Sri Lanka 2024 Presidential Election and Foreign Policy Challenges

In 1993, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, tragically killed by the Tamil Tigers, became the only president to be assassinated in office in Sri Lankan political history. Premadasa was a hard-liner with his own foreign policy script – giving India a tough time and shutting the Israel embassy in Colombo were a few of his actions that had consequences. Premadasa started his presidential tenure in January 1989 by compelling the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to leave Sri Lanka, fulfilling an election pledge. President Premadasa took office with dual challenges. First, he faced a full-scale insurrection in the South by the JVP, which claimed thousands of innocent lives, including many prominent political leaders who took pro-India positions supporting the Indo-Lanka accord. Second, was the Tamil Tiger war against the Sri Lankan government. Months after taking over as president, the southern insurrection was crushed with brute force, and the LTTE war was managed to an extent. Premadasa assumed power committed to stabilizing the domestic security challenge and, with an ‘India-Out’ campaign, to send the Indian troops home and revisit the Indo-Lanka accord. Premadasa did not want Mr. Dixit India’s High Commissioner to remain, a polite request by the new president that New Delhi accepted by replacing him with L. N. Mehrotra. Thirty-five years after Premadasa’s presidential campaign, a similar environment was created in Maldives. Indian troops were removed by the current president, Mohamed Muizzu, who assumed power through a successful ‘India-Out’ campaign.

Today, Premadasa’s son Sajith Premadasa is one of the front runners in Sri Lanka’s presidential race. The other popular candidate is Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) from National People’s Power (NPP), which sprang from the earlier Marxist political party, the JVP. The NPP’s popularity has increased following the people’s uprising in 2022. AKD has created a narrative that appeals to younger voters, setting him apart from rivals in the two mainstream parties. NPP is seen as not corrupt since the party has never held power, is only limited to a few parliamentary seats, and has never played a significant political role, even as an opposition. NPP’s popularity is also due to people’s economic hardship, as the public blames the policy blunders of the two mainstream parties for the bankruptcy of the economy. However, the bigger question is whether AKD and his team lack the experience to govern the country. Many see stability as more of a priority than any other factor. Therefore, Sajith’s political party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), stands out given its role as the opposition who stood against corrupt Rajapaksa rule, and with experienced politicians who have previously served at various political appointments to fulfil the task. There is also a considerable risk that the traditional voter base will take when voting for a Marxist party. Wickremasinghe, the incumbent president who was appointed (not elected) after the peoples uprising, faces a challenge to get re-elected due to the hybrid nature created by himself with the Rajapaksa, who have been identified as corrupt and as the leading cause of the economic crisis. This was further validated when the Sri Lankan Supreme Court determined the past Rajapaksa policy decisions as the cause of the nation’s economic situation and bankruptcy. The October election is an uphill climb for a Rajapaksa family member; they still failed to nominate their candidate and will piggyback on Wickremasinghe.

With elections a few months ahead, foreign dignitaries have multiple visits, including Donald Lu, U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, and Ms. Sun Haiyan, the deputy minister of the Central Committee of the International Department of the Communist Party of China. The US and China have stressed the importance of continuing bilateral relations post-election in a bid for support. Donald Lu spoke of the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, the principal U.S. goal. In their meeting, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Wijewardane, highlighted for Lu ‘the measures taken by the Government to improve governance, rule of law, financial oversight as well as to combat corruption, and foster reconciliation’. Wijewardane and Lu discussed bilateral security cooperation, especially in the maritime sphere, focusing on maritime safety and security to safeguard naval trade. One of the challenges Sri Lanka faced in the marine domain was from the Chinese vessels requesting permission to conduct research, identified by India and the US as a dual-purpose activity of collecting data for submarine warfare. The Sri Lankan Government’s rejection through a ‘Moratorium’ to accept Chinese research vessels was a welcoming gesture to the US and India. The challenge will continue in Sri Lankan waters since neighboring Maldives signed a MOU with China for close collaboration on hydrographic research.

Just as Donald Lu wished for Sri Lanka to accept the norms and values of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Chinese deputy minister Sun Haiyan, sought to bring Sri Lanka towards China’s Belt and Road initiative. Earlier, as a major initial BRI partner, Sri Lanka had lavishly accepted large scale loans. The string of Chinese debts on these white elephant projects yielded little to no income. While Donald Lu praised the Sri Lankan government’s success in the IMF program, Sri Lanka is still far from restructuring its obligations, where considerable debt requires Chinese assistance to restructure. China will use its infrastructure-backed loans to their advantage while attempting to strategically carve out a path with the new leadership in October. Ms. Sun is reported to have passed a message that Sri Lanka ‘should not attach special status to any country’, hinting to US and India. In the past, China has learned the hard way by a failed bet on the Rajapaksa family, and there is a certainty that it will not be repeated. The new leadership will have no other choice due to the significant Chinese influence already in Sri Lanka to support the BRI and accommodate China. Finding a strategic balance between the US, China, and India will be the top priority for the next government as it seeks to implement its foreign policy agenda.

About the Author: Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is an Author, International Security and Geopolitics Analyst and Strategic Advisor from Sri Lanka. He is a Senior Fellow and the Executive Director of the South Asia Foresight Network (SAFN) at the Millennium Project in Washington DC. He is a Technical Advisor to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC, where he contributed to Sri Lanka’s IMF Gover- nance Diagnostic Report 2023.

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