The election shock on Sri Lanka has been called a model for how reformist elites and a fed up people can get rid of increasingly authoritarian leaders. To become a true role model, the reincarnated Sri Lankan democracy must in the next years deliver political reform, inclusive development and devolved power to minorities.There were few people outside of this beautiful island who thought the unknown Maithripala Sirisena could beat the increasingly authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa put the entire state apparatus behind his election campaign. Thousands of busses were redirected to transport people to his election rallies. Fake pamphlets called on the Tamils to boycott the election. The media was broadcasting propaganda and outright lies. Imagine the CNN on the eve of the upcoming US elections reporting that Bill Clinton has joined the Republican Party.
The new president Sirisena led one of the broadest coalitions in electoral history. Free market supporters and communists stood shoulder to shoulder. Tamils, Muslims and ultra-nationalistic Sinhalese Buddhists rallied behind a common candidate to get rid of Rajapaksa. Massive support from the minorities was a key to the coalition’s success. A solid 80 percent support from minority Tamils and Muslims combined with 45 percent of the majority Singhalese Buddhist vote secured victory.
The new Sri Lanka is facing great challenges. The democracy must be secured and strengthened. Economic growth and development must be more inclusive and benefit all ethnic groups. The question of the role of the Tamils on Sri Lanka, the source of a conflict that has lasted for half a century, must be resolved. Sri Lanka proved that democracy could get rid of the authoritarian leader. The big challenge will be to prove that the new democracy can deliver democratic reforms, inclusive development and satisfy the Tamils and other minorities. The new government has done a lot right so far. But the international community must support in any way it can.
Many democratic reforms are being put in place to make the courts, central bank and military independent from politics. Media censorship is lifted to ensure a free press. Activists will no longer be picked up by the “white van’s” and never seen again. Rajapaksa was never invited to Europe or the US and made Sri Lanka increasingly isolated. But Sirisena will go to India for his first state visit and it should not be long before we see the President in the White House and European capitals.
Sri Lanka is doing well on poverty reduction and the economy is growing fast. But improvements have not been equally shared. Many are still poor in the rural Deep South and among Muslims and Tamils. Sri Lanka needs more and better aid, investments and domestic taxes to develop faster and fairer. More development aid should target the remaining pockets of poverty. The West should rapidly match the useful Chinese investments in promising industries like fisheries, energy, textiles and IT. The most important source of development finance is always domestic resources. But Sri Lanka only generates 12 percent of national income in taxes, much lower than the developing country average of 20 percent. OECD Tax for Development programs which have assisted other countries in raising millions dollars could be implemented in Sri Lanka. The large and successful Tamil diaspora can also be a source of investments and expertise and the new government has signaled a strong will to engage with them.
Sri Lanka also has a huge potential for tourism with beautiful beaches, magnificent cultural sites and elephant reserves — all within few hours’ drive from the capital Colombo.
The biggest challenge will be reconciliation with the minorities and resolving the Tamil national issue. The new government has signaled a willingness to reach out. They will investigate human rights abuses during the final stages of the civil war. The international community will continue to call for war criminals and human rights abusers to be held accountable. This is good, but the international community must give the government enough time and space. To bring this to a close, the Sinhala majority must also be brought on board and understand what Sri Lanka looks like from a Tamil perspective. Accountability unfortunately takes time as we saw in Chile and Serbia. But at the end it will come. Talks between government and the main Tamil party TNA are urgent.
The new ”Sri Lanka model” could make many dictators lose their sleep. If the new democracy is able to deliver results; democratic reforms, inclusive development and Tamil and Muslim rights, it will become a true role model. We should all do what we can to support the new government and the people of Sri Lanka.
Chair of OECD DAC, UNEP special envoy for environment, conflict and disaster, and former Norwegian Minister of environment and international development also former Sri Lanka peace envoy.