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Rajapaksa’s stranglehold choking Sri Lankan democracy

by Salman Rafi Sheikh

Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family has ushered in a new era of authoritarian politics, a concentration of power that is strongly backed by former and serving military top brass and the influential Buddhist religious community.

Rajapaksa family members dominate Sri Lanka’s political scene. Gotabya Rajapaksa is president, his brother Mahinda is a former president and is now prime minister, while another brother, Chamal, is irrigation minister and state minister of internal security.

Centralization of control has allowed the Rajapaksas to modify the constitution to their advantage as long-established opposition parties face internal divisions after rejection at presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 and 2020.

The passage last year of the 20th amendment to the constitution was a watershed in the slide to authoritarianism by re-establishing the all-powerful executive presidency, a position of power that has allowed the Rajapaksas to browbeat religious and ethnic minorities and the political opposition into submission.

A recent report by the United Nations Human Rights Council said developments over the past year “have fundamentally changed the environment for advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, eroded democratic checks and balances and civic space, and reprised a dangerous exclusionary and majoritarian discourse.”

The report further highlights how a combination of “militarization of civilian government functions”, “reversal of constitutional safeguards”, “political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations”, “majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric”, and increasing “surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space” has dramatically constricted Sri Lanka’s political landscape.

This has left little to no room for political mobilization and generation of a counter-political narrative of the kind the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) was able to produce in 2014-15 during the previous rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The NMSJ, an independent collective of civil society and political parties founded by reformist Buddhist monk Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, was at the center of the mobilization of public opinion, civil society and political parties that defeated the executive presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015.

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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (C) sings the national anthem during National War Heroes Day in Colombo on May 19, 2020. Photo: Sri Lankan Presidential Media Division/AFP Forum

The momentum generated by the NMSJ led to the passage of the constitution’s 19th amendment, which significantly curtailed presidential powers.

The NMSJ has become largely inactive since, however. Ever since the death of its founding leader, political parties have been unable to generate momentum for more democratizing constitutional and institutional reforms.

Beset by internal divisions and power struggles, opposition political parties were unable to block Gotabaya’s 20th amendment, which recently re-established the all-powerful executive presidency.

That’s taken Sri Lanka back to the 1980s, an era when J R Jayewardene of the United National Party made himself the all-powerful executive president and through chronic abuses oversaw the emergence of Tamil militant insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and decades of civil war.

Sri Lanka’s main political parties lack the parliamentary clout to block the Rajapaksas’ political onslaught. The once-invincible United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s oldest political establishment, was routed in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

The UNP was unable to secure a single seat, with party stalwarts including leader Ranil Wickremesinghe losing their seats in spectacular fashion. Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), another long-time party, could also win only one seat.

This election was also a political reality check for the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has a history of at least two armed insurgencies and traditionally a considerable electoral following. Yet it saw its parliamentary strength reduced to three seats, one of them from the national list.

The JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP), a coalition with smaller parties, managed to win only two seats electorally, barely passing the dreaded 3% threshold.

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The reason the UNP and SLFP suffered so badly at the polls relates to their poor performance in the last coalition government. Both were a part of the misnamed National Unity Government between 2015 and 2019.

Both parties were at the heart of the 2018 constitutional crisis that allowed then-president Maithripala Sirisena, who was leading the SLFP, to dismiss prime minister Wickremesinghe, who was atop the UNP.

While Wickremesinghe was eventually restored to power, the crisis left an indelible imprint on Sri Lanka’s political and economic landscape, allowing hardliners to propagate a different sort of power-structure, one that would make parties and parliament largely irrelevant.

By 2019, the political landscape was thus ripe for a shift towards an executive presidency. The Rajapaksas were not only able to sense the shifting public mood, but they actively nurtured it to their advantage to win a near two-thirds majority in parliament.

However, even though their ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party was unable to win the required two-thirds majority to freely amend the constitution, the Rajapaksas were able to buy crucial votes from within the opposition parties to pass the crucial 20th amendment.

Whereas all opposition parties including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress were opposed to the amendment, several of their MPs still voted in favor.

As it stands, not only are the parties currently present in the parliament internally divided, they have also largely failed to establish a united stand against the 20th amendment’s implementation.

Sajith Premadasa, who heads the SJB, the largest opposition party with 54 seats, has been unable to unite the opposition against the amendment.

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Sajith Premadasa leaves after casting his vote during the country’s presidential election in Weerawila on November 16, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Ishara S Kodikara

Instead, as one member of the SJB who spoke to Asia Times said, a majority of these parties including the SJB have largely accepted the anti-democratic changes made through the 20th amendment.

Premadasa, who is already preparing for the next presidential elections, largely agrees with Gotabaya that Sri Lanka needs to be transformed into a “disciplined society”, a task made easier through strong executive powers in the hands of the president.

Premadasa thus has nothing different to offer to the masses. While he criticizes the Rajapaksas, he largely emulates their politics in terms of both their support for an executive presidency and their relationship with the Buddhist religious community.

According to a member of SLMC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “Sajith is very much another Rajapaksa in terms of how he invokes… Buddhist nationalist ideology” to win electoral support.

He has “learned some crucial political tactics from the Rajapaksas” and “visits temples and chapters of the Buddhist clergy to win the confidence of the majority Sinhala Buddhists. The Rajapaksas have recorded success in doing this and Sajith is playing the same cards now.”

Small and marginal Tamil and Muslim political parties, on the other hand, have recently tried to mobilize against the rising authoritarianism.

A recently organized “Long March”, which started from Pottuvil in the east to Point Pedro in the north, showed how Muslims and Tamils are increasingly drawing closer in their opposition to the Rajapaksas.

The SJB and Sajith, however, were conspicuous absent from the Long March, showing how ethnic and religious minorities are on the outside of a rising power struggle between Sajith and the Rajapaksas.

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For Sajith, participation in the Long March would be a risky venture. For him, antagonizing the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist majority in the south entails a significant political risk, one that could cost him the next election.

“Any display of empathy for the minorities would have allowed the Rajapaksas to project him as an anti-Buddhist figure,” said the SLMC member.

Yet Sajith’s politics are now increasingly weakening the political opposition, preventing it from creating concentrated pressure on the Rajapaksas and their rising authoritarianism.

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