Economy & Trade

Sri Lankan Parliamentary Polls: The Return of the Rajapaksa Raj

Aug 17 2020 - Sri Lanka is a country endowed with abundant natural beauty. The serenity of its geographical bounties matched the peaceful nature of its polity in the aftermath of the passage of power to local political leaders with the withdrawal of the British from the island in 1948. Its Constitution was crafted by some of the brightest legal minds of the British Commonwealth. The nation seemed well on the path to prosperity and progress. So much so, that once Lee Kuan Yew looked upon that country as a model for Singapore, with its commonly shared experience, to emulate.

Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury

Then tragedy struck. The bane of South Asia in the post-colonial era has been the inability of diverse communities to co-exist. Alas, Sri Lanka was no exception. The majority Sinhalese Buddhists became locked in a bitter civil war with Hindu Tamil separatists. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President from 2005-2015, and now Prime minister, crushed the rebellion with an iron hand. He was aided by his younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Defence Secretary, now, President. During that process the brothers tended to turn a Nelson’s blind eye to human rights. The people, thereafter, experimented with change by bringing into office Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. He amended the constitution rendering the Prime minister more powerful than the President. But his governance was perceived as a dismal failure. Last year the Easter Sunday attack by Islamist militants led to much death and destruction.

With a sense of wary exasperation, the Sri Lankans turned once again to the Rajapaksa brothers. In November 2019, this time, Gotabaya, the younger Rajapaksa won the Presidential polls. He had spoken at my think tank, ISAS in Singapore, on a couple of occasions, and I was fairly familiar with his ideas. During a visit to Sri Lana for a Sri Lankan Military Seminar, I was able to sense the rise of the popularity of the Rajapaksas. Gotabaya, upon winning the Presidency in the November polls, immediately appointed his elder brother, the former President, Mahinda, as the Prime Minister. It was, albeit in a minority government as the Parliamentary elections were yet to be held, and the Rajapaksa popularity wave was not yet reflected in the membership numbers in that House. With some delay due to COVID-19, which incidentally the Rajapasas handled well, with 2839 cases and only 11 deaths , giving them a further electoral boost. Parliamentary elections were held on the 5th of August. Predictably the Rajapaksa Party, Sri Lanka Pradujana Peramuna (SLPP), swept the polls, winning 145 of the 225 Parliamentary seats.

Now only 5 more members supporting would give the SLPP the “super majority” of two-third of the total numbers to carry out any amendments they have in mind. For starters, one would be the restoration of the old powers of the President, a stated aspiration of Gotabaya. Then, as per his promises, other measures would be implemented to make the country economically and militarily secure. Such majority would now be easy to come by. Several other political parties are said to be eager to offer their support to enjoy some privileges of participating in what will naturally be a very powerful government.

There is one lurking danger, however. The elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa has always enjoyed being the one calling the shots. Indeed, during his previous ten year rule the ideological basis of governance was a set of concepts entitled Mahihda Chinta, literally translatable as ‘Thoughts of Mahinda’, reminiscent of Mao’s ‘Red Book’ or the ‘Green Book’ of Libya’s Moammer Gaddafi. That could be seen as perilously close to an admiration for a personality cult of his own. So, are there any potentials of future differences between the two brothers, now that the planned reforms, to be passed by the “super majority” Parliament and Prime Minister would accord greater powers to the President? A possibility, but an unlikely one, given, at least as of now, the proximity of the siblings, not just Mahinda and Gotabaya, but others, who are also in the political power-core. It is more likely that the ideas of all the siblings will fuse into an over-arching “Rajapaksa Chinta’, the ‘Thoughts of the Rajapaksas’.

The massive return of the Rajapaksas will have significant implications for global and regional politics. South Asia and the Indian Ocean region is currently witnessing a highly sharpened Sino-Indian rivalry. This is also being played out in all the neighbouring countries of India, except for in Pakistan, where the Chinese sway is paramount. In the past, India, had been supportive of the Hindu Tamil minority in international fora which had caused the Rajapaksas to turn towards China. Mahinda actually blamed India for his electoral defeat in 2015. The predilections of the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi in India for Hindutva could exacerbate problems of relationship with Sri Lanka as well, as in the case with other countries in the region.

China, long India’s rival for Sri Lanka’s attentions, had funded the Humbantota port project in the Rajapaksa hometown, which did create a debt-issue, that might, however, be re-examined under the new circumstances. Thereafter China provided US $1,4 billion for the Colombo port-city project, which is expected to hugely help transform the Sri Lankan economy. Actually, now that the Rajapaksa will have untrammeled power to decide as they choose, they could be rationally look to China’s vast financial capabilities for the fruition of their aspiration to turn Colombo into a global financial hub.

On the other hand, the India -Japan collaborative East Container Terminal project, signed during the previous Sirisena government seems about to come a cropper, faced with massive problems and major strikes. The Rajapaksas have been left unimpressed with regards to its tardy progress. Nonetheless, Narendra Modi of India won the race to be the first of the two competing rivals to reach the Rajapaksas in offering congratulations on the electoral victory. But it is unsure what role such an optical triumph will play in determining the ultimate policies of the victorious Rajapakesa brothers which are likely to be shaped by deeper reflections on the perceived national self-interest of their country.

This story was originally published by Dhaka Courier.

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