Mahinda Rajapaksa addresses a press conference with his party leaders on Feb. 12 in Colombo. He called on the government to dissolve parliament immediately. (Photo by S. Kumar)
Sri Lanka's political landscape has been turned upside down after former president Mahinda Rajapaksa led his party to a landslide victory in the local government elections.
He called on the government to dissolve parliament immediately and call a general election, but the ruling coalition is expected to continue until the next national poll in 2020.
Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), formed only in 2016, won 3,304 seats to take 222 of the 340 local councils. It got 44.65 percent of the vote.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) won only 41 councils with 32.63 percent of the vote, while President Maithripala Sirisena's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) came a distant third with 10 councils and 8.94 percent of the vote. ITAK, the main Tamil party, bagged 34 councils.
These were the first local elections since the center-left UPFA and center-right UNP parties formed a unity national government in August 2015.
The result has surprised many political analysts and is a blow to the ruling coalition that has been roiled by political bickering in recent months.
Sirisena came to power in 2015 with the help of Wickremesinghe's party and minority parties. He promised to set up a new reconciliation mechanism, to make laws in accordance with human rights and to demilitarize former war zones.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, said SLPP won most of the local authorities in the south of the country and took many others by surprise.
"There was hope that once the local government elections were concluded, the government would restart the reconciliation process that had been put on hold during the campaign. However, the result of the elections puts this into question," said Perera, a political columnist.
"The opposition SLPP campaigned on the theme of the government's betrayal of the national interest to LTTE (Tamil Tigers) proxies and to the international community. This struck a responsive chord among the ethnic-majority Sinhalese electorate, which turned out in larger numbers to vote for the SLPP."
People in Colombo queue to cast their votes at the local government elections on Feb. 10. (Photo by S. Kumar)
Election watchdog groups said it was one of the most peaceful polls in Sri Lankan history.
"Election violations are very few and no major incidents have been reported," said Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of Free and Fair Elections.
The opposition led by Rajapaksa had been stating that voters should simply consider whether they were pro-government or anti-government when casting their votes.
Meanwhile, President Sirisena has informed senior ministers that a significant change could take place within days.
Rights activists have accused the government of not taking appropriate action against those who plundered public funds.
The government is facing a grave political problem with its big defeat in the local elections.
"There is a danger that the government will backtrack on the commitments given to the Tamil people and the international community with regard to both constitutional reform and transitional justice," Perera said.
"This could lead to an erosion in public support for the moderate leadership of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the north and to a strengthening of the nationalist Tamil forces who want the reconciliation process to fail so that they can get even stronger.
"The danger is that this could set off a vicious cycle in which Sinhalese nationalism in the south feeds and sustains the rise of Tamil nationalism in the north."
The UN criticized the previous government of Rajapaksa for failing to honor its pledge to provide accountability for war crimes. The country is due to give an update before the UN Council in March.
According to rights activists, a new constitution being drafted to promote reconciliation after three decades of civil war could now be stalled.
The local elections were contested for the first time using a complex system that mixed both the first-past-the-post and proportional representation systems.