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The Rajapaksas Own Sri Lanka Now
Victory for the hard-line political dynasty spells dark times for democracy.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka People’s Front was sworn in as president of Sri Lanka on Monday, after defeating Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party in Saturday’s elections. Rajapaksa obtained 52 percent of the vote, and Premadasa garnered 42 percent. The poll reinforces the deep fractures within Sri Lanka, even a decade after the end of the civil war. Rajapaksa served as secretary to the Ministry of Defense when his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was president from 2005 to 2015. The Rajapaksas took the country in a dangerous and authoritarian direction.
For anybody who cares about human rights, good governance, and democracy, the return of the Rajapaksas is disastrous news. It’s unclear precisely when a parliamentary vote will occur. However, Mahinda Rajapaksa is expected to become prime minister soon—through appointment, a forthcoming general election, or both. For parliamentary polls, the Rajapaksas and their allies are going to be the heavy favorites. Another big electoral victory would solidify the family’s hold on power.
This was very much Rajapaksa’s election to lose. Although he only announced he would run in April, there had been rumors about his candidacy for years, and the Rajapaksas’ dynastic ambitions are no secret. Politics has long been a family affair for the Rajapaksas, who hail from Hambantota district in the south. When Mahinda was president, his brother Basil Rajapaksa was minister of economic development. Another brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, was speaker of Parliament. Namal Rajapaksa, one of Mahinda’s sons, has been a member of Parliament since 2010. The Rajapaksas’ web of nepotism was extensive, and there is no reason to believe another Rajapaksa administration would behave differently. The Rajapaksas still stand accused of massive corruption, some of it linked to Chinese loans that lacked transparency.
National security dominated the election—and with it came the Sinhalese ethnonationalism that fuels the Rajapaksas’ support. The Easter bombings earlier this year destroyed what was left of former President Maithripala Sirisena’s and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credibility. While the election runner-up Premadasa and Wickremesinghe are essentially political rivals, Premadasa was deputy leader of the United National Party and is tied to the failures of both Sirisena, who governed in coalition with his party, and fellow party member Wickremesinghe. The attacks left the election Rajapaksa’s to lose.
During presidential elections in Sri Lanka, if the vote is divided fairly evenly among the majority Sinhalese, who make up roughly 75 percent of the island’s population, ethnic and religious minority votes are crucial. Sinhalese are largely Buddhist, and antagonism toward Islam has been a growing quality of Sinhalese nationalism, especially after the Easter attacks on churches and hotels by Islamist militants. This time around, however, Tamil and Muslim voters voted overwhelmingly for Premadasa—but Rajapaksa did overwhelmingly well among Sinhalese voters, ensuring his comfortable victory.
The Rajapaksas have capitalized on the demand for greater security—and more anti-Muslim policies—after the Easter attacks. Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his presidential candidacy days after the bombings. Reuters reported he was ready to “stop the spread of Islamist extremism by rebuilding the intelligence service and surveilling citizens.” But the Rajapaksas are also still riding on their wartime credentials. Both Gotabaya and Mahinda are revered by many ethnic Sinhalese for overseeing the Sri Lankan military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers, the militant separatist organization that fought for a separate Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the island nation.
Credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity continue to plague the military. Extrajudicial killings, the targeting of civilians, the shelling of hospitals, denying aid to civilians, and sexual violence—among other serious human rights violations—have hung over the military since the end of the war. These highly credible allegations have not hurt the Rajapaksas politically in Sri Lanka. On the contrary, these transgressions have arguably made them stronger among voters who delight in hard-line cruelty against Tamils or see the Army as national heroes. There has been no accountability for these crimes, nor is there ever likely to be under a Rajapaksa government
But Premadasa was also hardly an appealing candidate. He’s another Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist who has not shown an interest in meaningfully addressing minority concerns. He won minority support because of Rajapaksa’s record of bigotry and oppression, not out of any qualities of his own. The place of minorities, who always have a hard time getting political traction in Sri Lanka, will be more insecure than ever under the Rajapaksa government.
The victory also means a bleak outcome for democracy as a whole. As bad as Sirisena’s tenure was, he didn’t rule in the autocratic way that Mahinda Rajapaksa did—and that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is expected to. Under Mahinda, Parliament abolished term limits for the presidency. The repression of dissent was brutal. Nepotism and corruption were widespread. The country was put on an autocratic path.
On Sirisena’s watch, the space for dissent opened significantly. People were at least able to speak out or protest. The government also passed the 19th Amendment to the constitution, which trimmed presidential powers, reinstated term limits for the presidency, and strengthened the office of the prime minister, and it enacted a Right to Information Act.
Notably, Sri Lanka’s institutions held up in the face of the 2018 coup attempt. Sirisena abruptly (and illegally) fired Wickremesinghe—a conniving politician and longtime leader of the United National Party—and attempted to put Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place as prime minister, in an attempt to preserve his political future and help return the Rajapaksas to power. The chaos and uncertainly lasted for nearly two months, though Rajapaksa eventually resigned as prime minister after a series of court actions, and Wickremesinghe was reinstated. The judiciary and Parliament performed well. Sri Lankans from all walks of life publicly denounced the attempted coup.
Going forward, in contrast, it can be expected that the Rajapaksas will move to centralize power and weaken institutions. Nepotism and corruption, perennial problems in Sri Lankan politics, will get worse. Media freedom will take a hit, and self-censorship will grow. The military’s forays into civilian life—especially in the north and east—will increase. Anti-minority violence will become more common, and perpetrators won’t be held accountable. Activists, civil society leaders, and journalists will face renewed scrutiny, or worse. There will be little tolerance for public dissent.
Sri Lankans of all ethnic and religious groups are expected to suffer at the hands of another Rajapaksa administration. However, minorities—Tamils, Muslims, and Christians—will be disproportionately hurt. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism doesn’t just mobilize voters; it’s been used to encourage violence and impunity. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will govern in a divisive and heavy-handed fashion—but one longed for by many Sinhalese, and with the backing of a state whose institutions are dominated by Sinhalese. This is a momentous moment. Sri Lanka is a majoritarian democracy, and many would argue that the country’s ethnocratic bona fides have long been apparent.
The Rajapaksas tested national institutions to the limit during the attempted coup; Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency embraced institutional erosion. Today, they have been given another chance to run rampant inside the system. Sri Lanka’s democracy is in deep trouble.