(Jayadeva Uyangoda is Former Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo, Colombo, Sri Lanka)
What has Gotabaya Rajapaksa achieved when he enters his third year in office as Sri Lanka’s President on November 18? A not-so-attractive record of failures in governance.
President Rajapaksa has also been losing much of the public support, popularity and trust that brought him into power in November 2019.
The present crisis which President Rajapaksa and his regime are facing has four interconnected dimensions — economic, social, governance, and legitimacy.
Sri Lanka’s worsening economic crisis is not Mr. Rajapaksa’s creation. Yet, he and his team of policy advisers seem to be at a loss even to comprehend its gravity and its disastrous consequences which the people are forced to bear.
While the impact of the protracted public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on Sri Lanka’s economy may take a few years to manage, its social impact has been devastating. The absence of any effective government interventions to alleviate economic hardships faced by the poor, the new poor produced by the pandemic, the working people and all strata of the middle class, both urban and rural, have a fresh social crisis too.
A strong leader
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa began his tenure as President in November 2019 by promising the Sri Lankan people a fresh beginning for a future of stability, security, development, and prosperity. He was also open about his ideological project that gave primacy to the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic community, the Sinhalese Buddhists. He did not have any democratic pretensions either. Mr. Rajapaksa’s promise was for a ‘strong government’ under a ‘strong leader’ to ensure national security, law and order, political stability, and victor’s peace with the ethnic minorities.
Soon after assuming office, he launched a programme of restoring Sri Lanka’s personalised model of executive authoritarianism, that had been suspended by the previous government under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. For this objective, Mr. Rajapaksa made use of the public health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Bypassing the then Opposition-dominated Parliament, Mr. Rajapaksa concentrated a great deal of financial and administrative power into his hands, thereby re-establishing the presidential executive as the central institution of state power. In October 2020, Mr. Rajapaksa used the newly gained two-thirds parliamentary majority to abolish the 19th Amendment. Under the 20th Amendment, Sri Lanka was thus brought back to executive presidentialism, which has been the mainstay of Sri Lanka’s democratic decay for decades.
Mr. Rajapaksa also initiated a new trend in civil-military relations in Sri Lanka’s structures of governance. Appointing the army commander to head a new presidential task force to manage the public health crisis and placing the military over the politicians as well as medical and civilian professionals were its first signs. In the new political and administrative order, serving and retired senior military officers are given key roles.
As critics insist, militarisation of public administration is a key component of Mr. Rajapaksa’s project of de-democratisation.
Continuing failures and confusion in policy making and implementation are at the heart of an on-going governance crisis since the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, mid last year. Having been persuaded by nativist ideologues and local conspiracy theorists, President Rajapaksa initially de-emphasised the urgency of launching a rapid vaccination programme throughout the country. His encouragement of magic and sorcery to combat the pandemic put the public health policy into disarray. It is only after the pandemic had reached crisis proportions by middle of this year that President Rajapaksa turned to science, expert advice and vaccination.
Meanwhile, the current controversy caused by the President’s ideologically-inspired decision to ban chemical fertilizers and inputs in all spheres of agriculture epitomises the Rajapaksa regime’s record of inept and autocratic approach to initiating economic and social transformation.
This inexplicably rash and inappropriate policy intervention has already caused much social unrest and discontent among very wide sections of the peasantry.
Similarly, the recent mishandling of Sri Lanka’s chronic foreign exchange crisis, leading to further destabilisation of the country’s currency and economy, has caused a fear among citizens that continuing economic policy failures might even trigger an economic collapse.
Moreover, the government’s repeated failures to intervene to bring the prices of essential consumer items down and manage the runaway cost of living, amidst uncertainties and confusion in policy decisions and their implementation, have further dented the President’s much advertised claim to an efficient, result-oriented, professionalised, technocratic, and no-nonsense style of leadership and governance.
Thus, the Sri Lankan government’s apathy towards the suffering of the people amidst rapidly declining income levels and an erosion of living standards and economic insecurity caused by a rampant economic and financial crisis is just one among many instances of a serious failure in governance. Moreover, the severity of the economic crisis has also made it impossible for President Rajapaksa to initiate a state-sponsored social support programme for the poor, the new poor and vulnerable segments of the people. This, obviously, is at the mainstay of Sri Lanka’s growing social crisis at present.
Amidst all this, what baffles the critics and the supporters alike of President Rajapaksa is the degree of insensitivity he and his government display to the consequences of his policy failures and crisis of governance for people’s lives and their survival.
It is the accumulation of such failures at multiple levels of policy, governance, and leadership that has seriously eroded the popular support that Mr. Rajapaksa enjoyed just two years ago. It also constitutes the core of the legitimacy crisis he has to deal with at the personal level as well.
The Rajapaksa administration is now facing open defiance and protests by three large segments of citizens who may have overwhelmingly voted for him in November 2019: rural farmers, small producers engaged in export agriculture, and public sector schoolteachers. As many of them are reported to have been saying at their protest rallies, defying police threats and the ridicule by ruling party politicians, they now regret that they have voted such a band of rulers into power.
It is this open expression of a generalised feeling of loss of political trust and public disillusionment with President Rajapaksa’s leadership that symbolises the acuteness of the legitimacy crisis he has to deal with in the weeks and months to come.
One area where the President has managed to secure some success is foreign relations. He seems to have taken note of the bad press he got locally, regionally and internationally for his regime’s close proximity to China at the expense of Sri Lanka’s traditional allies and friends. Mending relations with India, Europe and America appears to be a recent policy shift he has engineered.
However, the President seems to be quite determined to stay in power till the end of his current term and beyond. If Charles de Gaulle and Lee Kuan Yew were the role models of former Sri Lankan leader J.R. Jayewardene, Lee Kuan Yew and Chinese President Xi Jinping are Mr. Rajapaksa’s idols. One crucial lesson that he seems to have learnt from all those leaders is that one term of office is hardly adequate for a ruler who thinks of himself as personifying the nation’s destiny.
Meanwhile, a weakened and politically unassertive parliamentary Opposition seems to be President Rajapaksa’s only credible political asset at the moment.