Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa, third time not so lucky?

Author: Peter Drysdale, East Asia Forum

Two years before an election was due, President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka has called an early poll for 8 January, seeking an unprecedented third term in office made possible by his revision of the constitution.

Sri Lankan main opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena attends a meeting with diplomatic corps in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1 January 2015. (Photo: AAP).

So far the Sri Lankan president has had a charmed political life, winning 58 per cent of the vote at the last poll in 2010 on the back of overwhelming support for ending nearly thirty years of civil war in the Tamil separatist north and east a year earlier. Talk of war crimes and the massacre of many thousands of Tamils was brushed aside as treacherous and damaging to the country and held no sway in the south or among ordinary Buddhists, who account for over 70 per cent of the population.

All the signs were auspicious when Rajapaksa declared the poll last November. The president is a charismatic campaigner who has worked assiduously at using the advantages of incumbency to secure his tenure. He’s built what looks, to many, like something of personality cult with giant hoardings of his smiling, well-oiled image along the highways and a family mausoleum in his home town. He has a formidable political machine in place, with major political positions stacked with relatives — all four brothers (one the gung-ho minister of economic development) and his son are politicians — and loyal allies. The election was a one-horse race. Next Thursday, the eighth day of the month, would be a lucky day, the superstitious Rajapaksa no doubt believed.

So it seemed little more than a month ago.

As the poll draws close Sri Lankans look set to have their closest election in more than a decade. In a dramatic development, Maithripala Sirisena — health minister in Rajapaksa’s government and a leading figure in, and general secretary of, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) — jumped ship with key supporters on 21 November and has emerged to lead the opposition forces against his former leader. Backed by the main opposition United National Party (UNP), Sirisena is now heading the opposition coalition calling for constitutional reforms to limit executive power and restore independent bodies to monitor the civil service, judiciary and human rights. His promise is to rid Sri Lanka of one-man, one-family rule and to cut the overly-strong presidency back to size within 100 days of his election. It’s a manifesto that appeals to those who fear years of dynastic rule by the Rajapaksas, including, clearly, those within the SLFP itself. It resonates with growing public resentment about cronyism and worsening corruption and an environment within which businesses complain that only those on the inside can win official contracts. Sri Lanka’s ranking on indicators of the ease of doing business has plummeted dramatically in recent years. Two weeks ago, one poll suggested that 76 per cent of Sri Lankans believe that Sirisena would have won the election if it had been held immediately. Rajapaksa is still favoured to win. But Sirisena’s in with a chance.

It’s not so much the current state of the economy that has dragged the Rajapaksa government back into a close contest. The Sri Lankan economy is the fastest growing in Southeast Asia, growing at close to 7.5 per cent a year. Incomes have grown to around US$3500 a head, edging into the lower end of the middle income range. Unemployment is low (around 4 per cent) and inflation, at around 3.5 per cent, has been within single digits for almost six years. Yet the prices of basic foodstuffs like rice are up and real household incomes appear to have grown far less than the high growth rate of GDP might suggest. Much of Sri Lanka’s growth has been project-driven, with a huge splurge on public works funded by increased foreign (especially Chinese) debt concentrating the benefits of spending on a few rather than the many.

As Dushni Weerakoon explains in this week’s lead, ‘while things are going well at the moment, Rajapaksa might well have been wise to go to the polls sooner rather than later. Although the near-to-medium term outlook for the economy appears healthy, the long-term prognosis for sustained high growth is not as good. Sri Lanka’s economic growth so far has relied heavily on infrastructure development financed by overseas borrowing’.

President Rajapaksa’s popularity has been slipping back from its peak in 2010. The SLFP won provincial elections in the southern province of Uva in September less comfortably than expected. The call for early elections was thus an astute recognition that a third term re-election bid stood a better chance of being successful if it happened sooner rather than later.

The opposition, Weerakoon notes, hasn’t mentioned the economy much because the numbers are favourable to the government for now. Its rallying cry for change is ‘governance’. This is based on charges that institutions of government have been weakened and that the government has moved towards an increasingly authoritarian style, characterised by decision-making powers wielded by a handful of trusted presidential cronies. It is not surprising then that the theme of the opposition’s campaign is all about pruning the powers of Sri Lanka’s executive presidential system.

As Weerakoon concludes, with ‘high levels of external indebtedness, modest export earnings growth and limited private investor appetite to expand production capacity, what the economy needs most now are productivity-enhancing reforms’.

It also needs political stability, a crucial asset to its most important foreign exchange earning industry, tourism. The economic fallout from the election, whatever its result, will therefore hang more than anything else on perceptions of how it affects political stability. 

Peter Drysdale is the Editor of the East Asia Forum

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