Just Five years ago, the Rajapaksa family seemed to have lost everything. Mahinda Rajapaksa was beaten during the presidential race in Sri Lanka in 2015, ending his ten-year term. His younger brother Gotabaya was no longer number two (for Mahinda) in the Ministry of Defense. Basil, the baby of offspring, had lost his job as Minister of Economic Development and their older brother, Chamal, would soon be ousted as Speaker of the Parliament. Worse, the new government threatened to prosecute various Rajapaksas and their allies for everything from corruption to human rights abuses.
But five is an age in politics. Sahodara Samagama or Brothers Inc, as the Sri Lankans jokingly call the resilient political clan that entered Parliament three generations ago, in 1936, is back in business. In November, Gota, as it is widely known, assumed the presidency during a landslide. He chose Mahinda, the former president, to be his prime minister. Chamal is still MP and Basil, although non-governmental, heads the family political party, the Popular Front of Sri Lanka (known by its Sinhalese initials SLPP). Few Sri Lankans doubt that when elections open for a new parliament on April 25, the nine-party coalition he formed will return home.
However, for the Rajapaksa, taking over the presidency, cabinet and, in all probability, legislative power (in addition to considerable influence in the army, police, courts and much of the media) may not not be enough. What they really would like is not just a parliamentary majority, but a two-thirds majority. In this way, they could reverse the constitutional changes made by the previous government that reduced the powers of the president. They could also, fear some of the 30% of the 22 million inhabitants of the island who are not part of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, abandon their efforts to reconcile the different ethnicities and religions of the country after the deadly civil war of 1983 -2009. Rival politicians and liberal types, for their part, fear to redouble the attack on civil liberties that took place when Mahinda was president.
Signs of such intentions are already appearing. After Gota became president in November, he placed the civilian police and the registration of NGOs under the control of the Ministry of Defense. The ministry itself is headed by a relentless general, with another hard line at the helm of the army; both have been charged with war crimes. Human rights activists and journalists say that, even if there were no disappearances, as in the bad old days, forms of intimidation such as surveillance and repeated interrogation are becoming common again. Among the signs that worry the Tamils, a minority concentrated in the north and east and in Colombo, the capital, whose armed uprising started the war, included a ministerial decree in January according to which the national anthem cannot from now on be sang only in Sinhalese and no longer in Tamil. Also worryingly, in February the government officially canceled its predecessor’s co-sponsorship of a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council, which had prescribed institutional measures for reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese.
Last year, gruesome terrorist attacks on churches and hotels by members of a local jihadist cult, which left 259 people dead, highlighted the lack of police and intelligence services, and allowed Rajapaksas to present themselves as being more reliable on security matters. “But under the guise of stability, they want to assume all power and restrict public space,” warns Rauff Hakeem, a MP and former minister who happens to be a Muslim. “It is as if they are preparing for a police state.”
Few analysts believe that SLPP will earn the desired two-thirds. But this has more to do with an electoral system of proportional representation, which generally reflects the demographic composition of Sri Lanka, than with the attractiveness or dynamism of the main opposition group, the United National Party (UNP). He is in disarray, divided between a faction that supports Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned but unattractive politician, and one led by Sajith Premadasa, the most popular but least warned, the son of a former president. Premadasa has forged an alliance of 12 groups to fight SLPP. Mr. Wickremesinghe refuses not only to join, but also to authorize Mr. Premadasa to use the UNP Elephant symbol. “What people are saying is,” How can they run a country if they can’t even throw a party? “”, Explains Malinda Seneviratne, columnist and poet.
Given the dysfunction of the opposition, the Rajapaksas may be able to poach MPs even if they don’t win the coveted two-thirds of the seats. It is not only civil liberties that can suffer during a period of uncontrolled single party rule. The economy, too, is at a worrying turning point.
Central government debt currently stands at around 82% of the GDP. Interest payments absorb 42% of government revenue. Over the next five years, the International Monetary Fund predicts that the government will need to borrow an additional 2.7 to 5.2% GDP annually. The already battered tourism industry suffers yet another fear of the coronavirus. So far, the Rajapaksa’s response has been a major tax cut, which in turn has raised skepticism about the government’s tax probity. Even a huge parliamentary majority could find it difficult to settle the alarming finances of the government. (The Economist)