NOTNEVER SAY Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves things to chance. After winning the presidential election decisively last November, handing over responsibility for important government departments to the family, suspending parliament and finally winning postponed elections in early August in a landslide for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and supporting parties, the president has always insisted that “obstacles” to his authority remained. Changes to the constitution were the only solution. Parliament granted his wish, creating an almost absolute Presidency with the 20th Amendment.
As is often the case in Sri Lanka’s turbulent history, the amendment effectively overrules its predecessor. The 19th Amendment was a reaction to the disproportionate reign of Gotabaya’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, president from 2005 until his surprise defeat in 2015. Along with Gotabaya, a former army officer in charge of defense and intelligence, he had pursued the even more brutal end to an already bloody 26-year civil war. After the war ended, triumphalism reigned and critics were intimidated. The amendment limited the powers of the president, widened those of the prime minister, accountable to parliament, and strengthened independent oversight of the police and the judiciary. More has been promised by President Maithripala Sirisena and his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, including interethnic reconciliation and decentralized government. Yet their relationship has become so dysfunctional that intelligence about impending terrorist attacks has been ignored. Suicide bombers struck on Easter Sunday last year, killing 269 people. Gotabaya’s message of safety and competence, along with attacks on Muslim and Tamil minorities meant to please the Sinhala Buddhist majority, propelled him to the presidency.
Now the 20th Amendment seems destined to cement Rajapaksa’s reign for years to come (although Gotabaya remains tied to two terms). Sri Lankans with dual nationality can now sit in parliament or even be president. This opens the way for another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, the family’s political strategist, to enter Parliament. Mahinda, currently prime minister, is not in good health, and Basil is his obvious replacement – and possibly Gotabaya’s. Strangely enough, several SLPP MPHe was angry enough with Basil’s hold on the party to complain about the disposition. (Why not just renounce US citizenship? A plan B is always recommended.)
As for the president, the amendment now allows him to dissolve parliament early, hire and fire the prime minister, and appoint judges as well as heads of elections, anti-corruption and other supposed committees. independent. Although Parliament can give its opinion on these appointments, it cannot block them.
What will Gota’s absolutist presidency mean? It promises rapid, technocratic government and economic development. In the face of the pandemic, he has indeed introduced sensible measures to help the poor. Still, the custom ruler is no longer the Rajapaksa brand. Recently, the president was outraged when, having ordered one village to have access to another’s clay pit, a local official demanded written instructions – was his verbal order not sufficient? In the meantime, he has appointed 66 ministers. Sponsorship networks are multiplying as the alimankada, the trails of wild elephants that crisscross the island. Such networks, writes Asanga Welikala of Edinburgh Law School, undermine “critical separations between state, society, economy and the private sphere.”
A Gotabaya presidency makes possible a return to the earlier hunt for critics. Out of public view, Mr. Rajapaksa’s notorious irascibility – he flies away and holds a grudge – returns. More likely, his swift notions of a “disciplined society” risk shattering dreams of a plural and decentralized Sri Lanka in which Tamils who form a majority in the north and Muslims who constitute a tenth of the population are equally part of the system. of politics as Sinhala.
Certainly, Mr. Rajapaksa promises a whole new constitution in the coming year that “will better meet the wishes of the people”. It is possible that a new constitution will contain softer accommodation for minorities in Sri Lanka. Yet for now, Mr. Rajapaksa has made explicit the link he sees between an all-powerful state and the centrality of Buddhism, whose more chauvinistic priests he courted. Of the 66 ministers, only three are Tamils and only one is Muslim (there is only one woman too). The message is clear: in the ethno-nationalist state, everyone must know their position.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Gotabaya, caudillo”