Down but Not Out: The Sri Lankan Presidency

For background information on Sri Lankan politics, see ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa: the Man who would be President’.

The phrase ‘new kid in town’ could hardly be less applicable. Back in 2015, former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was coping with a shock election defeat to his own health minister, and looking ahead to the challenge of leading a new party with nothing even resembling a foothold in Sri Lankan politics. Fast forward to 2018 and the former president is back in the limelight, having masterminded an unprecedented wipeout of his country’s two historic parties that have been vying for power since independence from Britain some seventy years ago. From being out in the political wilderness, the Rajapaksa juggernaut has not only returned, but largely routed its opposition in a spectacular recovery of fortune. But this is only the next step in what will likely be a long and somewhat tumultuous chain of events. To try and understand what will happen next, it is necessary to look at how Rajapaksa’s strengths and his opposition’s weaknesses led to such a victory. Should the SLPP party’s stratospheric rise continue, there are a number of paths that Sri Lanka could take in the near future. Most involve the country once more being tied to the fortunes of the indefatigable Rajapaksa dynasty, and all bear significant consequences for the wider world as the small but strategically vital island is forced to assess its future.

The results were striking. Sri Lanka Podujama Peramuna, dominated by the Rajapasksa clan, took over 40% of the vote. The United National Party, whose leader Ranil Wickramasinghe is currently the Prime Minister, followed with approximately 30%. Equal in magnitude to the SLPP victory was the fall of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, conventionally half of a two-party system with the UNP. The two-party system, it would seem, has remained, but Maithripala Sirisena, the country’s SLFP president, has lost all parliamentary authority and seemingly any hope of implementing his ambitious programme of post-Rajapaksa reform. The focuses of combatting corruption, addressing war crimes and stimulating the economy were part of the bright vision that overturned Rajapaksa’s presidency in 2015, but slow progress has meant Rajapaksa using these against Sirisena. By turning lack of progress into a vision of weak leadership, he can undermine the president and play to his own image as an authoritative, decisive former leader.

The most remarkable impression of the election is its parallels with Western populism. The rapid changes in domestic politics that enabled the rise of men like Macron and the ‘Brexit effect’ have been harnessed by Rajapaksa through his new image as an anti-establishment man. Macron’s use of this idea was controversial enough; a former finance minister is inevitably stuck with some level of political baggage. But for a former two-time president to accomplish a similar feat is on a different scale altogether. The message he gave out was twofold, and designed to cover maximum ground by tapping into two key voter concerns. The first was the platform on which he is traditionally popular and remains the enduring root of his popularity with the majority Sinhalese community: he is known widely as the man who brought an end to the decades-long civil war with the final defeat of the LTTE, known popularly as the Tamil Tigers. The war had become such a seemingly irresolvable issue, bleeding the country economically and sowing ethnic tensions, that for many allegations of war crimes against Rajapaksa’s government are outweighed by relief that the war was ended. International concern over the means does not, to many, taint the end. No other politician holds this unique accolade, although Rajapaksa himself may have overestimated its significance before he was ejected from office.

The second message, however, is what appears to have made the difference this time around. With a loyal base of Sinhalese support, Rajapaksa made a bold move in Sri Lankan politics. He chose to define himself by populism as well as an ethnic group. Historically, every major political movement in Sri Lanka has had ethnic affiliations. The United National Party, the main centre-right organisation and now the second-largest party in parliament, tends to sympathise with ethnic and religious minorities, whereas Sirisena’s left-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party traditionally had Sinhalese majority backing. Voter preferences are shaped as much by this as market versus planned economics, or ideological leanings. Rajapaksa turned the election from a simple local government poll into a mid-term judgement on the ruling coalition by pressing the key failings of the Sirisena administration. Strong leadership is a powerful idea, and when juxtaposed with a portrayal of the existing government as lacklustre and failing to achieve its aims, it can be welded into a major political force. Aiding this is the charismatic Rajapaksa brand, which he has maintained by rarely being out of the headlines since 2015. Continuing to comment on current affairs kept him an audience which he used to great effect in 2018, taking traditional SLFP voters over to his own party. His actual political allegiances seem fluid, the SLPP’s stance being centre-right and nationalist to the SLFP’s socialism, but none of this is necessary. The campaign was built on Rajapaksa, not his party, and this gained him the coverage that enabled him to set the election’s agenda himself.

The Sri Lankan constitution currently bars a president from serving more than two terms. Rajapaksa aimed to change this but Sirisena has since reaffirmed his commitment to the principle, limiting the former president’s options for regaining power. The position of Prime Minister in Sri Lanka has been greatly empowered by the Sirisena administration, seemingly as a check on presidential powers after Rajapaksa’s progressive centralisation of government that enabled him to hold many of the posts in his own cabinet. However, the election has left Wickramasinghe vulnerable, and on March 16th Rajapaksa stated that a no-confidence motion would be tabled within a week. It followed the next day. The motion has yet to be held, looking to be no easy ride for Rajapaksa who would rely on UNP defectors to gain a majority, but whatever the result a clear statement is made about his capabilities and ambitions. Proposing the motion over economic mismanagement, one of his staple criticisms of the coalition, Rajapaksa is seen to be delivering on his electoral promises whilst coming ever closer to removing the sitting prime minister. Were Sirisena forced to appoint Rajapaksa into this position, the Rajapaksa tail would thereafter be wagging the proverbial dog. Isolated without parliamentary support and with a newly empowered prime minister positioned to lead opposition to his already faltering programme, Sirisena’s days would be very much numbered. Currently, Wickramasinghe and Sirisena are all that stands between the resurgent Rajapaksa and the constitutional changes that would resurrect his presidency. The next few days will tell just how close he is to achieving his goal.