The 2019 presidential election will be a watershed in Sri Lankan history. The Rajapaksa regime was decisively defeated in both the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections. Since then, remnants of the regime have persevered to rebuild. Rejected nationally and isolated internationally, their crafty politics, ideological consolidation, and political mobilisation ensured a powerful political base among the Sinhala constituencies. While the minorities, worried about their future, voted overwhelmingly against presidential candidate and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sinhala political base, built by the Rajapaksas, has brought them back to power.
Road to power
The Rajapaksa camp took the risk of forming their own party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which has now engulfed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. They built a base in their Sinhala constituencies by engaging the rural population and lower middle classes. They spoke to the discontent with a long-neglected drought and deteriorating economic situation. They turned the corruption discourse that had damaged them in power back onto the incumbent government, as the Central Bank bond scandal exposed the newly appointed Central Bank Governor and provided an irredeemable blow to the promise of “good governance”.
They tested their strength and gained confidence with the local government elections of 2018, where their newly constructed party machine made a landslide victory in the Southern constituencies. They kept Parliament at boiling point with no-confidence motions, and even attempted a parliamentary coup, with President Maithripala Sirisena appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. They capitalised on the Easter attacks, and claimed to be the only actors who can address national security, even as the President and Prime Minister pointed fingers about the security lapses that could have averted the disaster. Not only did they miss no opportunity to attack the government over the last four years, but also worked incessantly on the ground to build up their base, whether with the disgruntled Sinhala rural masses, the bureaucrats comfortable with their politics of patronage, the business classes that sought to gain from their economic policies, or the chauvinist social movements that thrived on their backing for majoritarian and xenophobic politics. With the presidential election victory, the Rajapaksa juggernaut now looks well poised to consolidate power for the long haul.
Each of the gains of the Rajapaksas was in fact a failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The coalition government was rocked by infighting, and its aloof leadership with grand projects of trade liberalisation and foreign investment neglected people’s everyday concerns. With the global Islamophobic discourse on the rise, the government did little to confront the chauvinist forces that ideologically mobilised the Sinhala constituencies by constructing the Muslims as the new enemies. Amid acute joblessness, soaring living costs, mounting household debt and people’s still rural livelihoods, coupled with fear since the Easter terror attacks, the people turned to a “strong leader” for relief from gripping insecurity. These are the grounds on which Sri Lanka’s great liberal democratic experiment of 2015 has now been overcome by authoritarian populism.
If the neoliberals under Ranil Wickremesinghe lost the plot on the economy, there was nevertheless liberal progress with state and social institutions. Militarisation and surveillance in the country, in the North and East in particular, was considerably reversed with democratic space providing room for freedom of expression and protests. Military-held lands in the North were released to their private owners. The judiciary regained independence. The media and social movements gained the confidence to critique the state. The excessive powers of the executive presidency were clipped, and independent commissions for human rights and right to information were strengthened.
In this context, the normalisation away from an excessive security mindset hung over from the war years were undone by the Easter attacks, and the room for scrutiny of the security apparatuses are now shutting down. Independence of institutions are also now at risk: either through legislative moves with consolidation of power in Parliament or through crass politicisation. These are blows to the democratic space gained over the last five years.
It is those concerns that brought the loose set of actors opposing the return of a Rajapaksa regime. What was necessary, however, was a strong coalition that also addressed fundamental political-economic concerns, but that was not to be with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) seeking to build a third force and United National Party (UNP) leader, Mr. Wickremesinghe, seeking to undermine his party’s candidacy to ensure his own leadership of the party.
In this context, the electoral map reveals certain divisions. The Tamil- and Muslim-heavy regions of the North and East, the UNP and up-country Tamil strongholds of the Central Highlands, and the minority-heavy and UNP strongholds around Colombo voted for Sajith Premadasa, while the vast majority of the other electorates voted for Mr. Rajapaksa.
The electoral map may immediately hint at a polarised country along ethno-nationalist lines, but a deeper look into the politics of each region may reveal different dynamics. The voter turnouts in the Northern constituencies were much higher than in the past, despite neither candidate addressing their aspirations and a crass call from the Tamil nationalist fringe for boycott of the elections. In voting overwhelmingly for Mr. Premadasa, the Northern constituencies have entered the realm of national politics seeking to shape it as opposed to the decades-long approach of exclusionary politics that refused to even consider national changes. Similarly, while the simplistic narrative of the Sinhala voter supporting a majoritarian regime may be tempting, in reality it is perhaps lower and middle class economic disenchantment and youth disillusionment that ensured a mass vote for Mr. Rajapaksa.
While the responsibility for the defeat of the liberal democratic experiment of 2015 falls squarely on Mr. Wickremesinghe and Mr. Sirisena, salvaging what is left of that democratic space now becomes the task of the dispersed actors and forces that have to regroup ahead of the imminent parliamentary elections. The Muslim and Tamil minority parties that sought to keep the Rajapaksas at bay, the failed third force experiment of the JVP with allied left forces, and various social movements now have the unenviable task of defending the democratic space from an authoritarian populist regime about to consolidate power.
Ahilan Kadirgamar is a political economist and Senior Lecturer, University of Jaffna