Return of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka
Smruti S Pattanaik
The victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) in Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections held on August 5 was very much
anticipated, although the extent of the victory was speculated on. The victory
is impressive and marks the second innings of the Rajapaksa brothers under the
newly formed SLPP. The election also marks the death of two grand old
parties-the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP)-and the massive fragmentation of the political parties representing the
minority Tamils and the Muslims, who constitute more than 20 percent of Sri
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had lost the election in
2015 to Maithripala Sirisena, has been sworn in as the prime minister of Sri
Lanka. Rajapaksa had formally joined the SLPP on November 11, 2018, a party
founded by his brother Basil Rajapaksa in 2016, after he and his supporters
decided to break away from the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed
by the then President Sirisena. The SLPP made its mark as a political party
when it received 40.47 percent of the votes leaving UPFA and the United
National Party (UNP), led by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, far
behind. Later, in the presidential election held on November 16 last year,
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the President, securing 52.25 percent of
votes, which indicated his soaring popularity.
The loss of the UPFA in which the Sri Lanka
Freedom Party (SLFP) was the major alliance partner was a gain for the SLPP.
This election also ended the political career of former Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe, the chairman of the UNP whose party could not even win one
seat, and former President Maithripala Sirisena of the SLFP and chairman of
UPFA, whose party just became an appendage of the SLPP to survive Rajapaksa's
political onslaught. From the womb of these two grand old parties, two brand
new parties have emerged and pushed the mother parties to oblivion-the SLPP and
Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by young leader Sajith Premadasa, son of the
former assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
The political clash between Ranil and Sajith
came out in the open, especially after the presidential election. Sajith was
nominated by the UNP but Ranil Wickremesinghe kept the control of the party in
his hand, ultimately leading to the split. Sajith Premadasa's supporters
strongly believed that under the leadership of Ranil, the party would lose the
parliamentary elections. This prediction proved correct as the UNP that
dominated the last parliament could not win a single seat this time.
The SLPP has got nearly a two-third majority in
the 225 member parliament. Including the national list, it has 145 seats with
59.09 percent of votes, the SJB has 54 seats with 23.9 percent of votes, and
the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won 10 seats with 2.82 percent of votes. In
spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, voter turnout was an impressive 71 percent.
This election is one of the most fractured
elections in Sri Lanka in recent times, in terms of minority politics and their
votes. The TNA witnessed a division from within. Former chief minister of the
Tamil majority Northern Province, CV Vigneswaran, left the TNA in 2018 and
formed his own party. There were other smaller Tamil parties who contested in
the elections, resulting in the division of Tamil votes.
The Sri Lankan Muslims were also equally
divided. While Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was part of SJB, the All Ceylon Muslim
Congress, Muslim National Alliance, National Congress and All Ceylon Makkal
Congress contested the elections separately. Most of the divisions are the result
of the emergence of hardliners within the minority parties.
The SLPP manifesto gives priority to national
security, friendly non-aligned foreign policy, a corruption-free polity and
economic development, apart from its promise to promulgate a new constitution.
It needs to be noted that the last Unity government attempted to promulgate a
new constitution that addresses long standing political grievances of the Tamil
minority and determine the place of religion, but it could not muster the
majority as the unity of the National Unity Government was marred by the power
struggle between the president and the prime minister, which paralysed the
government from the very beginning.
The most challenging job for the government
would be to fix the economy, which is dependent on tourism and remittances from
the Gulf. The first quarter of the financial year shows a 1.6 percent negative
growth rate for the economy. The total outstanding external debt as a
percentage of GDP stood at 66.6 percent and annual debt service payments
accounted for 79 percent of total debt service payments in 2019. It is unlikely
that the tourism sector, which contributes 5.7 percent to GDP, would be back on
track soon. This indicates a bleak prospect.
The government is now likely to push to amend
the 19th amendment to the constitution, which is one of the poll promises. This
amendment diluted the power of the executive president as established in 1978
and transferred them to the parliament, and made the prime minister more
powerful, on whose advice the president would appoint the cabinet. Unlike
before, the parliament cannot be dissolved before four and a half years. It
revived the Constitutional Council and established independent commissions who
would be appointed by the parliament rather than the president. This restored
the credibility of independent commissions that was originally mandated through
the 17th amendment to the constitution and reversed by the then President
Mahinda Rajapaksa through the 18th amendment.
Another key focus would be the long pending
political settlement of the Tamil issue and addressing the alienation of the
Muslim minority. Successive governments have undermined the TNA by not
addressing the long pending political issues concerning the Tamil minorities
within the constitutional framework of Sri Lanka. This has given space to
hardliners within the community, which explains its poor show in the election,
winning only 10 seats compared to the 16 in the last parliament that helped it
to emerge as the official opposition party in the parliament. Similarly, after
the Easter attacks, Sri Lankan Muslims are increasingly feeling alienated. They
have been demonised, labelled as terrorists and their businesses and shops have
been attacked and boycotted by hardline Buddhist monks. It requires the
political will of the Rajapaksas, whose landslide victory is attributed to the
massive Sinhalese Buddhist votes it received, to address the political and
identity issues of the minorities.
On top of that, the SLPP has not hidden its
majoritarian agenda. The polarisation of the post-war polity is evident and is
reflective of the SLPP's victory. It is true that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
is seen as a bulwark against separatism and terrorism, and the manner in which
he handled the last phase of the war has led to him being regarded as a saviour
of the country by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Depending on how this
majoritarianism is going to manifest, the extent of radicalisation of the
ethnic and religious minorities will be determined. One has seen the
manifestation of this radicalisation in the past. It is hoped that the return
of the Rajapaksa brothers would not see the repetition of the last Rajapaksa
regime that was characterised by enforced disappearances, establishment of high
security zones, massive corruption and alienation of the Tamil and Muslims in
Sri Lanka. Majoritarianism has its own trajectory, but they are also the only
leaders who can address the alienation of the minorities.
Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at the
Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA).