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Sri Lanka: Ex-President Rajapaksa makes a comeback

October 27, 2018

Sri Lankan President Sirisena has made former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa premier after sacking Ranil Wickramasinghe. South Asia expert Siegfried O. Wolf spoke to DW about the country's resulting constitutional crisis.

Mahinda Rajapaksa
Image: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/P. Dambarage

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena's move to oust Ranil Wickramasinghe and appoint former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (top photo) as prime minister in his stead has been slammed by opponents, who have dubbed it an "anti-democratic coup."

One of those opponents, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, on Friday even voiced the opinion that Wickramasinghe remained prime minister as he could not constitutionally be removed by the president.

President Sirisena, who chairs the United People's Freedom Alliance party (UPFA), sacked Wickramasinghe after the UPFA quit the coalition government.

Controversial figure

Rajapaksa, who was president from 2005 to 2015, increasingly took an anti-West posture and drifted closer to China during his last years in power. The UN and the international community was also critical of Rajapaksa's handling of Sri Lanka's 1983-2009 civil war and launched an investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights abuses committed by his government in its efforts to end it.

In an interview with DW, Siegfried O. Wolf, the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), said the return of former strongman Rajapaksa could reverse the process of ethnic and religious reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

DW: What are the factors behind the collapse of the coalition government in Sri Lanka?

Siegfried O. Wolf: Some of the known reasons behind the coalition collapse were disagreements over the pace and depth of the much-needed economic and administrative reforms. Corruption allegations against Wickramasinghe could also be a factor.

The country's Sinhalese-Buddhist majority is also fearful of the growing strength of radical Tamil parties. Wickramasinghe enjoyed the support of the country's minority voters, and this was also perceived by many Sinhalese as a threat. Against this backdrop, the constitutional reforms initiated by Wickramasinghe's government and its national reconciliation drive were criticized by the majority communities.

Siegfried Wolf Südasienexperte Uni Heidelberg
Siegfried O. Wolf is an expert on South AsiaImage: Siegfried Wolf

Why did President Sirisena choose Rajapaksa to succeed Wickramasinghe? The pair had developed serious differences prior to the 2015 presidential polls.

It doesn't much have to do with Sirisena and Rajapaksa and should be looked at in the light of a China-India tug-of-war in the region. The Sri Lankan "coup" happened after Chinese economic interests were seriously challenged by Wickramasinghe's administration. Actually, this trend is extremely worrying for other countries with smaller economies and fragile state situations that are participating in China's Belt and Road initiative.

Sirisena's opponents called Wickramasinghe's sacking an "unconstitutional" move. Do you agree with that assessment?

The sacking of a prime minister and the appointment of a new premier through a presidential decree is questionable according to the country's constitution. However, President Sirisena's move is not only related to a constitutional debate; it also calls into question other core issues that the country has been grappling with for quite some time. For instance, who should interpret the constitution? Also, should Sri Lanka have a parliamentary or a presidential system? Wickramasinghe's ouster has exposed some fundamental problems in Sri Lanka's political system — mainly a systematic conflict between prime minister and president, an inherent political struggle.

President Maithripala Sirisena und ex-Prime MinisterRanil Wickramasinghe
Wickramasinghe (r.) supported Sirisena (l.) in the 2015 presidential electionsImage: Imago/Zumapress/T. Basnayaka

A proxy battleground?

Wickramasinghe and President Sirisena had reportedly clashed over leasing a port to India. How do you see the future of Indian-Sri Lankan ties after Wickramasinghe's removal?

Under Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka made remarkable efforts to address the country's unresolved issues with India. The ousted premier tried to improve ties not only with New Delhi but also with the West. If Rajapaksa opts to return to his earlier unbalanced, unreflected foreign policy only to appease Beijing, it will not only complicate Sri Lanka's relations with India but also with the international community. A number of South and Southeast Asian countries are wary of China's rising influence in the region.

Is Sri Lanka increasingly becoming a proxy battleground for India and China? What impact is this rivalry having on Sri Lankan politics?

Wickramasinghe's removal and Rajapaksa's appointment shows that elements that favor a closer cooperation with China and a critical stance towards India and the West have gained strength. It is interesting to note that Sirisena's move comes at a time when massive Chinese investments projects in Sri Lanka have come under heavy criticism to the extent that they are being perceived as a huge threat to the country's national interests.

What does Rajapaksa's return to power mean for Sri Lanka?

Rajapaksa's time in office as president is remembered for ending the civil war with Tamil rebels. But he ended this decadeslong conflict by using military power and not through political channels. He did not try to end differences between ethnic communities. Sri Lanka, due to many years of armed conflicts, is a deeply divided country and needs national reconciliation.

Although some reconciliation efforts have been made in the past few years, a lot more still needs to be done. With Rajapaksa's return, the sustainability of these achievements in general, and the relationship between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and other religious minorities, especially the Hindus and the Muslims, might be compromised. In my opinion, the return of Rajapaksa would be a setback for peace efforts in Sri Lanka. 

The present government was criticized by some conservative Buddhist groups that are very influential in politics for making "generous concessions" to former combatants and religious minorities.

Furthermore, Rajapaksa's former administration weakened parliamentary democracy and undermined democratic checks and balances between the main branches of the government. As such, another Rajapaksa term could mean a return to autocratic and personalized patterns of political decision-making in Sri Lanka.

Siegfried O. Wolf is the director of research at the Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF).

The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.

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