Piyadasa Edirisuriya – The rise and the grand fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa

This is a guest post by Piyadasa Edirisuriya from Monash Business School at Monash University. It is based on his recent article in Asian Survey

Mahinda Rajapaksha, former President of Sri Lanka became a member of parliament in 1970 as the youngest member of the parliament at that time. Rajapaksha climbed to the very top by becoming the President of Sri Lanka in 2005. However, during his presidency, many blamed the Rajapaksha regime for corruptions, nepotism and human rights violations. When Rajapaksha contested the presidency for the first time, he won 50.29% of the vote compared to his rival Ranil Wickramasinghe who received 48.43%. Following his election, he established his power all over the country by a number of ways. In the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksha obtained 57.88% of the vote compared to the common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka (an army commander who survived suicide an LTTE attack and fought the war to the end) who won only 40.15% of the vote. The significant number of votes obtained by Rajapaksha was mainly due to the war victory against the LTTE. Throughout his political life, Rajapaksha had an appeal for the majority of Sinhala people who live in rural parts of the country.

The 2010 election victory made Rajapaksha more powerful and popular than ever as he won by a significant margin. This win gave him more confidence to abuse power in a substantial way. He promoted himself as ‘the liberator of nation from terrorism’ and systematically began to supress anybody who challenged his position. He started this strategy by arresting his onetime army commander and presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka. In fact, General Fonseka was the military commander who defeated the LTTE militarily. General Fonseka’s arrest was brutal as well as very quick. When the general public and some leading Buddhist monks attempted to protest against this arrest, Rajapaksha took swift actions to stop such protests.

With these victories in hand, Rajapaksha’s authority also grew because of the economic progress the country achieved during his time. It is evident from the Sri Lanka’s Central Bank Reports that the Rajapaksha’s period is one of the noteworthy growth for the country. Since 2001 per capita income GDP of Sri Lanka has been increasing gradually. In 2001, it was just US$841 and by 2013 it had increased to US$3,280. A significant improvement came in 2010 where it increased from US$2,057 in 2009 to US$2,400 in just one year.

Irrespective of economic growth, over the years Rajapaksha’s presidency was subject to many domestic and international criticisms. He appointed the largest Cabinet of Ministers in the world. In his first government (2005) there were 51 ministers and 29 deputy minsters. In 2007, Rajapaksha reshuffled the Cabinet and appointed even more people as ministers and deputy ministers. There were now 85 ministers and 20 deputy minsters. There were new ministers appointed by Rajapaksha whenever someone from the opposition crossed the floor to support the government. Most of these defections from the opposition were encouraged by Rajapaksha offering generous cabinet portfolios. (It is interesting to see that the current government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena also has 90 people as cabinet ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers.)

Another notable feature of the Rajapaksha administration was the offer of lucrative parliamentary, government and overseas portfolios to his family members. One of the most powerful figures was Rajapaksha’s younger brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was the Secretary of Defence in addition to some other positions. A retired army colonel, he was one of the main figures who directed the military campaigned against the LTTE until it was defeated in 2009. After retiring from the army, Gotabhaya left Sri Lanka to live in the United States and became a US citizen. When Rajapaksha became the President, Gotabhaya returned to Sri Lanka and was given the powerful position of the Secretary to the Defence portfolio. There was a bomb attack on Gotabhaya when he was travelling with security escorts in December 2006 when a suicide bomber of the LTTE tried to ram an explosive-laden three-wheeler into the vehicle in which the Defence Secretary was in. The LTTE’s so called Black Tiger attack did not kill Gotabhaya. He survived miraculously.

During Rajapaksha’s time, a number of his Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers as well as member of parliaments were reported for corruption, irregularities, unnecessary political interferences, breaking rules, laws and regulations and unruly behaviour. However, Rajapaksha never took serious disciplinary action against his fellow politicians. When the media commenced reporting such abuses by politicians things went bad to worse.  While banning a number of electronic media organisations who were critical of his government, Rajapaksha used government media organisations in his propaganda campaign to attack his opponents.

During the Rajapaksha era, the independence of judiciary in Sri Lanka was a controversial issue. Among many issues, the removal of the Chief Justice by the Parliament (with Rajapaksha’s approval) was the most controversial.

The beginning of Rajapaksha’s fall could be linked to the change of the constitution by the Sri Lankan Parliament that allowed the President to contest the presidential election any number of times. The previous constitution of Sri Lanka limited the re-election of President to 2 times. Under the eighteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lanka passed by the parliament on the 8th September 2010, the sentence that mentioned ‘the limit of the re-election of the President’ in the original constitution passed in the 1978 was removed. This change was designed to allow Rajapaksha to keep on contesting for the Presidency for as long as he wished.

Another important reason for Rajapaksha’s demise was his superstitious nature. Calling a presidential election 2 years early on the 8th January, 2015 was purely based on astrologers’ predictions. This particular day was selected based on advice given by his personal astrologers. Rajapaksha could have easily be in the Presidency for 2 more years without any trouble. Irrespective of being a devoted Buddhist, one month before the 2015 presidential election, Rajapaksha went to South India where he offered worship at the famous Hindu hill shrine of Lord Venkateswara. All these activities showed an overreliance on astrology and religion that contributed partly to his demise. It is alleged that Rajapaksha was indirectly supporting extreme Buddhist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). BBS was promoting anti-Muslim ideologies in the country and was behind the riots against Muslims in 2014. This caused many Muslims to vote against Rajapaksha in the 2015 presidential election. In fact, the majority of Muslims and Tamils voted against Rajapaksha during the 2015 Presidential election.

After the 2015 presidential election defeat, many believed that Rajapaksha had reached the end of his political career. However, he was not ready to accept the defeat. By using his close friends in the parliament he wanted to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with. Just before the parliamentary election in August 2015, he encouraged his allies to start an island-wide campaign asking new leaders of the SLFP to bring him back to politics. The new leader (President Maithripala Sirisena) initially announced that he was not going to allow Rajapaksha to contest the general election, but he could not resist the pressure from his own party members. As a result, Rajapaksha was elected from the Kurunagala District and is now a member of parliament. His son also won from the Hambantota District.

Rajapaksha was the first Sri Lankan President to lose power in an election. In addition, Rajapaksha is the first President in the country to be a mere member of parliament after ruling the country for two consecutive periods. This demonstrates that he has not given up hope. In the future, he may be able to run the show directly or indirectly once again. He has his own parliamentary group called “Joint Opposition” and has plans to establish a new political party. Once it is created, he may become the leader again and keep doing what he planned many years ago. The growing unpopularity of the current regime has become a blessing in disguise for Rajapaksha and sooner or later he will be the ‘king’ again.

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