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Opinion

January 17, 2015

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Minorities tip the scales

The recent change of guards in Sri Lanka has sprung up a big surprise – both in the defeat of the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and in his stepping out of the presidential palace (at least on the face of it) without much ado. Apart from allegations that the defeated president attempted to have a coup staged to stay in power, what made the change at the top possible?
During Rajapaksa’s presidency, the Sri Lankan economy registered impressive growth. Between 2006 and 2009 (the first term), the economy grew on average at six percent a year, while between 2010 and 2013 (the second term), the average annual growth rate went up to 7.5 percent – one of the highest in South Asia. Per capita income more than doubled from $1,210 in 2005 to $3,170 in 2013. Not only that, Sri Lanka tops the region in terms of human development related indicators.
This suggests that Rajapaksa’s defeat is not rooted in the economy. Instead, one needs to look at the Sri Lankan political system and ethnic composition to figure out why the erstwhile strongman ended up as a loser.
South Asian politics is known for the cult of the personality and Sri Lanka is no exception. In recent decades, first Junius Jayewardene (1978-89) – who amended the constitution to make the office of the president executive rather than merely titular – and then Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015) had matters of the state fully in their hands.
Both Jayewardene and Kumaratunga served two terms each – the maximum number of tenures for which a Sri Lankan could hold the highest office of the land. Rajapaksa had the constitution amended in 2010 to remove that restriction. But he could not win a third term in office.
The president is the linchpin of the Sri Lankan political system. The constitution (Article 30) makes him both the head of state and head of government. In the latter capacity, he also chairs the cabinet of ministers and thus completely overshadows the

prime minister. The president has the power to hire and fire the premier and is also empowered to dissolve parliament.
With such enormous constitutional powers, coupled with a lack of well-established democratic conventions, the president is set to become an autocrat. Not surprisingly, as the longest serving Sri Lankan president, Rajapaksa often ran the gauntlet of criticism for having become a despot and for having indulged in all those things that normally accompany despotism – a sense of indispensability and invincibility, abuse of power, intolerance of dissent, corruption and nepotism.
Sri Lanka is a multicultural society in both creed and ethnicity. Buddhism is the dominant religion professed by nearly two-thirds of the population. It is followed by Hinduism (12.6 percent), Islam (9.7 percent), and Christianity (7.4 percent).
Ethnically, the island nation is divided into two main groups: the Sinhalese and the Tamils on the basis of Sinhala (an Aryan language) and Tamil (a Dravidian tongue). The former ethnic group makes up 75 percent, while the latter accounts for 11 percent of the population. The Sinhalese, the biggest ethnic group, and the Buddhists, the predominant creed, are mutually inclusive: nearly 93 percent of the Sinhalese profess Buddhism and more than 99 percent of the Buddhists speak Sinhala.
Likewise a close connection exists in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and other two major religions, viz Hinduism and Islam. About 80 percent of the Tamils are Hindus. More than 90 percent of Muslims speak the Tamil language.
Thus if we combine ethnicity and creed, Sinhalese Buddhists are easily the dominant community in Sri Lanka. And, understandably, it’s from this ethnic group that the top Sri Lankan leadership, including Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, the man who has ousted him, is drawn from. It was to the Sinhalese Buddhists vote bank that both the contenders appealed. However, Sirisena also appealed to the disgruntled minorities (Tamils, Muslims).
The Tamils were always likely to vote against Rajapaksa for the manner in which his regime put down the two-and-a-half-decade long Tamil insurgency in the country’s north-east. The Muslims and Christians turned against the Rajapaksa regime for going soft on, if not supporting, the activities of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) to keep the electoral support of the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese community intact.
Translated as Buddhist power, BBS has been charged with supporting militancy against the minorities, particularly Muslims, to preserve the dominance of the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority. It also accuses Muslims, as well as Christians, of converting the Buddhists to their respective creed.
The tenure of the president is Sri Lanka is six years but a sense of invincibility made Rajapaksa call snap polls. Until a few months back, his nemesis Sirisena was a member of his cabinet. To the latter’s credit, he was able to present himself as one around whom anti-Rajapaksa forces could rally.
In the end, in a large voter turn-out (81.5 percent), the margin of victory was only 3.7 percentage points: Sirisena bagged 51.28 percent of the polled votes against Rajapaksa’s 47.58 percent. The difference has been attributed to the winner’s overwhelming support in the Tamil-dominated north-east as well as in Muslim dominated areas. It seems the minorities tipped the scales.
Rajapaksa’s advocates give him credit for a number of things, such as having put down a drawn-out, sanguinary insurgency that was aimed at dividing the country, presiding over a sound economy, upgrading the infrastructure and building relations with China. His detractors accuse him of war crimes, human rights violations, suppression of freedom of expression and conscience, turning the government into a family enterprise, and misplaced economic priorities.
Whichever way Rajapaksa’s regime may be seen, he was widely praised for having walked out of the corridors of power in a dignified manner thus ending what might have been out-and-out an autocratic regime on a thoroughly democratic note. But now allegations have been levelled by his rivals that he had sought the help of army and police chiefs to have the electoral results annulled and thus retain power. If these allegations are valid, they mark an ugly end to a highly disputed regime.
Maithripala Sirisena has taken up the reins of the government amid a lot of promises. The priority is doing away with the executive presidency, which means shedding his own powers, fostering reconciliation with the Tamils and instituting an inquiry into the alleged war crimes, as well as setting up a commission to run the police. Will he be as good as his word? The Lankans will have to wait and see.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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