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19 August 2015,

New Sri Lankan PM will strive for balance

On 17 August 2015, Sri Lanka held their parliamentary elections. The final results, showed that Ranil Wickremesinghe won the election and will remain Sri Lanka's prime minister. Neelam Deo, Director, Gateway House, analyses the outcomes of the elections.

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Hosted by Ashna Contractor, Outreach Associate, Gateway House

On 17 August 2015, Sri Lanka held their parliamentary elections. The final results, which came in on 18 August 2015, showed that Ranil Wickremesinghe won the election and will remain Sri Lanka’s prime minister. Out of the total 225 seats, the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, won 106 seats while the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), with Mahinda Rajapaksa as their prime ministerial candidate, won 95 seats. Neelam Deo, Director, Gateway House, analyses the outcomes of the elections.
Ashna Contractor (AC): Hi and welcome to this Gateway House podcast. My name is Ashna and with me today in the studio is Neelam Deo, director at Gateway House. Neelam, yesterday Sri Lanka held their parliamentary elections, which is separate from the presidential elections that they held in January in which Sirisena was elected president after defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former president, was hoping to make a comeback as prime minister in this election, that took place yesterday. But recent reports have shown that he has conceded defeat, Wickremesinghe is in the lead and will most likely remain prime minister. So firstly could you tell us a little bit about how the democratic process works in Sri Lanka in terms of presidential versus parliamentary style? And then secondly, what do you think the outcomes of this election mean for Sri Lanka?
Neelam Deo (ND): Well I would say that it’s closer to the French style where the president is very powerful and the prime minister is appointed by the president, usually from his own party. The reason why we had President Sirisena, who won the last election, appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP as the prime minister, was because Sirisena broke away from the SLFP with Mahinda Rajapaksa. And then, one of the promises that was made for the last election, which Sirisena won, was that they would reduce the powers of the president and increase those of the prime minister, and bring in legislation so that a sitting president could only do two terms. Mahinda Rajapaksa, of course had amended the constitution so that he could have had a third term. But that obviously is now all history.The election has shown that the country, the electorate, is still suspicious of Mahinda Rajapaksa who had gained a lot of admiration for the fight against the LTTE and bringing an end to the civil war, but who had also engaged in nepotism. His brothers, his sons, his nephews – everybody was in government. And that had caused a lot of disaffection with the political class, but also with the electorate. So now of course Ranil Wickremesinghe is going to be the prime minister again because the group which came together of several parties, including those that represent minorities in Sri Lanka, (and they call themselves the groupings for good governance) has won a majority and will be able to form the next government. That is also probably what Sirisena had wanted and meant when he said that he would not in any event call Mahinda Rajapaksa to form the next government, even if the SLFP had been in a majority.So I think you will have a continuation of the present situation in Sri Lanka and a continued effort to both (i) further reduce the powers of the presidency so that it’s a more democratic situation and (ii) to respond to the assurances that were given to the minority parties, especially the Tamil parties, of a fulfillment of their demands for the North and the East where they are in a majority.
AC: Moving on to the foreign policy front. What do you think this outcome means for the India-Sri Lanka relationship, the Sri Lanka-China relationship and the impact on the region in general?
ND: Well I think that certainly in India there will be a level of relief that Mr. Rajapaksa has not come back as the prime minister because he has made a lot of unfriendly comments about India, including suggesting that India is in some ways interfering with the election process. Also because the previous government, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, has tried to have a balance in its relationships with big countries like China and India, but also with other neighbors and has acted more constructively within the SAARC organisation. There is no question that China will continue to play an important role in Sri Lanka but it will not play the kind of exclusive role that it was playing and that it sought to play in the Rajapaksa regime. I think that a continuation of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government which emphasizes more democratic political structures and which is focused on economic and commercial relationship – expanding that relationship with India – will also continue to act constructively within the SAARC region.
AC: Thank you Neelam.