Rajapaksa’s party poised to sweep polls amid fears of growing fascism

The question is whether the Rajapaksa brothers will be able to get two-third majority they are seeking

Rajapaksas
Mahinda Rajapaksa with his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa | File Photo

Sri Lanka is poised to hold the most expensive election the country has ever witnessed. The Election Commission is hoping not to exceed Rs.(SL) 10 billion, though in the final count, it could outstrip the target. Holding national elections in the middle of a pandemic is not easy, even for a small island state, considering the precautions that need to be taken to ensure that social distancing is maintained, and masks and gloves provided to all voters.

There was talk for a time of postponing the elections, which was earlier scheduled for April. But concerns were raised about the suspension of the Parliament, and so despite the worry of spreading Covid-19, it was decided to go ahead while taking all necessary precautions. The elections are scheduled for Wednesday (August 5).

It is a given that the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumuna (SLPP), a party made up of Rajapaksa loyalists, will be the winners. The question is whether the Rajapaksa brothers will be able to get the two-third majority they are seeking.

The 2019 Presidential polls brought back the Rajapaksas with a bang. While younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as president, he appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, as prime minister. But as the Parliament did not reflect the new power structure, and the opposition members dominated, the President dissolved the House and called for elections on April 25, six months before its term expired. But the pandemic led to pushing back the date. Now, however, the SLPP is confident that they will sweep the parliamentary polls. The local press reported Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa as saying that his party is poised to get the required two-third majority. After the mayhem created by the tussle within the former ruling alliance, a strong government was what the people in southern Sri Lanka, the home base of the Rajapaksas, yearned for. The SLPP stands for pro-majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist sentiments, with strong arm tactics used to silence those opposed to the government. That was the hallmark of Mahinda’s presidency and is likely to continue with his brother.

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The emphasis on the two-third majority is because the government wants to do away with the 19th amendment to the Constitution which was brought in by the previous national coalition government headed by SLFP president Maithripala Sirisena and UNP prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This unlikely alliance between two of the bitterest rivals of Sri Lankan politics naturally could not last. But in the heady days of 2015, just after defeating strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new alliance wanted to make sure that never again could a president gather so much executive authority. But the executive president was not the creation of Mahinda Rajapaksa. It began with the UNP’s master strategist and former president JR Jaywardene. He believed that the president needed executive powers to deal with the grave threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were fighting for independence in the early eighties.

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Through the 18th amendment to the Constitution, Mahinda Rajapaksa had ensured that the two-term limit for a presidential term was done away with in 2010, so he could contest again. All independent commissions looking into excesses of the government in power would come directly under the president. In 2015, the Parliament, through the 19th amendment, made sure that the enormous powers of the president were scrapped and the prime minister’s position restored. The Rajapaksas want to scrap the 19th amendment and restore the executive presidency. For now, the brothers are on the same page, but how Mahinda Rajapaksa finally reconciles to playing second fiddle to Gotabaya remains to be seen.

It is more or less certain that the SLPP will win the majority of parliamentary seats. Whether Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) will be able to win enough seats to make a mark is not at all certain. Though the UNP, a business-friendly right-wing political party, always had a major support base in the country, infighting has led to a faction walking out. The leader of this group is none other than Sajith Premadasa, son of former UNP president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, a grass-root politician much loved by the masses. He was assassinated in office. Sajith fell out with Ranil Wickremesinghe and formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Many UNP members believe that he should not have left, and instead bided his time to take a shot at the next presidential elections. However, Premadasa was impatient and felt constricted within the UNP.

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The JVP is the other party in the fray. The JVP had its roots in an extreme left-wing ideology. But over the years it degenerated into a pro-Sinhala party. The JVP, however, is the only party that has openly said it would oppose the government’s attempts to scrap the 19th amendment. Significantly, both Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP and Sajith Premadasa’s SJB have kept their options open and not committed themselves to doing so. Probably, this would be their negotiating card with the government if the need arises in the future.

The Tamil National Alliance is representing the Tamil minority of the northern and eastern provinces. Here, Sajith Premadasa has a good base. His father Ransinghe Premadasa had joined hands with LTTE chief Prabhakaran against the Indian presence in the north and eastern province. He demanded that the Indian peacekeeping force stationed in the Tamil areas leave Sri Lankan soil. The Tamils will definitely not vote for the Rajapaksa party, as it was during their rule that the LTTE was eliminated in a brutal campaign by the Sri Lankan army. The army, as well as the Rajapaksa brothers, were charged with widespread human rights abuse during the last stage of the military campaign.

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The concern among Sri Lankan liberals and NGOs is to ensure that people vote in a strong opposition to the SLPP. Considering the weak state of the opposition, there is the fear that the Rajapaksa brother will not only do away with the 19th amendment, but work for a new Constitution where the executive president will have all the powers.

Fascist forces are on the rise across the globe and Sri Lanka is no exception. A weak Parliament filled with Rajapaksa loyalists will ensure that the bad old days of Mahinda’s presidency is back. Anti-government NGOs and journalists criticising the government, as well as the minorities, were hounded out. The hope is to vote in the opposition in suitable numbers to act as a check on the government.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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