Back to the Rajapaksas: On Gotabaya Rajapaksa's victory

The convincing victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s presidential election was not entirely unexpected. His main rival Sajith Premadasa’s spirited campaign was not enough to overcome the anti-incumbency mood in much of southern Sri Lanka. An overwhelming majority of Tamils and Muslims voted for Mr. Premadasa, largely over fears that Gotabaya Rajapaksa evokes from his days as Defence Secretary under his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If Tamils blamed the Rajapaksas for the death of thousands of civilians at the end of the civil war in 2009, and the subsequent reluctance to probe war crimes and disappearances, Muslims were worried about being targeted by majoritarian elements backed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But in a country where over 70% of the population is Sinhalese, Mr. Premadasa required a significant chunk of the majority vote too. Besides, there were other factors behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s impressive performance in the south: anxieties arising from the state of the economy, revulsion towards unabated corruption and fears set off by the Easter Sunday bombings. Events since President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October 2018, leading to a constitutional crisis, made this election a referendum on the failures of the power-sharing arrangement between the two leaders.

Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe had come together in a unique alliance of rival parties to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa in 2015. There was much euphoria in the early days, as people sensed a return to the rule of law and a departure from the authoritarian tendencies of the Rajapaksa era. They felt the days of the subversion of independent institutions were over. However, with the bitter parting of ways, especially in the backdrop of corruption allegations and poor economic performance, the arrangement collapsed. The worst fallout was perhaps the April 21 bombings, which happened despite advance intelligence, indicating a staggering breakdown of communication within the government. This is a sobering moment for all Sri Lankans. A mandate for reform and progress has been frittered away. Those blamed for the past democratic deficit are back in power. The country is nowhere near the promised constitutional reforms, either to address minority concerns or to abolish the executive presidency. Fears that the two-term limit on running for President, as well as constitutional curbs on the chief executive’s powers, will be removed in future are not misplaced. The new President should strive to allay such fears and work on strengthening the economy and ethnic harmony. He should refrain from antagonising the international community. In relations with India, he should assuage concerns that he would promote the interests of China to the detriment of India’s. To truly make a mark, Gotabaya Rajapaksa should aim to disappoint his detractors.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 3:02:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/back-to-the-rajapaksas-on-gotabaya-rajapaksas-victory/article30000441.ece

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