The next round of national elections does not fall due until 2016, but there is reason to suspect that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the governing United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) may pursue an early renewal of their mandate. Rajapaksa employed a similar strategy before winning landslide victories in 2010, and an assessment of the current political landscape suggests that the president and his party would benefit from repeating the move.
Voting patterns at provincial elections held back in March, including a high abstention rate and increased support for smaller parties, amounted to a warning to the UPFA that its popular appeal, which skyrocketed following the final defeat of Tamil separatist rebel forces in May 2009, is waning. The most recent provincial election, held in Uva on September 20, confirmed the trend, and gave the UPFA a fresh source for concern, as the main opposition United National Party (UNP), which has struggled at the polls for years, made a surprisingly strong showing.
Uva is divided into two regions: the Monaragala district, which is majority Sinhalese, and is a traditional stronghold of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), the dominant member of the UPFA; and the Badulla district, which contains a sizeable Tamil population that has historically supported the UNP. In Monaragala, where the UPFA won 75% of the vote at the 2010 national elections, the governing alliance saw its vote share fall to 58%, while the UNP’s vote share rose to 32%, compared to just 18% in 2010. In Badulla, the UPFA’s margin of victory over the UNP was a slim 47%–45%.
Given the clear evidence that the political tides have begun to shift against the UPFA, Rapaksa might decide that it makes sense to return to the polls before the currents become stronger. Regardless of when the elections are held, the UPFA’s incumbent status will provide the bloc with significant advantages that make it very likely the alliance will retain its parliamentary majority. Rajapaksa, who has been cleared to stand for a third term thanks to a 2010 constitutional amendment that eliminated the presidential term limit, will likewise be heavily favored to win re-election.
Threats to Democracy
Assuming that is the case, Rajapaksa’s government can be expected to continue to demonstrate authoritarian tendencies. In recent years, the government has stepped up its attacks on media organizations. A number of Sri Lankan journalists have been in exile since 2012, and the government’s telecommunications regulatory commission blocked two more news websites in May, bringing the total of banned online organizations to eight.
The government also is going out of its way to make life difficult for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating on the island. In July, it banned NGOs and activist groups from issuing media releases and holding press conferences while also requiring such organizations to disclose the source of any foreign money. Then, in August, the government indicated it might set up a regulatory agency to monitor NGOs.
The close scrutiny of NGOs is related to ongoing pressure from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for an independent investigation into allegations that the Sri Lankan military engaged in widespread human rights abuses in the later stages of the civil war. Rajapaksa has refused to allow UN officials into Sri Lanka, asserting that his government is fully capable of conducting an impartial investigation, and the government suspects that NGOs are helping the OHCHR to gather evidence with the aim of undermining that claim.
There is some ambiguity surrounding Rajapaksa’s relationship with Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a monastic-based organization that espouses an extreme brand of Sinhalese nationalism and Buddhist chauvinism. BBS leaders have been blamed for incidents of violence targeting religious minorities, including anti-Muslim riots that left four people dead and scores more injured in June.
The group has been harshly criticized by leading figures in across the political spectrum. However, some UPFA supporters claim that the BBS is being funded by external agents, including western governments, with the aim of sowing division within Sri Lanka and lending credence to accusation of the government’s failure to uphold the rights of minorities.
In contrast, some opposition figures contend that the BBS’ harassment of minorities serves the political interests of the government, which they claim is doing nothing to control the hard-liners, and may even be secretly assisting the group. Indeed, the president’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who serves as secretary to the Ministry of Defense, and is accused of tacitly authorizing the war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan military, has openly displayed his support for the BBS.
Improved Ties with China a Priority
The simmering tensions highlighted by the recent outbreak of sectarian violence are not having an adverse effect on the tourism industry. The number of foreign visitors increased for the 64th consecutive month in August 2014, and was 13.8% higher than the figure recorded a year earlier. Chinese tourists, in particular, have made Sri Lanka their vacation destination of choice.
That is just one indicator of closer relations between the two countries. China is the single largest source of foreign investment in Sri Lanka, as well as the country’s primary lender, and the two countries are currently negotiating a free-trade agreement. During a visit to Colombo in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to strengthen defense ties between the two nations, and work with Sri Lanka to realize its potential to serve as a regional shipping hub.
Beyond the economic benefits of closer relations, China sees strong ties with Sri Lanka as a bulwark against the expansion of India’s influence in the region, while officials in Colombo recognize that friendly relations with the regime in Beijing provides Sri Lanka with important protection against international meddling in its internal affairs. The US and the EU were the main destinations for Sri Lanka’s exports in 2013, and India was the largest source of Sri Lankan imports. However, two-way trade between Sri Lanka and China is expected to increase markedly in the coming years. Thus, even if China is not willing to use its UN Security Council veto to prevent the imposition of sanctions over Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with the OHCHR, shifting trade patterns will reduce the potential damage resulting from possible sanctions enforced by western countries.
Sri Lanka’s relations with India are not nearly as straightforward. India’s southernmost states include a sizeable population of ethnic Tamils, whose chief representative at the state level, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK), has been the dominant political force in the state of Tamil Nadu for decades, and is currently the third largest party in the national Parliament. Under pressure from the Tamil parties, the Indian government has historically taken an active role in efforts to promote peace between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and the island’s Tamil minority.
However, the landslide victory of the National Democratic Alliance, a coalition headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has significantly reduced the national influence of the AIADMK. Moreover, with China aggressively courting Sri Lanka, the new government in Delhi is not inclined to take any action that might alienate the regime in Colombo.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew criticism at home for inviting Rajapaksa to attend his swearing-in ceremony, and Indian Tamils were incensed by India’s decision to abstain from a UN vote on whether to investigate alleged rights abuses committed against the ethnic Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Modi has asked Rajapaksa’s government to honor a 1987 bilateral accord that calls for the devolution of security powers from the national to the regional level in Sri Lanka, but UPFA has made clear that it does not see such a move to be consistent with the national interest, and it is unlikely that Modi’s government is going to press the point.