To track the Rajapaksa family tree is to track the most important positions in the Sri Lankan government. With the recent appointment of Basil Rajapaksa , the youngest of the Rajapaksa brothers, as the country’s new Minister of Finance, Sri Lanka’s first family has further fastened its clasp on power.
The Cabinet has five Rajapaksas — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (who is also Defence Minister), Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Irrigation Minister Chamal Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa, and PM’s son and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa. The government has a few more, holding junior ministerial posts and key positions in state-run institutions. They remind sceptics of “family bandyism”, a term commonly used in Sri Lanka in the past, to refer to the Bandaranaike ruling clan. Together, the Rajapaksas in government control a substantial chunk of the budget and policy. For the near 22-million people of the country, this means being steered by one powerful family. One that derives political legitimacy from its core support base of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists, with a known suspicion of Tamil and Muslim minorities and an unmistakable aversion to their rights.
For the family, this means a seat at the country’s helm, even if it must navigate mounting challenges facing the incumbent administration — at a time when the country is still emerging out of its long civil war and into a fast-aggravating economic crisis — and preparing the ground for their respective bids to power in future.
At the centre of Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa brand of politics is Prime Minister and former two-time President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though his father D.A. Rajapaksa was a prominent politician in the island’s southern region, it was Mr. Mahinda who elevated the family’s profile to the national and international arena. As the “war victor” under whose leadership the LTTE was decimated, he became the camp’s reliable political mascot with wide appeal in the country’s Sinhala majority south.
Following a decade in office, he was defeated by his former colleague Maithripala Sirisena, who defected to form an unlikely coalition with the Opposition and became President in 2015. At that time, Mr. Mahinda may have taken a step back, just briefly, only to bounce back at the earliest opportunity. He saw one in October 2018, during Sri Lanka’s infamous “constitutional crisis”, when President Sirisena sacked then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mr. Mahinda to the post. However, with the Supreme Court ruling that the move was illegal, Mr. Mahinda was forced to resign, in less than eight weeks after his sudden appointment.
A year later, the Rajapaksas did capture power with a resounding victory in the presidential polls. Except, it was a new Rajapaksa at the forefront. A two-term cap on Presidency, introduced by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, barred Mr. Mahinda from contesting for the country’s highest office.
With a class of professionals and elite businessmen propping him up as a fresh face and “doer”, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 72, hit the campaign trail promising “vistas of prosperity and splendour” that found wide resonance among Sinhala Buddhist voters. Monks supporting him likened the former military man to Adolf Hitler, and his brother Mr. Basil called him a “Terminator” who would end corruption. The remarks, obviously, were meant as compliments.
But minorities feared him. Mr. Gotabaya is not only credited with helping defeat the LTTE but is also linked to several allegations of rights violations during and after the war. He is accused of having run “death squads” targeting dissidents, including journalists. He has denied the allegations, but is yet to inspire confidence among minorities as their emphatic vote against him showed. There is little indication that President Gotabaya worries about how minorities perceive him.
While Mr. Mahinda and Mr. Gotabaya were prominent faces in public, Mr. Basil, relatively less visible, was working behind the scenes, building their new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front), enticing willing defectors from the Opposition, crafting its poll campaign and skilfully ensuring their return to and consolidation of power, in both the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary elections.
If Mr. Mahinda’s former terms in power, from 2005 to 2015, were marked by his powerful leadership, with Mr. Basil [then a Presidential Adviser and Economic Development Minister] and Mr. Gotabaya [then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence] reporting to him, 2019 brought out a different dynamic among the brothers. While Mr. Mahinda is still their repository of political capital, Mr. Gotabaya displaced him from the position of sole leader, and Mr. Basil commanded greater influence as a chief strategist.
Appointed as Prime Minister after the August 2020 general elections, the 75-year-old, charismatic Mr. Mahinda was relegated to the second spot, with younger brother Mr. Gotabaya wielding greater power as Executive President, only enhanced by the 20th Amendment passed by his government in October 2020. And last week, Mr. Basil, 70, took over the finance portfolio from Mr. Mahinda, who has, in turn, been given a newly created, but apparently less powerful Economic Policies and Planning Ministry.
At one level, it may seem like a game of musical chairs played by members of the Rajapaksa clan, each with their own, distinct strength and baggage. But read within the larger context, the country’s economic crisis — seen in drastically falling revenues and fast-draining foreign exchange reserves — the challenge of the pandemic’s third wave, and a growing disenchantment among people, including Rajapaksa voters, in the face of acute economic distress, are bound to test the brothers’ collective political mettle.
Ensuring smooth governance at such a time is only one of their problems, as political pressures surface periodically, even if not from the Opposition that is neither coherent nor formidable yet. The pressure often emerges from within the administration, manifesting in frequent clashes between different interest groups, their loyalties, and in their clamour for influence.
President Gotabaya is under considerable pressure. He must prove to his supporters that he is the “doer” they backed. Whether the military men — over two dozen — he appointed to key administrative posts, or the bureaucracy, with sections reportedly feeling sidelined, will help him accomplish the urgent tasks ahead of him remain to be seen. He has not ruled out a second term.
As for Mr. Basil, his supporters see him as the country’s leader in waiting. They are not perturbed by the fact that he is also an American citizen, or that he faced corruption allegations in the past.
A 2007 U.S. Embassy cable published by WikiLeaks called him “Mr. Ten percent”, citing commissions he allegedly took from government contracts. In his backers’ view, he is the “saviour” the country needs.
Meanwhile, the youngest Rajapaksa in the Cabinet, Mr. Namal, 35, and projected as Mr. Mahinda’s political heir, is seen to be working hard, both within the scope of his Ministries — he holds a state ministry too — and outside. Tapping the social media audience that he steadily built over the last few years, he communicates regularly and clearly, drawing many young supporters. Sporting the trademark maroon shawl worn by his father and two uncles, Mr. Namal too is said to have set his eyes on the country’s top office.
Amid this apparent contest within the family, President Gotabaya, speaking at a public event in March, said the Rajapaksa siblings stand “firmly united”, and vowed they would take Sri Lanka forward. Despite differences and fissures, the brothers have indeed stood together so far.