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Same-Day Analysis

Sri Lanka: Election 2005: PM Wins Sri Lanka's Presidential Poll with Hardline Agenda

Published: 18 November 2005

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has won the presidency, securing victory with a narrow margin over his challenger, former prime minister and now opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Global Insight Perspective    
Significance The election was always expected to be a close-run affair, but in the event Rajapakse secured the presidency with a majority of less than 190,000 votes.
Implications The outcome sees a moderate candidate espousing a hard line take control of the country's most powerful political position. Observers are now watching to see how Rajapakse's vision will unfold and whether he will indeed adhere to his election pledges.
Outlook The outlook for what are regarded as the two key issues - the economy and the peace process - is decidedly mixed. It is unclear how the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerrilla group will react to the outcome, despite the fact that it largely engineered it, while the business community will now look to the country's prospects with a degree of pessimism.

Happy Birthday Mr President

Mahinda Rajapakse received the news that he is to be the country's fifth executive president on his 60th birthday. It was not, however, the resounding victory he had likely been hoping for. He appears to have won by securing just over one-half of the popular vote, registering 50.33% of the vote to Ranil Wickremesinghe's 48.4%. Furthermore, while turnout was reasonable at 75% in the south and south-west of the country, in the areas where the Tamil community had been expected to vote, a well-observed boycott scuppered polling. It is estimated that 0.014% of those eligible to vote in these areas actually did so, resulting in around 700,000 votes not being cast.

The Sore Loser

Given that observers had predicted that the vote would be split, with Wickremesinghe expected to secure much of the Tamil vote, his party, the United National Party (UNP), has called for a revote in these areas, in the hope of tilting the electoral balance in his favour. This, however, is an unlikely scenario, not least given that the election commission has already judged the polls to have been free and fair with the exception of a few violent incidents, which are being investigated. Furthermore, there is nothing to say that in this situation another boycott would not be instigated. Interestingly, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reports evidence that Tamils in the capital, Colombo, also failed to vote for Wickremesinghe, underlining a flaw in the analytical premise.

Why the Tamil community effectively refused to be a part of this election is clearly a conundrum. There is speculation as to the reason, and the issue is likely to become clearer as Rajapakse's policies unfold and the LTTE responds to them. Certainly, the LTTE took issue with the presidential election, with reports suggesting that the group had serious misgivings with regard to the UNP. The LTTE argued that it did not care who won the election, but clearly in boycotting the vote knew it would boost Rajapakse's campaign. On the face of it, it seems odd that the LTTE would effectively promote the chances of a candidate allying himself with the hardline Sinhalese and Buddhist communities because this is exactly where the opposition to the LTTE's goals is strongest.

That said, Rajapakse has previously expressed his interest in devolution, which mirrors the LTTE's goals. Whether he would be able to offer this in practice is debatable given the broad political and societal opposition to this. Alternatively, it can be argued that if Rajapakse decides to adopt an uncompromising stance with regard to the LTTE, then the group is in the position of being able to take an equally hard line in response. This is a scenario that some elements within the outfit have been pushing for. To this end, it is notable that reports have emerged in recent weeks stating that the LTTE has been involved in a new funding drive within Europe and North America, calling on the Tamil community to stump up sizeable funds to help the group pursue a new military campaign (see Sri Lanka: 1 November 2005: Figures Show Almost 200 Killed in Sri Lanka During 2005, Despite Ceasefire).

Playing the Tough Guy

Rajapakse, originally a film actor, now arguably faces his toughest role yet. By all accounts, the new president is moderate in his views. He is said to enjoy appealing to a broad range of interests rather than pursuing the goals of a single group, has open views on religion (although Sinhalese, he is married to a Catholic), and although supportive of the role of the state is not adverse to opening up the economy. This sits rather uneasily alongside the pre-electoral allegiances that he made. Ahead of the vote, Rajapakse allied himself with the Marxist national Janatha Vemukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the Buddhist monks. As a result, a number of specific pledges emerged, including a commitment to renegotiate the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. Given the political colouring of these groups, a conservative agenda can be expected, particularly if the JVP's influence weighs on Rajapakse.

Outlook and Implications

Political Consolidation

In the immediate aftermath of the poll, the key issue for Rajapakse will be political consolidation. Given his narrow margin of victory, he cannot afford to hold a fresh general election in the hope of shoring up the government's support base. This is unfortunate in some respects because, given his position, he is now more likely to have to rely on parties like the JVP. Currently, the party is outside the government, having pulled out of the coalition earlier in the year in protest at peace process moves made by outgoing president Chandrika Kumaratunga. Given its ties with Rajapakse, it is possible that a new coalition will be negotiated, bringing the JVP back into the ruling fold. In turn, however, it would expect a number of influential cabinet positions, along with some say over policy. This would, however, create fresh tensions with other coalition members and potentially with Rajapakse himself, pointing to further political instability.

Rajapakse also needs to overcome the divisions that his decision to run for president have created within his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Unfortunately, he does not have a significant amount of heavyweight political experience, but he has previously shown himself adept at managing a number of interests, which bodes well. He does, however, face the problem of Kumaratunga herself, and potentially her brother, Anura Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike will be expecting to become the next prime minister, but his relations with Rajapakse are not good. Similarly, Kumaratunga is unlikely to leave the political sphere quietly, not least given that the SLFP is effectively her family's party. A number of suggestions have been made as to what sort of role she might want to consider, ranging from prime minister (unlikely, given that she would enjoy few powers in relation to Rajapakse) to some South Asian regional post.


The economy will be of key interest. The business community had been seeking a win by Wickremesinghe, hoping that this would get the reform agenda back on track. If anything, retrograde steps can now be expected. Although Rajapakse's election manifesto was short on detail in this respect, one key pledge that he made was the introduction of new farming subsidies. This is the last thing that the economy currently needs. If anything, reforming subsidies should be the key item on the agenda in light of the situation regarding oil prices. The escalating subsidy bill in this respect has further undermined the fiscal deficit, while also contributing to inflationary pressures. The direction of policy was largely laid out in the populist budget, handed down just before the election. Given that Rajapakse secured victory, this can now be expected to be passed, ushering in potential tax cuts and a generally expansive monetary policy line (see Sri Lanka: 9 November 2005: Budget 2006: Sri Lankan Government Unveils Populist Budget Ahead of Elections).

Peace Process

As described above, the outlook for the peace process is mixed. A renegotiation of the ceasefire looks likely, which in some respects may not be the negative issue it appears to be. The ceasefire and its monitoring have become increasingly baseless given the amount of violations and killings that have taken place, most without redress. Many observers feel that it is time to review the document, and inevitably this will have some impact on the role of the Norwegian peace brokers. They have become shunned by many Sri Lankans, pointing to an early exit for these original deal-makers. Whether this will also see less involvement on the part of the international community in the situation is unclear. Clearly, how the ceasefire document is renegotiated will affect the LTTE's aims. If the group cannot see any means of achieving its demands, a return to conflict cannot be ruled out. It has evidently been collecting funds, though sporadically does this without the intention of resuming military action.

A key question is how prepared the group is for a return to conflict. It is believed to have been badly affected in the December 2004 tsunami, which hit rebel-held areas hard. This not only had an impact upon its fighting force - the Sea Tigers were believed to have lost a lot of cadres and vessels - but also its equipment. It has had almost a year to restock, and failing a large-scale campaign could mount an effective terrorism operation in Colombo with the use of suicide bombers. It is notable that ahead of the elections, a suicide jacket was reportedly found in the capital, although whether this was intended for use or had been deliberately planted to provide a symbolic warning of this threat has not been made clear. As a result, the outlook is uncertain. Global Insight is currently maintaining our risk ratings at their existing levels, but will be paying them closer attention in coming months as the situation unfolds. It should be noted that the ratings are already reasonably high, given the long-running uncertainties over the peace process.

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