Opposition disarray helps the Rajapaksas tighten their hold on power in Sri Lanka
The Rajapaksas have consolidated their hold on power, garnering a near two-thirds majority in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. The victory was expected, but it is not often, under the proportional representation system, that a party reaches that milestone. The SLPP, founded four years ago by former President Mahinda Rajapaka, has won 145 seats, and with the help of minority allies, will reach the coveted 150 mark in a House of 225. The party may now have the numbers to amend the Constitution and undo the two-term limit and other curbs on presidential powers imposed by the 19th Amendment passed by a predecessor regime. The reasons behind this landslide are clear. Majoritarian nationalism, the party’s trump card, was boosted by the unprecedented disarray in the Opposition ranks. The people, yearning for development and debt relief, appear not to have forgotten the failings of the four-year rule of Maitripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe — rivals who had come together in 2015 on a promise of good governance to defeat Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. That regime was marked by incessant squabbling, allegations of corruption and a marked failure to boost the weakening economy. Its crowning failure was the inability to act on advance intelligence about the Easter bombings that left more than 250 dead. The UNP suffered a massive split, as a large section broke away under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa, leaving its leader and former PM Wickremesinghe waging a weak and, ultimately, losing battle. He failed to retain his own seat, and his party was able to win just a solitary seat.
As a result, Sri Lanka witnesses a peculiar legislature in which its two major post-Independence parties, the UNP and the SLFP have next to no presence. The lone SLFP candidate to win was a Tamil candidate in Jaffna. That Sri Lanka, armed with an impressive public health infrastructure and backed by a well-enforced lockdown, contained the coronavirus spread, was another point in favour of President Gotabaya. Former President Sirisena managed to retain his seat, if not his relevance, by fighting on an SLPP ticket. The Tamil minority appears to have imparted some realism into its otherwise fiercely nationalistic voting pattern. It has not wholly backed the TNA, its main representative for years, but instead voted for alternative parties, in what is a clear setback to the TNA. The results may reflect growing backing for a development plank rather than harping on an elusive political solution to their national question. Now that it has even greater control, the ruling SLPP should work towards fulfilling the people’s economic and developmental aspirations instead of seeking to undo the gains from the 19th Amendment. It must also address concerns about creeping militarisation and guard against the return to an era of democratic deficit that the country sought to overcome in 2015.