By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
When the people of Sri Lanka go to the polls on August 5, most of them are expected to return the Rajapaksa family to power despite their reputation as butchers who crushed the Tamil insurgency and are believed responsible for the disappearance of dissidents and journalist in their own community.
Indeed, their remaining in power is widely expected even among the rival parties, most of whom I met and talked with during a month-long stay earlier this year. Party splits and factionalism, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, have created the likelihood of a continuation of strong-man rule to settle Sri Lanka’s seemingly deep political and economic problems.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa (above), the current president, is a naturalized citizen of the United States although he can’t go there without facing charges of being a war criminal. One of those whose 2009 disappearance he is believed to have engineered was Lasantha Wicrematunge, the editor in chief of the Sunday Leader newspaper, who was murdered by an assailant on his way to his office. Wicrematunge left behind an extraordinary, eloquent editorial predicting his death that was reprinted here by Asia Sentinel and by other publications.
Gotabaya beat his rival from the United National Party (UNP) to take office last year. Despite his baggage as the minister of defense during the reign of his elder brother Mahinda, who has been accused of widespread corruption, Gotabaya is looked upon as the man with the right mindset to take Sri Lanka out of the current economic crisis. Mahinda now heads the newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) and is likely to head an overwhelming majority in the parliament post the election.
The SLPP resulted from a split within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its poor economic and political performance from 2016 to 2019. The UNP-SLPP government, which many called an “unnatural” alliance, not only failed to produce a constitutional amendment to decentralize political power and reduce ethnic tensions but ended up creating a constitutional crisis despite a number of constitutional commissions and a ‘panel of experts’ that worked for months and did produce important drafts.
Yet, the “unnatural” alliance, in its early days, succeeded in producing the all-important 19th amendment that significantly reduced the president’s powers. However, with Gotabaya’s return to power as president and the expectation of an SLPP majority, Sri Lanka is already inching towards a reversal of the amendment. Indeed, Gotabaya made his intentions clear soon after he won the election and visited New Delhi. The political balance of power will again shift to the president at the expense of the parliament, reinforcing the ‘return of a strong man’ to fix Sri Lanka’s perennial problems.
Ever since the end of the last government and defeat in the presidential elections, the United National Party has also split into two. With the UNP still led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, its breakaway faction, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), is led by Sajith Premadasa, who was defeated by Gotabaya is the last presidential elections.
With UNP internally divided and SLPP expecting a majority with or without an alliance with regional/ethnic and religious parties, reversal of the 19th amendment is, for many political observers, already on the horizon. With this reversal, the question of constitutional de-centralization will again be deeply buried.
As it stands, despite the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers after a devastating 27-year civil war, Tamil political parties, united under the umbrella of the Tamil National Alliance, remain strongly predisposed to making Sri Lanka a decentralized polity. Some Tamil factions such as those representing the previously called People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Elam, remain in favor of changing Sri Lanka’s unitary character and creating a multi-ethnic federation.
While the reversal of the 19th amendment is unlikely to trigger another Tamil insurgency, the likelihood is that power concentration will intensify ethnic and religious polarization. The Rajapaksas not only oppose power-sharing but also represent the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist vote that has always vociferously opposed devolution and power-sharing with ethnic and religious minorities.
With concentration of power within the office of the president and with parliament under the control of SLPP, Sri Lanka will once again be under the complete domination of exclusive Sinhala nationalist forces—a scenario that is already triggering fear among the minority groups, including Muslims and Christians. Sinhalese Buddhists make up 70 percent of the population, Hindus, mostly ethnic Tamils, make up 12.6 percent, Muslims 9.7 percent and Christians 1.3 percent.
It is in accordance with this trend that Gotabaya has been cultivating the Buddhist clergy, resulting in most of the Buddhist monks endorsing his decision in April to refuse to reconvene the parliament to deal with the pandemic, even though the constitution gives him such powers.
With Gotabaya, an ex-military, being the president, Sri Lanka’s already ongoing drift towards increased militarization of politics is expected to gain significant pace. Members of the SLPP tend to call it “professionalizing” of politics under “disciplined men.”
Tamil Tigers’ 2009 defeat has already entrenched the Lankan military in the north, where even day-to-day administration has direct military involvement and oversight. Direct involvement in politics in the south is also increasing. This is evident not only from the way many ex-military have organized themselves into parties, such as Viyath Maga, and Gotabaya’s grant of election tickets to many ex-military in a number of constituencies, but also from an enhanced role the military has played in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and governing Sri Lanka in past few months.
Significantly enough, the military took part in governance in the absence of the parliament, indicating Gotabaya’s strong preference for the “disciplined” and “professional” men, backed by the equally “disciplined” clergy, to run the country, reflecting the sea change taking in place in Sri Lanka.
Under the Strong Man
To a great extent, the drift towards power concentration and political and ethnic exclusiveness is due largely to the previous government’s extremely poor performance, making it easy for Gotabaya’s SLPP to sell its ‘strong man rule’ slogan.
Sri Lanka is already under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund, which in 2019 said the country had missed its targets “by a sizable margin… due to weak revenue performance and expenditure overruns.” The country’s 2020 budget deficit could rise to 9.3 percent of gross domestic product, the highest since 2015. The coronavirus fallout has increased the risks to the economy, giving Gotabaya and his supporters yet another reason to concentrate power into the office of the president. Sri Lanka’s existing political and economic realities have directly reinforced the trend.
Rival political parties, facing internal splits, will really have a hard time do effective opposition to arrest the dangerous trend.
“While we do oppose these trends, we [the opposition] are too fragmented to make any impact,” argued a member of the UNP, who was then hopeful that the party wouldn’t split.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistan-based academic and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel
Starting August 2020, Asia Sentinel will publish most stories behind a paywall. Supporting us with subscriptions will help us continue holding governments to account, investigating, and providing the most thoughtful coverage of Asia. See what you’ll get when you subscribe.