Rajapaksas' victory sets stage for sweeping constitutional changes in Lanka

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) as president and his brother Mahinda as prime minister can do exactly as they like with no confusion about dual poles of power
Former Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe was the embodiment of self-confidence as he, a week ahead of the country’s parliamentary election, told reporters: “The higher the number of votes cast, the better for the UNP (United National Party, the biggest Opposition party in the outgoing Parliament).”

On August 5, the election day, just over 12 million people voted (12,343,309) — around 71 per cent of all registered voters,  lower than the 77 per cent in the last parliamentary election that brought Wickremesinghe to power. But on 5 August 2020, the UNP could win just one seat out of a total of 225. Wickeremesinghe lost his seat.

Although everyone expected the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to win, the proportion of the landslide victory is staggering. This means that now the Rajapaksa administration — Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president and his brother Mahinda as prime minister — can do exactly as it likes with no confusion about dual poles of power. In the last government,  President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe squabbled, both publicly and privately. 

The worst outcome of this that could happen, happened. The Easter Sunday bombings (2019) by radical Islamists was the result of intelligence warnings being ignored and crossed wires in the chain of command. It could easily have been avoided. 

While the people of Sri Lanka have punished Wickeremesinghe, Sirisena won his seat from Polonnaruwa, one of the high seats of Sinhala Buddhist thinking, with the highest number of votes. This tells us about the depth of the endorsement for Sinhala Buddhism as principal political ideology of the nation, going forward.

An analysis of the outcome

This election is going to be a turning point for Sri Lanka for many reasons. In the last parliamentary election, the UNP was able to present such a good showing mainly because of its stellar performance in the island’s north and east, dominated by Sri Lanka’s minorities — the Muslims and Tamils. Mahinda was president and Gotabaya was defence minister when V Prabhakaran, the leader guerilla group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was killed in 2009 following a military campaign by the Sri Lanka Army. Prabhakaran was seen as a symbol of the protector of Tamil identity, erased by the Rajapaksas. In the previous election, the Tamils voted for Tamil parties but also for the UNP in large numbers. This gave an edge to the UNP, helping it form the government.

This time, there is a change. In the Tamil-dominated Jaffna and Wanni provinces, the popularity of the Tamil parties has declined and affiliates of the Rajapaksa-led SLPP have managed to win some seats, on the back of promises of employment, infrastructure, and other bijli-sadak-paani issues. And the voters have been enthusiastic: Jaffna has not seen such a large turnout (above 76 per cent) for decades. In the two regions, the turnout was higher than the national average. Even in the Muslim-dominated areas, the SLPP managed to win a few.

What all this means

If the last government was plagued by lack of leadership and division, this government now doesn’t need to make any political compromises. It has the numbers to deliver sweeping constitutional changes to increase the executive authority of the presidency, as promised by the Rajapaksas in both this and earlier presidential elections.

The issue is also the 19th Amendment, which aims to correct the asymmetry between the president’s and the prime minister’s powers. The amendment aims to vastly reduce the executive powers of the president, distributing them evenly between the prime minister, Parliament, and other democratic institutions. The amendment flows from the belief that the weakening of the presidency led to inefficient governance and weak security policies. Of course, the downside is that unless crafted with proper checks and balances, and given the underlay of family ties, the new system could end up being worse than the old one.

Foreign policy implications

It goes without saying that the new government is going to favour China. And the tilt could be more than previously imagined because of Sri Lanka’s economic problems as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of 2019, the country's external debt stood at 67 per cent of its $84 billion GDP. Many of these debts in the public sector are due later this year, at a time when slowing economic growth and consistently high imports have meant the country’s foreign reserves are limited.

“With Covid-19, the tourism sector is completely shut, and foreign remittances are declining and exports are disrupted,” political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar told local reporters. Fitch Ratings says: “Sri Lanka’s stressed external liquidity position is set to remain a weakness for the country’s credit profile. Policymakers may be able to offer more clarity about their economic agenda once elections are held on August 5, but hurdles to accessing additional external financing support will persist.” This means economic priorities will drive foreign policy stances. For India, this may spell trouble as its leverage in the island is now extremely low.

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