A family of strongmen are eyeing a return to power in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on Saturday, an outcome that could also shift the island nation back toward China.
The Rajapaksas, once a powerful force in the island nation’s politics who lost the presidency in 2015, are staging a comeback. This time Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, is running for the top job, backed by family members including his brother Mahinda, who enjoyed warm ties with Beijing during his 10-year rule.
His main opponent is Sajith Premadasa, 52, a member of the ruling alliance that took power four years ago vowing to push for greater democracy, more transparent finances and an independent foreign policy that improved ties with India and the U.S. He also hails from a prominent political dynasty: His father served as president for four years until he was killed by a suicide bomber in 1993.
While there are no reliable polls on who will come out on top, the two men represent a stark choice for voters. A Rajapaksa victory could mean a throwback to the old authoritarian ways where opposing the government could have dangerous consequences. Premadasa focuses on national reconciliation in a country still recovering from a prolonged civil war and also promises greater market-based economic reforms.
At stake is the stability of a nation that has increasing strategic importance due in part to its proximity to some of the world’s most important sea lines. The winner will inherit an economy where growth has slowed to a more than five-year low of 1.6% in the quarter ended June, a debt level hovering at 83 per cent of gross domestic product and minority communities still reeling from the aftermath of deadly Easter bombings on churches and hotels.
There are fears that a Rajapaksa win “will return Sri Lanka to an era of impunity for human rights abuses and corruption,” said Paul Staniland, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago who specializes in researching political violence and international security in South Asia. “At a broad level, Sri Lanka would likely tilt back toward China,” he added, even though Rajapaksa hasn’t fully embraced Beijing on the campaign trail.
Two recent events are looming over the election. One is a constitutional crisis last year when the current president sought to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister instead of Ranil Wickremesinghe, a bid that ultimately failed when the Supreme Court shot it down. The other is the April bombings that killed some 250 people.
“If the constitutional coup brought it right back to why we care about governance, the Easter attack brought it right back to why we care about security,” Nishan De Mel, the executive director of the Colombo-based risk analysis group Verite Research, said in an interview. The coup lost points for the Rajapaksas, he said: “It reminded everybody why they voted them out.”
The campaign of Rajapaksa, fronting the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna -- a Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist party -- may hinge on whether voters are ready to re-embrace the man who was defense secretary in 2009 when the military crushed a three-decade long Tamil insurgency. Gotabaya’s role during the end of the civil war drew allegations of widespread human rights abuses.
If Gotabaya wins, he’ll bring his family with him. Mahinda, who was briefly appointed prime minister last year during a constitutional crisis, is looking to get that job back. Another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is serving as Gotabaya’s campaign manager. Mahinda’s son is also now a member of parliament.
During his decade in power, Mahinda borrowed heavily from Beijing to fund infrastructure projects after the war ended. One of them, a port in southern Hambantota, lost money and was eventually sold to a state-owned Chinese firm by the current government in a much-criticized debt-to-equity swap on a 99-year lease.
Gotabaya may withdraw from or renegotiate international commitments that don’t serve the country’s interests, including those with China, according to Nivard Cabraal, a former central bank governor who’s tipped to be finance minister under a Rajapaksa government.
“We will renegotiate the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement,” he said. “We have to have a discussion and see if we can come up with something that is workable for both countries.”
Cabraal also flagged that a Rajapaksa government would renegotiate the terms of the country’s IMF program and the port deal with China. “We don’t want to have ownership of our strategic assets being with any country, not China, not the U.S., not anyone.”
‘Good v Evil’
Premadasa’s team sees the election as a turning point for Sri Lanka’s future, although they have some work to do to convince the general public.
The fact that he’s the candidate, and not Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, shows just how little faith citizens have in the current administration. Whatever advances the government made on political reforms during their four-year rule have been overshadowed by their inability to tackle corruption and the significant security failures that led to the Easter bombings.
“Whether we win or lose, this is about right versus wrong, about good versus evil,” said Harsha de Silva, Minister for Economic Reforms in the current government. “This is about exclusion versus inclusion. It’s about whether this country will be sustained or not.”
De Silva acknowledged voters were angry with the government over corruption despite moves to make peace within communities fractured by war and ensuring land was returned to Tamil minorities. Premadasa plans to focus on reducing import duties, reforming taxes and state-owned enterprises, and opening up the economy for foreign investment.
“We have to be like Singapore, we have to be like Dubai,” De Silva said in an interview in his office in Colombo.
To win, Premadasa will need the support of the minority Tamil and Muslim populations that together form about 25 per cent of the country’s population. For the country’s Tamil minority at least, a lot rides on Premadasa’s success.
Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who leads the Tamil National Alliance, has been critical of the government, particularly the security failures around the Easter attacks. But it’s the return of a Rajapaksa-led administration that worries him most.
“They have been dictatorial, they have not respected other government institutions like the legislature and the judiciary,” Sampanthan said from his modest bungalow in the north eastern town of Trincomalee. “It is a one-man show, and a one-family show.”
The new government must work on a durable political solution to give Tamil people adequate powers in the areas they have historically lived, he said, adding: “They need a sense of belonging to this country.”
And the 86-year-old doesn’t think that’s possible under a Rajapaksa government.
“This country has no future unless this problem is resolved,” he said. “Nobody will want to invest in this country. We are deep in debt with no way out -- we need a new vision.”