The press in Sri Lanka, especially the Sinhala press has been avidly following the progress of the proposed alliance between the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) quite closely. The center piece of this attraction has been the choice of its presidential candidate, seemingly a choice between incumbent President Sirisena and former Defense Secretary and Rajapaksa sibling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Furthermore, the first-place finish of the SLPP in last year’s local government election, does make its candidate a serious contender if not the front runner in such an election. In that context, political insiders state that at a family conclave late last week, the Rajapaksas decided on the presidential candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Media reports regarding the same stated that the strategy adopted, given that there is still about seven or eight months more for the constitutionally mandated November or December election, is that Gotabaya will continue to promote his candidacy through his own organization “Eliya” while the SLPP will continue with building its grass roots network through the process of community consultations in the villages. Accordingly, the policies and politics followed by the SLPP and its presumptive presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, merits serious consideration, given its potential for being national policy under a new Rajapaksa presidency. Albeit, Gotabaya rather than Mahinda.
The Mahinda Chinthanaya in retrospect
Sri Lankan politics post the war’s end in 2009, is indeed a new era, now entering its second decade in May 2019. Mahinda Rajapaksa understood this very well, when as president addressing parliament after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, he stated that there was now, no longer the excuse of a war to blame for a lack of national development. Accordingly, Sri Lanka, her economy and her society must take off on a development drive of peace and prosperity. The people of Sri Lanka accepted him at his word and the following year in 2010 accorded him Sri Lanka’s second highest presidential election mandate at 57.8% of the popular vote, second only to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s record setting mandate of 62.3% of the popular vote at the presidential election of 1994. It is worth noting that Mahinda at his zenith in 2010, was significantly behind CBK at her own high point in 1994.
A China centric foreign policy
The Rajapaksa second term or the implementation of the Chinthanaya’s “idiri dekma” or way forward, resulted in the imprisonment of the war winning army commander who was his presidential election opponent, the impeachment of the Chief Justice, a China centric foreign policy detrimental to Sri Lanka’s regional and wider global interests, high foreign debt driven white elephant projects of little utility value, the reduction of democratic space and personal freedoms, the rise of majoritarian extremist organizations engaged in anti-Muslim violence and the complete absence of any post war reconciliation as per the recommendations of either the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and / or President Rajapaksa’s own All Party Conference (APC) and its executive arm, the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). The Rajapaksa Administration’s second term, engaged in massive political overreach in the democracy truncating 18th amendment to the constitution and mercifully ended one year ahead of its five-year term, by calling and losing an early election in 2015, to seek an unprecedented third term after four years.
Gotabhaya – old wine in a new bottle
So, what would a third Rajapaksa Administration, but a Gotabaya Chinthanaya look like? The noises emanating from both “Eliya” and the SLPP seem to indicate, that despite the new packaging, the game plan remains the same. Polarize society through a ratcheting up of ethnic Sinhala nationalist rhetoric and also seek to capitalize on dissatisfaction on non-delivery of expectations and promises by the political forces, now in government, which defeated them in 2015.
There is also on display a distressing disregard for democratic, civil, political and human rights, with the general thrust, that what Sri Lanka requires is a strong leadership, which has been weakened as a result of democratic discourse and processes. This argument of course is not new, but several thousand years old, articulated first in the Senate of the old Roman Empire, during its decline. Where the Roman Senate centralized more and more powers in the emperor for the protection of the empire, but to no avail. In fact, the term dictator originates from an appointment during an emergency of a Roman Magistrate by the Roman Senate as “Dictator” whose diktat or decree was absolute and law. Fascist political theory and practice, mostly in Europe in the middle of the last century, came closest to a modern articulation of these theories and practices.
The Rajapaksas have learnt one lesson from their defeat in 2015, which is that governance matters. The Sri Lankan electorate was not short on nationalist rhetoric during that election. We had Rajapaksa propaganda which rivalled that of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, but ultimately insufficient to win the election. Sri Lankans just did not feel that they were well governed or their interests served by the Rajapaksa Administration. Towards this end, Gotabaya is being packaged by his handlers, as a non-politician, a professional who can get the job done. A technocrat.
It is interesting that Gotabaya and Eliya sat out the local government elections last year, which the SLPP won, with Gotabaya watching from the US and Eliya studiously silent. Currently they articulate a critique of the UNF, but have not clearly articulated their own program. Moreover, had Mahinda’s “October 2018” revolution succeeded it would have put a damper on Gotabaya’s presidential prospects, but that is water under the bridge. However, Rajapaksa policies and politics have lost thrice now, the latest being the failure to obtain a parliamentary majority in October / November last year despite the President’s own estimation of an inducement of several hundred million Rupees per potential cross over MP. The SLPP did secure 40% of the vote in February 2018, well short of the 50% required for a presidential election victory. Whether Eliya can persuade another 10% of the electorate, perhaps those who voted SLFP in 2018, to support Mr. Rajapaksa in a presidential election, we will know by year end. Current previews of what Gotabaya Chinthanaya may look like, most likely resembles, the Mahinda Chinthanaya repackaged with a fresh face. Fine wine does improve with age, if produced, bottled and stored properly. Given the taste of Rajapaksa rule from 2010-2014, many Sri Lankans may think closely about wanting the latest vintage from Madamullane in Belliatte.
(This article was first published in The Island 18.03.19)