By Kalinga Seneviratne
The landslide victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP – Sri Lanka Peoples’ Front) led by the Rajapaksa brothers throws a challenge to so-called “liberals” everywhere whose ideology may not be in sync when a huge portion of the electorate vote for a “strong” government rather than a coalition representing various segments of the community that may not provide political and economic stability at a time of a crisis.
As retired political science professor Jayadeva Uyangoda argues in a commentary published on August 9 in a number of media outlets in Sri Lanka, that the failure of the ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) government installed by the 2015 landmark elections with a promise of democratic revival, promoting peace and reconciliation and establishing corruption-free governance, has now given rise to a “radically new political alternative for Sri Lanka with a strong leader, a strong government, a strong administration with military participation, with just one strong centre of power with no checks and balances. The stress has been on the word strong,” he notes, adding that this word ‘strong’ has been couched in Sinhala-Buddhist patriotic symbolism and discourse.
In January 2015 President Mahinda Rajapaksa (brother of now President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) was voted out by Sri Lankan voters choosing his former ally Maitripala Sirisena as president under the slogan of ‘yahapalanaya’. At the time it seems the western “liberals” may have achieved their goal through the ballot box. Sirisena was propelled to power mainly by a Western-funded NGO campaign via social media that painted the Rajapaksa regime as corrupt and undemocratic.
But within months of coming to power, they were embroiled in the worse financial scandal in Sri Lanka’s history, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s school days buddy Arjuna Mahendran installed as the new Central Bank governor was involved in a fraudulent bond scam.
The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government was never able to recover from this, as infighting within the governing coalition intensified and Sri Lanka drifted into economic and political disarray. The opposition regrouped under the leadership of the Rajapaksa brothers under a new party SLPP that accused the government of selling national assets to foreigners and crawling to the West by surrendering its sovereignty by co-sponsoring a resolution at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that committed the country to account for “war crimes” allegedly committed by its armed forces in the final phase of the war in 2009 to eliminate the terror group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
This resolution would involve setting up war crimes tribunals in Sri Lanka where foreign judges would sit in judgement. The surrender to UNHRC and the West was seen by the Sinhala Buddhist majority in particular, as an affront to their cultural identity, and SLPP was able to mobilise them.
“The resounding electoral victory on August 5 of the SLPP, and particularly of the Rajapaksa brothers, clearly reflects the emphatic re-emergence of Lankan nationalism. To be precise, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism,” argues Dr Palitha Kohona, former Sri Lankan permanent representative to the United Nations. “Disregarded for five years by the previous Government, the Sinhala people felt betrayed as the country lurched aimlessly, mainly in a hardly disguised effort to please Western countries and pro-Western liberal NGOs. The wishes and sensitivities of the majority of the people counted for very little.”
In a statement issued to the Sri Lankan media on August 7, British Conservative peer, Lord Naseby, who is the President and founder of the All-Party British Sri Lanka Parliamentary Group in the UK has described the electoral outcome as “a sea change never before witnessed”. He has been critical of the U.S.-EU war crimes witch-hunt of Sri Lanka in Geneva and has been a lone voice in the British parliament supporting the Sinhalese against a well-organised Tamil diaspora pro-LTTE propagandists in the UK.
“This is true democracy at work…. This is a new dawn for Sri Lanka, a fresh era creating the opportunity for the country to come together and finally put to bed the idea of any Tamil Eelam independence movement,” he said. “Now is the time for the West to understand the new mood in Sri Lanka; the desire on all sides for reconciliation to become realistic without any interference from the West or the UN Human Rights Council,” added Lord Naseby.
Social critic and nationalist Shenali Waduge told IDN that the 2020 election has laid to rest for the second time, the liberal idea that the minorities called the shots and could decide who would rule Sri Lanka. While the Tamil and Muslim minorities voted en masse at the 2019 presidential elections against the ultimate winner Gotabaya Rajapaksa, she noted that there is a welcome difference this time.
“This time a sizeable number of minorities voted for the winning party (SLPP). The results of the North clearly indicate that the people want to move on and away from terrorist-separatist linked political parties and politicians” she argues. “This is indeed a healthy sign and one that can usher better relations.”
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – which is regarded by the Sinhalese as an LTTE proxy – has lost ground in the Tamil dominated north and east of the island. In its northern strongholds including Jaffna, TNA lost four seats to new Tamil parties aligned with the SLPP which pushed the incoming government’s numbers in parliament above the two-thirds required for constitutional changes.
“The Rajapaksas can take pride in their achieving such a decisive victory in a wholly free and fair election,” noted veteran journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake, writing in the Island newspaper. “Let’s make no mistake, this is what the people wanted, the reality of electoral democracy. This is what a huge majority of the people of Sri Lanka showed they wanted in three elections – the last Local Government poll (2018), the Presidential Election last November, and this General Election.”
Rajakarunanayake argues that the huge majority Rajapaksas were able to garner is a result of the “hugely farcical moves” the previous government took to “supposedly fighting corruption”. He added: “The voters have punished those who had crooked deals with a dodgy Governor of the Central Bank, who was wrongly under the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe; and the benefits that the ever-forgetful Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake allegedly obtained (from the deal).”
Country’s oldest political party, the pro-western United National Party (UNP) polled miserably and did not win any seats to parliament for the first time. Thus, both Wickremasinghe and Karunanayake lost their seats. The UNP polled only 2.15 per cent of the national vote and would get a seat from the National List under Sri Lanka’s proportional voting system.
A party of Buddhist monks opposed to SLPP which won just 0.58 per cent of the national vote, that is just over 67,000 from a voter base of over 10 million has got 1 seat in parliament which is expected to be occupied by firebrand Buddhist nationalist monk Aththe Gnanasara, who will be sitting in the opposition benches.
However, the western media and its human rights groups have already started to brand the SLPP election win as a nationalist vote for authoritarian government backed by the military – as President Gotabaya as defence secretary was instrumental in conducting the successful war against the LTTE.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has already issued a statement on August 9 claiming that the “Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and others challenging government policy”.
“Western-funded NGOs, nurtured with the views of the English-speaking and Westernised elite of the country, will definitely have to recognise the gap in their assessments of the thinking among the common people of the country,” Dr Kohona told IDN. “There is a reawakening of nationalist sentiment in the country, especially among the Sinhala Buddhists, and this will condition the country’s politics for the foreseeable future.”
“The unwritten and written obligation upon all elected governments is to uphold, protect, preserve and foster the primordial Sinhala Buddhist identity of Sri Lanka,” argues Waduge. “The unfair and legally questionable resolutions (of the UNHRC) need to be revisited and diplomatically challenged. The LTTE lobby (overseas) need to be legally addressed as well. They have become an obstacle for Tamils and Sinhalese to build their lives in peace (in Sri Lanka).”