• Monday, Dec 09, 2019
  • Last Update : 09:39 pm

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the ballot box

  • Published at 12:04 am November 16th, 2019
Sri Lanka goes to the polls
Sri Lanka goes to the polls REUTERS

The polls might bring a 180-degree turn in Sri Lanka’s international trajectory

Sri Lanka will embark on redefining polls today, at a time in its history when the economy is sliding down in 18 years, and the polity is still reeling from the trauma of militant bomb attacks in April 2019. 

What intrigues most Sri Lankans and Westerners is that the man who once was relegated to an absolute corner in Colombo politics, has once again become the most influential political game-maker in the Sri Lankan political landscape. 

Even the harshest critics of Mahinda Rajapaksa now acknowledge that the resurgence of Rajapaksa is a big roll of the dice that would put a new turn in international relations in the region, if not beyond. 

It’s also unique -- at least by South Asian standard -- that the entire four-week campaign was without billboard-posters or casualty, and either of the incumbent president or prime minister standing for the high seat! 

While Sirisena will leave his presidential office the day after the polls, cutting his presidential term short by a little less than two months, Sajith Premadasa -- with his deftly co-opted security buffer Field Marshal Fonseka -- has to run a team rated relatively weaker on economic and political competence. With no time left till the result of the pollings, there is none to make any prediction in public as to who will emerge out of today’s voting.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa will bank on the Achilles heel of the Sirisena government’s weakness in appeasing a large number of Sinhalese voters unimpressed with governance performance. Yet, the sophisticated Sri Lankan electorate understands that non-delivery is different from corrupt delivery. The memory of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s two terms from 2005 to 2014, marked with brazen nepotism and expanding presidential powers leading to quasi-authoritarianism, will remain as a key deciding factor. 

That indeed recognizes the fact that a range of likely results are wide and the electoral propaganda swingometers have become a useless tool of prediction. The potential outcomes include Rajapaksas returning to the throne with a stout majority and personal power mandate that he aspires to retain, and an inept Premadasa government as Dissanayake’s and Senanayake’s presence in the polls can cut votes.

That means the presidential race between Rajapaksa and Premadasa is no longer a mere competition between two individuals. Instead, it is political strife between two mutually opposing political projects. The medalist of this strife could change the nature of its relationship with the global powers -- China and the US, and its biggest neighbour India. 

Politically speaking, both the candidates bluntly represent a foreign policy choice between a return to the China-influenced policy, and the continuum of Sirisena’s policies who remodelled strained relations with the West and India. 

The West largely viewed Rajapaksa’s foreign policy as harsh, which gravitated toward countries which were silent on human rights abuse and the ruthless ending of the civil war. Vladimir Putin was seen as a role model, and China, carrying a large chequebook, became an inalienable ally. Rajapaksa’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for a swift growth of debt pockets leading to giving up tight rights over the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota and its hinterland for 99 years lease. 

This Hong Kong-style concession was designed on the UK’s 19th-century colonial imposition on China. Returning to this approach may risk Sri Lanka’s delicate pluralism comprised of majoritarian Sinhalese and the ethnic minorities mix of Tamils, Muslims, and Christians. Though the 23-year civil war is over, it has been a decade now that the key issues agreed on with the Tamils in Sri Lanka largely remain unaddressed. 

Interestingly, a tilt toward China, sharp or sloth, in Sri Lankan politics does not necessarily mean upsetting the West. The international landscape is quite different from the past Rajapaksa era. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s new foreign policy narrative in the manifesto, titled “The Ten Principles of Inclusive Governance,” he has vowed to “ensure ownership of all strategic assets” and adopt a non-aligned policy in “foreign dealings based on equal terms,” “reciprocal commercial ties and trade relationship.” 

Owing to Rajapaksa’s iron-fisted grip on his party politics, his party will work closely with India to “develop cooperative regional security” -- something that the Trump administration would like to appreciate -- and engage in reviving the terminally ill Saarc and yet breathing Bimstec. 

Cautiously, Rajapaksa’s establishment may well reconsider the Sirisena-led bilateral agreements signed in the past “five years” to mould what he would deem “damaging provisions.” Not surprisingly, the constitution will embrace amendments. What is equally striking is Gotabaya’s unequivocal pronouncement to bypass the Sri Lankan human rights commitments at the UN Commission on Human Rights. 

One can only doubt that the silence of the international community perhaps can ill afford to irk a surging Rajapaksa taking the helm buoyed by popular vote today.

The Premadasa camp, presenting itself as the flagbearer of Ekwa Idiriya, has a matching interest in making Sri Lanka a global trading hub. Its campaign clearly includes contemporary buzzwords -- open trade, freedom of navigation, rules-based order -- to transform Sri Lanka into a significant player in the strategic twirl led by the US and China. Of course, Premadasa’s statement describes these words as “principles” that “Sri Lanka will remain firmly committed to.”

Premadasa’s “zero tolerance on religious extremism and violence,” that largely echoes Rajapaksa’s policy, and to ensure “everyone will be free of fear in their homes and places of worship,” will assuredly give him added advantage to be an integral part of the Indo-Pacific alliance. Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s record as the leader who ended the country’s long vicious civil war and his concomitant Singhala-Buddhist nationalism will make the West re-think the Indo-Pacific politics. 

The world powers will enthusiastically wait to see the results of the polls. No doubt, the world knows that bearing an increasingly contested regional security outlook and with limited defense resources at its disposal, Sri Lanka’s uniqueness in balancing China and India will determine the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. That means the new Sri Lankan government will be rebalancing its foreign policy, and drifting away from traditional orbits of Indian or Chinese politics toward more pragmatic engagement with global powers.    

It could be tempting to say that the polls, participated by a record number of 35 candidates, will bring a 180-degree turn in Sri Lanka’s international trajectory as the Sino-US trade war will further bring the growing importance of the maritime trade routes of the Indian Ocean and its strategic location to the core. Hence, Rajapaksa’s challenge will be to shape its foreign policy against the ticking strategic rivalries between US-led allies and China, and Premadasa will have to manoeuvre through the hard-hitting Chinese attitude toward the Indian Ocean. 

Rajapaksa, to his advantage, has initiated a clear recalibration of foreign policy, shaping the former China-inclination toward a more equidistant engagement with India and the US. Contrarily, the Premadasa regime will feel tumults if this government fails to pursue a more non-aligned but engaged foreign policy while fulfilling its electoral pledges to the Sri Lankan polity.

Questions loom large about if they would or could minimize Chinese influence, as Sri Lanka requires robust FDI and external credits to stimulate its economy. Hence, the choice between a potential hard, quasi-authoritarian, Sinhala majoritarian regime and a weak, democratic, yet politically plural government will decide the political realities of the Indo-Pacific. 

Shahab Enam Khan is a professor in International Relations, Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh.