What the return of the Rajapaksa family means
Minorities are apprehensive. Institutions may get weaker. And post-war accountability looks challengingUpdated: Nov 19, 2019 11:51 IST
After a campaign many had thought close, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won a decisive victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. Gotabaya, candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 52.25% of the vote. His main rival, Sajith Premadasa, candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP), came a distant second with 42%.
Gotabaya’s victory reveals a dangerously polarised country. While both candidates are from the ethnic majority Sinhalese, Rajapaksa, who ran a strongly nationalist campaign, won large majorities among the Sinhalese — enough that he needed few Tamil or Muslim votes. Premadasa’s overwhelming majorities among Muslim and Tamil voters — who together form a quarter of the population — were not enough to overcome Gotabaya’s big edge among Sinhalese.
Gotabaya was widely seen as the front-runner from the start, backed by his brother Mahinda, who remains popular among Sinhalese voters, but was constitutionally prevented from running himself. Gotabaya ran on a promise of security, appealing to widespread anger and vulnerability felt by many Sri Lankans at the UNP government’s failure to prevent the devastating ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches and hotels, despite advance warnings. Anti-Muslim sentiment, already strong, spiked in the wake of the attack, including two days of rioting against mosques and Muslim properties.
Gotabaya ran a strongly Sinhala nationalist campaign, and his promises of security resonated with Sinhala voters, who remembered the key role Gotabaya played as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers. Given the Rajapaksas’ popularity among the Sinhalese, Premadasa needed overwhelming support from Muslims and Tamils to have any chance at victory. This made him vulnerable to SLPP charges that a Premadasa presidency would be hostage to minority parties. Premadasa was also hobbled by the unpopularity of the UNP government, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in which he served as housing minister.
Many fear that a Gotabaya-led government could bring renewed energy to the long-running anti-Muslim campaign led by militant groups claiming to defend Buddhism. These groups first flourished in 2013 and 2014, with support from the police and military intelligence, which were then under the control of Gotabaya in his role as defence secretary. Gotabaya has always denied supporting militant Buddhist groups, but many Muslims fear their strong backing for Premadasa could see the community targeted for its perceived disloyalty.
Gotabaya’s government will also likely dismiss the long-standing grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils. Gotabaya and the SLPP denounced efforts by the UNP to draft a new constitution that would allow greater powers for provinces,claiming this would threaten national security and the Buddhist and unitary nature of the State. Gotabaya has also made it clear he will reject Sri Lankan commitments made in the 2015 UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on reconciliation and accountability. This sought to establish mechanisms to address crimes on both sides in the civil war, including credible allegations that the Sri Lankan military shelled hospitals and civilians prevented from fleeing by the Tamil Tigers.
Gotabaya will likely appoint Mahinda as prime minister. Hours after Gotabaya’s victory, Mahinda issued a statement indicating the SLPP intends to overturn the 19th amendment. The UNP government’s signature achievement, the amendment reduced presidential powers, re-establishing term limits on the presidency and strengthening independent commissions on human rights, police, and judicial and civil services. Should a strong presidential system be revived, there will be greater reason to fear for the increased independence of the judiciary and police that emerged since 2015. The numerous criminal cases pending in the courts against Gotabaya, other Rajapaksas and their associates, as well as police investigations into high-profile political murders and abductions during the previous Rajapaksa government, are certain to go nowhere.
The return to power of the Rajapaksas and their Sinhala nationalist agenda pose major challenges to international support for post-war reconciliation and accountability. These will be particularly hard to pursue, given the UNP government’s failure to build a domestic constituency for such policies, and the comprehensive defeat of Premadasa’s modest appeals to inter-ethnic cooperation. Despite this, Human Rights Council member-states should continue to defend the 2015 resolution and maintain close oversight of Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
India, Japan and Western governments will also be concerned that the Rajapaksas will strengthen relations with China, which made clear its preference for Gotabaya and the SLPP. Worries that the Chinese-built — and now Chinese-leased — port in Hambantota could eventually be used for military purposes are certain to increase. The Rajapaksas are unlikely, however, to move quickly or decisively in this direction, preferring instead to rebalance Sri Lanka’s engagements while seeking good relations with all their donors and trading partners. The Rajapaksas hope they can use their closer ties with China to leverage continued economic support from other governments.
Attempts by Beijing’s geopolitical rivals to challenge greater Chinese influence in Sri Lanka would be stronger if they took the form of principled positions — highlighting any evidence of corruption in development projects, supporting democratic rights and transparency, and promoting the rule of law — that can be presented as in the interests of all Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, and more difficult for the Rajapaksas to dismiss on nationalist grounds. Foreign donors and international financial institutions should also work to coordinate their development assistance to increase their chances of persuading the Rajapaksa government to preserve independent institutions and democratic space so important to sustainable peace.
Alan Keenan is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group
The views expressed are personal