Beyond the landslide

Wednesday, 19 August 2020 00:20 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 For SLPP core voters – who probably average around 40% of the electorate - Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are saviours who can do no wrong – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

“These days 

Are crowded with shattered horizons,


Tahir Hamut Izgil, Uighur poet (Quoted in Uighur Poets on Repression and Exile – Joshua L Freeman – The NY Review of Books – 13.8.2020)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

The SLPP’s victory was a show-stopper. No denials possible, no debates necessary.

Yet – and this is most remarkable take away from that victory – the SLPP had not managed to increase its electoral base between December 2019 and August 2020. Not even by a single vote. 

At the presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa scored 6.92 million votes. At the parliamentary election, the SLPP vote count was 6.85 million. In the seven and a half months between presidential and parliamentary polls, the SLPP lost 70,565 votes.

The SLPP won its jaw-dropping victory not because it was more popular in August 2020 than it was in November 2019. That victory had three main architects – Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Basil Rajapaksa. 

The parliamentary election was the SLPP’s to lose. But its victory would have been an ordinary rather than an extraordinary one, had it not been for a drop in voter turnout and an unprecedented increase in rejected votes. Given past voting patterns, it’s reasonable to assume that the abstentions and the spoliations were caused primarily by voter anger/disgust at the conduct of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. Unwilling to see beyond their narrow leadership obsessions, the two men split the main opposition party at the onset of one of the most crucial electoral contests in the history of Sri Lanka. By doing so, they help turn what would have been a normal SLPP victory into a historical one.

Last week, several newspapers carried full-page full-colour ads by an unknown organisation called ‘WE Sri Lanka’. The ads hailed the SLPP victory and contained just one massive photograph, that of Basil Rajapaksa. The tribute is fitting, since the SLPP’s victory was also due to the alliances he cobbled with the SLFP and minority parties. 

The alliance with the SLFP was particularly important in electoral terms. At the local government election of 2018, the SLFP, contesting alone, won 12% of the vote. The SLPP came first in that election, but scored only 40% of the national vote, inadequate for an outright win at a presidential election or a comfortable majority in a parliamentary election. Bringing the SLFP under the SLPP banner was the only way forward for the Rajapaksas, a task Basil Rajapaksa fulfilled successfully. The fact that 14 SLFP candidates were elected to parliament indicates that the party has managed to retain most of its 2018 vote base, something the Rajapaksas can disregard only at their own peril.

In 2010 too, the UPFA won a spectacular victory with 60.3% of the vote (higher than the SLPP”s 59.1% in 2020; its seat tally was lower due to the method used to compute seat allocations). The government gained a two-thirds majority by engineering shifts in the parliamentary balance, amended the constitution to suit the needs of Mahinda Rajapaksa and thought familial rule was here to stay for the next 50 years – and lost it in just five. 

The same internal contradictions that brought down the first Rajapaksa government are present in embryonic form in the second Rajapaksa government. The manner in which cabinet and state ministries were formed and divided, for example, demonstrates a level of arrogance and insensitivity (especially towards the SLFP) that can backfire. But those seeds of unravelling may not germinate for a long while, given how fallow the oppositional field is.


Militarisation with Rajapaksa characteristics

Two trends are clearly visible in the new regime.

One is greater militarisation. The subject of Home Affairs had been disconnected from the Ministry of Public Administration, Provincial Councils and Local Government and placed under the Ministry of Defence, a telling and worrying development. Consequently, district and divisional secretariats (as well as the police) now come under the broad umbrella of the Defence Ministry. And the secretary to that ministry is retired general Kamal Gunaratne who, at a Viyath Maga seminar in October 2017, branded as traitors anyone supporting a new constitution and said they deserve death and an ignominious funeral. 

In another first (and one screaming of wrong optics), a retired military man has been appointed as the secretary to the Foreign Ministry, a move aimed at keeping effective control of the ministry – and the country’s foreign relations – in the hands of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

The Department of Archaeology has been brought under the Ministry of Defence. In another telling move, Christian, Hindu and Islamic religious affairs have been placed under the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs, with Sinhala Buddhist cabinet and state ministers. To drive the message home, the minister in charge, Mahinda Rajapaksa, assumed his duties at the Gangarama Temple.

None of this would mean greater protection of our national heritage be it human-made or natural. For example, the Kurunegala mayor, having successfully evaded four police teams seeking to arrest him for bulldozing a historical building, is not only back in circulation; he has also obtained the approval of the Kurunegala Municipal Council to pay him Rs. 2.18 million to cover his legal expenses ( In another case in point, the army is being used to construct a road through the Sinharaja Forest, a national and world heritage ( The only thing that is truly sacred under Rajapaksa rule is the Family.

We are experiencing militarisation on steroids. It is also militarisation with Rajapaksa characteristics. Disembowelling democracy is a top priority for the Gotabaya-Mahinda government even more than it was for the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. Since the military remains popular with the Sinhala majority, using it to denude democratic spaces and weaken democratic control would make sense. That way de-democratisation can be packaged and presented to the majority community as patriotism and managerial efficiency. It is also a way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to keep key components of the state under his thumb, unofficially, thereby increasing his own share of the state-pie.

The military is being instrumentalised as never before, but it is not in control. 

The Family is in control, as the shape and allocation of cabinet and state-ministry portfolios indicate. 

Joe Biden, former US vice president and current presidential candidate, recently referred to himself as a bridge to the future. Pointing to senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker (both of them non-White) he added, “There is an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa are over 70 years of age. They may not consider themselves as mere bridges to the future, but that is what they are in truth. And the future they lead to is a Rajapaksa one, starting with Brother Basil (who is likely to enter parliament and assume his position as heir-apparent, once the 19th Amendment is gone). Behind him are the next wave of Rajapaksa leavers – Namal Rajapaksa, Shasheendra Rajapaksa, and the newcomer Nipuna Ranawaka (the son of a Rajapaksa sister). 

Young Ranawaka’s candidacy created some dissension within the SLPP at the district level and even resulted in a violent clash between his supporters and supporters of more senior candidates. In the end, Nipuna Ranawaka came first in Matara, beating the veteran Dulles Alahapperuma to third place, proving that the SLPP is quintessentially a Rajapaksa party, in the way the SLFP/UPFA never was – therefore more committed to reshaping the Lankan state as a Rajapaksa state.

“Mahinda is a politics. Mahinda is a philosophy. Mahinda is the complete cultural-morality this country needs. Therefore it is a separate religion like philosophy. Learn it.” This was said by the monk-custodian of the historic Mirisewetiya Temple (Lanka News Web – 14.8.2020). Doubtless there will be other monks ready, willing and able to make even more mind-boggling claims for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. And most SLPP loyalists will see these claims not as sycophantic grotesquery, but expressions of their own deeply held beliefs. 

For SLPP core voters – who probably average around 40% of the electorate - Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are saviours who can do no wrong. But will this veneration extend to the younger members of the family or even to Brother Basil? Unlikely. Therefore, some day, when the two older Rajapaksas are no more, a politico-emotional vacuum will be created in the Rajapaksa support base which the living Rajapaksas cannot fill – which the military – with the backing of a segment of the monks – might want to.

So long as Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa are in control, militarisation can endanger everything else, except the Rajapaksa family. But in a future sans the two, the military might not be content to remain a mere instrument. And the uniformed chickens might well come to Medamulana to roost. 


Opposition: Death by a thousand self-inflicted cuts

In the parliamentary election, the opposition had one task – preventing the Gotabaya-Mahinda government from obtaining a two-thirds majority. 

The opposition failed, miserably. It failed not because the goal was unreachable, but because the Ranil faction and the Sajith faction were too busy tackling each other to even take the first step in that direction. The election should have been a contest against the Rajapaksas. Instead the actual and aspirant leaders of the UNP turned it into a fight against each other. They prioritised petty and personal over national. Instead of uniting to strengthen the elephant, they decapitated the poor beast. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s long political journey is over, barring raising Lazarus type miracle. Those squabbling to fill his diminished shoes are way more Lilliputian on every conceivable count. Sajith Premadasa will be the new leader of the opposition, but the chances that he will effectively lead the opposition to the Rajapaksas are minimal, starting with mounting a spirited defence of the 19th Amendment. 

The UNP (including under Ranasinghe Premadasa) never won a national election without minority support. Losing the backing of minority parties helped undo Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sajith Premadasa’s SJB would have performed far worse, had it not gained the backing of several minority parties, including the SLMC. This is to his credit. Instead of being proud of his achievement, Sajith Premadasa seems almost ashamed of it. This is probably due to his obvious desire to turn his new political formation into a pale version of the SLPP. Instead of standing up to national populism he wants to ride a lesser wave of it to the president’s house in 2025.

According to a US-wide survey, the naked racism of the Trump presidency has not led to an increase in White racism in America. The survey covered self-reported attitudes and prejudices of White Americans between 2008 and 2018, and concluded that “via most measures, White Americans’ expressed anti-Black and anti-Hispanic prejudice declined after Trump’s political emergence” (The Rise of Trump, The Fall of Prejudice? Tracking White Americans’ Racial Attitudes Via A Panel Survey, 2008–2018 – Daniel J Hopkins – University of Pennsylvania). These findings have been proven by increased White support for the recent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

This improvement did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in a context where the Democratic Party and the broader anti-Trump opposition refused to partake in even a paler form of racism. Instead of pandering to White insecurities and fears and becoming a paler version of Trump, his opponents used the last several years to educate and inform the public about the nature and the danger of racism. By doing so, they helped to make racism less acceptable, less attractive.

In Sri Lanka, neither mainstream politicians nor mainstream media have taken a clear stand against Sinhala-Buddhist supermacism. Instead the practice of looking at any problem through ethnic or religious perspective is tolerated by politicians and popularised by the media. This will enable the Rajapaksas to turn economic distress into religious and racial animus and divert attention from economic pains by igniting anti-minority fires, once again. 

There is nothing desirable or inevitable in the political mainstream absorbing less virulent parts of national populism. In the US, the Democratic Party proved this in 2018 midterm elections; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may do so again come November. But we were there first. The Lankan opposition defeated the Rajapaksas in 2015 on an agenda of political democratisation and socio-economic progressivism. Its mistake was to abandon its commitments once in government. That is a lesson the opposition need to remember as we face the might of a revitalised Rajapaksa juggernaut. 


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