August 07, 2020 at 08:09PM
The Rajapaksas secure a firm grip on Sri Lanka
IT WAS A complete trouncing. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP—Sri Lanka People’s Front) of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won almost two-thirds of the 225 seats in Parliament in the general election held on August 5th. It cements the return to power of the Rajapaksa family, which dominated the government from 2005 to 2015 and presided over the brutal climax of the country’s long civil war. Together with allies, they now have the numbers to change the constitution.
Sri Lanka’s government is looking ever more like a family business. Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrested back the presidency last year, reversing the surprise electoral defeat of his brother, Mahinda, in 2015. He appointed Mahinda prime minister last year. Mahinda’s son, Namal, another brother and two nephews all won seats in Parliament.
The election was a humiliation for the United National Party (UNP), the SLPP’s main rival, which won the previous election, in 2015, with 106 seats. It collapsed to just a single seat. Ranil Wickremesinghe, its leader and prime minister from 2015 to 2019, among other stints, lost his seat after 43 years in Parliament. Five years ago he had set a record for the most votes won by an individual candidate.
Deepening the UNP’s woes was the relative success of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), a breakaway faction led by Sajith Premadasa, the 53-year-old son of a president assassinated in 1993 by a Tamil Tiger suicide-bomb. It came second in the election, with 54 seats. Its break from the UNP in February was engineered by younger members who wanted a new leader and a fresh start, to help dispel voters’ indignation at the corruption scandals and poor performance of Mr Wickremesinghe’s most recent government.
The result reflects a widespread desire for strong and stable government, especially among the ethnic Sinhalese majority, at a time when the economy is faltering. There is also admiration for the efficiency with which the president has handled covid-19. Sri Lanka has recorded 2,839 cases and just 11 deaths. Mr Rajapaksa has mounted a fierce crackdown on illegal drugs and installed military men in senior civilian jobs, both of which have been seen by many as indications of can-do leadership. A series of deadly bombings by Islamist militants on Easter Sunday last year may also have heightened the appeal of the SLPP’s law-and-order message.
“The country needs a new constitution” is one of the SLPP’s main slogans. Basil, another Rajapaksa brother and the SLPP’s main strategist, has repeatedly called for the abolition of the 19th amendment, passed in 2015, which re-introduced a two-term limit for the presidency and strengthened independent commissions overseeing police and defending human rights, among other things.
It was only during Mahinda’s presidency that the two-term limit was scrapped, to allow him to run for a third term. The watchdog agencies were strengthened in response to what the UNP and others saw as the imperial overreach of the Rajapaksas.
For the Rajapaksas, the election is vindication on a grand scale. For the dynasty’s opponents, however, it is a moment of fear. The Rajapaksas’ previous stint in power was marked by the harassment and disappearance of critics, as well as the extraordinarily bloody end to a long civil war. During the army’s rout of the Tamil Tigers, the ruthless guerrilla group it had been fighting for 26 years, many civilians were killed, for which there has never been a proper reckoning.
The flaws of the previous Rajapaksa regime led to Mahinda’s surprise defeat in the presidential election in 2015. The question many Sri Lankans are now asking is: what lesson has the family drawn from that setback? Do they intend to rein in some of their past excesses, or simply to arrange things to make it harder for voters to dislodge them again?
Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/08/07/the-rajapaksas-secure-a-firm-grip-on-sri-lanka
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