Balancing Act: Sri Lanka Enters a Complex New Era

President Maithripala Sirisena​ and the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi​, held bilateral discussions at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Feb. 16, 2015. (Maithripala Sirisena/Flickr)

Six years after Sri Lanka’s bloody civil conflict ended and a few months into the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena, this small island state in the Indian Ocean has entered a complex, transformative era. In four months, Sirisena has met Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian President Narendra Modi, and United States Secretary of State John Kerry. India and China, and to a lesser extent Japan and the US, are competing for influence and economic opportunities in the country.

Domestically, the new government is focusing on reforms to decentralize power, curb corruption and economic inefficiencies, and deliver more equal growth. At the same time, it needs to manage external (mainly Western) pressures to cooperate with the United Nations’ investigation into wartime atrocities, seeking to balance justice with stability, and reconciliation with nationalistic instincts.

Both great opportunities and risks lie ahead. Success rests on the ability of Sirisena and his successors to balance the inevitable differences and trade-offs that define multi-ethnic societies. It will also depend on the capacity to play the new “Great Game” of Asia, in which China, India, Japan, and the US will compete for influence and economic opportunities.

These challenges are shared by many small- and middle-power countries in Asia, which struggle to balance the need for societal adaptation and risks of instability on one hand, and managing relations with old and new powers on the other.

An Electoral Revolution

Sirisena won January’s presidential election running on a platform of constitutional reforms to limit executive power and restore independent oversight bodies. When incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa called for early elections last November, consensus was that, despite his declining popularity, the weakness of a scattered opposition could grant him an unprecedented third term in office.

Rajapaksa had recorded an easy victory in the 2010 elections, when the recent defeat of the militant secessionist Tamil Tigers, ignited a sense of national pride, mostly in the Sinhalese Buddhist population, which accounts for roughly two-third of Sri Lanka’s 21 million inhabitants.

So, what changed in 2015? A number of factors contributed to the fall of Rajapaksa and rise of Sirisena:

  • Rajapaksa suffered from an erosion of support after 10 years in power;
  • The post-conflict economic gains were perceived to have accrued only to a limited number of people connected with the rulers, while the majority of the population confronted increasing costs of life;
  • Ethnic minorities voted in larger numbers: the Tamil-dominated northern province saw the number of voters more than double, to 68.3%, with 74.5% voting for Sirisena;
  • Sirisena appealed to the average Sri Lankan, and not only the highly educated capital circles, owing to his Buddhist, rural background, and a personal history of political engagement deprived of scandals or corruption charges;
  • The electoral campaign departed from the recurrent themes of political accountability—which some observers would like to turn into legal responsibility—for the final stages of the civil war, to focus more on day-to-day issues, like good governance and economic growth; and
  • The otherwise fragmented opposition was able to form a broad coalition around Sirisena, ranging from conservatives, Marxists, Tamils, Muslims, and hardline Buddhists, to dissenting members of the ruling party.

Domestic Balancing Act

The first task for Sirisina’s new administration has been to provide political stability, given that his government does not have a majority in parliament. Together with newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe, he formed a government that included the broad coalition that supported him, while reducing significantly the total number of government members to 27 cabinet ministers.

Although insufficient as far as gender balance is concerned, and without the presence of two political parties whose support was decisive in winning the election— the far-left Janathā Vimukthi Peramuṇ and northern-based Tamil National Alliance—the new government included members of different economic backgrounds, ethnicity, and religion. This poses a challenge and an opportunity at the same time. To broaden his support, at the end of March Sirisina appointed 11 new ministers, bringing the total number of government members to a staggering 73, not too far from the inflated numbers of the Rajapaksa administration.

Still, Sirisena struggled to gain cooperation among his coalition. He therefore announced an ambitious 100-day plan that included constitutional reforms to reduce the executive powers of the president in favor of the parliament, a deeper involvement of the minorities in the design and implementation of national and local policies, and more equal economic development.

While some analysts have observed that most of the agenda remains unfulfilled, the late April approval of a constitutional amendment—just a few days after the 100-day goal—allowed Sirisena to deliver on the executive limiting powers, which was arguably the most important electoral promise he made, and reversed the expansion seen under Rajapaksa.

The amendment also re-introduced a two-term limit to the presidency. Other achievements of the first 100 days included passing a consumer and employee-friendly budget, lowering prices on food, increasing salaries for public officers, and lifting some media restrictions and travel ban for foreigners to the north of the country.

Although corruption and nepotism remain endemic in Sri Lanka, new investigations are underway. This was seen in the arrest of Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil, a former minister for economic development, and two others, on corruption charges. The Bribery Commission also questioned another of Rajapaksa’s brothers, Gotabaya, who was a former defense secretary.

Possibly the most sensitive outstanding domestic issue for Sirisena is the creation of a mechanism for investigating and prosecuting atrocity crimes committed during the final phases of the civil war, and making progress on reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamils. But tackling these topics will generate a lot of resistance from nationalists and the supporters of Rajapaksa, who still enjoys considerable backing among Sinhalese voters and sections of the security forces.

Sirisena has obtained a six-month deferral of an upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council report on the war atrocities, with the aim of waiting until scheduled parliamentary elections are over. If he could gain stronger parliamentary support, Sirisena will be arguably in a better position to deliver on an investigative mechanism, which was contained in the post-conflict Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report.

Balancing Between Emerging Powers

The new government will also have to find a regional balance between China and India. During the Rajapaksa era, China’s presence in Sri Lanka became more and more visible, economically, politically and strategically, due largely to the island’s position at the heart of regional trade routes.

Concurrently, the bilateral relations with neighbor India suffered, including as a result of Indian pressure to devolve more powers to Tamil-dominated areas. This led to the UN Human Rights Council often looking unfavorably on Colombo, and Sri Lanka resisting the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India.

During the election campaign, Sirisena denounced allegedly corrupt deals made between Rajapaksa and Beijing, but seems to favor a more balanced approach rather than turning completely back to India’s sphere of influence. During his trip to Beijing in mid-March, he reassured Xi that a freeze on China’s 1.5 billion USD Port City project in Sri Lanka was only temporary. He welcomed Modi in early March in the first visit by an Indian premier in 28 years.

During that visit, Modi promised India would develop an oil tank “farm” in Sri Lanka, offered a 318 million USD railway credit and a 1.5 billion USD currency swap between the two countries’ central banks. Modi told parliament that “The world sees India as the new frontier of economic opportunity, but our neighbors should have the first claim on India.” Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in turn said his country’s foreign policy will “shift back to the center” between India and China.


It may be too early to definitively judge the new government’s record, but a few preliminary conclusions can be drawn. To begin with, the smooth electoral transition—culminating in Rajapaksa conceding victory before the results were made official—was testament to a democratic spirit permeating Sri Lankan society and a real desire to move into a new era.

While Sirisena’s ambitious first 100-day agenda remains mostly unfulfilled, more progress in only three months was always unlikely. Sirisena needs to balance expectation for change with more conservative instincts of parts of society and the army, while aiming to gain more parliamentary support in the upcoming elections.

Balancing Sinhala nationalism with longstanding grievances of minorities, especially in the north and east, will remain a daunting challenge. The most likely path to justice and reconciliation will be endogenous. The homegrown recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation will more likely be accepted by the vast majority of Sri Lankans, in contrast to a solution involving international players.

Finally, a “shift to the center” of regional powers China and India will characterize Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the years to come. This might prove the wisest approach for a small country playing the complex new “Great Game” of Asian geopolitics.

Francesco Mancini is Non-resident Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute, and Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia University and the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Gianluca Rubagotti is Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Italy in Singapore. He wrote the “An Electoral Revolution” section of this article, as well as the introductions of “Domestic Balancing Act” and “Balancing Between Emerging Powers.” The opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.