Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

The Sri Lanka Project – A story of how a motley crew of people with diverse views came together to oust a King

Image by Sudath Silva on Flicr

If elections were an Olympic sport, Sri Lanka may take the gold medal in 2015. The Sri Lankan elections concluded not according to the script. No political pundit would have predicted such an outcome: The incumbent president nearly a decade in power, having achieved the unimaginable five years ago – crushing a 26 year terrorist threat and ushering in rapid economic growth, was defeated.

President Mahinda Rajapakse sought an unprecedented third term after introducing the draconian 18th amendment to the constitution in 2010, essentially giving the incumbent more power and the ability to run for office more than the earlier stipulated two terms. The script should have read a comfortable victory for President Rajapakse. The opposition was in dire straits with no credible challenger in the picture. According to President Rajapakse’s gamble, he was going to walk in to a third term unopposed, due to a divided opposition.

Once the election was called on the 20th of November 2014, the opposition was nowhere close in deciding whom to field. That’s what everyone thought, but behind the scenes, the main opposition, United National Party, and other minor parties, including civil society organizations, were in discussions on how to respond. The opposition was represented by diverse political ideologies from the left and right. A total of 49 organizations came together to address some common issues facing the country through their manifesto. In what could be described as a political master stroke, the joint opposition managed to enlist the support of Maithripala Sirisena, the General Secretary of the ruling The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party, on the 21st of November.

A total of 27 government lawmakers eventually crossed over to the opposition. These crossovers occurred on a staggered basis, which kept the government in damage control on a weekly basis. The election went from a cakewalk to a contest in that first week. Many minority parties, including the main Tamil & Muslim parties, eventually endorsed the common opposition. The former president was taken by surprise, but scoffed at his challenger’s chances of winning.

It was really a unique experience being in Sri Lanka during the election.  There were no official opinion polls conducted. So if one needed to get a good idea of the mood of the people, you had to hit the streets. That’s just what I did, making my excursions to some of the major cities of the island – Kandy, Galle and the capital Colombo. Speaking to people on the street, in tuk tuks(tri-shaws), in public transport, at the bus stops and train stations, even during shopping excursions, I made it a point to steer the conversations to get an idea of people’s views and an insight into the possible outcome.

From what I gathered two key themes kept emerging: On the one hand, many people were of the view that after the war, peace had dawned and economic prosperity was taking shape, and it was the citizens’ duty to permit the regime to remain and continue their work, i.e. keep President Rajapakse in power. On the other hand, more people were of the view that a change was required, and that although gratitude had to be given for the war victory, all democratic institutions had broken down and the country was heading towards authoritarianism and lawlessness. Nepotism, unprecedented corruption and the unbearable cost of living were some of the other themes that were expressed.

Two months ago, no one would have given any thought to the notion that President Rajapakse would be out of office. Even his favorite Astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, was so certain of victory that he asked the President to set the auspicious day as 8th of January as election day.

The stage was set. On the one hand was a war winning President, almost a decade in power with all of the state’s resources at his disposal. On the other hand was a virtual unknown, bold or foolish enough to put his hat in the ring against the powerful Incumbent. In 2010 the last challenger ended up in prison for nearly three years, so it was a risky gamble on the part of the opposition and the challenger, Maithripala Sirisena.

The ruling UPFA took little notice of the opposition during their campaign and used all of the state’s resources to stymie, belittle and scuttle the opposition campaign. The opposition, contesting under the National Democratic Front (NDF), conducted a clean campaign by focusing on the issues. They campaigned for good governance and a spate of democratic and economic reforms. They promised an ambitious 100 day reform program to correct the mistakes of the previous government and move the country forward in a democratic manner.

It was too close to call but this election was a good example of democracy winning in the end. The People turned out to vote in their droves, with a national average of 81.52% turn out, showing that democracy is alive and well in the island nation.

It was really remarkable to note how young people used social media to voice their opinions and share the latest developments. It is estimated that there are approximately 20% of the population with access to the internet and about 2.4 million Facebook users in the island, all of whom helped change the final outcome. The final result saw President Rajapakse toppled, and I believe the ground work could be laid to solve the overriding National questions such as the peace and reconciliation process, economic growth, political reform and, more importantly, creating an inclusive Sri Lanka.

There were tears shed by many people who lost their beloved war hero turned king, but many people celebrated like it was national New Year, sharing meals in the community and lighting crackers and playing music in the streets. It was very unique experience indeed like the aftermath of a major sporting triumph.


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