AT THE time, it was seen as an astonishing victory. In retrospect, it was also something of a Pyrrhic one. Few expected Maithripala Sirisena to defeat the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential election of 2015. After all, Mr Rajapaksa, although increasingly authoritarian, had presided in 2009 over the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers, ending Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.
Mr Sirisena was merely a rebellious member of the president’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). To win and then to govern, Mr Sirisena relied on the support of the SLFP’s main rival, the United National Party (UNP). As Sri Lankans prepare to vote in local elections on February 10th, that alliance has come to haunt him.
In theory, the alliance between the UNP and Mr Sirisena’s faction of the SLFP ended in December. But this is a polite fiction necessitated by the campaign. In practice, neither group has sufficient numbers in parliament to govern without the other. Mr Rajapaksa, who is backing a new outfit called the Sri Lanka People’s Front, has called on voters to treat the poll as a referendum on the government.
The lack of a fixed political base has coloured Mr Sirisena’s three years in office. The endless struggle to assert his authority over the SLFP has taken up much of his time and energy, while the alliance with the UNP has associated him with its unpopular economic policies. The president’s ambitious promises—to transfer executive authority from the president to parliament; to devolve power to the regions; to crack down on corruption; and to hold the army to account for the war crimes it is alleged to have committed in the final days of the war—have gone largely unfulfilled.
The powers of the president have been watered down, but not nearly as much as Mr Sirisena had pledged. A promised new constitution which would strengthen the powers of the regions has never materialised, to the irritation of the Tamil National Alliance, a party that supported Mr Sirisena’s presidential bid. No members of the former government have been prosecuted for corruption, nor have any wayward soldiers been brought to book. Building public trust in government was an important element of the government’s mandate, says Asoka Obeyesekere, the local head of Transparency International, an anti-corruption pressure group, but it has made no progress at all. Instead, the UNP has become embroiled in a corruption scandal of its own, and many observers worry that the investigating authorities are not independent enough to untangle it.
Meanwhile, runaway borrowing for vanity projects under Mr Rajapaksa left the new government with a balance-of-payments crisis. It had to turn to the IMF in 2016, and last year approved a tax overhaul to help rein in the deficit. Rising taxes and the falling rupee, in turn, have helped push up inflation, which has jumped from 2% to 8% during Mr Sirisena’s tenure (see chart). A common gripe concerns the price of coconuts, which has doubled over the past year—a blow given that coconut milk is a staple ingredient in local curries.
The local elections could deepen Mr Sirisena’s troubles. Politicians tend to follow the wind; if the SLFP performs poorly, power will ebb away from the president in anticipation of the presidential election in 2019 and a parliamentary one in 2020. It does not help that Mr Sirisena pledged to serve only a single term—another reason he may soon be viewed as a lame duck.