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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 35, New Delhi, August 15, 2020

Sri Lanka: The Rajapaksa juggernaut mauls Opposition | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 14 August 2020, by Apratim Mukarji

One-hundred fifty out of a total of 225 seats in Sri Lanka’s new Parliament---elected on August 5---has turned out to be a dream win few political parties can achieve in a democracy. This is what the two Rajapaksas---President Gotabaya, the younger brother, and Mahinda, the eldest of the four and a former President twice elected to the highest office---achieved on the voting day when 71 per cent of the electorate turned up to exercise their franchise.

The Opposition has virtually ceased to exist. A breakaway faction of the oldest party United National Party---presided over by a steadily demoralised Ranil Wickremasinghe, whose political ambitions were stalled every time he aspired to promote himself to the presidency---named Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Movement) and led by the former UNP leader Sajith Premadasa managed to secure even less than 25 per cent of the votes cast.

The two-thirds majority will now allow the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) untrammelled power to run the country for the next four years till 2024. This obviously brings the spectre of an autocratic rule in the island nation. Political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda remarked, “ We have seen in the past when governments have had a two-thirds majority it does not have to worry about checks and balances. In fact, they have untrammelled power, that is what we have observed in both India and Sri Lanka. In the past in Sri Lanka, the governments which had this level of power in 1970 and thereafter in 1977 generated a lot of social discontent.” (Arjuna Ranawana, Reuters, Colombo, Aug. 7 2020)

Why have the Sri Lankan voters decided to vote virtually en block for the Rajapaksas who are anything but tolerant of criticism and have never hesitated to resort to strong-arm tactics to silence dissenting voices? A number of factors have acted to make this total switch possible.

When the country elected a mild-mannered and reputedly honest Maithripala Sirisena, who was till then a virtual non-entity in the political sphere and completely unknown to the external world, won a surprise victory over Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, the cards were stacked in his favour. The country had just emerged from the nightmarish reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa who had completed his two terms in the presidency, and Sri Lanka had been left bloodied, frustrated and embroiled in rank corruption.

The combination of two traditional rivals---the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)----along with a host of small but articulate political parties and groups, especially activists’ groups in which almost all the professions were represented, and the socialists and communists (all very minor players but strong in trade union movements and all highly vocal) brought in such a challenge to the Rajapaksas who were also in the SLFP but had split away on the eve of the elections, that the ruling party was simply swept off its feet.

However, within a month of the beginning of its run, the new coalition Yaha Palannaya (good governance) government faced its first challenge, serious allegations of corruption in which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinhe was found out to be deeply involved. His unstinted backing of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Governor Arjuna Mahendran ultimately drove him to face a presidential commission probing the alleged frauds perpetrated by the bank and the stock exchange. Wickremasinghe perpetuated his crime by refusing to step down as demanded by the Opposition parties led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The height of public ignominy was reached when the President and the Prime Minister openly fought each other in Parliament, in the courts and back in the legislature. The outcome of this naked power struggle within the government disgusted the people to no end, and on August 5 this year the result came as little surprise.

The surprise lay in the overwhelming majority the Rajapaksas have achieved. Jayadeva Uyangoda writes, “What has come to be seen as a ‘victory beyond all expectations’ , as the SLPP’ spokesprson has quickly admitted, seems to have been also made possible by large-scale absenteeism by the UNP voters at almost every electorate. Meanwhile, the overall turnout of voters at 71 per cent is comparatively low in Sri Lanka’s very high standards of voter participation at any election.” (Interpreting the Sri Lankan mandate, The Hindu, Aug. 8, 2020)

There were two other notable trends in the electoral outcome. The first is the decline of the ethnic minority representation as independent political entities. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachhi (ITAK), the main and most vocal minority party in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, has lost its electoral strength, coming down to ten from the 16 seats in the previous legislature. Six seats from the Northern and Eastern Provinces have gone to smaller Tamil parties, two of which are aligned with the SLPP. This is something which would have been unthinkable before the elections.

“The fragmentation of Tamil political representation is mirrored by the decline of
to just two seats in the two Tamil-majority districts, which they contested alone. There could be a few more Muslim MPs affiliated to the SJB. The second factor is that the two big parties in the new Parliament, SLPP and SJB, are of “very” recent origin, and they have been formed by breakaway sections of the two main traditional parties, the UNP and the SLFP.

Overall, the glaring contrast between the performances of the immediate past government---the coalition government run by the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe combine and the Gotabaya Rakapksa government just a year old---seemed to ha ve persuaded the voters to incline favourably towards the Rajapaksas. The current President’s handling of the twin challenge of the CoronaVirus endemic and the resultant economic decline have clearly drawn popular acclaim, and the outcome is self-evident in the election verdict.

Especially, the efficient handling of the pandemic, which has been highly commended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), appears to have convinced Sri Lankans that the model presented by President Rajapaksa by his direct and personal handling of the fight against the deadly virus with the induction of the military and his relentless pursuit of drug barons accompanied by raids on their networks and their immediate prosecution is the right their rivals in the elections, the developments show that Sri Lanka is ready like other democracies to follow strong-arms governments with little tolerance for democratic niceties.

Meanwhile, indigenous Tamils have also served notice on President Rajahs and on on their own community leaders. They have told the Rajapaksas that they are finally done with them and have hence voted “emphatically” against their party. Similarly, they have delivered a clear message to the mainstream TNA which had in the past obtained their unstinted support, all in the hope that under the “friendly” Yaha Palanaya government justice would be given on their long-standing demands for fair trials of officers and soldiers of the defence forces for killing innocent Tamils, expropriation of their land by the army and the government in Colombo, their fishing rights which was appropriated in favour of Sinhala fishermen and businesses, employment, and funds for re-stating business in the Tamil-majority areas. One crucial demand which remains unfulfilled even eleven years after the civil war was finished, a verifiable account of the missing Tamil civilians during and after the war, is the worst disillusionment with the TNA for its failure to get the Colombo government moving in this respect.

“In the north-east as a hole, there is a clear shift towards the parties aligned to the government in Colombo. We must take note of that,” said TNA spokesperson M.A.Sumanthiran. (quoted in Meera Srinivasan, Tamils deliver clear message to leaders, The Hindu, Aug. 8, 2020).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first foreign leader to congratulate Mahinda Rajapaksa on his party’s performance, brings home the point that with this victory, Sri Lanka and India have moved closer toward each other. The governments in the two neighbouring countries now enjoy massive, unchallengeable majority in their parliaments, and have a mandate to carry out their respective mandates irrespective of their people’s preferences.

*Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs and of geopolitics in the Indian Ocean Region. He can be contacted at mukarjiapratim[at]gmail.com

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