Rajapaksa, in a Landslide

After a major victory, the family will be able to reshape Sri Lanka to ensure their control for the long term.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa arrives at his swearing-in ceremony outside Colombo on Aug. 9.
Sri Lanka Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa arrives at his swearing-in ceremony outside Colombo on Aug. 9. Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been president of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015, rechristened a minor political party and launched the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). At the time, no one none could have predicted the ways in which his move would upend the island nation’s politics. Rajapaksa had recently lost a bid for a third presidential term, and he and his grasping family were facing charges over corruption and other crimes. Determined to block a Rajapaksa political resurgence in the future, the new government amended the constitution to reimpose a two-term limit on the presidency, bar duel citizens from contesting general elections (thereby targeting two prominent Rajapaksa siblings), and weaken presidential powers while strengthening the prime minister and independent governing institutions.

Two years later, though, the SLPP, which Rajapaksa had joined, won a slate of local elections throughout the island by a landslide. In November 2019, SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda’s younger brother and former defense secretary, capitalized on government mismanagement of the response to terrorist attacks that hit the nation on Easter Sunday and handily won the presidency after renouncing his U.S. citizenship. On Aug. 5 this year, with Mahinda as prime minister and Gotabaya as president, the SLPP outdid even the most optimistic pre-poll predictions by winning close to a legislative supermajority.

The party obtained 145 seats in the 225-member legislature and will have no problem attracting crossovers to take it past the 150 mark. It will now work toward setting up a new constitution with a strong executive president—and no doubt one that will ensure Rajapaksa rule well into the future.

For decades after Sri Lanka’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948, two parties dominated the island’s politics: the United National Party (UNP), which is relatively pro-Western and friendly to the island’s many minority groups; and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which attracted strong support among rural Buddhists and pioneered Sinhalese Buddhist majoritarianism. The Rajapaksa family was among the SLFP’s founders, and Mahinda launched the SLPP only after losing the presidency to fellow SLFP member Maithripala Sirisena. The success of Mahinda’s party, however, forced SLFP candidates to run in an alliance with the SLPP in this election, including Sirisena.

The UNP was at the forefront in working with the British to ensure a seamless transition to independence, and many of its leaders rank among the island’s most consequential political figures. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who served three terms as prime minister, has led the party for the past 26 years. Wickremasinghe’s monomaniacal craving to keep leading the party despite repeated failures in recent years caused a split in the party that saw the UNP garner just one seat in Parliament. The breakaway party, called Samagi Jana Balavegaya (United People’s Front), ended up second with 54 seats and will now form a weak opposition. Unless the UNP’s fissures are mended, its pathetic performance, coupled with the SLPP’s cooptation of the SLFP, could push Sri Lanka’s foremost two parties into irrelevance.

Besides the UNP split, the relatively effective way Sri Lanka has managed the COVID-19 pandemic under Gotabaya Rajapaksa also contributed to the SLPP’s electoral gains. The official number of deaths from the coronavirus has stayed at 11 for more than two months. Although the actual number is surely much higher—especially given how some government officials have doctored COVID-19 results and refused to conduct autopsies on those thought to have died from the illness—the island still ranks well, especially when compared to many Western states struggling with the pandemic.

The Rajapaksas like projecting competent and decisive leadership, but the COVID-19 narrative that the pro-Rajapaksa media have mounted has helped mask the president’s illiberal tendencies. Both Mahinda and Gotabaya are Sinhalese Buddhist supremacists. While Mahinda Rajapaksa rose to prominence through Parliament, Gotabaya Rajapaksa built a career through the military. As defense secretary, from 2005 to 2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa strengthened the military and played a leading role in strategizing the defeat of Tamil separatists. Family members branded him “the Terminator” for how he pursued detractors. Many in the international community accuse him of war crimes given the atrocities perpetrated during the last stages of the Sri Lankan civil war.

The Rajapaksas used surveillance and militarization to rule in an autocratic fashion even following the civil war. Those old strategies returned almost immediately after Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president. The government erected checkpoints in the predominantly Tamil Northern Province and began to monitor civil-society organizations. It became routine for nongovernmental organizations to face questioning about personnel and funding sources, and to have surprise visits by intelligence officials, as the defense ministry took charge of registering NGOs. Much of this transpired before COVID-19 got to Sri Lanka’s shores.

In many ways, the military crept into civilian politics even more during the pandemic. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed retired and serving military personnel to powerful government positions, with the army commander (and not a public health official) put in charge of the task force dealing with COVID-19. Many of these officials also stand accused of committing war crimes during the civil war. Additionally, in June the president set up a “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society” whose members comprise of intelligence, military, and police officials. Its authorities are so wide-ranging that this task force could easily usurp the functions of civilian officials.

That’s particularly scary for the country’s Muslims. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists enjoyed free rein to inveigh against minorities, with Muslims especially targeted following the end of the civil war. Last year’s Easter Sunday bombings have only increased hostility toward the group among all communities.

There have been numerous riots against Muslims—instigated by Buddhist monks and extremist allies who have operated with impunity. Some among these Buddhist monks have promised to conduct campaigns after the election against Muslim businesses, women wearing the burqa, and madrassas. Muslims’ votes against Mahinda Rajapaksa were a big reason for his defeat in 2015. They also voted against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in large numbers. The very high Sinhalese Buddhist vote in his favor, however, neutralized the quest to defeat him. In turn, Buddhist nationalists thus not only consider the Muslim community anti-Rajapaksa, they fear that Wahhabi-Salafi influence spreading within the community is transforming Sri Lanka’s identity. Their shrill rhetoric during the election, combined with vile postings on social media, hint of forthcoming unrest. The island’s Muslims could well endure pogroms in the days ahead unless the international community bands together to protect them.

Consider that, in June, Gotabaya Rajapaksa created the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, which does not include a single Tamil or Muslim despite both groups combining to form a majority in the region. A retired general who is secretary to the ministry of defense and is accused of committing war crimes leads the task force, which includes Buddhist monks and individuals eager to promote Sinhalese colonization of Tamil and Muslim areas. Many Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists want to eventually see the Northern and Eastern Provinces become Buddhist-majority areas, and it appears the stage is set for a policy of ethnic flooding similar to what has taken place in China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions.

Sri Lanka’s economy was in difficulty before COVID-19 surfaced. The island owed lenders around $3 billion in 2020 and must cough up billions of dollars over the next few years to service nearly $55 billion in debt. Drastically reduced revenue from textile exports, remittances, and tourism will exacerbate the balance-of-payment crisis. The government will seek a moratorium on loan payments, and this will likely further cement its ties to China, which can (and is eager to) help in this regard.

With regard to China, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015 also represented a defeat for China, given the country’s support for the president and how the Rajapaksa family enabled Chinese influence in the region at India’s expense. Indeed, India’s intelligence played a prominent role supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ouster in 2015. While the Rajapaksas and the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have since pursued friendly ties, it is striking that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime has avoided finalizing agreements its predecessor reached with India and Japan even as it has pursued cooperative relations with China. In this context, untrammeled Rajapaksa rule in the offing represents a major victory for China. This bonhomie, combined with the economic carnage stemming from COVID-19, will allow China many opportunities to expand further its tentacles in the island.

When Sri Lanka celebrated Independence Day in February, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government did not allow the national anthem sung in Tamil, a practice its predecessor reintroduced. The following month, the president pardoned a former army sergeant who in 2000 slit the throats of eight Tamil civilians, including four children, despite the island’s Supreme Court unanimously upholding his death sentence. The government tried to blame Muslims for spreading COVID-19 in the island, as a few from the community were among the first to contract the virus. This took place even as Muslims thought to have died from COVID-19 were forcibly cremated, a practice that goes against Islamic beliefs and World Health Organization recommendations. These ominous events took place before this majoritarian government commanded a parliamentary supermajority. All this suggest Sri Lanka and the region are bound to experience significant repercussions thanks to the results of this just-concluded election.

Neil DeVotta is a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.


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