Published in www.crisisgroup.org website on Dec. 9 ::
Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.
“The opposition’s attempt to reopen democratic space also brings with it risks of violence and instability … The tighter the race, the more violent it threatens to be”.
Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst
Surprising many observers, Sri Lanka’s 8 January presidential election between incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former ally Maithripala Sirisena looks set to be a close contest. Promising to abolish the executive presidency and revive parliamentary democracy, the opposition offers a different vision from that of the government, which is increasingly entrenched in power. In its latest briefing,Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Risks and Opportunities, the International Crisis Group examines the challenges facing Rajapaksa and the opposition, and how domestic and international actors can mitigate the risk of political instability.
The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
- The sudden emergence of a viable joint opposition is welcome, but the heightened competition raises the likelihood of election-related violence and fraud in an increasingly authoritarian political context, where all state institutions are under the tight control of the executive. Sri Lanka’s international partners should support a significant election-monitoring presence – from the Commonwealth and the EU – as early as possible, insist it have full freedom of movement and provide funding to local election monitoring groups. They should deliver pre-election warnings to all political leaders to avoid serious fraud and election-related violence.
- Particular concerns will focus on whether the extremist Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) movement will be marshalled to solidify the government’s Sinhalese base, or intimidate or provoke the Muslim electorate. Likewise, Tamil-majority areas in the north and east remain under tight control; as with the 2013 provincial elections, there are fears that campaigning will be heavily controlled there and the authorities could resort to intimidation or worse.
- Should Sirisena gain power, his plan for constitutional change will face significant obstacles. His coalition will be divided on a series of crucial issues put on hold by Rajapaksa: devolving power to Tamil-majority areas, protecting the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, addressing the legacy of wartime human rights violations – still, rightly, a focus of the UN human rights system – and reducing the military’s size and role in civilian affairs.
“The opposition’s attempt to reopen democratic space also brings with it risks of violence and instability” says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Senior Analyst. “The tighter the race, the more violent it threatens to be”.
“Whoever wins in January, issues of devolution of power, accountability and reconciliation, and of the equal status of Tamils and Muslims in a Sinhala majority state, will remain contentious”, says says Jonathan Prentice, Chief Policy Officer and Acting Asia Program Director. “Navigating this terrain will require political skills and statesmanship by all parties, with the cooperation of Sri Lanka’s international partners”.