On 10 February, Sri Lanka held elections for 341 local government institutions. The polls were the freest and the most peaceful in living memory. The newly established Election Commission managed the polling process. The police implemented the law with a level of impartiality unfamiliar to Sri Lankans. No one died and there were no major outbreaks of violence, before, during or after the voting. This, too, was unprecedented for the country.
In many ways, this should have been a moment of triumph for the unity government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The United National Party, or UNP, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, or SLFP, assumed office with Sirisena at its helm in August 2015, after Sirisena defeated the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempt to win a third presidential term a few months before. After delaying it for over two years, the government finally delivered on the implementation of a new hybrid electoral system, which combined both proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. The passing of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution—arguably the most democratising piece of legislation enacted in the country till date—is the greatest achievement of the current administration. Some of the amendment’s key stipulations ensure the creation of a new presidential term limit and independent commissions to oversee public service, police, human rights, as well as to manage elections.
Although the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s commitment to strengthening democratic institutions ensured for Sri Lanka its unprecedented free and fair elections, a plethora of unfulfilled political promises resulted in a humiliating defeat for them in the local elections. The prices of consumer essentials—including rice, the staple of most Lankans—were soaring; a promised one million jobs had not materialised; legal action had not been taken against those accused of war crimes during the Rajapaksa regime, and the government was mired in its own corruption scandals. But perhaps the biggest contributing factor was that the two constituent parties turned on each other, succumbing to an extended fit of infantile squabbling. It appeared as though the actual contest was between Sirisena’s SLFP and Wickremesinghe’s UNP rather than between the unity government and its real foe—Rajapaksa and his recently formed party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.
The SLPP romped to victory in a majority of councils, with the UNP a distant second. The SLFP performed even more abysmally, ending up a poor third in most councils. The combined vote share of the two ruling parties, however, was higher than that of Rajapaksa’s party: 46.01 percent of the national electorate compared to the SLPP’s 44.65 percent. Had they contested together, they would have beaten the SLPP by a margin of 1.36 percent—a narrow victory, but a victory nevertheless.
By the morning of 11 February, Rajapaksa—who is determined to return to power at the earliest opportunity—had declared himself the winner. The same evening, he and his allies were laying claim to the postion of opposition leader in the national legislature, currently held by R Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of various Tamil political parties. The next morning, Rajapaksa held a media conference and demanded the immediate dissolution of the parliament and new elections on the grounds that the unity government had no mandate to govern after its disastrous performance.