Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 30, 2019
2019 Presidential election in Sri Lanka: Frying pan into the fire?

In recent years Sri Lankan politics has been characterized by a long running crisis marked by the changing nature of its political system, which has, at various times, been presidential and semi-presidential where the President and Prime Minister  have been at odds with each other. The tortuous nature of Sri Lankan politics is best brought out by the ups and downs of the past five years. Now, in November 2019, the country is going in for general elections where the two principal contestants are scions of old Sri Lankan political families—Gotabaya Rajapakse, brother of Mahinda and Sajith Premdasa, son of a former President R. Premdasa  assassinated by the LTTE.

In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, who had served as a Cabinet Minister in successive governments of  the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed by  Mahinda Rajapakse since 2005, defected with the bulk of the UPFA to the Opposition, to become its Presidential candidate. He promised to restore the primacy of the government to the Prime Minister and Parliament and investigate war crimes from 2009. He won the election and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the United National party (UNP) as Prime Minister, but ignored his promise to restore the balance in the Sri Lankan executive branch, though he did transfer several presidential powers to the Parliament.

Relations between the UNP and the UPFA were soon  strained with Sirisena blaming Prime Minister Wickeremsinghe for the poor performance of the economy. In turn many in the UNP openly criticized the President. Sirisena’s 2015 victory was as much a product of the deft Opposition strategy as it was for better governance, cracking down on corruption and less abuse of power by the Rajapaksa family which had been ruling to roost for the past decade.

Things came to a head when, In  October 2018, Sirisena suddenly appointed his presidential rival,  Mahinda Rajapakse, now  leader of a new Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), as Prime Minister and prorogued the Parliament.

No-confidence motions brought against Rajapakse were passed by the Parliament on 14th and 16th November, but both were rejected by President Sirisena. On December 3, 2018, a court suspended Rajapakse’s power as PM and ruled that it could not function till its legitimacy was established. On December 15, just about two  months after he had been appointed,   Rajapakse resigned.  Wickremesinghe was reappointed PM and Rajapakse as the leader of the Opposition.

Atop this political crisis, the island was subject to a major terror attack on April 21 2019. The Easter Sunday strikes by elements inspired by the Islamic State. As many as 259 persons were killed and 500 injured in the coordinated attack on churches, hotels and a housing complex. The development has cast a shadow over the country which has just about begun to recover from the long civil war and created yet another faultline in Sri Lankan politics.


There are charges that Sirisena’s exit  from Mahinda Rajapakse’s camp to form a coalition with the UNP was engineered by a coordinated intelligence operation by India, the US and UK. They were unhappy with the direction Sri Lankan policy was taking in favour of China.  There were even charges that large payments from Chinese port construction flowed into the Rajapakse election campaign.

As India had refused to get involved in the last phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka (2006-2009), Rajapakse turned to China who supplied the country F-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns and air surveillance radars, armoured personnel carriers and other systems. After the war, when Sri Lanka was being attacked all around for human rights violations against the Tamils, Beijing  acted as a shield.

The upgrade of the China–Sri Lanka relationship to a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 2013 demonstrated the geopolitical consequences of  China’s generous support to Sri Lanka. By 2015  Chinese companies had completed infrastructure projects there worth $ 10 billion. In 2016, China overtook India to become Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner with its $ 4.43 billion trade pipping the $ 4.37 billion of India.

China financed its projects through loans, while India’s assistance comprised of 70 per cent loans and 30 per cent grants, but the scale of Chinese commitments easily outdid those of India. This was the  phase of massive Chinese projects to make the Hambantota port, the Mattala  international airport in Rajapakse’s  constituency in southern Sri Lanka as well as the Colombo Port City project to reclaim land to expand Colombo. In addition, China invested in a network of highways across the country such as the Katunayke Expressway and the Southern Expressway.

A leading Sri Lankan professor, Amal S Kumarage analysed highway construction in Sri Lanka and came to the conclusion that a number of projects funded by Chinese borrowings and awarded without competitive bids were heavily over-priced, some extremely heavily so.

In November 2016, the Sri Lankan Finance Minister complained about the high interest rates being charged by the Chinese. Sri Lankan estimates are that the interest rates average 6 per cent, whereas the Chinese claim they are only 2 per cent. It has been pointed out that ADB loans from Japan come at around 0.1 per cent.

The appearance of a Chinese submarine in Colombo harbour in October 2014 triggered alarm  and a pushback by  India.

This was part of a larger pattern of Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean. In February 2014,  there was a  military exercises at  the Lombok straits when three ships,  including the Changbaishan-- China’s largest landing craft which can carry a marine battalion and 15-20 armoured vehicles— crossed the Makassar Straits between Sulawesi and Kalimantan, and then went through the Lombok and entered the Indian Ocean.

Between 2008 and  2015 China had sent 22 task forces to join the international anti-piracy mission. There had been no Somali pirate attacks since 2012, but China’s enthusiasm for the anti-piracy operation had not flagged. The PLAN  gained important operational skills in working in the far seas. According to one estimate, by this time, 16,000 sailors and 1500 marines had gained experience while China had escorted some 6,000 commercial vessels. Over 30 warships, half of PLANs destroyers, frigates and helicopters and all its replenishment ships gained  far seas experience. Currently, Chinese naval presence of 6-7 ships is a standard feature of the Indian Ocean.

In India’s view, according to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord,  both countries had pledged not to allow their territories for activities deemed prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security. So following the defeat of the Rajapakse government in 2014, India took up the issue with his successor and the  Sirisena government did block a Chinese request for another submarine visit in 2017.

Indian pressure also led to a redrawing of the lease agreement that will require the China Merchant Port Holdings Company to divest a quarter of its 80 per cent share holding to a Sri Lankan entity within 10 years. Another clause obliges the Chinese to return the port and land to Sri Lanka after the 99 year period. In addition by shifting a naval base to the port which will be controlled by china, the Sri Lankans are trying to assure the international community that the facility will not be used by the Chinese military.

The Great Game in Sri Lanka

The downfall of Rajapakse and the Indian response also got the attention of the US which has stepped up its activities in the island which sits at the head of one of the world’s most important sea lanes. Besides foreign aid, the US has also reminded Sri Lanka that it is the principal destination of Sri Lankan exports. In August 2018, the Sri Lankans were invited to participate in the signature RIMPAC exercised by the US.  Testifying at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2019, Admiral Philp Davidson, the chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command said Sri Lanka was “ a significant strategic opportunity in the Indian Ocean “ and that the US planned to step up its interactions with the Sri Lankan military. He also pointed out that the US had transferred a Coast Guard vessel to the Sri Lankans. The US has also begun to use the island facilities as a temporary logistics hub to resupply its forces in the Indian Ocean.

Meanwhile India and Japan are seeking to collaborate in projects like the deep sea container terminal in Colombo. The Colombo port is very important for India because the bulk of its container traffic is transshipped from Colombo harbour. Meanwhile India-based Accord group is seeking to rope in Oman to build a 3.85 billion refinery in Hambantota.

Japan has also evinced interest in investing in the development of Trincomalee, along with India. It has offered a$ 180 million grant for the Sri Lankans to built two 85 metre OPVs in Colombo dockyard, a company which is Japanese majority owned. Japan may also donate a P3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft to Japan. India had built two Saryu class OPVs for the Sri Lankan Navy in 2017-2018.

December 2019 Presidential Elections

 The Sri Lankan Constitution’s 19th Amendment prohibits Rajapaksa from another presidential term, so it is not surprising that  his brother, the once powerful defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa emerged as the  candidate in August 2019. There is every possibility that Mahinda, himself may be appointed Prime Minister, if  the constitutional balance is tilted again in favour of the Prime Minister’s office.  Gotabaya is a former military officer, who served as the Defence Secretary in the Mahinda Rajapakse government during the war against the LTTE.

In February 2019 Rajapakse’s  SLPP swept the local elections with 44.65 per cent of the vote in February, as compared to the UNP’s 32.63 per cent. Sirisena’s UPFA got just 8.94 per cent of the vote. This has set the stage for the general election where the Rajapakse’s hope to make a come back. The Rajapakse’s will use their traditional appeal to Sinhala nationalism to win the election and also exploit the divide that has emerged between the minority Tamil and Muslim voters following the Easter Sunday bombings.

While Sirisena will not contest the elections, the UNP has chosen Housing Minister Sajith Premdasa as its Presidential candidate, ignoring the claims of Ranil Wickeremsinghe. Premdasa was hailed by all sections of the UNP—the Buddhist-Sinhalas and the minority community parties. But he remains an unknown factor in Sri Lankan politics. His father, R. Premadasa, who collaborated with the LTTE against the Indian Peace Keeping Force, was assassinated by the latter.

Outlook for India

The experience of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe period makes it clear that there are limits to the influence that external parties can bring to bear on the Sri Lankan situation. Having initially taken the stand that they would reverse the Chinese connection, the two eventually compromised with Beijing.

Nevertheless, the experience of the last five years has taught the Rajapakse’s that there are limits to what India will accept. Sri Lanka is too important from the Indian security point of view for New Delhi to standby and allow a third country to get a pole position there.

In a recent interview with The Hindu, Basil Rajapakse, the chief strategist of Gotabaya’s campaign and also brother of Mahinda,  said that while Sri Lanka could not afford to ignore China on economic matters, it would have to find ways to get along with India, its friend and neighbor, on political and security matters.

After losing the 2015 election, Mahinda had initially attacked India for conspiring with other western countries to displace him. But months later he conceded that he had no evidence to the effect and he later visited New Delhi along with his son and met Prime Minister Modi.

Current Indian policy is focused on dealing directly with the mainstream parties in the country and its primary goal is to ensure that Chinese influence in Sri Lanka is limited. This is easier said than done.

However, there is no reason to assume that whether it is Gotbaya or Sajith, that they will ignore Indian interests. The Nepal experience has shown that geography still remains an important factor in contemporary geopolitics.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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