In late April, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary and the brother of a past president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, announced that he would contest the presidential election that is due to be held in late 2019.
The Economist Intelligence Unit believes that he is likely to win that contest, and in this article we look at what the political and policy environment would look like under another Rajapaksa presidency.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is well known for defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group that led a civil war in the country for nearly three decades, with the objective of creating an independent Tamil state. The Rajapaksas are considered to be Sinhalese nationalists who favour populist majoritarianism. We therefore expect the political environment to be characterised by a rise in anti-minority sentiment if Mr Rajapaksa wins the presidency. As was the case under his brother’s administration, relations with China are expected to strengthen. Meanwhile, a general erosion of checks and balances on the security services can be expected, and concerns regarding the health of the country’s democracy are likely to increase.
Popular with the Sinhalese, but mistrusted by others
Mr Rajapaksa served in the Sri Lankan army for 21 years before he retired in 1991 and migrated to the US, where he gained citizenship. He returned to the capital, Colombo, in 2005 to serve as defence secretary under the presidency of his brother. In that post he oversaw a brutal period at the end of the civil war, fought mainly in the northern and eastern parts of the country. During this time, many human rights abuses were committed by the military against the Tamil population, including against civilians. (The LTTE was also responsible for multiple war crimes). A number of non-Tamil critics of the government, including many journalists, were also killed.
Mr Rajapaksa’s prominent role in the civil war underpins his popularity with the Sinhalese Buddhist population, who form the ethnic majority in Sri Lanka. As ethnic and religious divides remain wide, minority communities are generally wary of another Rajapaksa president. Besides the mainly Hindu Tamil community, these include Muslims (who are mostly of Tamil ethnicity, but form a distinct community) and Christians.
Playing on security fears
The Easter Sunday bombings on April 21st exposed significant weaknesses in the country’s security services. Furthermore, anti-incumbency sentiment in the country is high, owing to persistent tensions between the executive and the legislature that have damaged the effectiveness and public perception of the administration. Mr Rajapaksa’s authoritarian personality and aggressive stance on terrorism are expected to work in his favour in the presidential election. Indeed, he is expected make restoring the strength of the security services a key plank in his presidential platform.
If he wins, as we expect, the elevation of Mr Rajapaksa to the presidency is likely to have a damaging impact on social stability. There has already been an increase in violence against Muslims since the April terrorist attacks. With a rise in Sinhalese nationalism, there is likely to be a further increase in anti-minority sentiment across the country, where social unrest arising out of ethnic and religious tensions already poses a major risk to political stability. Meanwhile, even as efforts are made to strengthen the security services, we would expect Mr Rajapaksa’s administration to halt official efforts to address the war crimes committed during the civil war. This would further undermine relations with minority communities.
Relations with the West and India would suffer
As the administration drags its feet on addressing past war crimes, and discrimination against ethnic minorities increases, relations with the West are likely to take a hit. Mr Rajapaksa already faces a number of lawsuits in the US on charges of human rights violations. These cases also mean that, were he elected, he might encounter obstacles in travelling to that country to represent Sri Lanka. His elevation would also probably stoke calls for the UN to initiate an official probe into the war crimes committed during the final years of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict, although both Russia and China would probably block any official UN moves in this direction.
Mounting strain in diplomatic relations with the West will push the country closer to China, which had a close relationship with the last Rajapaksa government. (Although it is worth noting that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s positions with regard to China became more nuanced once he was voted out of office.) China is already one of Sri Lanka’s largest development partners, and its influence in the South Asian region has been building in line with its growing economic might, notably through its Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks primarily to develop trade infrastructure with partner states.
Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency, relations with India would probably be overshadowed by this increasing engagement with China. India is especially wary of China’s increasing presence in South Asia, which has traditionally been its own zone of influence.
Economic risks will also rise
Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency would probably be characterised by an increase in economic engagement with China. His brother’s administration assumed too much Chinese-financed debt too quickly, in some cases for projects of dubious economic value. Partly as a result, the country was forced in late 2017 to concede to a debt-restructuring deal in which a Chinese-backed company assumed control of the southern port of Hambantota. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa were to pursue the same path as his brother, this would resurrect concerns about debt sustainability in a country where we estimate that public debt reached over 79% of GDP in 2018. Since additional public debt would need to be financed primarily from abroad, any substantial increase in government borrowing would also raise concerns about Sri Lanka’s balance-of-payments position.
The rise in communal tension and clashes that we would expect to characterise Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency would also have a negative effect on the country’s economically important tourism sector, which is already suffering following the terrorist attacks in April. Further damage could weaken both export earnings and economic growth.
A threat to democracy
We have serious concerns that a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency would be detrimental to Sri Lanka’s democracy. We anticipate increased state control over the press and media, as was the case under his brother’s regime. His military background and his public comments give little hint that he would pursue a different track from his brother on this front. A general rise in anti-minority sentiment will meanwhile serve to weaken the sense of shared community that is essential to underpin a functioning democracy.
Within South Asia there have recently been a number of examples of rising majoritarianism hurting democratic institutions—a trend highlighted in our Democracy Index for 2018. Combined with the weakening of press freedoms and civil liberties that we would expect under a Gotabaya presidency, this is likely to be detrimental to long-term political stability. As a result, the country’s economic prospects look set to darken.