July 30 (Atlantic Council) Sri Lanka’s upcoming parliamentary elections will serve as an indicator of the island’s future political direction, potential executive power buildup, and future geopolitical stance.
With complications from the coronavirus pandemic, during which the Sri Lankan election commission has struggled to ensure that voting will be free, fair, and safe for all, the twice-delayed election may favor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party, allowing it to strike down a significant constitutional amendment and move Sri Lanka further into China’s orbit of influence.
The parliamentary elections will have far-ranging impacts on Sri Lanka’s politics, rule of law, and foreign policy, potentially revitalizing some of the very conditions that led to ethnic conflict in the 1980s. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Who are the key players?
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Beloved by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority and reviled by the island’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, Gotabaya was elected president in late 2019 having led a national security and pro-nationalism campaign platform that capitalized on voters’ fears of terrorism in the wake of that year’s Easter Bombings. Unsurprising to many observers, the president’s short tenure thus far has been defined by ethnic chauvinism, militarization of the government, and widespread restrictions on journalists, minority activists, and civil society actors.
Gotabaya’s supporters have praised the former defense secretary for his role in ending Sri Lanka’s twenty-six-year civil war in 2009. His base continues to give the current president high marks for his tough stance on terrorism and his administration’s strong coronavirus response. Sri Lanka’s minorities, however, consider Gotabaya complicit in atrocities near the end of the nation’s civil war, including the military’s indiscriminate bombing of no-fire zones and hospitals in the Northern Province that resulted in 40,000 civilian deaths, as estimated by the United Nations (UN).
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war until 2015 when he was defeated in the presidential elections. He is equally as divisive as his younger brother Gotabaya—who appointed him prime minister upon assuming office last year. In February, Mahinda announced that Sri Lanka would scrap all commitments to a 2015 post-civil-war UN Human Rights Commission resolution calling for accountability for the harm done by the Sri Lankan military during the civil war. Unsurprisingly, the move has caused alarm among rights groups and friction between Sri Lanka and the international community.
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)
Previously a minor political party, the now powerful SLPP was relaunched in 2016 under the auspices of the Rajapaksa brothers and their close allies. It now maintains a strong advantage in the upcoming parliamentary elections. An SLPP victory would affirm the president’s nationalist agenda and embolden many of his policy positions. A key priority of the party is achieving a two-thirds parliamentary super-majority, which would allow Gotabaya’s administration to alter the country’s political structure: specifically by repealing the constitution’s 19th Amendment, a measure designed by the previous government to limit presidential powers relative to parliament and the judiciary.
The Rajapaksa brothers are unequivocal in their plans to scrap the 19th Amendment. They and the broader SLPP are quick to characterize the prior government’s blundering response to the 2019 Easter Bombings as a direct consequence of the amendment’s watered-down executive powers. Borrowing from the Rajapaksa political playbook, SLPP Chairman G.L. Peiris has exploited national security anxieties by claiming that a two-thirds majority would “rid the country of extremism” and “strengthen the defense apparatus.”
Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) & other opposition parties
The parliamentary term beginning in 2020 marks the first time in modern memory that neither of Sri Lanka’s enduring political parties—the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) or the United National Front (UNP)—is expected to lead parliament. The previous coalition government led by the two parties was regarded as incompetent and widely blamed for the mishandling of the Easter Bombings. Essentially on life support, the SLFP recently joined the SLPP. Meanwhile, infighting within the UNP resulted in the formation of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) party. Headed by last year’s unsuccessful UNP presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, the SJB is the strongest competitor to the president’s party. With Tamil support split between the SJB and UNP though, the SLPP still maintains a sizable advantage.