Thursday, January 21, 2010

SRI LANKA: Elections - What Can We Expect on 26 January?

By Pushpi Weerakoon

As presidential elections draw closer, the race between incumbent President Rajapaksa and opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka continues to be a neck-to-neck one. However, at this juncture, Rajapaksa may be marginally better positioned to deliver on promises, given that the political parties backing Fonseka have differing ideologies.


Presidential elections scheduled for 26 January — The first elections since the domestic conflict ended in May 2009 (held two years ahead of schedule) are likely to be a closely-contested event between the incumbent President Rajapaksa of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and Sarath Fonseka – the country’s former army chief who is the opposition common candidate, backed largely by United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). With the vote of the Sinhalese majority likely to be somewhat evenly split, both candidates are fighting for a slice of Tamil and Muslim minority votes, which comprise ~20% of the electorate (Tamils account for 12.5%).

Rajapaksa’s pledges centre on infrastructure development — In his election manifesto released earlier this month, President Rajapaksa focused specifically on growth and employment via massive infrastructure development across sectors – ports, aviation, energy resources, roads, and electricity and housing for all. Apart from the continuation of provincial development, the President has also pledged to hold free elections in the North and conform to the devolution of power to the provinces under the 13th Amendment.

Fonseka aims to resolve governance and corruption issues — The focal point of Fonseka’s manifesto is a pledge to reactivate the 17th Amendment and thus dilute some of the powers of the President (this is a section of the constitution that grants powers of appointment and control of public authorities to a Constitutional Council rather than to the President). Both candidates promise higher public sector salaries and larger subsidies, although this may be difficult to implement given the fiscal deficit stipulations required by the IMF’s Stand-By Arrangement.

Macro Implications: Pros and Cons — A victory for President Rajapaksa would in their view bring two key benefits: (1) policy continuity, and (2) infrastructure development. On the other hand, Fonseka’s pledges suggest he would: (1) help weed out the causes of profligacy in public finances through improved governance and an independent audit commission, and (2) take more conciliatory measures towards appeasement and resettlement of the Tamil minority, which would go down well with the international community. Finally, a point to note is that while allies are likely to change by the hour, at this juncture it appears that Rajapaksa may be marginally better positioned to deliver on promises. This is because Fonseka’s coalition government has varying ideologies (the JVP is generally know to have leftist leanings while UNP is more pro-market), which could make implementing reforms more difficult.

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