With the Rajapaksas getting a resounding win in the general election in Sri Lanka, they will be able to get rid of the 19th amendment which curbs presidential powers. But getting back to the unitary state could pose problems
By Col R Hariharan
The Rajapaksa clan is back at the helm in Sri Lanka after the people gave them a huge thumbs-up in the just-concluded general election. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the president, his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the prime minister.
While this was not unexpected, their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party led by Mahinda won 145 seats, 15 more than what they had forecast. This was 59.09 percent of the votes cast. With three minor allies adding six to the tally, the SLPP alliance will be 151-strong, which is two-thirds of the 225-member house. A distant runner-up was Samagi Jana Baalawegaya (SJB), led by Sajith Premadasa, former deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP) and son of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa. It secured 54 seats, polling 23.9 percent of the votes. Then came the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) winning 10 seats, but polling only 2.82 percent votes. It was followed by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power alliance and other parties which could count their seats in single digits only.
As the headline of an article by former diplomat Dr Dayan Jayatilleke said, it was a “Battle of Breakaways”. Both the SLPP and the SJB had broken away from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP, which had dominated national politics from the early years of independence. The SLPP came into being after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential poll in 2015 after his long-term acolyte Maithripala Sirisena deserted him to become a challenger, and ultimately the victor.
The UNP, the 74-year-old party, appears to be heading for the old-age home after Sajith Premadasa broke away. It fared badly, losing its traditional support base in Colombo, and managed to secure just one seat, that too on the National List, as against a whopping 106 seats it had in the last parliament. Its vote share fell to an all-time low of 5.1 percent from over 45 percent it secured just five years back. The UNP’s exit is due to its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe losing touch with traditional supporters. This was aggravated by his inability to understand the groundswell of discontent brewing in his party rank and file.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa bouncing back to power is no mean achievement considering that in 2010, his bid for a third term as president failed. While the SLPP campaigned hard, the backlash from voters who had brought the SLFP and UNP coalition to power helped Rajapaksa’s runaway victory. The voters punished both parties for their failure to fulfil their promise of good governance. Their National Unity Alliance spent more time with President Sirisena plotting to pull down Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and vice versa than deliver on their promises.
There were other factors too which led to their defeat. Wickremesinghe’s alleged links to two bond scams in which the central bank incurred losses were not investigated fully. The horrendous Easter Sunday bombing by suicide bombers in 2019, resulting in the death of 259 people, in spite of the government receiving advance information, exposed the abysmal state of governance and the people opted to bring the Rajapaksas back to power.
With two-thirds majority in parliament, the Rajapaksas would be able to get rid of the inconvenient 19th amendment to the constitution, legislated by the previous government to curb presidential powers. President Rajapaksa is also likely to tinker with or even remove the 13th amendment that provided for the creation of provincial councils to give a level of autonomy to the Tamils. It came as a result of the India-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987 and has met some of the minority aspirations, through partial implementation. It continues to be a red rag to the Sinhala nationalist lobby.
President Rajapaksa would like to draw up a new constitution that fits in with his concept of building a strong unified state. But it may not be an easy exercise as it rouses ethnic passions and chauvinism. It would be more prudent to build a consensus to draw up a draft constitution, acceptable to all sections. Can the president meet this tough challenge?
The president has appointed 25 cabinet ministers, 39 state ministers and 25 district coordinating committee chairpersons (who are supposed to wield a lot of influence in affairs of their district). Thus, 64 members out of the 150-strong ruling alliance (if we exclude the Speaker), will be holding office as ministers. According to a media report, though 40 state ministerial posts have been gazetted, only 39 state ministers were sworn in. Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, designated as one of the four state ministers of education, had refused to accept the appointment as he wanted a cabinet minister’s post. There is some discontent among other senior members also for ignoring them for a cabinet post.
Five members of the Rajapaksa family are now occupying positions of power—president, prime minister, cabinet ministers and minister of state. They control defence, finance, internal security, home and not the least, Buddha Sasana and religious affairs. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has defence under him, while his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, controls finance and the eldest brother Chamal is irrigation minister. Two Rajapaksas belong to the third generation—Namal, son of PM Rajapaksa and his cousin, Shasheendra. Second time parliamentarian Namal’s inclusion as a cabinet minister for sports and youth affairs could be viewed as grooming an heir apparent to Mahinda. Shasheendra, son of Chamal, the eldest of the Rajapaksa brothers, has an “innovative” portfolio—state minister for a “grocery list”—paddy and cereals, organic food, vegetables, fruits, chilli, onion and potato and seed production and high-tech agriculture! Other state ministers also have such responsibilities in detail, showing a thoroughness (or is it an over-working bureaucracy?) not known before. But it shows the president’s serious intent in laying emphasis on agriculture, education and development of small industry using a new generation of politicians as state ministers.
Fourteen members of the SLFP, including Sirisena, have been elected. The Rajapaksas seem to have marginalised the SLFP within the alliance by keeping Sirisena out of power. Only two cabinet posts and three state ministers’ posts have been offered to the SLFP. In contrast, four of the eight members elected from President Rajapaksa’s “Viyathamaga” group of professionals have been made state ministers. This group acted as foot soldiers of Rajapaksa during his presidential election campaign and are viewed by politicians with some trepidation.
Marginalising the old war horses of the SLFP and SLPP while accumulating power within their clan could lead to discontentment against the Rajapaksas. How adroitly the president manages the competing priorities of family and party could become a litmus test for his leadership ability.
On the other hand, President Rajapaksa has to be commended for appointing a national list member Dr Ali Sabry as minister of justice in spite of opposition from the Sinhala Buddhist lobby. This should be of some consolation to the Muslim minority community as their representation in the new parliament has been whittled down.
The biggest and immediate challenge the president faces is managing the economy wrecked by Covid-19, especially tourism and allied services which have come to a grinding halt, and the return of over 40,000 Sri Lankans working abroad. Though Sri Lanka has managed to control Covid, its impact on export and import has been disastrous. The country is facing a serious money crunch and has to depend upon assistance from both India and China.
President Rajapaksa’s vision statement, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, has been adopted by the SLPP as its manifesto. Its vision for a prosperous nation aims at a productive citizen, a happy family, a disciplined society and a prosperous nation. Its key policies include priority to national security; friendly, non-aligned, foreign policy; administration free from corruption; a disciplined, law-abiding and value based society. Can the president manage to at least partly deliver on these promises? Sirisena failed because he could not extricate himself from his political priorities.
Coming to the swearing-in of the PM and his ministers, there was a lot of Sinhala Buddhist symbolism in choosing the venues. This was similar to the time when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was sworn in at Kandy, a historic site of consolidation of the Sinhalas. He was sworn in at the site of the victory pillar of Duttegemunu, the Sinhala king who defeated the last Tamil king Ellalan in Kandy. On August 9, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as PM at the Kelaniya Maha Viharaya Buddhist temple, near the capital. According to Buddhist lore, Buddha is supposed to have visited the temple. Equally significant was the venue chosen for swearing in cabinet ministers and state ministers—at Magul Maduva, the hall in the Dalada Malegawa, the Temple of the Tooth, the most sacred Buddhist site in the country.
The symbolic gestures were only a reiteration of what President Rajapaksa said in his maiden speech in parliament on January 3, 2020: “We must always respect the aspirations of the majority of the people. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people will be safeguarded. In accordance with our Constitution, I pledge that during my term of office, I will always defend the unitary status of our country, and protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana, whilst safeguarding the rights of all citizens to practice a religion of their choice.”
President Rajapaksa has to probably tone down the Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric, lest their fringe elements take it as licence to go berserk against Muslims, just as they did during his brother’s rule. This could draw adverse international attention, the last thing the president would want as he manages the country through difficult times.
—The writer is a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Studies Institute
Lead picture: UNI