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Nearly five years after a humiliating defeat, the Rajapaksa clan gears up for a return.    © Reuters
Cover Story

Divide and conquer: Sri Lankan strongman plots an election return

Pro-China, populist Rajapaksa family looks to lead the debt-burdened nation

GANANGOLLA, Sri Lanka -- A palm-fringed gravel road leads into Ganangolla, a village of around 400 homes in the north-central Sri Lankan district of Polonnaruwa. Lolling buffaloes sniff at fresh shoots, and the monsoon rains have helped spread a fresh coat of shimmering green in the fields left fallow after the recent harvest. But behind the apparent idyll there is simmering discontent.

Rice prices were lower than usual at the end of the season, and most farming families have had to depend on secondary incomes, which trickle in from sales of making rice-and-curry lunch packets and sweets. Some, however, have turned to local loan sharks offering informal credit at crippling rates. "It feels like we are running in the same place for years," lamented R.M.K. Piyadasa, who has been cultivating his three-hectare plot for 40 years.

With the arrival of the election season, Piyadasa is hoping for some relief. Agricultural workers, like Polonnaruwa's paddy farmers, make up more than a quarter of Sri Lanka's 8.3 million strong workforce. The rice producing districts of Polonnaruwa and its neighbor, Anuradhapura, have more than a million registered voters, making the area hotly contested by the major parties.

The main contenders in the vote, scheduled for Nov. 16, have all pledged to support farmers, offering free fertilizer and pledging to wipe off their debt under a government loan scheme. Piyadasa, however, has already chosen his candidate: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and head of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a newly formed party that serves as a political vehicle for the most influential political clan in the country.

"I will support Mahinda," Piyadasa said, gesturing toward a television -- tuned to a popular news channel broadcasting in Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka's majority ethnic group -- in his one-story home. "No one can deliver development like Mahinda."

The Sri Lankan rice-producing district of Anuradhapura, a crucial bank of farmers' votes.   © Getty Images

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not actually on the ballot; his brother, Gotabaya, is the SLPP's candidate. However, there is little doubt that the former strongman is the party's guiding force. Defeated in 2015 by a coalition led by Maithripala Sirisena, who promised to reform the economy and break with Sri Lanka's history of human rights abuses, nepotism and corruption, the Rajapaksas are set to fight this election on the populist staples of security, ethnicity and religion. It is a vote that could profoundly shape the direction of Sri Lanka's politics, as the clan works to establish an immovable political dynasty, threatening to unwind more than four years of democratic progress.

"Everyone knows it; this is for sure from the way they are campaigning," said Ramesh Ramasamy, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Peradeniya in central Sri Lanka. "This election is very important for them to restore the dynasty. Their appeal to the Sinhalese voters is shaped by this."

A political dynasty

The Rajapaksas are a political clan from Hambantota, in the south of the island. Mahinda followed his father into politics as a young parliamentarian of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a left-leaning, Sinhala-nationalist party, in the early 1970s.

From the beginning, he demonstrated an ability to trim his sails to match the prevailing wind. As an opposition parliamentarian in the late 1980s, he burnished his credentials as a human rights champion. As a cabinet minister in the 1990s and early 2000s, holding the labor and fisheries portfolios, he established himself as a political populist. In 2004, he rose to become the prime minister in a coalition government, setting the stage for a presidential run.

The world came to know Mahinda better during his two terms as president, beginning in 2005. In 2006, the Rajapaksa government launched a massive military offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist movement seeking to establish an independent state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the north and east of the country. Within three years, the "Tamil Tigers," as they were known, were defeated, ending nearly three decades of civil war in which more than 100,000 people are estimated to have died.

The victory earned the charismatic, baritone-voiced leader a wide following among the Sinhalese majority. Some acolytes praised him as "maharajano," meaning "great and virtuous king" in Sinhala. However, Mahinda and Gotabaya, who was defense secretary at the time, have had to deal with allegations that soldiers under their oversight committed war crimes, including the summary execution of surrendering fighters.

Then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa fires up supporters at a rally in 2015, campaigning for the election that would eventually see him lose the presidency.   © Reuters

During his second term, Rajapaksa squandered the domestic political capital that he had won as a war leader. Discontent rose steadily as the politics took on a decidedly ultra-Sinhalese-Buddhist turn, the country's already dismal human rights record worsened, and independent institutions, such as the judiciary, came under siege. A chilling new expression entered the political lexicon: "white vanning" -- a reference to white vans that roamed through the country, abducting and torturing critics of the ruling clan. Government goons had a field day, even murdering a high-profile editor of a Sunday newspaper in broad daylight on the street of a Colombo suburb.

Rajapaksa family members came to dominate many institutions of power and public offices. His siblings, sons and relatives controlled the ministries responsible for defense and the economy and wielded influence in sports, aviation and the legislature. By one conservative estimate, Mahinda and two brothers controlled over 50% of the national budget. Crony capitalism thrived.

The Rajapaksa administration did deliver economic growth, at an average of 5% per year over his decade in power. The country benefited from a "postwar bump" as wide swaths of rural areas were opened for commerce, and foreign direct investment started to pour in -- crossing the $1 billion mark for the first time. Mahinda's pro-China tilt brought in over $5 billion in Chinese loans and aid as well as investments to help build large infrastructure projects, but led to what critics fear is an overreliance on Beijing.

Sirisena's Yahapalana -- Sinhalese for "good governance" -- coalition promised to end the human rights abuses, reject crony capitalism and pull back from reliance on Chinese debt. Their narrow victory, with 51.3% of the popular vote, surprised many observers. For the Rajapaksa clan, it was more a setback than a defeat.

During his near-decadelong presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa worked to grow a political dynasty. Click here for a snapshot of the clan's key positions between 2005 and 2015, when Mahinda was ousted from office.

That election, and subsequent parliamentary and local government elections, showed that Mahinda's core base was intact. At the former, he secured 5.7 million votes, or 47.58%, by appealing to his largely Sinhalese base through majoritarian themes. In the latter parliamentary polls, his alliance won 42.4% of the vote, largely from rural supporters. This enduring support meant the new government was never fully able to escape Mahinda's gravity.

"The Yahapalana government that defeated him was never able to capture the moment because they had to deal with Mahinda's political force, [which] never went away," said Dushni Weerakoon, executive director of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka, a Colombo-based semi-government think tank.

The coalition has also suffered from infighting, which came to a crescendo a year ago in a constitutional crisis. President Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the senior partner in the coalition, and offered the premiership to Mahinda.

Wickremesinghe refused to accept his firing, and declared that he was still the prime minister. As the various factions in government protested and maneuvered, Mahinda failed to secure a majority in parliament. Ultimately, he had to step down just over 50 days later, after the Supreme Court ruled that his appointment had been illegal.

Constitutional changes, along with restored presidential term limits, explain Mahinda's choice to eye the more powerful prime minister's post next year while backing brother Gotabaya for the presidential run. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

The crisis cast into sharp relief the significance of constitutional changes brought in after 2015, which reduced the sweeping executive powers of the president and transferred them to the prime minister, who is supposed to be accountable to parliament. The amendment, along with presidential term limits, explains Mahinda's choice to eye the more powerful premiership in a parliamentary election due early next year, and to back Gotabaya for the presidential run.

Gotabaya, a former soldier with a reputation as a tough-talking, no-nonsense bureaucrat, has had a rough time in his return to front-line politics. After taking early retirement from the army, Gotabaya migrated to the U.S. in 1991 and took citizenship there, before returning to Sri Lanka to join the government led by his brother. He is yet to clear up lingering doubts over his citizenship -- dual citizens are barred from running for office in Sri Lanka -- while his past as a hawkish and intimidating member of his brother's regime has now come back to haunt him. He faces two civil cases in U.S. courts, one filed by a Tamil survivor of torture, the other by a daughter of the slain Sri Lankan editor.

Although Gotabaya is the candidate, Mahinda has been ever-present on the campaign trail. In a recent press conference at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, the brothers sat side by side. When grilled on the economy, Mahinda had to step in; when questioned about war-related human rights abuses, Gotabaya dodged and deflected, denying political responsibility. This election, one Colombo-based diplomat said, "is all about Mahinda."

Stoking tensions

It was a national tragedy that set the stage for the Rajapaksas' resurgence. On Easter Sunday this April, Islamist suicide bombers attacked luxury hotels and Christian churches, killing more than 250 people and injuring 500. The event shattered the fragile post-civil war peace on the island, and inflamed ethnoreligious tensions, which some candidates -- and Gotabaya Rajapaksa in particular -- have been able to exploit.

The Rajapaksas' previous electoral successes have been built on majoritarianism and ultranationalism, tapping into the fears of his base among the country's Sinhala majority, who make up more than 70% of the population.

In the past, that approach has alienated voters from other ethnic and religious groups. The coalition that beat Mahinda in 2015 won large areas of the north, east and west, where there are high concentrations of Tamil and Muslim populations. In some Muslim constituencies in the east, Sirisena won 100% of the vote.

This time, the Rajapaksa campaign has been working to exploit divisions between Tamils and Muslims that surfaced after the Easter Sunday bombings. In Batticaloa, where a church was bombed, there was intercommunal violence. "The people are feeling insecure," said Mohamed Abdul Careem Mohamed Jawahir, director of the Federation of Civil Society Organizations in Kattankudy. "The votes will fragment, unlike in 2015, and that works to Gotabaya's advantage."

Security personnel guard St Anthony's Shrine, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks in Colombo on Easter Sunday.   © Reuters

"National security will be a concern during the November elections, as will the national economy," said Mahesh Senanayake, the head of the army at the time of the bombings, who is also now running for president. "The April attacks were exploited for politics, especially on Facebook, targeting Muslims. But they suddenly stopped in mid-August because those who are now contesting need the Muslim votes."

That is not surprising. The Rajapaksa political playbook is based on mining ethnic fault lines. Political insiders say the Rajapaksas have set their sights on trying to win close to 65% of the vote -- a challenging feat -- through such ethno-populist tactics in 10 heavily Sinhalese-dominated districts along the south, central, northwest and north-central regions. Analysts said that playing on such ethnic emotions opens new wounds of a still unhealed nation, making the Rajapaksas' strategy a potentially dangerous gamble.

"The Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign's dilemma is how to mobilize their Sinhala nationalist base in support of him, without also rousing Tamils and Muslims against him," said Ram Manikkalingam, a visiting political science professor at the University of Amsterdam.

The main political threat to the Rajapaksas' machine is Sajith Premadasa. The 52-year-old is minister of housing, construction and cultural affairs in the ruling coalition and heads the New Democratic Front, a member of the United National Party-led alliance. He is also from a political family. His father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was a former president, who was killed by the Tamil Tigers in a suicide attack in the early 1990s.

Premadasa's stump speeches are peppered with his father's record, and with promises of welfare measures for poorer communities, and initiatives to boost employment. Insiders in the Premadasa camp hope that this will give their candidate grassroots appeal.

"All this time, the UNP was seen as the party of the urban, middle class and elite, but this time the UNP has a candidate with strong grassroots credentials," said Rasika Jayakody, a youth leader in the Premadasa camp. "He is going to wage this battle in the heartland of the Rajapaksas' traditional base."

Mahinda, right, and presidential candidate Gotabaya side by side at a campaign event: Although Gotabaya is the one running for office, his brother has been ever-present on the campaign trail. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

However, his bid has been hampered by infighting in the coalition, and by less-than-stellar economic performance.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Sri Lanka's economy will only grow by 2.7% in 2019. That anemic growth comes on top of damage to the tourism sector, which has struggled since the Easter Sunday bombings, and a sluggish retail sector. The country has struggled to attract foreign direct investment, and is laboring under crushing debt. The government debt-to-gross domestic product ratio stood at 82.9% in 2018.

The dismal economic numbers "could be a problem for the Premadasa campaign," said Ananda Jayawickrama, professor of economics at the University of Peradeniya. "He needs to address it, along with the disunity of the coalition government that resulted in policy instability. It affected investor confidence, and businesses held back from investing because of it."

Premadasa is also up against the Rajapaksas' formidable political ground game. "The Rajapaksas are very much attuned to what is happening on the ground, but the problem is they will use it to strengthen their clan," said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former political science professor at the University of Colombo.

Analysts credit them for successfully navigating Sri Lanka's election cycles, where votes are largely built around personalities and parties than policies. "The bloc vote and the loyalty factor are part of a cascading patronage pyramid, flowing from the top by political leaders to the lowest rung of the political ladder in villages," said Aruna Kulatunga, a Colombo-based political analyst. "As of now, Gotabaya appears to have the political wind behind him."

Informal polls currently have Gotabaya ahead, although his lead is likely to narrow as the election approaches. His opponents warn that the new political culture that took root after 2015, which allows a free and robust media and independent institutions to flourish, could be endangered. A victory for Gotabaya in the presidential election, followed by one for Mahinda in parliamentary elections, could test the durability of that new culture.

"If Gotabaya wins, it will be difficult for him to impose a sweeping autocratic system, since the foundation has been laid for wider democratic development," said Lakshan Dias, a human rights lawyer. "The people will not give up their freedom; there will be a backlash locally and internationally."

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