Sri Lanka’s strong capacity for exercising its franchise remains untouched even in the times of pandemic. Regardless of the party each of us support, we can stand proud as one democratic nation.” — Namal Rajapaksa, eldest son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Member of Parliament from Hambanthota
“How many politicians truly feel the call to serve their nation? How many are utterly selfless in their desire to bring about change? The answer is probably not many” writes Ajita, daughter of the erudite foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in her book The Cake That Was Baked At Home, the only biography of Kadirgamar. Having entered politics at the age of 62, Kadirgamar made a significant stride in the nation’s foreign affairs until his tragic assassination 15 years ago on 12 August 2005. His last official act as the foreign minister on the day he was shot at his residence by a sniper, was a scholastic endeavour. The launch of the first international relations journal at a diplomatic academy in Colombo called the BCIS along with the high commissioner of Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour India, Nirupama Rao. The Foreign Minister was the editor in chief of the journal International Relations in a Globalized World, promoting and recognising research as an integral component in foreign policy formation for the nation. Patriotism and selfless desire to serve one’s nation respecting democracy, the ethos practiced until his last breath, perhaps could be a value to reflect on by the newly elected representatives to the nation’s parliament.
Making political history, the victorious Mahinda Rajapaksa secured more than half a million votes to his premiership in Sri Lanka. The parliamentary election 2020 was held amidst the pandemic with more than 70% voter turnout as the public trusted the government’s successful management of Covid-19. Sri Lanka was the first nation in the South Asian region to hold elections in this challenging environment. Rajapaksa secured two thirds of parliamentary seats with 145+5 seats leaving 54 to Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), a breakaway faction of the grand old political party, the United National Party (UNP). The UNP under the leadership of former prime minister Wickramasinghe was reduced to one seat, a considerable defeat in its seven-decade political history. President Rajapaksa’s political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), founded in 2016, secured this mandate in a short period perhaps due to the political strategist behind the curtain, President Rajapaksa’s brother Basil Rajapaksa.
The fracturing of SLFP was the lead story during the last parliamentary election in 2015 due to president Maithripala Sirisena’s move to make alliances with the UNP. In the present context, it is as if the whole exercise turned against the UNP itself, fracturing into two, eroding its voter base and paving the way for the constitutional amendment to repeal 19A passed during the previous Sirisena-Wickramasinghe government, which impeded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return to power. Mahinda Rajapaksa who was ousted five years ago came back not with a slight majority but with a historic political victory. This displays the futile experiment of the Sirisena-Wickramasinghe bipartisan model and the high volatility of the Sri Lankan voter base which could swing from one end of the spectrum to the other in a short period of time.
This is the first time in Sri Lankan politics that the executive and legislative branches of the government is governed by biological siblings, Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The centralised excessive power of the two branches will create the initial political challenge to uphold democratic values with checks and balances in practice. While separation of powers in the Sri Lankan trias politica model of executive, legislature and judiciary is explained in the constitution, in practice the two branches executive and legislature for the first time will be executed by two brothers. The prime minister, with two-thirds majority, would need to exercise his mandate with more responsibility, safeguarding the independence of individual branches leaving aside biological biases. It is therefore vital to strengthen checks and balances from the initial stage of a sibling regime in order to further strengthen democracy.
The 18th-century political thinker Montesquieu highlighted in his work The Spirit of the Laws (1748) that the distribution of political powers among the branches is an essential element for a government whose powers were not excessively centralised in a single ruler “when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty.” Time magazine, in a recent piece, predicted on sibling rivalry due to the forthcoming constitutional amendment. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushing for changes that will strengthen presidential power at the expense of those of the Prime Minister may trigger sibling rivalry.” The separation of powers, however, between the two will take a smooth turn and will not turn towards a rivalry due to the close understanding between the siblings. This was demonstrated during the battle against the Tamil Tigers, the close bond and understanding between the duo was a primary attribute for the war victory in 2009.
Having foreseen the importance of the separation of powers, Oxford-educated professor of law, G.L Peiris who is the chairman of the SLPP and foreign minister of the post-war Mahinda Rajapaksa government, rightly cautioned that having obtained the coveted two-thirds majority did not give the government a blank cheque to act in a “short-sighted and selfish manner.” The two-thirds majority also comes attached with significant responsibilities, Peiris noted. Further explaining on checks and balances, having a weak opposition will force the incumbent government to review their own performance, he claimed, pushing it to essentially police its own decisions and policies. “This will force the government to self-critique. I believe we will need to empower the oversight committees in Parliament. We believe that the opposition members in these committees will ensure stronger accountability.” The professor is right to focus on stronger accountability with checks and balances at a time of majoritarian mandate, winning 18 of the 22 electoral districts and almost 60% of votes moving towards one political party. In the Sri Lankan political history, there have been incidents of abuse of power such as in 1978 after securing two-thirds majority by president J.R. Jayewardene. The nation does not need to revisit the same path but could improve and further enrich the democratic institutions of the nation.
There will be four challenges the Rajapaksa duo will face with the election mandate. With much negative reporting from many western media outfits predicting on losing democracy due to majoritarian mandate received, they would need to disprove this with their actions. The domestic political mandate received was to enrich democratic values and not to pave a path towards autocratic rule. The constitutional amendment would need to be carried out with precision equaling brain surgery, thinking long-term, separation of powers, improving checks and balances, strengthening individual liberty and securing the sovereignty of the nation. Secondly, to revive the contracted economy which currently has a rate below 3% economic growth, facing global recession. Thirdly, addressing and facing the human rights discourse in the international arena and strengthening the reconciliation process. Finally, to exercise the balanced ‘equidistant’ foreign policy articulated by the regime in a highly contested global power struggle.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first global leader to congratulate Mahinda Rajapaksa. “India is our friend and relation,” said Rajapaksa hoping to strengthen the mutual bilateral cooperation. Both nations should not limit this to rhetoric. With India’s neighbourhood first policy at play, New Delhi could increase its assistance towards the Sri Lankan economy and infrastructure. As Brookings India researcher Constantino Xavier explains, India cannot take promises for granted and should “deepen economic interdependence with Sri Lanka” as the island nation will “continue to welcome China’s enthusiastic, generous and reliable financing for critical infrastructure.” Soon after the election victory chargé d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, Hu Wei, met with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and passed on a congratulatory letter from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China pledging continuous support to SLPP, requesting to expedite the BRI projects, especially the Colombo Port City inaugurated by President Xi and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014. While Rajapaksa’s wish is to not get involved in the Indo-China or US-China power struggle, these powers may not leave the Rajapaksa’s alone, as already cautioned by several analysts of a possible China-centric tilt due to an unmatched, continuous volume of assistance from Beijing.
Sustaining domestic democratic practices in a majoritarian government and balancing the infrastructure diplomacy between China, India and the US will be a daunting challenge for the new regime, with heightened external geopolitical fissures in the region.
Asanga Abeyagoonasekera @AsangaAbey is Director General of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.