GP Insights

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GP Insights # 188, 23 November 2018

Sri Lanka: Return of the Rajapaksas
Aparupa Bhattacherjee

What happened?
On 16 November 2019, the eighth presidential election was held in Sri Lanka. Out of 39 candidates contesting, Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party (SLPP) won the election with 52.25 per cent. His immediate contender Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP) has received 43.8 per cent of the total vote. 

Gotabaya immediately has appointed a 16-member interim cabinet to be headed by his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the newly appointed Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Mahinda has been the former President of the country till 2015. Gotabaya has also promised to call for a snap parliamentary election, soon.

What is the background?
The snap parliamentary election will play a significant role for the Rajapaksas and their new SLPP party. Currently, the SLPP and its allies have only 96 legislators which is not sufficient to pass any legislation. The party needs to gain a majority in the 255 members Parliament in this election.

If Rajapaksa secures the majority in the Parliament it will have an impact on the ethno-religious fabric of the country. In this current election, it was clear that the majority of voters who have elected Gotabaya are Sinhalese. Gotabaya who was the defence minister during his brother's tenure is revered as a war hero by Sinhalese. But to Tamils and other liberals, he is remembered for executing extra-judicial deaths, kidnapping, and threats. Nonetheless, the recent Easter bombing on 21 April and the failure on behalf of the previous government, paved the easy road for his win. Gotabaya, who promised security and the better defence was automatically taken to be the best choice by most, except the minorities.

The majority of Tamil and Muslim voted for Premadasa. The Tamil’s lack of support towards the Tamil National Alliance Party is due to anger towards their representative and past inabilities to do much.

What does it mean?
First, the victory of Gotabaya in Sri Lanka follows the same pattern and is part of the wave of the rise of populism in South Asia. Even before the elections, most of the analysts were confident of his win. Though, given his history, the enormous votes he received were surprising. Also, Sujith Premadasa was a strong opponent, given his lineage of being a former President’s son and also being a vibrant leader. Thus, Gotabaya was win brought another populist to power.

Second, this election made the divide within UNP evident. The oldest and once most respected party of Sri Lanka lost not only this election but also respect due to the in-fight between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa.

Third, as aforementioned the ethnic and religious divide is more prominent in this election. Gotabaya who is previously known to support the Buddhist Sinhala nationalists could make the situation worse. Although he has claimed to work with other minorities too for the larger national development it seems farfetched, given his record. 

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