Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now an official candidate for the Sri Lankan presidency, voting for which is expected to be held in November or December. Rajapaksa’s candidacy will revolve around national security, counterterrorism, economic revival, and ethnonationalism. Unfortunately, under the pretext of ‘safety, security, and competency’, Sri Lanka is poised to take another authoritarian turn.
The Rajapaksa political project revolves around majoritarianism, corruption, authoritarianism and the consistent denigration of ethnic and religious minorities. For a country that has already seen so much tragedy and violence, it’s time to panic.
If the Rajapaksas return to power, they may try to abrogate the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, which will expand the power of the executive and get rid of the two-term limit for the presidency — something Mahinda Rajapaksa had once achieved in 2010 when Parliament passed the 18th amendment.
The opposition’s new presidential candidate, Gotabaya served in the Sri Lankan military for 20 years before moving to the US. He returned to Sri Lanka to take the post of secretary of the Ministry of Defence (2005-2015) when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President. Like his brother, he’s been credibly accused of war crimes.
The war heroes are resurgent
Having won Sri Lanka’s civil war against the Tamil Tigers that lasted nearly three decades, the Rajapaksas are war heroes in the eyes of most ethnic Sinhalese. They will adroitly flout their redoubtable Sinhala-Buddhist credentials. While it’s possible that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will try to (disingenuously) curry favor with the country’s ethnic and religious minorities in the weeks ahead, it’s also known that minority votes only really matter when the Sinhala-Buddhist vote stands divided. In that context, the Rajapaksas could find it more rewarding to simply appeal to the majoritarian class and disregard concerns of the minorities – something that would happen after an electoral victory anyway.
Gotabaya’s official candidacy is big news, not least because it’s another sign that the system, which had been in place for seven decades, is changing. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of President Maithripala Sirisena and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the country’s two main Sinhala-Buddhist parties, are historical rivals. With the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) now contesting at the national level – the party dominated local government elections in February 2018 – Sirisena’s SLFP will be further weakened.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been rumored to be in the running for quite some time. And, just days after the Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people, he publicly stated he would run for president to “tackle the threat of radical Islam”. It’s true that he needed to renounce his US citizenship before being able to do so, something that he’s purportedly done. (There are still doubts about whether he has truly renounced his citizenship.)
Rajapaksa family drama
As many commentators and analysts have already pointed out, other concerns may explain the delay in the official announcement of Gotabaya’s candidacy. Mahinda Rajapaksa would be the one picking the SLPP’s candidate. And, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, it is now mandatory for a candidate to be 35 years old before being able to contest. That means Mahinda’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, cannot run until 2025. Namal is a parliamentarian and has been groomed for bigger and better opportunities.
But will Namal be able to run for president in 2025? Is it reasonable to believe that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would only serve one term and then pave the way for his nephew? That seems unlikely. Mahinda Rajapaksa has already made it clear that he would like to become the Prime Minister (Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election is likely to be held in early 2020).
Indeed, there does appear to have been some confusion as to who Mahinda would tap as his successor. The infighting within the Rajapaksa machine is certainly something to keep an eye on.
When Maithripala Sirisena became President in January 2015, he was supposed to provide a different brand of governance. Sirisena is less authoritarian than his predecessor, but his tenure has been a disaster. Sirisena’s terrible performance and the coalition government’s broader failures helped enable the Rajapaksas’ comeback.
Even without the Easter bombings, a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency was looking increasingly likely. The attacks have merely increased the likelihood of that happening. Of course, Gotabaya Rajapaksa may not win. Sirisena’s ascendency to the presidency constituted a major upset.
Nevertheless, the smart money says that the Rajapaksas are returning to power.
The author is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert. Views are personal.