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EFSAS Commentary

Sri Lankan Presidential Elections: Issues that confront President Gotabaya Rajapaksa


The results of the 16 November presidential elections in Sri Lanka were by and large on anticipated lines, given that the constantly bickering outgoing combine of President Maithripala Sirisena and his premier Ranil Wickremesinghe had over their five-year reign overseen an administration that was widely perceived as dysfunctional and incompetent, an economy that had been stuttering, a deteriorating security situation that they gave the impression of having little grip on, ethnic and religious strife and suspicion, and allegations of corruption and cronyism. The newly elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a key member of the influential Rajapaksa family of the country, exploited these glaring shortcomings of the outgoing dispensation to the fullest and presented the electorate with the alternate narrative of a muscular government led by a strong leader who possessed the ability to protect the citizens from the ugly new face of terrorism, different from that of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that Gotabaya had played a key role in vanquishing as the Defense Secretary in the government of his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015. 

It was telling that incumbent President Sirisena had opted not to seek re-election. He sensed the public dissatisfaction over lack of any significant progress on the promises of good governance, ethnic reconciliation and economic progress that had earned him an unexpected victory at the 2015 elections. The final straw was the public disclosure of the security failures and ineptitude that preceded the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-inspired terrorist attacks of April (see EFSAS Commentary of 26-04-2019), and the subsequent blame game between Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Following Gotabaya’s victory, Wickremesinghe resigned from the post of Prime Minister on 20 November, clearing the way for the Rajapaksas to form a minority government ahead of possible snap elections early next year. Soon thereafter, Gotabaya announced that his elder brother Mahinda, a two-term President who was ineligible to contest a third term due to constitutional restrictions, would be the new Prime Minister.

Gotabaya’s primary opponent at the presidential elections was Sajith Premadasa, the candidate of the New Democratic Front (NDF), a broad coalition formed just a few weeks before the election of which Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) was the key constituent. Premadasa was put at a disadvantage right at the outset when his candidature was agreed upon only in late September, just a few weeks before the elections, due to differences between factions led by him and Wickremasinghe in the party. Premadasa’s strategy of projecting himself as a candidate of the poor and marginalized through the ideology of paternalistic populism did win him the overwhelming support of the minority Tamils and the Muslims, who constitute about 11% and 10% of the electorate respectively and while this did enable Premadasa to give a good account of himself at the hustings, it was nowhere near enough to overcome the doubts that the Sinhalese majority harboured over his weak Sinhalese nationalist credentials. As per figures released by the Sri Lankan election commission, Rajapaksa secured 52.25% of the total votes, while Premadasa received 41.99%. 

Sri Lanka, in recent years, is a nation plagued by a deep ethnic and religious distrust and division. Hindu Tamils and Muslim citizens harbor serious insecurities due to the distinctly Sinhalese Buddhist-nationalist orientation that the country’s political elite, led by the Rajapaksa family, represents and promotes. Gotabaya is seen as a ruthlessly efficient administrator and the key player who oversaw the decimation of the LTTE in 2009. He is, however, accused of directly ordering heavy handed methods and multiple human rights abuses in the process. Around 40,000 Tamil civilians were allegedly killed by the military in the closing stages of the conflict. Gotabaya has publicly pledged to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s commitment to a UN human rights agenda for postwar reconciliation and accountability. Omar Waraich, South Asia campaigns director of Amnesty International, said, “If the Rajapaksas do get into power it will definitely mean a total reversal on Sri Lanka’s international commitments to human rights and accountability for the crimes committed in the civil war”

Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks this April led to a steep rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The wave of Islamophobia that was set in motion through the social media spread rapidly among the Sinhalese-Buddhists. The dampening impact that the terror attacks had on the economy by causing a sharp drop in tourist arrivals resulted in an outpouring of hostility towards the small, prosperous and predominantly peaceful Muslim minority. Sinhalese nationalists, spurred by Buddhist monks, called for boycott of Muslim-owned businesses, and hundreds of Muslim homes and businesses were destroyed in two days of mob violence in May. It is alleged that the Rajapaksas have been sympathetic to militant Buddhist organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena that thrived under Mahinda’s watch in 2013, and have continued to threaten and assault Muslims, particularly after the April terror attacks. 

The Rajapaksas are viewed as being at the forefront of those Sinhala politicians who have played up a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the country. They view Sri Lanka as home only to followers of Sinhala Theravada Buddhism, and demand that the minorities accept Sinhala hegemony if they wish to be tolerated. During the decade Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power the police and the judiciary did not function independently. Alan Keenan, the Sri Lanka project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), said about the Rajapaksas, “Sri Lanka has had many abusive governments in the past but the Rajapaksas have showed that they are willing to bend the rules to such an extent, and concentrate power to such an extent, that they really are a threat to the sustainability of democratic institutions”. Even among the Rajapaksa brothers, Keenan singled out Gotabaya as the hardliner. He said, “Gotabaya is known as the most hawkish, the most nationalist, the most ruthless, the closest to the military and the volatile in terms of his temperament, of all the Rajapaksa brothers”

The geographical voting pattern at the presidential elections has clearly illustrated and confirmed the ethnic polarization that has taken deep roots in Sri Lanka. Inter-ethnic reconciliation continues to be centrally relevant to any recovery and reform agenda for post-civil war Sri Lanka. It is a factor that Gotabaya and his brothers would need to address with sensitivity, and on priority, if they intend to fulfill their poll promises of extracting the country from its present state of deep economic crisis and stagnation and ushering in an era of security and political stability. Re-building trust between the majority and minority communities can best be achieved through democratic means, by inclusiveness, dialogue and accommodation. Gotabaya would need to rise above his reputation to adopt such an approach. As political analyst Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu put it, “Is it going to be a return to the past, or is it going to be a fresh mandate as far as the Rajapaksas are concerned still remains to be seen”. Starting off his new journey, though, Gotabaya did invoke unity in his post-victory tweet, “As we usher in a new journey for Sri Lanka, we must remember that all Sri Lankans are part of this journey. Let us rejoice peacefully, with dignity and discipline in the same manner in which we campaigned”. Speaking at the election commission office soon after the results were officially released, Gotabaya added, “I understand I am not only the President for the people who voted for me, but also for the people who voted against me. Therefore I will serve you as a Sri Lankan disregarding race and religion”. 

Gotabaya would also need to confront the reality of a fragile economy that is weighed down by a growing debt burden. Sri Lanka is under an International Monetary Fund (IMF) Structural Reform Programme (SRP), and has a total public debt of about $72 billion, which is equivalent to nearly 82 per cent of its gross domestic product. Media reports suggest that of the total public debt, about half is owed to foreign creditors, with nearly half the foreign debt owed to commercial institutions, rather than concessional lenders. To ensure that it can service these debts, Sri Lanka needs to raise at least $3 billion a year from the international capital markets for the next three or four years. 

The roots of the present economic difficulty that Sri Lanka finds itself in can be traced to Mahinda’s term as President. The scrutiny and criticism that Mahinda and Gotabaya were subjected to by Western countries over their alleged human rights offences during the final stages of the civil war against the LTTE peeved the brothers, who steered Sri Lanka politically and financially toward China, incurring tremendous debt to Beijing in the process. This played right into Beijing’s strategic ambitions. In pursuit of its ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy wherein it seeks to fund foreign infrastructure projects only to take control of them when the loans are not repaid, China provided a gush of credit for postwar reconstruction while asking fewer awkward questions of the Sri Lankan leadership. Mahinda’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for the swift expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka, and rapid growth in Sri Lankan debt to China. It was the debt incurred during Mahinda’s presidency that forced Sirisena in 2017 to sign away to China the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota, on a 99-year lease. This Hong Kong-style concession was modeled on the United Kingdom’s 19th-century colonial imposition on China. Chinese President Xi Jinping described the Hambantota port as central to his Maritime Silk Road project. 

The exponential Chinese expansion in Sri Lanka led to serious consternation in the West, especially the United States (US), and in Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, India. Sri Lanka is strategically located in close proximity to the world’s busiest sea-lanes, and can play a vital role in the fight for maritime primacy between China and the democratic powers of the Indo-Pacific. It was not surprising, then, that US Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 voiced his concerns over the Chinese navy being permitted to dock at Sri Lankan ports. Gotabaya’s pre-poll pledge to “restore relations” with China, which had been diluted during Sirisena’s term, would have been noted by countries such as the US and India. 

India’s concerns over the increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka extend beyond control of maritime trade routes. New Delhi apprehends that deeper indebtedness to China could force Sri Lanka to surrender ports and other infrastructure for use by the Chinese military. This would render India’s southern coastline highly vulnerable. 

The last phase of Mahinda’s presidency had witnessed tensions between Sri Lanka and India boiling over on account of the generous leeway that Mahinda seemed keen to give China while disregarding Indian concerns. Mahinda accused India and some Western countries of conspiring to oust him from power. Mutual suspicions still exist five years down the line, but both countries now appear to be more appreciative and accommodative of each other’s core concerns. In an interview in September 2018, Mahinda had said that it was “time to move on” from the misunderstandings of the past. His son Namal Rajapaksa, who is presently a Member of Parliament, opined on 20 November that “The relationship between Sri Lanka and India and China was misinterpreted and miscommunicated to the leaders”, adding that “Prime Minister Modi has a more progressive approach and a very open minded approach towards foreign policy and he gives priority for the region. He has shown interest in establishing foreign relations with regional countries and across the border, which we believe”. Basil Rajapaksa, who supervised his brother Gotabaya’s presidential campaign, insisted that the family had learnt from past mistakes and would strive to maintain better ties with both the West and India. “There are a lot of things we can learn from the Mahinda Rajapaksa era and some things we must do in a different way. We have to handle international relationships much more carefully. That is a priority”

India too is doing its part. It has established a better rapport with the Rajapaksa family over the last couple of years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Gotabaya on his victory and said that he looked forward to deepening relations between the two nations. Gotabaya thanked the people of India and Modi, saying that he looked forward to strengthening the friendship and meeting Modi in the near future. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Sri Lanka yesterday as PM Modi’s special envoy and met Gotabaya, who accepted Modi’s invitation to visit India and is slated to do so on 29-30 November. Asked about China's perceived influence in Sri Lanka, the spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs replied that “Our relations with Sri Lanka, or for that matter with any neighbouring country, are independent of our relations with third countries”, and that India's multifaceted relationship with Sri Lanka “stands on its own footing and is rooted in our geographical proximity and historical connections”

Efficient lines of communication between the Sri Lankan and Indian leaderships and sensitivity to each other’s concerns is the need of the hour. Dr. Palitha Kohona, former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and former Foreign Secretary, opined that “While it is unlikely that India's overwhelming military capabilities in the Indian Ocean region will be challenged by anyone in the foreseeable future, it has legitimate security sensitivities which must be acknowledged… Sri Lanka must cultivate India's trust and it is to Sri Lanka’s advantage to not allow even a suggestion of suspicion smear the bilateral relationship. A stable mature relationship with India, nurtured at different levels, a relationship between two sovereign equals, will contribute to other flow-on benefits, including extensive economic benefits”

Gotabaya, during his term as President has, if he makes the right choices, the opportunity not only to put Sri Lanka firmly on the path to long-term internal stability and ethnic harmony, but also stall erosion of the country’s sovereignty through descent into manipulatively coerced Chinese hegemony.