Sri Lanka, Lost in Transition

Its Uneven Progress Towards Democracy

Members from Sri Lankan military march wth national flags during Sri Lanka's 68th Independence day celebrations in Colombo, February 4, 2016. Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena surprised the world when he defeated his old boss Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. His victory was followed by parliamentary elections in August, which reiterated the demand for democratic reform and improved governance. Soon after, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), the country’s two big Sinhala–Buddhist parties, agreed to form a coalition government. The nation was now set to turn its attention to a wide-ranging reform agenda to address some of the problems that plagued it during Rajapaksa’s decade in power, including corruption, nepotism, and the excessive centralization of power.

So, how has it done over the past several months? To be sure, Sri Lanka has taken some steps in the right direction, and Sirisena definitely looks keen to govern in a less authoritarian fashion than his predecessor. To take one prominent example, there has been significant progress in terms of freedom of speech. At the same time, though, the country’s recent democratic gains are more modest than they might first appear. At this point, a deepening of democracy is far from a foregone conclusion.

For starters, Sirisena is having trouble controlling the SLFP, which he leads. Many members of the party remain loyal to Rajapaksa, who currently holds a seat in parliament and remains a SLFP member. There are ongoing rumors that a new, pro-Rajapaksa party could eventually be formed; what’s less clear is whether Rajapaksa himself would actually leave the SLFP. Regardless, a deeper or more permanent split within the SLFP would weaken the party, undermine Sirisena’s reform agenda, and complicate upcoming local government elections. In February, Rajapaksa even opened a new political office, which has fueled additional speculation.

To be sure, the reform agenda would be difficult for any government to implement because it is so sprawling, with elements of constitutional reform, economic policy changes, improved governance, and transitional justice. The timing and sequence of the items on the

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