Is Sri Lanka ready for an elected dictator? This is the latest question to enter the country’s current political debate. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s preparations to contest the next presidential election in 2019 have already precipitated a potentially explosive controversy that can last weeks and months. An admirer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has echoed as a positive political desire, what his detractors have been suggesting indirectly for the past few months. A Buddhist prelate representing Sri Lanka’s most conservative Sangha establishment has said it in a few words: “Let Gotabaya Rajapaksa prove his critics right by becoming a real Hitler.”
Ven. Wendaruwe Upali, deputy chief priest of the Asgiriya Chapter in Kandy, made his rather unusual plea to Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the latter’s birthday alms giving just a few days ago. In the crowd listening to the monk were former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa and ex-liberal democrat G. L. Peiris, who happens to be the nominal leader of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP). The latter is a political outfit created as a vehicle for the political ambitions of various members belonging to two generations of the Rajapaksa family.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has begun to build his own presidential campaign outside the SLPP through a new organization called Viyath Maga (“Path of the Learned’), which is a non-party entity. It is a loose association of ex-military officers, some relatively new, to use Dayan Jayatilleka’s phrase, business tycoons, and a few layers of the Colombo-based professionals and academics with high personal ambitions. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Viyath Maga have already given some key signals about their political project. Two of them can be stated as follows:
• Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political strategy seems to have been designed to build his campaign initially outside an established political party, while projecting himself as an unconventional, non-party leader emerging outside the mainstream of the political establishment. Once he established himself as a formidable presidential candidate, he would be able to force either the SLPP led by his brother, or the SLFP led by President Sirisena, or both, to back his campaign. In this strategy, Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to follow Donald Trump, the President of the country of his second citizenship.
• The three immediate social groups that constitute the core of Viyath Maga and their ideological orientations give us a clue to the type of regime that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is promoting: an illiberal meritocracy. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has no qualms about admitting publicly that he is no great admirer of democracy. The uniqueness of his campaign is that he is ready to present to Sri Lankan voters an openly undemocratic regime choice.
Viyath Maga’s Vision
The ex-military officers who seem to constitute Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s immediate support constituency have brought into the Viyath Maga project the fantasy of a new ruler who could transform Sri Lanka into a society of docile subjects who would embrace a Sinhalese –Buddhist strongman saviour of their rata, jaathiya and aagama (‘country, nation, and religion). This is the Fuhrer element which Upali Thero also mentioned when he elaborated his political dream.
Meanwhile, the political consciousness of this group of military offices has been shaped primarily by their participation in the counter-insurgency war against the LTTE. It is a synthesis of an extreme version of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism and militarism. Ideologically, they are averse to the basic dimensions of modern democracy such as, human rights, minority rights, constitutionalism, checks and balances, devolution, and institutional dispersal of politics in governance. A highly centralised state, a strong leader not constrained by democratic norms and practices, efficient government free from democratic accountability, and a controlling role for the military in civilian governance are the key components of the ‘vision’ of political transformation they have so far articulated.
This group’s fantasy is shared by some layers in Sinhalese-Buddhist elites, including monks from property-owning and urban-based Temples that still maintain feudal-type relations with the lay society and the State. Ven. Upali from the Agiriya Temple of Kandy is just one among several Buddhist monks who have been expressing quite openly a desire for a Sinhalese political leader with a military background as a saviour, who, in Ven. Upali’s words, “can build this country.”
The business tycoons who back Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign constitute a somewhat new, and extraordinarily interesting phenomenon in Sri Lanka’s economic, social and political arena. They are big-time entrepreneurs. Representing a global trend of this class, some of them are heavily involved in the media, advertising, communication and financial services industries. What is distinctly new about them is that they are investing in politics directly and seriously as a domain of commercial business. For them, politics is a field of investment as well as profit and wealth-making, which enables them to exercise control over individual politicians, officials, government decisions, and of course policy frameworks. And, they want to possess a direct stake at the election of the highest level of political leadership too.
Thus, this is a fascinating class of entrepreneurs who want to emerge as direct stakeholders of the government. Getting hold of individual politicians with presidential ambitions has also been one of their key talents. Arjun Alosyius and ‘Kili’ Maharajah represent two different prototypes of this highly ambitious business class.
This new class of ‘political entrepreneurs’ linked to Viyath Maga has made, if we judge it by the occasional media reports as well as the gossip and rumours circulating in Colombo, most of their current wealth during the rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa. They, for obvious reasons, backed Rajapaksa’s re-election campaign in 2015 and became active in the efforts to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back. Both these activities were capital investments seeking considerably high economic returns.
Having invested heavily in Rajapaksa’s political project, they also found that the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government was erecting various barriers to their field of political – entrepreneurial activity, the FCID being one such barrier. One reason why the present government has failed to win the confidence of Colombo’s capitalist class, despite Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s credentials of being an authentic voice of that class, is the fact that the organic nature and agenda of capital accumulation of the core of that class has dramatically changed. They have chosen a new representative, and they affectionately call him – ‘Gota’.
Then, there is this nouveau elite class of urban professionals that has also developed its own political interests. Many of them are employed in fields such as, IT, accountancy, medicine, engineering, technology, media management, and security. Four decades of economic liberalization has at last made them a wealthy and prosperous social stratum.
A key feature of their world view is one that is often echoed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself: Sri Lanka’s problem is not the lack of policies, but the lack of discipline, work ethics, and efficiency, and the absence of a tough and robust leadership to implement policies in order to achieve tangible results. Guided by corporate ideologies that are often bandied about by business-school MBA graduates, they admire China as the model of development most suitable to Sri Lanka.
In this corporate ideology of nouveau professional elites, democracy, which tolerates strikes, work stoppages, protests, demonstrations, frequent elections and political instability, is utterly anachronistic with Sri Lanka’s urgent development needs. A strong government led by a strong leader, who relies on the ideas and guidance of corporate professionals, is their political model. Their vision is closest to the ideal of a meritocratic regime for Sri Lanka.
When we reflect on the social and ideological composition of Viyath Maga, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s principal organisational entity, it is not easy to describe it simply as a Hitlerite project, or one that seeks a military dictatorship in Sri Lanka. If we want to understand the Gotabaya Rajapaksa project seriously, we must separate it from the wishful Hitlerite dreams of his admirers such as Upali Thero. The real threat posed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not fascism; but the replacement of the present weak democratic regime by a hard authoritarian regime, with popular support. That is what needs to be prevented. That is also what the democratic forces in Sri Lanka should discuss, debate and strategise.
The involvement of retired senior military officers in Viyath Maga to bring an ex-military man to power is indeed worrying and dangerous for other political reasons. Firstly, this ex-military group is fast emerging as the core group of a new social coalition, and of a political class too. And, it is committed to altering the political orientation of the next government as well as the nature of the Sri Lankan State. A government under their influence is certain to dispense with liberal institutions and practices of democracy as soon as the power of their regime is challenged by trade unions, student groups, workers, peasants, ethnic minorities and civil society.
Secondly, under their influence, the existing equilibrium in civil-military relations in Sri Lanka will be altered decisively in favour of the defence establishment. Then, the civilian political institutions, including the judiciary, would be brought under the control and influence of the military, Pakistan being the closest model.
Thirdly, the forces organised in Viyath Maga have the capacity and also the need to achieve what Mahinda Rajapaksa failed: that is, the transformation of Sri Lanka’s Government into a hard-authoritarian regime that rests on a grand alliance with three ambitious social groups – the military establishment, the new business class, and the new professional elites.
How strong is the support for ‘a dictatorial ruler’, as dramatically articulated by Ven. Upali when he invoked the analogy of Herr Hitler, in Sri Lanka at present? In the absence of reliable public opinion surveys, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of people’s preferences for the political nature of the government that they want to see in place of the present Government.
Ven. Upali’s wish is for a complete transformation of Sri Lanka’s model of government into an authoritarian regime that can ‘fix’ the country’s problems without being constrained by usual institutional checks and balances, constitutional controls and procedural delays associated with parliamentary democracy. This is not necessarily a desire for a Hitlerite fascist regime, despite the fact that the pious monk used the most inappropriate analogy to make his point. Rather, it is a political expectation being nourished in Sri Lanka at present in two social constituencies, Sinhalese-Buddhist elites, and ordinary citizens.
Among sections of Sinhalese-Buddhist elites, ever since the ethnic conflict escalated, there has emerged from time to time the clamour for a truly Sinhalese-Buddhist leader who would protect the interests of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority from the challenges of the minorities without being constrained by democratic norms or international opinion. Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he was the President, nurtured these ethno-political dreams of the Sinhalese-Buddhist elites and he continued it even after he left office in January 2015. The Jathika Hela Urumaya also played with this dream in its pre-2015 life. It managed to recruit a faithful support constituency among the urban Sinhalese-Buddhists of elite social backgrounds who entertained the millenarian fantasy of the coming of Diyasena Kumaraya (‘Prince Diyasena’).
To understand this question free from our personal biases and polemical preferences, survey data obtained from professionally conducted studies would be of great help. In two public opinion surveys conducted in Sri Lanka, the first in 2004 -05 and the other in 2014-15, the level of public support for this dream of an authoritarian alternative to parliamentary democracy was carefully probed. It was part of a larger South Asian study on the status of democracy in the region. It was also part of a global study of on-going trends in democracy. On both occasions, Sri Lankan data indicated a rather low public support for non-democratic and non-civilian alternatives to democracy. The 2004 -05 survey revealed the following facets of Sri Lankan citizens’ political preferences in percentages (See Table I).
When the 2013 – 14 Survey was conducted, Sri Lanka’s civil war had ended and Sri Lanka’s democracy was struggling to survive amidst the authoritarian drift of the Rajapaksa regime. Even then, when confronted with political choices, respondents of Sri Lanka’s sample came out with surprising indications, as shown in Table II.
The most interesting data from this table is that in 2013, the support for army rule, the rule by strong leader as well as experts had significantly declined. The rule by religious leaders had gone up substantially while the preference for representative democracy was astonishingly overwhelming with 97 per cent.
Of course, these figures reveal a complex picture of voters’ political preferences in Sri Lanka amidst exceptional political conditions of civil war, violence and democracy in perpetual crisis. However, the most noticeable fact revealed in the data is that Sri Lankan citizens, across gender, ethnic, and class divisions, had expressed an overwhelming preference for representative democracy while acknowledging its limitations, shortcomings, setbacks, disappointments, warts and all.
A few figures that are relevant to the political debate in Sri Lanka today are the following: Support for military rule in 2004-05 was as low as 27% and it had dramatically declined to 14% in 2013-14. Choice of rule by religious leaders was still lower in 2004-05 with only 20% support, yet went up to 37% in 2013-14. Strong leader had greater support in 2004-05 with 62%; yet it too declined sharply in 2013-14 to 31%. The overwhelming public support, of course, was for democratic government in 2004-15 as well as 2013-14 when the war had ended and no political alternative to Mahinda Rajapaksa was visible. The trends suggested by these findings were soon to be confirmed by the electoral outcome of 2015.
The crucial question that emerges when we relate the above survey findings to the political debate in Sri Lanka today is the following: Are Sri Lankan voters likely to choose an avowedly authoritarian alternative to a weak democratic regime? In other words, are the political preferences that the Sri Lankan voters indicated in 2013-14 likely to be dramatically changed within five to six years in 2019-20? In the absence of survey data, we have to rely on informal observations, gestalt assumptions and informed guesses. The following three are important background factors that need to be factored in making such guesses:
• The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration has left an unsatisfactory record of a weak democracy.
• The weak democracy record of the current regime has made the option of illiberal and undemocratic alternatives somewhat attractive. They are also in the political menu on the table.
• For the first time in its recent history, Sri Lankan voters would be presented with an avowedly non-democratic alternative, which is absolutely open about its authoritarian project as a regime choice.
Those political forces that want to defend, protect and preserve democracy in Si Lanka cannot be complacent. The greatest failure of the ruling coalition is that it has allowed the public trust in democratic governance to weaken. Even its supporters are not sure whether either of the two leaders really deserve a second chance. Both, Viyath Maga and the SLPP are exploiting this extraordinary political weakness of the Government.
Finally, by introducing just one word to Sri Lanka’s hitherto lackluster pre-election political debate, the Asgiriya prelate has done irreparable and irreversible damage to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘strong-ruler’ hype in a manner none of his detractors could ever have even imagined. It would not be easy for Mr. Rajapaksa to shed that dreaded nickname ‘Hitler.’
Such is the dialectic of politics.