Sri Lanka’s ruling party promised quick and decisive leadership. But with an economic meltdown looming, it should also be careful.
On Aug. 5, Sri Lankans put on masks and voted in South Asia’s first major election since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health officials were present at every polling center. In mine, people in lines were spaced out by black tape on the floor. After a temperature check, voters were guided into the centers by officials wearing face visors and gloves. We were asked to wash our hands before voting, and we received our ballot paper and finger ink from officials behind see-through partitions.
Even though turnout was marginally lower than in previous elections, by the time voting closed at 5 in the evening, 71 percent of registered Sri Lankan voters had cast their ballot. Some mistook the turnout as a sign of a close race—it was not.
The Rajapaksa family and their election vehicle, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, won more seats than when Mahinda Rajapaksa went to the polls in 2010, soon after Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war ended with a complete military victory for the government over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Although Rajapaksa’s original electoral feat was considered impossible to replicate, the SLPP has surpassed it in an election boasting higher turnout than in 2010. In doing so, it has consolidated the country’s majority population in a way previously thought impossible.
Along with its allies, the SLPP secured 150 seats in Parliament—a two-thirds supermajority that grants the SLPP the power to amend the constitution. It now has the power to roll back the democratic reforms enacted in the five years after Rajapaksa’s shock defeat in 2015, effectively erasing any remaining elements of Sri Lanka’s hiatus from Rajapaksa rule.
Ahead of the race, many analysts predicted a landslide victory for the SLPP. The party, after all, was already riding the momentum of the November presidential election victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya. The winning party’s core voters and its party activists were energized by his success, and new supporters were lured to the party in anticipation of political patronage.
At the same time, Sri Lanka’s main opposition parties were devoured by in-fighting. The United National Party (UNP) leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, repeatedly blocked the emergence of new party leadership. After the 2019 presidential election, differences between Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa, the leader of a UNP breakaway faction called Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), materialized into a formal divide. In the months prior to the parliamentary election, headlines about the opposition revolved around stories that amplified in-fighting, such as when the UNP rescinded party membership for over 100 individuals.
Voters, frustrated by leadership struggles between 2016 and 2019, unaddressed corruption, undelivered promises, and the destabilizing uncertainty of a pandemic, were in no mood for in-fighting. The Rajapaksas capitalized on that mood, and the traumatic memory of Sri Lanka’s April 2019 Easter bombings, to effectively portray themselves as purveyors of security and stability with a no-nonsense leadership style.
During crises, people reward dominant leaders who promise to take quick and aggressive action. And in the months leading up to the election, the SLPP reaffirmed its promise to do just that. One month after curfews were imposed in March to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the police had arrested 40,095 people for curfew violations and had taken 10,332 vehicles into custody. When the curfew began, there were only 72 confirmed cases. In the months leading up to the election, the media also broadcast arrests made in relation to anti-drug efforts, as if to advertise the state’s authoritarianism.
Sri Lanka’s situation is not unusual. Incumbent populist leaders across the world have seen a spike in popularity as their electorates rally around the flag. And in Sri Lanka, too, opposition members risked being considered “anti-national” if they were too critical of national coronavirus eradication efforts. The last days of campaigning had very few posters, political rallies, or meetings. In fact, it was socially costly for opposition politicians to hold gatherings. Meanwhile, incumbent politicians doing essential government work had both media presence and good reason to be in the public eye.
For Sri Lanka, of course, managing COVID-19 was not as difficult as for many other countries. Not only did Colombo have early warning of the looming disaster, but unlike other South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has no land borders and boasts a remarkable health sector that covers nearly all citizens, is low-cost, comprehensive, and has made significant progress in eradicating communicable diseases. So unlike natural disasters or financial crises, a health emergency is a crisis that Sri Lanka is particularly well equipped to manage. The experience of war also means the military is well trained in surveillance and able to provide rapid logistical support—skills that are useful for contact tracing or relief distribution.
As a former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was particularly well placed to preside over COVID-19 containment efforts. Effective coordination between the military and health sector thus far has allowed Sri Lanka to manage COVID-19 effectively, with just a few hiccups. Sri Lankans had only to look over their shoulders to India (which has over 2.4 million confirmed COVID-19 cases) to appreciate their country’s deft management of the virus. (Sri Lanka currently has fewer than 3,000 confirmed cases.)
The popular use of wartime rhetoric, alongside curfews, increased military visibility, and high levels of uncertainty, also reminded voters every day of what it was like to be at war from 1983 to 2009. In 2014, Mahinda Rajapaksa campaigned heavily on reminding southern voters of wartime efforts and why voters ought to be grateful to him, and in 2020 they remembered those efforts organically.
The SLPP’s resounding victory will certainly be interpreted as a mandate to strengthen Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony. Like his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa did nine months before, on Aug. 9 Mahinda Rajapaksa took his oath at a sacred Buddhist temple—the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. This reaffirms the primacy of religion and ethnicity in the Rajapaksa’s campaign and likely in his government going forward.
Sinhalese Buddhist ultranationalists belonging to a political party (Our Power of People Party, or OPPP) won a seat in Parliament this election. Several Buddhist monks contested as members of OPPP, which has been associated with anti-Muslim hate speech. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence recorded one OPPP candidate warning Muslims that if they make any more trouble, Buddhists will have to take up “nonviolent arms” against them. The presence of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacists in Parliament normalizes violence against Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, which has been the target of hate speech and race riots over the last decade.
The growth of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism more broadly, however, is no better demonstrated than in the success of candidates nominated by Viyathmaga, a civil organization founded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2016. One of its members, retired Rear Adm. Sarath Weerasekara, is one of Colombo district’s most popular parliamentarians. The organization offers networking opportunities to professionals and academics, holds campaigns and workshops, lobbies policymakers, and appeals to upwardly mobile Sinhalese Buddhists.
Sinhalese Buddhists, the majority ethno-religious group in Sri Lanka, have consistently expressed fear of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority groups, which they see as a globally connected, powerful, and perhaps even existential threat. Groups such as Viyathmaga are an antidote to such fears and attractive to those who have found the Sinhalese language a barrier to accessing the global marketplace (of ideas, or otherwise). Two of the group’s four stated values are “country first” and “spirituality”—but as of yet “country first” has been narrowly conceived and does not really include a commitment to Sri Lanka’s minorities. Many Sinhalese Buddhists today remain in denial about wartime atrocities committed against Tamil civilians, for example, and it may be several decades before Sri Lanka is ready or able to come to terms with that aspect of its history.
The consolidation of Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony comes as a pro-democracy and human rights civil society is so demoralized, afraid, and emotionally exhausted that it isn’t able to mount serious resistance to social injustice. When Hejaaz Hizbullah, a human rights lawyer, was arrested on April 14 and subsequently detained without charge or access to a lawyer, a drained civil society protested only weakly. When Sri Lankan authorities raided the home of the New York Times correspondent Dharisha Bastians and attempted to seize her laptop two months ago, only a handful of opposition members spoke up. There has been little interest in the arrest of former Criminal Investigations Department Director Shani Abeysekera, who led investigations into high-profile corruption cases against politicians now in power. And this March, when a man convicted of massacring eight civilians in Jaffna district was pardoned by Gotabaya Rakapaksa, power had already shifted so drastically that the main opposition party, SJB, stayed silent. Perhaps those who feel most betrayed by all of this are victims of human rights abuses and crime. With the Rajapaksas back in power, activists representing the relatives of the forcibly disappeared have reported a significant increase in government surveillance and intimidation. Many have risked their anonymity, security, and energy to speak up and demand truth or accountability.
It is unclear who will now champion human rights in Parliament, though. In the minority-dominated Northern and Eastern provinces, the Tamil National Alliance has lost almost 40 percent of its parliamentary presence. And it remains to be seen whether the SJB can or wishes to champion anti-corruption or substantive democracy—or whether it will instead engage instead in ethnic outbidding. Exclusionary politics, I’ve argued previously, helps create the conditions for further conflict in Sri Lanka and may hurl the country into irretrievable economic peril.
With the SLPP’s parliamentary majority, it will be able to replace all the democratic gains of 2015-2019, including the 19th Amendment, which features checks on executive power and several independent oversight bodies. In turn, it is quite possible that Sri Lanka will now depart altogether from the Westminster system of 1948, the quasi-Westminster system of 1972, and the Gaullist system of 1978. National SLPP organizer Basil Rajapaksa has said he would like Sri Lanka to develop governance structures similar in style to the Chinese Communist Party or India’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Whether Sri Lanka maintains its democracy or not, it will not be able to avoid its next crisis.
Accelerated by COVID-19, Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown is already here. The country’s key foreign exchange earners (tourism, garments, tea, and migrant remittances) are under pressure. Thousands of layoffs have already occurred, and the Asian Development Bank predicts that Sri Lanka’s growth rates will drop by 6.1 percent in 2020.
Investors already view the country as one of the more risky emerging markets, demonstrated by extensive foreign capital outflows since January. It is not a positive sign that the Rajapaksa government recently breached the constitutional borrowing limit or that one of its members of Parliament is a convicted murderer. Rule-bending does not necessarily help build the kind of confidence necessary to create and sustain a thriving economy. While the International Monetary Fund has provided several emerging Asian economies with funds under both the Rapid Credit Facility and Rapid Financing Instrument, Sri Lanka is not one of them.
In the short run, imposing import bans may help the SLPP manage a run on foreign exchange reserves, but very soon the government will need import revenues and will have to ease protectionism, which has started to return. Sri Lankans, for their part, have provided the SLPP a mandate to drive development and growth and weed out cronyism—the same kind that led to the UNP’s downfall. But trade barriers combined with a few unwise proposals, like an international cricket stadium that Sri Lanka doesn’t need and that won’t generate income, could drive Sri Lanka into long-term poverty.
The SLPP can use its impressive election victory to silence dissent, consolidate Sinhalese Buddhist hegemony, or refashion the government in line with China’s one-party state. But with an economic crisis at Sri Lanka’s doorstep, now probably isn’t the best time.
Amita Arudpragasam is a Sri Lankan writer and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Princeton University. Twitter: @aarudpra