the rajapaksa brothers are back in sri lanka - The Rajapaksa brothers are back in Sri Lanka

A convincing win for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential election divides the electorate on communal lines


FOR NEARLY ten years the Rajapaksa family ran Sri Lanka. Now, after a five-year hiatus and a bit of a reshuffle, they are back. On November 16th an unprecedented 84% of voters turned out to crown Gotabaya Rajapaksa president, handing him well over half the votes in a crowded field of 35 candidates. Mr Rajapaksa had served as defence chief during the 2005-15 reign of his brother Mahinda. The latter, blocked by the constitution from becoming head of state again, is likely to serve as his younger brother’s prime minister.

This electoral outcome had been widely predicted. In fact, it was something of a surprise that Mahinda had ever left office. He was and remains popular with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which credited him and his brothers with bringing a bloody 26-year insurrection by Tamil separatists to an end in 2009. It was only when a trusted lieutenant, Maithripala Sirisena, defected to the opposition, bringing with him a slice of Sinhalese voters disgusted with the cronyism of the Rajapaksas’ rule, that the older Mr Rajapaksa became vulnerable. A rickety coalition comprised of Sinhalese backers of economic reform and Tamils and other minorities, horrified at the government’s brutality in the final days of the war, allowed Mr Sirisena to scrape into office, by a margin of just four percentage points.

This electoral alliance proved unwieldy from the outset, however, leaving the government a sitting duck for sniping from the Rajapaksas’ formidable political machine. Vicious fighting between Mr Sirisena and his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a suave, pro-Western parlour politician, rendered policies incoherent and ineffective. As the debts that had been racked up under the Rajapaksas came due, necessary austerity measures became an easy target for critics. Foreseeing his own political demise, Mr Sirisena tried to defect back to the Rajapaksas. His attempt last October to mount a “constitutional coup” against Mr Wickremesinghe, and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, was slapped down by the supreme court. The result was a still more dysfunctional government, with agencies under the president’s control refusing to communicate with ministries under Mr Wickremesinghe.

If ordinary Sri Lankans were not yet dismayed enough, a locally-spawned terror group inspired by Islamic State launched a shatteringly destructive series of attacks last Easter, killing more than 250 churchgoers and tourists. It was not just the scale and suddenness of the carnage that horrified ordinary Sri Lankans, but the failure of the authorities to take obvious preventive steps, despite repeated signs and warnings from friendly governments. The security agencies under Mr Sirisena were especially delinquent, but the aloofness of the prime minister raised hackles, too.

This mix of administrative incoherence and incompetence, plus voters’ feeling that a strong hand was needed to prevent further terrorism, provided a typhoon-scale tailwind for the Rajapaksas’ return. Indeed, the electoral results show that the coalition that pushed the Rajapaksas from power in 2015 has fallen apart, with most Sinhalese reverting to the Rajapaksa camp. The support of Gotabaya’s closest rival, Sajith Premadasa, who won 42% of the vote, seems to have derived overwhelmingly from Tamils and Muslims (most of whom speak Tamil, but are regarded as a separate ethnicity in Sri Lanka).

Sri Lankan society, in other words, is becoming worryingly polarised. Most Sinhalese seem to be willing to look past the Rajapaksas’ authoritarian instincts and clan-based politics. Minorities, on the other hand, appear frightened at the treatment such a government might mete out to them. Last time around, Mahinda Rajapaksa bullied the press and judges and tried to remain in office by amending the constitution, among other disturbing tactics. If Gotabaya saw any problem with that, he has not said so. Indeed, the main hope now for liberal Sri Lankans is that the two brothers fall out, rendering the new government as ineffective as the outgoing one.

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