Last week was historic for the island nation of Sri Lanka, as the electorate repeated the "January 8 revolution" and voted, once again, for momentous change in the country's style of governance.
There is a certain pervasive fatalism to Sri Lankan politics, akin to many other post-colonial or post-communist nations wrestling with deep-rooted ethnic strife and former authoritarian regimes. When I worked with youth in rural Romania, they described a callous political apathy in their relatives who experienced Ceaușescu's rule; a mindset that has only been hardened by years of faltering democracy and instability. Widespread distrust in the very concept of government -- not just a specific political party -- is like a virus. Only time, with new generations of hopeful youth, can heal a fractured political culture. After nine years of rule by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it seemed that Sri Lankan politics were broken beyond repair, determined by violence and demagoguery. When Rajapaksa lost a snap presidential election to his former colleague, Maithripala Sirisena, this January, some hailed it as a miracle. But this week, the Sri Lankan electorate confirmed that those January results were not a fluke, putting the brakes to a political sphere that seemed to be barrelling towards pure chauvinism and popularism.
The results of the August 17th elections were relatively unexpected. Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 95 seats, a decline of 49 since the last election in 2010. The former opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), which led a coalition of parties as the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), won 106 seats -- doubling their results from five years ago. Across the country, UPFA support has dwindled; even in districts often considered unflappable Rajapaksa strongholds, the numbers are down.
After the polls closed on the 18th and Rajapaksa's political comeback was shut down, he told the press "We have lost a good fight." Unfortunately for him, it seems that the rest of the country isn't willing to fight that "good fight" for him. It's telling, six years after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the beginning of reconstruction, that Rajapaksa views politics as another "fight." His political regime, buttressed by years of war and bile, could never achieve the peace and stability that the Sri Lankan people so desperately desire. Although Rajapaksa ended years of fear of terrorism, it's clear that the people are tired of living their lives in fear -- in fear of the alien, in fear of conflict, in fear of their neighbors, in fear of voicing their concerns.
The most convincing evidence that the past seven months of Srisena's rule has helped erase those years of fear is not just the results of this years parliamentary elections, but the elections themselves. Voter turnout was record breaking, with 77.66 percent of the electorate coming to the polls. The elections were also hailed as the most peaceful in the history of democracy in Sri Lanka. For a country with a stained history of election violence -- from systematic assassinations of members of the press, to feral mobs, to the use of governmental resources to block access for voters -- it's a seminal moment.
While the United National Party is still short of the desired super-majority needed to pass many of the vital amendments to the Frankenstein Sri Lankan constitution in order to return it to a shade of its former self, this small setback may turn into a boon for the country. The UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will be forming a national government with MPs from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party loyal to Sirisena. Grand coalitions are a rare sight in modern politics, and were only formed typically in times of war. Tunisia, in the aftermath of significant political instability following the Tunisian Revolution, has also formed a unity government with a number of independent politicians. Both of these nations will serve as grand experiments for the potential of national governments to resolve post-conflict situations. Most importantly, this new national government, formed this May and reaffirmed in a Memorandum of Understanding after these elections, is a potent sign of the government's commitment to peace.
However, as Eleanor Roosevelt explained on Voice of America, "It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it." The hope of a peaceful future for Sri Lanka must be verified by legislative results, and not empty promises. Sirisena came into power with an ambitious plan for the first 100 days, with a slew of promises. The final outcome of that first 100 days has fallen short of the mark, but it's closer to the target than many Sri Lankans are used to.
One substantial step was the 19th amendment, passed in April. Over the course of the 70s and 80s, the executive presidency was expanded through a series of amendments to the constitution, including unlimited terms and significant presidential immunity. The Nineteenth Amendment sought to curtail these changes by adding term limits and divulging power, which was still a step below Sirisena's and the UNP's promises of removing the position altogether. But with this national government, the path to that final goal is becoming clearer than ever.
Another cornerstone piece of legislation will be the Right to Information Act (RTI Act), which is still in the draft stages. The RTI Act will force any public authority to make sure that the citizens are enlightened about relevant procedures or decisions that could affect them. It will also ensure the creation of public information offices across the country, and most importantly, will make public information an inalienable right of the people.
The government is taking the proper effort to dismantle Rajapaksa's complex web of political patronage. In April, the Sri Lankan police arrested his brother Basil, the former economic development minister, on charges of misappropriating public funds. In the same month, a different brother, Gotabhaya, the former defence secretary, was summoned to appear before the nation's Bribery Commission. In his campaign, Rajapaksa looked to end the persecution of his family, claiming that they were being hounded on trumped up charges.
In general, Rajapaksa's campaign seems to have been completely defensive -- defending the old ways of political life in Sri Lanka, defending Sri Lanka from UN inquiries into human rights abuses during the civil war, defending Sri Lanka from a progressive India and the West. Ultimately, it was clearly an ineffective campaign at inspiring the voters in the same way as 2010. However, his campaign was effective at helping to dissolve old political rivalries in the face of a single chauvinistic enemy. Earlier this week, the SLFP Central Committee met to approve of the formation of a national government and the creation of a six member committee to oversee this process. Heading this committee will be former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the former head of the SLFP and the daughter of the founder of the SLFP. After being pushed aside for party leadership by Rajapaksa nearly 10 years ago, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga has been politically reclusive, devoting her time to her think-tank and speaking around the world about her experiences. I worked with her personally one year ago, and at that time, she seemed completely averse to a political comeback. However, the formation of a national government, the dissolution of the executive, and wrestling control of the SLFP from Rajapaksa are issues that are dear to her heart and clearly enough to bring her back into the murky waters of politics. According to the Daily News, "Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga received a thunderous ovation as she entered the room where the Central Committee met."
She will be working to create a robust and sustainable marriage of the SLFP and the UNP parties, two perennial political rivals. The last time the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka were from different parties was during her leadership, when Wickremesinghe's UNP gained a majority in Parliament in 2001. The divided government was mired in gridlock, and would ultimately set the stage for the rise of Rajapaksa. However, it seems those years and the political differences placed behind.
On August 21, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister -- officially affirming the creation of a national government. Present at the occasion was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former political rival, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka was infamously placed under arrest by the Rajapaksa government, despite his influential role in the victory against the Tamil Tigers, and just months before he was slated to run in the 2010 general elections. It's perhaps final confirmation that Sri Lanka has left the long shadow of Rajapaksa, and just perhaps, Sri Lankan politics can regain some sense of normalcy. When I last met Ranil Wickremesinghe, he explained to me his desire to create a state built on cooperation in the vein of King Ashoka -- perhaps now is time for that vision to come to fruition.