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Sri Lanka: The Rajapaksas Rise Again

A landslide win in general elections caps off the family’s political comeback. Where does Sri Lanka go from here?

Sudha Ramachandran
Sri Lanka: The Rajapaksas Rise Again

In this Aug. 11, 2019, file photo, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, left, and former Defense Secretary and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa wave to supporters during a party convention held to announce the presidential candidacy in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File

The Sri Lanka Podujana Party’s massive victory in the just-concluded Sri Lankan general elections will tighten the already strong grip of the Rajapaksa family over the island nation and quicken the pace of the country’s march to authoritarian rule.

The party secured 59.09 percent of the vote to win 145 seats in the 225-member Parliament and, along with its allies, it will have 150 seats or a two-thirds majority. This will enable the government to enact sweeping changes to the constitution.

The SLPP’s victory was emphatic. Not only did it win 18 of the 22 electoral districts on offer but also, in most areas dominated by the island’s Sinhalese majority, its victory margin was in the high 60 percent level. The Tamil-dominated areas in the north and east remained immune to the SLPP wave; the party’s Tamil ally, the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), secured just two seats.

Incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a two-time president (2005-15) and elder brother of Sri Lanka’s current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is expected to be sworn in as prime minister again. Unlike his previous prime ministerial term, which began in November last year and saw him head a minority government, his new term as prime minister will see him firmly in the saddle of a majority government.

The recent election was historic for several reasons. For one, it was held amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended election planning around the world. Despite fears over the pandemic, 71 percent of voters showed up to vote.

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This is first time in Sri Lanka’s history that the two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), were not the main players in the electoral arena. Instead, it was breakaways from these two parties — the SLPP, which split from the SLFP in 2016, and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), an alliance that emerged out of the UNP early this year — that were the key actors in the electoral contest.

The SJB emerged the runner up in the electoral race with 54 seats.

The UNP, Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, failed to win a single seat from any of the 22 districts; the one seat it managed to secure is on account of the cumulative votes it pulled in nationally. It has finished at fifth place. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a four-time prime minister, failed to win his seat from Colombo district.

The Tamil National Alliance secured 10 seats to remain the strongest party in the Tamil areas. However, its support among the Tamils has diminished.

The SLPP was expected to win. Its victory can be attributed to public weariness with political infighting and instability under former President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe (2015-19). The strong, even authoritarian, leadership of the Rajapaksas therefore appealed to the masses. That sentiment culminated in Gotabaya’s decisive victory in the presidential election in October last year. His government’s robust handling of the COVID-19 crisis is said to have contributed as well to the SLPP’s victory in the recent election. But friction among the opposition parties helped the SLPP win too. The SJB and the UNP were preoccupied with targeting each other and settling political scores rather than confronting the SLPP and the Rajapaksas.

So what are the implications of the SLPP’s sweeping victory and the consolidation of Rajapaksa rule for Sri Lanka?

First, the country’s democracy is in peril. The Rajapaksas are known for their nepotism, authoritarian style of governance, and intolerance of dissent.

During his second presidential term (2010-2015) — after his government had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to end the civil war — Mahinda amended the constitution to augment his power. The 18th Amendment not only removed the two-term limit on the presidency but also it did away with the need for the president to seek approval from a Constitutional Council in presidential appointments of superior judges, the attorney general, auditor general, and heads of independent commissions such as the election commission.

That resulted in Rajapaksa loyalists being appointed to nominally independent commissions, paving the way for the politicization of every democratic institution in the country. Indeed, during Mahinda’s presidency, it wasn’t just political loyalists but close kin who were appointed as ministers, envoys, and heads of corporations and banks.

Under Gotabaya, who oversaw military operations under his brother’s presidency, the militarization of civilian institutions is mounting. Retired military officers, including some accused of war crimes, have been appointed to civilian administrative posts. Over 30 government departments are reported to have been brought under the ambit of the Ministry of Defense.

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Sri Lanka’s march to authoritarian rule can be expected to gather further momentum now.

The SLPP government will pursue amendment of the constitution vigorously. A major rewrite of the 19th Amendment (or 19A as it is referred to), perhaps even its jettisoning, is on the cards.

19A was passed by the Sri Lankan parliament in 2015, just months after Mahinda was defeated in the presidential election earlier that year. It was aimed at diluting the powers of Sri Lanka’s super-powerful executive presidency.

The Rajapaksas see 19A as a major impediment in their exercise of power and strongly oppose it. Repealing it was a major election campaign plank of the SLPP and was touted as necessary to provide Sri Lanka strong governance. How far beyond repealing 19A will the Rajapaksas go to cement the grip of their dynasty over power?

Also in the Rajapaksas’ crosshairs is the 13th Amendment, which provides for devolution of power to the provinces. They, like their Sinhalese-Buddhist hardline supporters, are opposed to devolution of power to the Tamils. This and their strong belief in centralization of power could see them dilute provincial powers. This would have implications for ethnic minority rights and relations with Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

Even more challenging than domestic politics is likely to be the management of Sri Lanka’s external relations. The Rajapaksas, known for “their proximity to the Chinese, will have to do a careful balancing act in their engagement of Sri Lanka’s key foreign partners, especially India, China, and the U.S.,” an official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs told The Diplomat.

Sino-Sri Lankan relations, which have strengthened in recent decades, warmed remarkably during Mahinda’s presidency. Not only did the Chinese provide his government with weaponry to crush the LTTE, but also they defended the regime against war crimes allegations at global forums. Economic cooperation with China surged under Mahinda’s rule. It saw Sri Lanka take massive loans from the Chinese for development of several infrastructure projects, including construction of a coal-fired power station at Norocholoi, a port at Hambantota, and an international airport at Mattale. This period also saw Sino-Sri Lankan military cooperation reach unprecedented levels; in 2014, Chinese warships docked at Colombo harbor.

Sino-Sri Lankan cooperation during Mahinda’s presidency was accompanied by a fraying in Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States and India. An angry India is said to have played a role in cobbling together the alliance that defeated Mahinda in 2015.

How will the Rajapaksas approach the tricky issue of dealing with India and China this time around?

Nilanthi Samaranayake, director of the Strategy and Policy Analysis program at CNA, a non-profit research organization in the Washington area, says that as a “developing country with an appetite for greater infrastructure and connectivity,” Sri Lanka will continue to turn to “China as well as other countries and multilateral institutions” for loans and other support. The ongoing “strengthening” of Sri Lanka’s relations with China will continue, she told The Diplomat.

However, the Rajapaksas “will likely make it a point to reinvest in the country’s overall deeper relationship with India.” Sri Lanka can be expected to “redouble its efforts to engage India through close security and economic cooperation” under the new government, she said.

In other words, while the Rajapaksas can be expected to deepen cooperation with China, they will be careful to intensify relations with India as well. They will avoid drawing Indian ire as they did in 2014 and will be more mindful of Indian security concerns than they were in the past.

Decisions on key infrastructure projects involving India are pending.

A trilateral project involving Sri Lanka, India, and Japan for development of the East Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo port was suspended in June, amid protests by port workers. Mahinda announced at that time that the Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) signed by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in May 2019 was being reviewed.

While the Indian media interpreted the decision to suspend the project as having been made under Chinese pressure, it is likely that the Rajapaksas, keen to defuse a snowballing protest over the alleged sale of a national asset to foreign countries ahead of elections, chose to call for review of the project.

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Samaranayake says that Sri Lanka is “determined” to develop the ECT.

With elections over now, will the SLPP government give a green light to the project? The project can be expected “to be revived after modification of some terms in the MoC,” the Indian MEA official said.

The coming months will be a particularly challenging period for Sri Lankan diplomacy. India-China relations have deteriorated seriously. Chinese intrusion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, the de facto border between the two countries, and the violent face-off between their soldiers in mid-June have escalated bilateral tensions. The two sides are building up their troop deployments in preparation for a long haul, perhaps even a limited conflict.

This puts Sri Lanka in a difficult situation, caught as it is between the clashing Asian giants.

The Rajapaksas will have to display great dexterity in walking the tight rope between New Delhi and Beijing.