BY UDIT BANERJEA
The Sri Lankan government has so far failed to deliver on its promises of democratic reform. Continued failure would embolden the authoritarian factions in the country and risk sending Sri Lanka’s democracy backwards. The island nation’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean bestows upon the country numerous natural geopolitical advantages. Only by committing to reform and restoring the legitimacy of the government can the current administration put the country in a position to succeed.
The Sri Lankan people shocked the world in January when they unseated their two-term incumbent, authoritarian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was buoyed by his success in defeating the rebel Tamil Tigers and finally ending the decades-long civil war. Confident in his standing with the public, he called an early presidential election with the goal of winning an unprecedented third term. But the Sri Lankan people objected, and Maithripala Sirisena, a recent member of Rajapaksa’s own cabinet, emerged victorious running on a pro-democracy platform. Sirisena was carried to office by a coalition of minority groups – long-persecuted Tamils and Muslims overwhelmingly voted for Sirisena – and disaffected Sinhalese voters. Upon taking office, Sirisena offered an ambitious 100-day reform plan, most of which did not come to pass. Ineffective leadership and persistent political obstacles blocked the path forward.
But Sirisena’s government received a shot in the arm when his party successfully squashed an attempted resurgence by Rajapaksa in the parliamentary elections held in August. Rajapaksa had his sights set on the prime ministership, but the Sirisena-supported United National Party, won the most seats, assuring that incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe remained at the head of the legislature. A victory for Rajapaksa would surely have spelled the death of Sirisena’s reform agenda. The administration now has a renewed mandate, and it must follow through on its promised policy agenda.
Sri Lanka sits at a critical geopolitical and economic position at the intersection of Indian, Chinese, and U.S. interests and is poised to be an ever more important player in the Indian Ocean’s sea lines of communication. Under Rajapaksa’s rule, Sri Lanka largely wasted this leverage by throwing itself firmly into the Chinese camp. Now, Sirisena’s government gives hope to a more balanced – and in the long-run, more advantageous for the country – foreign policy. Sri Lanka now has the opportunity to put some of its longstanding civic issues to bed through commonsense reforms and build a modern state that is capable of leveraging these advantages. Sirisena and his administration would do well to listen to the moderate voices that elected them and seize this opportunity.