Sri Lanka has two prime ministerial claimants, but no real political options
Every evening for the past three weeks in Colombo, a group of people have assembled at a traffic roundabout near the Liberty cinema and shopping mall. They hold handwritten posters in English, Sinhala and Tamil. “This is not what we voted for!” says one. “Democracy not for sale!” says another. They are lawyers, theatre persons, journalists, and seasoned activists, but also students, corporate employees, and senior citizens attending their first such protest.
The Liberty Protests — named for its location but adopted for its promise — have occurred every day since October 26, when Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena stunned everyone with an overnight regime change. He sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and replaced him with former president and foe, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man Sirisena had run against just four years ago.
Sri Lanka has spent nearly all its 70 independent years battling multiple insurgencies and a three-decade-long civil war, but it has never seen such a barefaced illegal dismissal of an elected government.
Protestors demanded that parliament be reassembled, and whoever had majority demonstrate it. Meanwhile, a sitting parliamentarian revealed that Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) offered bribes of up to 500 million Sri Lankan rupees for MPs to cross over to Rajapaksa. This especially disgusted Sri Lankans reeling under unbearable inequalities and an economy on the downslide.
Under pressure, Sirisena first agreed to reconvene the 225-member parliament, but then dismissed it and called for snap general elections instead. Appalled, the other parties moved the Supreme Court, which threw out the president’s order and allowed parliament to reconvene. Two no-confidence votes have since rejected Rajapaksa, even as his supporters rowdily flung chairs, books and chilli paste at the Speaker and the police guards. He refuses to bow out still, insisting he has “the people’s vote”.
Today, Sri Lankans have two prime ministerial claimants, but no real political options. On November 4, a young woman protestor held a poster that captured the country’s dilemma:
“Mahinda is a cancer,
Ranil is not the cure.”
Tamil civil society, Muslim solidarity groups, fishworkers, mothers of the disappeared, and tea estate workers had joined the protests that day: a reminder that calls for liberty are not new in Sri Lanka. Each of these groups, cornered by violence, corruption or debilitating poverty, has stood up to regime after regime, offering solutions and policies they can recite in their sleep now.
In 2015, Sirisena had offered a glimmer of hope when he allied with Wickremasinghe’s United National Party. Together, they promised to investigate missing persons, return Tamil-owned land grabbed by the military, put politicians and generals accused of war crimes on trial, and unfriend illiberal China in favour of the West. The United Nations, estranged neighbour India, and the island’s embattled Tamils and Muslims fervently hoped for political magic. A rabbit pulled out of a hat, it unravelled in barely six months.
People did regain some political freedoms, but constitutional reforms and inclusive measures became paralysed. The president and PM struggled to see eye to eye. Acting on purely personal impulses, Sirisena has abused the very authority he swore to limit.
But it is not Wickremasinghe people want either. Liberty protestors declare that they are for democracy, not the UNP. As the mother of a disappeared 21-year-old on her 700th day of protest in Jaffna told me over the phone, “Ranil won’t look for my missing son, but he’ll at least let me shout for justice till my throat is hoarse. Under Mahinda, I will also disappear.” She has not experienced true liberty in decades, but she recognises its thieves.
Within half an hour of Rajapaksa being sworn in, there were already signs of things to come. His goons stormed the office of five state-run newspapers and took over the editorial. The state broadcaster was forced to play folk tunes all night. His supporters bizarrely claim it’s a “legal coup”.
Rajapaksa is a textbook example of a popular autocrat. In his two terms as president, he ended a long ethnic war through brazen war crimes against Tamil civilians, launched a military state of silken highways and disappearing people, and installed the beginnings of Sinhala Buddhist attacks on the Muslim community. But it was his friendhsip with China and his corrupt family’s suffocating control that made Sirisena, his former defence and health minister, break ranks and ally with arch rival, Wickremasinghe. In 2015, backed especially by Tamil and Muslim parties, Sirisena won the presidency, but Rajapaksa still won a majority of the Sinhalese vote. He is able to whitewash his nepotism and corruption with folksy oratory seeped in Sinhala Buddhist supremacy.
Even if Wickremasinghe has this round, Rajapaksa could still win the 2019 presidential elections. He cannot contest himself (the 19th amendment limits presidents to two terms), but he could install a loyal lieutenant, and take prime ministership in 2020. Unless novel contenders and ideas emerge now, Sri Lanka might just add one more man to the global club of elected majoritarian despots.
Rohini Mohan is a journalist and author of The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War
The views expressed are personal