The recently held parliamentary election in Sri Lanka gave no single winner the mandate to form a government on its own. Yet the results did provide a novelty. This is the first time a government will be able to function in a hung parliament without facing much trouble over numbers.

The United National Party, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, emerged as the single largest party, winning 107 of the 225 seats in Parliament. Though this doesn’t amount to absolute majority, the UNP government will be safe, thanks to the cooperation of the Tamil National Alliance. It is the unwritten mandate of the Tamil National Alliance, and its 16 newly-elected members, to make sure that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, with its de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, stays out of power.

Former President Rajapaksa’s comeback bid was foiled by Wickremesinghe, with his United National Party scoring 3.2% votes more than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. A good reason for this result was President Maithripala Sirisena, the official leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

Common Candidate Sirisena, since his election as president on January 8, has been in an open battle with Rajapaksa. Looked upon by some in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as a “betrayer”, Sirisena has lost support of the majority among his party parliamentarians. But, among the people, his promise that “reforms” will be taken up after the election of the new government resonated loudly.

Sinhala South, especially its urban middle class, applauded such opportunism and justified the “marriage of convenience” between the UNP and Sirisena as imperative to carry on the “January 08 mandate”. For those people, it was imperative to keep Rajapaksa out of power.

Justice for Tamil people

After the election, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s Central Committee, presided by Sirisena, decided to join the UNP in government. The hitch is, the Central Committee has little hold over the actual party. Also, that decision has not been endorsed by the United People’s Freedom Alliance, of which the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is a part.

For this new government – which doesn’t have de-militarisation, return of land grabbed by security forces, release of detainees held without charges, repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and full implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations – in their good governance programme, Rajapaksa will be the watchdog. Already, Rajapaksa, after returning to parliament as an MP from Kurunegala district, has taken the calculated decision of giving up the post of Leader of Opposition. His promise is to intervene in issues of importance like “national security”. That carries many meanings and threats.

The hope is that the UNP will play fair by the Tamil people. But will it come true?

Despite its stated agenda, this is a government that’s firm on its commitment to establish a “Unitary” state, which can only be a Sinhala state with Buddhism at its pinnacle. With the 19th Amendment allowing a “national” government to have as many Cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers as it wishes, Sirisena cannot be the impartial president he vowed to be. Nor can he make the Rajapaksa-era corruption and crimes a priority anymore.

This is why the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will be hard-pressed to find an exit route when the United Nations Human Rights Council Report on Sri Lankan civil war is officially handed over to the Colombo government, before being taken up in Geneva in September.

Since Sirisena’s election in January, 19 Tamil men and women have been taken into custody at the Bandaranayke International Airport in Katunayake and remanded without bail. Five of them, including a young woman, were arrested during the last days of this election. In such a context, the Tamil National Alliance will be caught in a bind, with this government avoiding answers even on their own promise of an independent domestic investigation on war crimes. The leadership of the Tamil National Alliance took the position that it would back any international inquiry into war crimes and will have to stick by it.

Come September, the new Wickremesinghe government will have to face a new Rajapaksa, who would come out strong against the UNHRC report and will be backed by most in the cabinet.