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EFSAS Commentary

Parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka: The electorate’s choice of greater authoritarianism could prove to be problematic


The world over, from the democratic United States (US) to single party Communist China and several other countries that lie along the route that one could take to traverse between these two bickering giants, the trend of strong leaders that have expediently galvanized nationalism and thrived upon and because of it is steadily on the rise. While it is yet too early to speculate on the longer term implications that such a drift could potentially have on the increasing number of countries that have been adopting such a model, if history is any indication then the results have oftentimes been grim. For the moment though, most of these venturesome leaders have succeeded in capturing the imagination and the admiration of a majority of their subjects, and are resultantly visibly buoyant and optimistic about what lies ahead.

The most recent example of the fashionableness of this trend was witnessed in the parliamentary elections that were held in Sri Lanka on 5 April. A surge in majority Sinhala nationalism in the run-up to the elections was a cause for consternation among liberals and rights activists on one hand and Sri Lanka's minority communities on the other. Grisly terrorist attacks carried out by Islamist militants during Easter last year had killed over 260 people. This bloodbath reignited Sinhala nationalism and led to the vilification of the country’s Muslim population. The relative liberalism of the previous dispensation led by President Maithripala Sirisena and its efforts to introduce more checks and balances into Sri Lanka’s political system with the aim of thwarting the authoritarian tendencies that had earlier been witnessed were no longer in favour with the Sinhalese.

After a surprising five year hiatus, the return of the Rajapaksa family at the helm through the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the country’s President at the November 2019 presidential elections heralded the turn of the tide of popular opinion in Sri Lanka. Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa had earlier served as President from 2005 to 2015. Gotabaya was Mahinda’s defense secretary, and the two brothers were credited and acclaimed by the Buddhist Sinhala majority for defeating the long-festering separatist insurgency by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Despite the accusations of human rights violations and targeting of opponents that were leveled against them from sections within Sri Lankan society as well as the international community, the Rajapaksa brothers were perceived by Sri Lanka's Sinhalese as strong and able leaders who had the ability to deliver in ensuring national security and in protecting the interests of the Sinhalese. Sri Lanka’s successful containment of the COVID-19 outbreak with the island nation thus far registering a total of only 2,839 cases and suffering just 11 deaths, and the overall sense of stability that the Gotabaya regime has fostered since he came to power nine months ago, have added to this image.

The results of the parliamentary elections, therefore, did not spring any surprises. Gotabaya Rajapaksa led his Sri Lanka People's Front (SLPP) and its allies to a two-thirds majority, securing 150 seats in the 225-member house. Not only will this allow Gotabaya to name Mahinda as Prime Minister, it would also permit the brothers to fundamentally alter the contours and principles of constitutional democracy in Sri Lanka. The rout of the two established Sri Lankan political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was such that both were embarrassingly reduced to single digits. UNP leader and four-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost his own Colombo seat and his party came away with just one seat, a massive drop from the 106 seats it had held in the outgoing parliament. The newly-formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) headed by Sajith Premadasa, son of the former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, won 54 seats and became the main opposition party. Sajith had broken away from the UNP prior to the elections, taking a large chunk of the party’s leaders along with him. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a moderate Tamil party which had 16 seats in the former parliament, also suffered reverses and was reduced to 10 seats.

The SLPP had vocally campaigned for a two-thirds majority as that was the figure that would enable it to amend the country’s constitution. That it achieved this target in spite of the challenge posed by a proportional representation system that was meant to prevent sheer domination by a single party demonstrated the soaring wave that the Rajapaksa brothers were riding on. This was the first time since the proportional representation system was introduced in Sri Lanka that a party or a political coalition had won a two-thirds majority. Even Mahinda Rajapaksa, triumphant and immensely popular after crushing the LTTE, could not muster the requisite 150 seats in the elections that followed the victory. SLPP leader Udaya Gammanpila put the win in perspective when he said, “We expected a win, a spectacular win, but not this big a victory”.

The chaotic tenure of the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe regime from 2015 to 2019 is seen by observers as having contributed substantially to the present results. Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe bickered continuously, and their relationship soon turned acrimonious. Inefficiency consequently set in deep in the administration, and governance was largely adrift with corruption scandals denting the credibility of both leaders. The final straw came with the disclosure of massive intelligence and security failures in the lead-up to the devastating Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo in April 2019. Public distrust and dissatisfaction spiraled. As former Sri Lankan professor of political science Jayadeva Uyangoda wrote on 9 August, the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe combine had been voted into power on the promise of democratic revival, promoting peace and reconciliation, and establishing corruption-free governance. The abject failure of this combine had now given rise to a “radically new political alternative for Sri Lanka with a strong leader, a strong government, a strong administration with military participation, with just one strong centre of power with no checks and balances. The stress has been on the word strong”.

One of the biggest achievements of the Sirisena – Wickremesinghe regime, the 19th Amendment, or 19A, to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which sought to introduce more checks and balances to prevent any authoritarianism by ending the executive presidential system and reversing much of the executive powers to the Prime Minister, and also setting a term limit for the President, is likely to be the first victim of the new dispensation. The repeal or modification of 19A was a key campaign promise of the SLPP. The party had argued that its platform of a “strong government” would not be compatible with the provisions of 19A that put major restrictions on presidential powers and expanded the role of the Prime Minister.

President Gotabaya had dissolved parliament in early March in anticipation of the elections. They, however, had to be postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and Gotabaya enjoyed a considerable period of time without legislative oversight. During this period he created several task forces composed almost entirely of Sinhalese military and police officials. Among these, one task force was responsible for creating a “virtuous society” and eradicating “anti-social behavior”, while another was tasked to “preserve the historical heritage of Sri Lanka”. The former task force provides a wide, undefined bandwidth to its members, which activists believe will be a powerful tool to silence dissent. Media reports suggest that the latter is being used to seize Hindu and Muslim land in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province under the pretext of Buddhist archaeological preservation.

The apprehension has been expressed that on the back of the brute majority that the Rajapaksa brothers have achieved they would seek to centralize authority, erode institutional checks, and limit democratic liberties. Moreover, given their muscularly pro-Sinhalese outlook, the prospects of reconciliation with the country’s minorities are slim. As UPF leader Shiral Lakthilaka put it, “The platform they (the SLPP) want to create is a pan-Sinhala State, overlooking the fact that Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural and multi-racial State”. The minority Muslim community that has faced denigration since the Easter Sunday attacks has been disconcerted by the Sinhala majoritarian nationalism that was evident in the run-up to the elections. Hilmy Ahamed, the Vice-President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said after the results were announced, “Now that they have got a very comfortable majority in parliament, they don't have to pamper to any racist agenda”. The Hindu Tamil minority group has, meanwhile, been rattled by Gotabaya’s decision to pardon Sunil Ratnayake, a former Sri Lankan soldier sentenced to death in 2015 for killing eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old child, in the northern Jaffna peninsula in 2000 during the civil war with the LTTE. Ratnayake was released in March, much to the chagrin of human rights activists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement on 9 August accused Gotabaya of spearheading a “campaign of fear and intimidation against human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others challenging government policy” ever since he was elected in November. Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer, concurs. She believes that “we see increasing attacks on civil society, media, lawyers and the space for dissent is shrinking. The question is whether it will shrink further, post-election, and the signs so far has been that it is likely to head in that way”.

On the implications of the SLPP’s sweeping victory and the consolidation of Rajapaksa rule in Sri Lanka, Sudha Ramachandran opined in The Diplomat magazine that “the country’s democracy is in peril. The Rajapaksas are known for their nepotism, authoritarian style of governance, and intolerance of dissent”. She added that managing Sri Lanka’s external relations and balancing the country’s engagement with key foreign partners, especially India, China, and the US, could prove more challenging for the Rajapaksa brothers than domestic politics. She felt that while the Rajapaksas could be expected to deepen cooperation with China, they will be careful this time around to simultaneously intensify relations with India as well. They will avoid drawing India’s ire as they did in 2014, and will be more mindful of Indian security concerns than they were in the past.

Supporters of the Rajapaksas contend that the brothers will use their huge mandate to rebuild the economy, curb corruption and strengthen national security. Some, like Dr. Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the United Nations, emphasize that “The resounding electoral victory on August 5 of the SLPP, and particularly of the Rajapaksa brothers, clearly reflects the emphatic re-emergence of Lankan nationalism. To be precise, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Disregarded for five years by the previous government, the Sinhala people felt betrayed as the country lurched aimlessly, mainly in a hardly disguised effort to please Western countries and pro-Western liberal NGOs”.

Others, such as British Conservative peer Lord Naseby, who is the President and founder of the All-Party British Sri Lanka Parliamentary Group in the United Kingdom, have highlighted that it was the democratic process that had catapulted the Rajapaksas back to power. He wrote, “This is true democracy at work…. This is a new dawn for Sri Lanka, a fresh era creating the opportunity for the country to come together”. Veteran Sri Lankan journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake felt the same way. He wrote, “The Rajapaksas can take pride in their achieving such a decisive victory in a wholly free and fair election. Let’s make no mistake, this is what the people wanted, the reality of electoral democracy. This is what a huge majority of the people of Sri Lanka showed they wanted in three elections – the last Local Government poll (2018), the Presidential Election last November, and this General Election”.

The danger of greater authoritarianism in Sri Lanka that the liberally inclined and human rights advocates apprehend may be real, but the counter argument that the majority of Sri Lankans have chosen precisely such a dispensation to govern them holds equally true. As Sagara Kariyawasam, the general secretary of the SLPP, put it, “We were very certain about this victory. We can see that people have placed lots of confidence on us because they have accepted the future plan we have placed before them - that's our manifesto”. If democracy is to be accepted as the preferred system, the results that elections throw up surely should also be unquestioningly respected.

The lessons of history, as underlined in the first paragraph, tell us why such logical reasoning does not always hold true, especially in the longer term. Regimes that have sought to exploit and thrive on authoritarianism and majoritarianism have more often than not had to pay a heavy price for their excesses.  

In Sri Lanka’s case, the Rajapaksas appear to be intent on stimulating several of the conditions that had led to the start of the civil war in 1983, a conflict that had plagued the country for twenty six long and bloody years.