The local government elections last month and their aftermath continue to have their reverberations. While some politicians and political analysts critical of the Rajapaksa camp find solace in the fact that the Rajapaksa-backed SLPP got less than 50% of the vote, I believe it was a significant victory for the former President-backed party, and one with serious consequences. The dangers are not so much about whether Mahinda Rajapaksa will make a comeback, or what is in store for the national elections ahead. Rather, it is about the Rajapaksas setting the agenda of politics and the Government.
Rise and fall
The Rajapaksa regime’s rise in 2005 was on the verge of a heightened war, with the combination of nationalist mobilisation and militarisation. Even as they mobilised large segments of southern society for the war, they instituted populist measures for the rural communities; including electrification, road building and a state employment drive across villages.
Having consolidated power through a war victory and populist measures, their neo-liberal ambitions got the better of them. The regime’s authoritarian tendency and a strong majority in parliament allowed President Rajapaksa to usurp more powers for a stronger executive presidency.
The global economic conditions with the Western Economic Crisis of 2008, led to the large flow of global finance capital into the emerging markets, where Sri Lanka became a hot destination as a post-war stable emerging market.
For all their public protests against neo-liberalism, the Rajapaksa regime, in effect, initiated a second wave of neo-liberalism in Sri Lanka. In a classic neo-liberal shift, their policies became centred on financialised urbanisation; including through a massive IMF Standby Agreement in 2009 for US$ 2.6 billion, the sale of billions of sovereign bonds even as they claimed to defend sovereignty, the promotion of the capital markets and the beautification of Colombo with slum demolitions. Power corrupts, but wealth corrupts absolutely. They became more centred in Colombo and looked abroad for the big money—they went for global financial markets and Chinese mega projects.
With the regime’s hubris after defeating the LTTE, it neglected its rural constituencies and alienated the minorities. It backed anti-Muslim attacks to deflect the increasing economic discontent among sections of their social base; including the suburban classes and the rural constituencies. They ran the state institutions to the ground with manipulation and patronage networks. By early 2014, there were signs of social agitation, and they met with the defeat they never expected in January 2015.
"Despite the mounting popular support for MR’s return, it is not their return and their consolidation that I worry about the most. Their tremendous consolidation of power after 2009, was possible because of the nationalist and militarised drive for the war"
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government having come to power, entrenched themselves within Colombo and looked even deeper into the West for their fortunes. Trade liberalisation and an international financial centre became the main planks of economic policies that remained at the level of talking shops. Economic and investor forums in posh hotels in Colombo and abroad were their focus, ironically, when the world was moving in the opposite direction with increasing protectionism in trade and international criticism of financialised speculation and dispossession.
There was little economic movement on the ground, even as the rural economy was being devastated by a prolonged drought. The bubble in Colombo remained in isolation, with high-pitched political gossip and tit for tat moves within the Government. They neither moved on a broad economic programme to reach the population nor mobilised politically on the promised reform agenda.
"The regime’s authoritarian tendency and a strong majority in parliament allowed President Rajapaksa to usurp more powers for a stronger executive presidency"
Despite defeats at the presidential election and then the parliamentary election of August 2015, the remnants of the Rajapaksa regime persevered. They worked with their constituencies and mobilised them at every opportunity. They reinvented themselves on the political plank of the new face of global politics; the authoritarian populism of Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey,Modi in India, and Trump in the US. Such authoritarian populism, is the powerful new political model with increasing economic discontent and rising nationalist mobilisation around the world. It comes with racism, xenophobia, demagoguery and the face of a strongman; an aggressive leader claiming to be a problem solver. It is this version of populism that characterises the resurgence of Rajapaksa.
Difficult times ahead
Despite the mounting popular support for Rajapaksa’s return, it is not their return and their consolidation that I worry about the most. Their tremendous consolidation of power after 2009, was only possible because of the nationalist and militarised drive for the war. That is what wars do, and that is how wars are brutally won, through the mobilisation of state and society towards a single goal, which also comes with the risk of those leading such wars usurping power for themselves.
The victorious President Rajapaksa in 2009, was a wounded president by 2015—no longer invincible and the glamour gone, he had to reinvent himself as the MP for Kurunegala. But we also know that those who are wounded can be more dangerous than those in power. They can go to any extent to come out of their corner. They cared little for democratic institutions during their reign and they won’t think twice about destroying them to return to power. It is such political devastation with the unleashing of chauvinist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and attacks on democracy that can become the worrying trend.
"The urgent priority for progressive forces and peoples movements is to invigorate the democratic ethos in the country and build inter-ethnic forums to arrest the polarisation"
In this context, there are extreme Tamil nationalist forces that are all too happy to return in kind with ethnic polarisation, as with the TNPF in the North and pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil diaspora. The nationalist extremes we know are objective friends, particularly in their march to power.
During such times of crisis the political tendency can become a race to the bottom. Sections of the major parties, the UNP, the SLFP and the TNA, may pursue strategies of sounding more nationalist and socially conservative. But the reality is that they will not be able to beat the nationalists at their own game. If the Government and the various other political forces want to restrain the damage that can be unleashed by the Rajapaksas on their march to power, they have to change the terms of the game, and set the political agenda.
A revamped economic programme with immediate gains for the rural economy should be the priority. From Sri Lanka’s political history we know that it is the rural constituencies that have swung elections and determined political trajectories. But that alone will not be enough, liberal democracies are most vulnerable when they are challenged by a reckless populist opponent. When the Government feels threatened, state power which is important for their stability should not be used for short-term political gains, but rather to strengthen democratic institutions.
The urgent priority for progressive forces and peoples movements is to invigorate the democratic ethos in the country and build inter-ethnic forums to arrest the polarisation.