After a major victory, the family will be able to reshape Sri Lanka to ensure their control for the long term
by Neil De Votta, Foreign Policy, Washington, DC, August 11, 2020
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.