The Local Election That Shook A Nation

A Mahinda ad from 2010

In a stunner, a completely new party — the SLPP — just pee peed on Sri Lanka’s established parties. In simultaneous elections for local government councils, Sri Lankan voters said was ‘fuck you’ to the ruling coalition and “Appachi!” to our former ruler, Mahinda.

I remember how corrupt and bad Mahinda was but, honestly, I understand. This government sucks.

The Bond Scam

And it started with so much hope.

In 2015 we elected a new President and a coalition government on a platform of ‘good governance’ or yahapalanaya.

This immediately went wrong when Ravi Karunayake was appointed as Finance Minister. As we discovered, Ravi literally lived inside of a bribe. His rent was paid by Arjun Aloysius, (alleged) insider trader, now living rent-free in jail. Ravi resigned as Finance Minister, but the damage was done.

This Bond Scam — where the Central Bank and EPF were effectively robbed — sunk this government more than anything. Live by yahapalanaya, die by yahapalanaya.

Ravi resigned as Minister, but the Prime Minister is implicated as well. He appointed some dodgy buggers and defended them for months and months until the President started his own investigation.

The result was that the Bond Scam scandal dragged out for three years and then peaked right at election time. The UNP couldn’t have timed it worse if they consulted Mahinda’s astrologer.

In a weird twist, the UNP then tried to take credit for rooting out their own corruption, like a cheating husband who wants credit for honesty. While it is true that we’ve never had accountability like this, it still doesn’t make the original robbing OK. In a functioning political system, a governments would fall over a scandal this big.

The Economy

The good thing about Mahinda is that he was capable of executing big plans. The problem with Mahinda was that many of these plans were evil or dumb.

Ranil’s government is incapable of executing anything at all, which is kinda good in the sense that they’re fucking less stuff up, but hardly inspiring. ‘Vote for us, we’re too incompetent to do much damage’.

This government’s major accomplishments having been not murdering people, passing the Right To Information Bill, collecting a bunch of new taxes, and stabilizing our balance sheet. However, once again, Ravi also spent two years ruining everything.

Here’s a quote from Razeen Sally, who’s inside the government:

“What has clearly made a critical difference is the mid-year cabinet mini-reshuffle, when Samaraweera replaced a Finance Minister who delivered disastrous budgets, held up market reforms for two-and-a-half years, and was a national and international embarrassment.” (Daily FT)

Ravi released two years of insane budgets that imposed retroactive taxes and taxed mobile like it was a drug. Ravi’s budgets were also 90% unimplemented, so businesses lacked any clarity as to how to invest. There was also random stuff in there (like on ethanol taxes) that seemed to benefit him or his cronies.

The new Finance Minister did present a budget that’s less insane, but that was too little too late. Why did they waste two years with a ‘national and international embarrassment’?

For average people, the economic situation is bad. We pay more in taxes and live in a more stagnant economy. Business-wise, last year was shit. The UNP was supposed to be good at managing the economy, but they’ve been generally incompetent. That has consequences.

The Local Government Election

Local government actually has little power. The Colombo Municipal Council was run by a random trishaw driver for 5 years (a technical electoral fluke) and nobody really noticed. Local government elections, however, do communicate power.

In this election, Mahinda sent a strong message, like the phallic tower that dominates the Colombo skyline. Mahinda wasn’t even on the ballot, but Mahinda was back.

This was an electoral beat down. Mahinda broke the UPFA and crippled the President politically. The UPFA/SLFP couldn’t break 15% in what I think must be its worst electoral performance ever.

The UPFA under President Maithripala Sirisena has been the less corrupt coalition partner, but they took the most heavy losses. This is partly Sirisena’s fault as well. In 2015 he and the UNP ran together, a clear opposition to Mahinda. This time Sirisena trained his fire on the UNP, to Mahinda’s gain. He may have been legitimately pissed at the UNP, but politically he isolated himself.

The President can’t lose his job, but now he’s politically isolated and may not be able to do much.

The UNP is less fucked, but they’ve still taken a lot of damage. They’re running a minority government which could fall at any time if enough MPs cross over. Even if they can hold the line now, they have at most two years to fundamentally reform themselves and the country before a general election. This will be hard, because they suck.

What Next

Immediately, if the UNP government falls, Maithripala could be forced to appoint Mahinda Prime Minister or call for a General Election.

Mahinda cannot become President because of the 19th Amendment (he’s been President twice), but he can be a powerful PM and even abolish the Presidency, probably with popular support.

The best case is that this coalition limps along until at latest August 2020 and A) people remember that Mahinda was corrupt and scary or B) something changes economically or C) we invade the Maldives. Basically it doesn’t look good for the coalition government right now, but Sri Lankan politics is nothing if not unpredictable.

What happened today was that a meaningless local government election suddenly became very meaningful. The big question now is what happens tomorrow.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. Videos: and podcast:

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