Return of the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka
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 Lanka's population.
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).