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August 14, 2020

Dynastic politics in Sri Lanka


August 14, 2020

With a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held on August 5, the Rajapaksa brothers have tightened their grip on power in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan People’s Party (SLPP) led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his elder brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa won two thirds majority in the parliament.

The SLPP won 145 seats in a house of 225, while their allies won five seats – thus giving the ruling alliance 150 seats. The party secured nearly 60 percent, or more than 6.85 million, of the total valid votes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office essentially just one term ago in 2015. The previous government came to power on the promise of change but it failed miserably. They did carry forward some constitutional reforms but ultimately, they were such a big disappointment that people have gone back to the Rajapaksa brothers.

The United National Party (UNP) of former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suffered a humiliating defeat during the election. It just won a single seat, that too since the party secured more than 2.5 percent of the votes cast under a proportional representation system of voting. UNP leader and four-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lost his own seat for the first time since he entered parliament in 1977.

The opposition UNP was routed and faced the worst defeat of its history. The UNP won just one seat. The UNP, led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, entered the polls on the back of years of misgovernance and, more recently, infighting that saw it split into two separate parties ahead of the polls.

The economic crisis and decline in the growth rate played an important role in the defeat of the former ruling party SNP. Sri Lanka's economy contracted by 1.6 percent in the first quarter of 2020 amid Covid-19 restrictions and is predicted to shrink by an overall 4 percent this year, in what would be its worst performance in more than 50 years.

Sajith Premadasa formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya in February 2020, breaking away from the UNP and taking the majority of the party's members of parliament with him. The new party won 54 seats in parliament and emerged as the main opposition party. Sajith is the son of former president Premadasa who was assassinated in 1993. He was the UNP presidential candidate against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the November 2019 presidential elections, which he lost.

This split in the UNP on the question of party leadership proved costly for both Ranil and Sajith. The split in the opposition ranks helped the Rajapaksa brothers develop the web of alliances with different regional parties. The opposition failed to bring together different political forces to forge an alliance against the Rajapaksa-led SLFPA.

Tamil votes also split among different parties and helped pro-Rajapaksa candidates to win some seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is still the main party in the north east with ten seats. However, the TNA’s vote fell sharply this time with a loss of six seats and the main leading candidates also lost.

The turnout was a bit low compared to the last elections, mainly due to the social distancing measures imposed for the safety and health of voters. Sri Lanka has become the first country in South Asia to conduct general elections in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. The turnout was around 75 percent.

Left-wing parties once again failed to make a big impact. The Left was once a dominating force in Sri Lankan politics. The LSSP was a mass party in the 1960s and 1970s. The Maoist JVP won just three seats. It also lost support in its key strongholds.

The Left in Sri Lanka, once a strong force, is now fractured and disintegrated. The remnants of the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party) and the Communist Party are fully integrated with the Rajapaksa family party – the SLPP. They have been supporting the Rajapaksa family since 2005. Overall, the left has been declining in Sri Lanka since the 1990s. The splits and factionalism have significantly weakened leftist parties.

The Rajapaksa family now holds almost all the important positions in the government – president, prime minister and key ministries. The family is not new to the politics of Sri Lanka. Several members of this family served in the provincial council and in parliament. The Rajapaksa political dynasty in Giruwa Pattuwa in Ruhuna starts with D M Rajapaksa, member of the State Council, the fabled ‘Lion of Ruhuna’. With his sudden demise in 1945, D A Rajapaksa, his brother, was elected uncontested to the State Council. All the sons of D A Rajapaksa were elected to parliament at different times. Current Prime Minister Mahinda was first elected to parliament in 1970 at the young age of 24.

But the Rajapaksa family gained power and influence on the national level with the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president in 2005. Since then, the Rajapaksa dynasty has become the most dominating and powerful in Sri Lanka.

Dynastic politics is not a new phenomenon in South Asia. From the Nehru dynasty in India to the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan, South Asian nations are familiar with the politics of dynasties. In Sri Lanka, several political dynasties dominated parliamentary politics even before its independence. The Bandaranaike dynasty is one of them.

S W R D Bandaranaike was assassinated while in office as prime minister in 1959. His daughter Chandrika was successively chief minister of the Western Province (1993), prime minister in 1994, and president of the republic.

The controversial Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lankan politics for two decades. Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005 to 2015. This election result is a setback for India, as pro-India and pro-West parties lost badly. He brutally repressed the opposition, the media and the judiciary during his previous terms.

There are fears among journalists, human rights activists, and independent intellectuals about possible authoritarian and repressive measures against critics and media. The bitter memories of his authoritarian and repressive measures and policies are still fresh among opposition politicians, Tamil activists and journalists.

Fears are also growing that after a tight grip on power, the Rajapaksa government might go after Muslim and Tamil minorities to please the hardline extremist Buddhist monks.

The writer is a freelance journalist.