Sri Lanka Perspectives August 2020: Rajapaksas chart new bumpy course
by R Hariharan on 16 Sep 2020 0 Comment

As expected the Rajapaksas bounced back to power with all guns blazing, with their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party by winning 145 seats, 25 seats more than their own forecast. With the SLPP-led Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Permauna (SLPNS)’s three minor partners chipping in 6 seats, the SLPP now commands two-thirds majority in the 225-member parliament.  

 

Coming in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in 2019 presidential poll, the results are only popular reaffirmation of trust in the Rajapaksa ‘power’, the brothers Gotabaya and Mahinda project. Obviously, the public expect them to take the nation through the double whammy of critical economic situation and the negative impact of global Covid pandemic on the island nation. It also indicated further consolidation of Sinhala Buddhist majority in support of the Rajapaksas, who had been stressing the need to safeguard the Sinhala Therawada Buddhist identity and culture.

 

Equally important is the accumulation of unchallenged power in the hands of the Rajapaksa family. Apart from President and Prime Minister, brother Chamal and Mahinda’s son Namal are cabinet ministers; in addition Chamal’s son Shasheendra is a state minister. Between them, the family controls all key ‘power’ portfolios: defence, finance, agriculture and Buddha Sasaana among others. According to an opposition member, in all 421 departments, institutions and government bodies are under the control of the family.

 

In addition to this, four elected members of President Rajapaksa’s elite group of ‘Viyathagamea loyalist’, professionals who campaigned for him, are state ministers. Basil Rajapaksa, the other brother, heads the powerful 40-member “Presidential Task Force for Continuous Services for Sustenance of Overall Community Life.” The task force has a hand in every aspect of planned activity, including control of Corona virus pandemic activity, which has been entrusted execution and development activity of the government.

 

The failure of the much heralded Yahapana (good governance) government formed by the contrived collaboration between President Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP), has damaged not only their personal credibility, but also of their parties, which had been ruling Sri Lanka for over 70 years.

 

This is a huge setback for the civil society, which wanted to provide a democratic alternative to the Rajapaksa clan and worked hard for its success. To add to their disappointment, both the mainstream political parties are emasculated. The UNP, which won 106 seats in the last election, was wiped off the screen, securing just one seat in the national list. It is yet to nominate a member to fill it, as its leadership has not been able to recover from the aftershock of elections. 

 

The SLFP is only a little better, becoming a marginal player of the mainstream which it had dominated earlier. Former President Sirisena realized early that capitulation was better, even before the election, and agreed that SLFP candidates would contest under the neophyte SLPP’s ‘pohotuwa’ (lotus bud) symbol.

 

In Sri Lanka party politics, election symbols have an important role in rallying loyal party supporters. A powerful national party sacrificing it to contest under the symbol of an untested new party is anathema for party workers. While the SLFP has suffered such a fate, the UNP is likely to do so if it contests the forthcoming provincial council elections with the symbol of its clone which drained its followers during the parliamentary election.

 

Former deputy leader of the UNP Sajith Premadasa, who broke away from the UNP, led the Samagi Jana Baalawegaya (SJB) and managed to win 54 seats to emerge as the main opposition party. The SJB is likely to attract the rest of the UNP old guard during future elections. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the powerful Tamil political combine, is also showing signs of losing steam, winning only 10 seats, as against 16 in the outgoing parliament. Six seats have gone to smaller Tamil parties. The Muslim representation in parliament has equally declined.

 

In the absence of a strong opposition, the temptation for the Rajapaksas to single-mindedly pursue their own agenda seems to be coming true. Are they planning to ignore one-fourth of the population formed by minorities? It would seem so if we go by President Rajapaksa’s statement delivered at the inaugural of the new parliament. He said, “priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people. As a representative of the people, we always represent the aspirations of the majority. It is only then that the sovereignty of the people can be safeguarded. In accordance of the supreme constitution of our country, I have pledged to protect the unitary status of the country and to protect the Buddha Sasana during my tenure.” He added that he had set up “an advisory council comprising leading Buddhist monks to seek advice on governance.”

 

The President’s statement sounds ominous, if read in the rush to do away with the 19th Amendment, which had increased the accountability of the President to parliament and curbed some of his powers, and introduce the 20th Amendment, whose form and content are not clear. Equally unclear is the face of the new constitution which is being drafted. Jehan Perara, peace activist, writing on the subject of drafting a new constitution, has pointed out the election campaign that led to the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019 was “an extremely divisive one. This could be seen in the way that the electorate voted highlighting the ethnic and religious divides in the country.”

 

In view of this, Perera says, “nationalism should be balanced by an emphasis on equality based pluralism” for citizens to share a common space. He advocates the need to “ensure there is equal rights, equal treatment and equal protection to all citizens” by evolving a concept of “inclusive nationalism” in place of an exclusive one, while drafting the constitution. It will be worth the effort if civil societies take up this idea with political parties to ensure once again Sri Lanka does not end up with a constitution skewed by the perceptions of the majority party. That would be a recipe for disaster for Sri Lanka, if SLPP in its moment of triumphalism forgets the hard earned lessons of the past, earned with the blood and sweat of thousands of people.

 

Courtesy Col. R. Hariharan

South Asia Security Trends, www.security-risks.com

https://col.hariharan.info/2020/09/sri-lanka-perspectives-august-2020.html 

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