtain ID cards or find transport to the polls. Second, and perhaps most telling, was that for those who until very recently had been living for decades under rebel-controlled leadership (including a completely distinct legal system), there was widespread disinterest in an election seen as relevant only to a nation that was not their own.
Despite a voter turnout that varied with levels of infrastructure and intimidation, the minority votes that were cast were largely for opposition candidate General Fonseka. Given his role as the army general who so recently ordered the attacks that destroyed their lives and livelihoods, these results can only be read as a desperate plea for change. Indeed, one of the most attractive promises of the opposition’s campaign was implementation of the thirteenth amendment, calling for devolution of power to the northeast provinces. Under the hard-line Rajapaksa administration, it is difficult to imagine that any degree of autonomy will be granted.
As power is consolidated internally in the center, the power that remains available to the minority communities on the margins may only be significant if validated by outside actors. For the United States and others in the international community, accusations of exclusion by the Tamil minority on the island have always been taken seriously, yet the presence of the LTTE rendered them moot. Simply, it was nearly impossible to address claims championed by a proscribed terrorist organization.
But with the demise of LTTE, constructive engagement with Colombo in both the protection of democratic values and strategic interests has become increasingly important. Yet it is also becoming increasingly difficult—the Rajapaksa administration has strengthened its ties with China, Pakistan, Iran, and Libya, and also hardened its rhetoric of resistance to any “neo-colonial” intervention by Western nations and international institutions.
While votes cast by the majority and minority communities on the island may have differed in their priorities, in a “united” Sri Lanka the possibilities for economic prosperity and progress promised by the Rajapaksa campaign may be inextricably linked to resolving issues of resettlement, justice, and accountability. The continued economic support of both the European Union’s general system of preferences plus a preferential trade agreement and an IMF loan already come with some conditionality on upholding international humanitarian and human rights norms.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, calls for strengthening these conditions and re-emphasizing the central concerns of minority communities on the island. “The president deftly played a false conflict between rights and the fight against terrorism in his first term,” he says. “But with the war over, the UN and other international actors should loudly insist on justice for victims.”
But, to date, this has been lacking. Only through increased pressure from the outside, and active support for protecting and strengthening dissenting voices on the inside, may we finally see a genuine attempt to promote a politics of inclusion within one nation.
Nimmi Gowrinathan is the director of South Asia Programs at Operation USA ( and a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at UCLA, completing her dissertation, "Why Women Rebel: Understanding Female Fighters in Sri Lanka."

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