18 August, 2022


Gotabaya, Hobbes & The Social Contract

By Nayantha Wijesundara –

Nayantha Wijesundara

When President-elect Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa took the solemn oath under the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to become the 7th President on the 18th of November, the world watched.  

Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains many things to many. For the Western media he was a genocidal strongman coming from “Sri Lanka’s most prominent military family”, whatever that may mean. For the garden variety Colombo-coffee-shop-liberal whose pen scribbles as fast as the greenbacks could flow, he is the quintessential War Criminal who never saw the insides of a court room from the Dock.

For the now beleaguered UNPer he is the US citizen who should never have been allowed to contest. And for the Sri Lankan who lived through three decades of hell he is a hero. He is also the face of what I call, the ‘Gota phenomenon’, by which term I mean the delivery of an electoral victory at a presidential election mainly from the Sinhalese vote, something hitherto unseen. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a unifier and a polarizer, depending on which side of the political spectrum one is looking from

I see the second-coming of Gotabaya Rajapaksa into public office in the garb of the President as a result of the forging of a new Social Contract. Whether it will be the Hobbesian or the Lockean Contract, however, remains to be seen. 

President Gotabaya’s ascent as the 7th President was no accident or quirky swing in the collective psyche of the majority that went to the polling station that fateful Saturday. His rise is not attributable to the Easter Sunday Bombings alone either, as some Indian media claimed. The conception of the ‘Gota phenomenon’ happened after 08th January 2015 when his brother was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential polls paving the way for a UNP dominated Administration. How?

Why it happened can be explained mainly by reference to the real and perceived attacks on the collective Sinhalese psyche. In the eyes of the Sinhalese the Yahapālanaya government of 2015 to 2019 is guilty of many sins and crimes. It is quite possible that some of these grievances are merely perceived as is the case with any sense of collective grievance. But some are undoubtedly, real.

The impact of the actions of the Yahapālanaya government was deep in the minds of the majority community although, the UNP sorely misread the signs. In the eyes of the Sinhalese 2015 to 2019 was a time period where plans to dismember Sri Lanka were perfected through the perceivably insidious agenda for constitutional reforms. The extent and nature of power-sharing, the persons involved, proposals to dismantle the presidency, the conduct of the government in the constitutional reform process gave the Sinhalese the impression that the UNP-led regime had drawn the blueprints to make the Sinhalese second-class citizens.

When the celebration of the war victory was dropped from the government agenda the Sinhalese as a community took it personally. In the three decade effort to win the war, the most who died and were maimed for life were Sinhalese. 

And where attempts were made at transitional justice the Sinhalese felt they were being ‘wished away’ in a narrative which had no place for their hopes, fears and aspirations. When a regional political coalition, the TNA, with less than 20 seats was made the main Opposition, instead of the ‘Joint Opposition’ it looked like an attempt to disenfranchise the Sinhalese. 

It was also the time of the Bond Scam and Easter Bombings, and countless strikes crippling the public sector.Although the entire country was engulfed in misery in the absence of a functional government, the Sinhalese felt more was at stake for them. The Sinhalese, just because of their numbers, could also do something about it come election time. 

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English political philosopher, wrote in his seminal work ‘Leviathan’ that those of whom who lived in a ‘state of nature’ had to be saved. He said in a renowned passage that;“where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain … no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

By and large, in the eyes of the Sinhalese the Yahapālanaya government was a time that Sri Lanka returned to a veritable Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ to the extent that it is possible in four short years during a time of peace. The government was run by a coterie of men and women behind a veil who pledged no allegiance to the republic. There was no sense of security or, hope of prosperity. For most Sri Lankans, especially the Sinhalese, it was indeed a‘solitary’ and‘poor’ existence.It was also a time where ‘there (was) no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain’, as none of the development projects the government promised with much fanfare took off, whilst the middle class was subjected to varied taxes and interest rates plummeted. Every man was indeed for himself getting through the day. This is the ‘state of nature’ that the Yahapālanaya brought in. And it was a powder keg waiting to go off.

Although to some it may seem what is recounted above is gross exaggeration, for the Sinhalese it was their reality. The UNP led government failed either by accident or design to recognize this and did little to allay the fears of the Sinhalese. They took the divisions within the Sinhalese community for granted. And they paid dearly for it, just like they did in 1956 and 1970. 

These circumstances gave impetus to the rise of Gotabaya with a landslide mainly from the Sinhalese vote. This was how the Yahapaalanaya paved the way for the ‘Gota Phenomenon’. Even MPs of the UNP admit now that their government’s continual harassment of the Sinhalese, especially attacks on Buddhist clergy, led to the humiliating defeat of Sajith Premadasa.

To Hobbes, as destruction was inevitable in the ‘state of nature’ the primary goal was survival. Survival as a community so that one would seek security in the collective whole.Hobbes’s solution to the problem of the ‘state of nature’ was the creation of a government/ ruler, to protect the people’s sovereign rights, and to ensure survival by transferring the authority to govern to the sovereign. To this end, he said, the people would ‘contract’ amongst themselves (i.e. agree among themselves) to bring in a ruler to protect them according to the terms of the Social Contract made by the people. Of course, certain liberties will have to be surrendered. 

No opinion poll predicted the election result that was delivered officially on the 17th afternoon by the ever-genial Mahinda Deshapriya. It was as if the largest number of Sinhalese had ‘contracted’ amongst themselves that they would ‘vote Gota in’. Thus, the Social Contract was made, and the ruler ushered in. Principal among the terms is national security, and this could mean many things.

As per the Constitution the People’s sovereignty is exercised by the President. The incumbent President holds office in trust of the sovereign people. But this is Constitutional Law. Political realities could be a little different. We presently have a President who is perceived to be a doer, a tough guy, a no-nonsense man. He is ably supported by his brother who is now Prime Minister, one of the most shrewd and charismatic political operators Sri Lanka has ever seen. Then they have between them the Sinhalese vote. If President Gotabaya doesn’t mess up by the time the next Parliamentary election comes, they will be delivered a larger victory from the South. He could be like a king. A sovereign God on Earth in the Hobbesian sense, and therein lies the danger.

Hobbes’s Leviathan saw the solution to our ‘State of nature’ as a sovereign who was absolute, a God on Earth who was not answerable to anybody. Once the authority to govern was given to the sovereign it could not be taken back by the people. The transfer of power was permanent even if the sovereign reneged on the promise to safeguard the interests of the people and becomes an absolute tyrant. Hobbes was writing for a monarchy. It was a proposition with potentially terrible prospects. In most modern democracies the space for such an absolute king-like sovereign is less because of democracy and periodic elections. Most democracies today profess a social contract in the Lockean sense where the sovereign could be replaced periodically. 

But what if the people deliver at the next election such a landslide that the office of the Presidency could acquire near Godlike powers? What if the People feel that to deliver the promises made the Presidency needs to be adorned with powers of the Hobbesian sovereign? What if, after the Yahapālanaya debacle the People willingly gave up those liberties in the name of security? 

What if?

Nayantha Wijesundara, LL.M (Advanced Public International Law) (Leiden), LL.M (Colombo), LL.B (Hons.) (London), Ph.D in Conflict and Peace Studies (Colombo), and Attorney at Law.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    we expected the walrus and the carpenter from the yahapalanaya govt but what we got was tweedledum and tweedledee

  • 9

    Nayantha Wijesundara
    I don’t have the intellectual capacity as you, as implied by your academic achievements, which is probably why I fail to see your point & the message you are trying to convey. To me, you seem to be analysing the failure of the UNP while subtly promoting GR’s strategy as perceived by the masses but rather silent about the disasters, economic & diplomatic, of the MR regime, therefore, seems a one sided analysis. Particularly, your comment – ”Even MPs of the UNP admit now that their government’s continual harassment of the Sinhalese, especially attacks on Buddhist clergy, led to the humiliating defeat of Sajith Premadasa”- is something new to me. I am no SP supporter but ‘harassment of the Sinhalese’? ‘Attacks on Buddhists’? Aren’t you laying it a bit thick? As far as I was aware, SP also sucked up to the Buddhist clergy, promising an increase in the number of temples & has a history of doling out money (wonder whose?) to put up Buddha statues in every street corner.
    You ask the question (what if?) of the outcome of a landslide victory at the next election giving ‘god like powers’ to the Presidency. I think it is quite clear, that with the demise of the UNP & in the absence of a credible opposition, the Pohottuwa will sweep into power with ease, paving the way for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, and there you have it, a President (probably for life) who is above the law & revered as god on earth by the masses who brought him to power
    SWRD was probably the first to exploit national & religious sentiments in politics but now, from Trump’s US & Johnson’s Brexit election in UK, this strategy has worked. It is what ticks in getting the vote, not economic & social development. SP rebelled within the party & RW was a failure in every way, unable to instil discipline in the party, which led to divisions, therefore, not a surprise that a divided party would have any chance of a victory.

    • 6

      “In the three decade effort to win the war, the most who died and were maimed for life were Sinhalese.” says Nayantha. Really, young man?
      You seem to believe the very “facts” that the “patriots” have been hammering into Baiya heads for years.
      But just look at official govt. statistics.
      About 30,000 soldiers killed, and about 3000 Sinhala civilians. Against that, there are 80,000 widows heading families in the North.

  • 8

    The Rajapakse’s success is that they are very strong propagandists to create a permanent fear among Buddhist Sinhala people who are 75% of the total population. The fear strategy is not developed by Rajapakse’s but by all Buddhist Sinhala leadership since 1948. This is nothing new started from SWRD, JRJ to Gotabaya. This was felt necessary for DS Senanayake family, SWRD family and now for Rajapakse Family Almost 95% of the Sinhalese believe that Tamils and Muslims are came only after Portuguese invasion or probably after British. This believe is firmly seeded in every new born Sinhala and reminded and activated frequently. So, the status of this island will continue with family dictatorship until Buddhist Sinhala find another family dictatorship (probably from Monks) who can create more fear among Sinhala. Unless this country invaded by any other power, this will continue.

  • 8

    Until our education system changes to give the children proper education to widen their knowledge and to stop dependency by government doling things free, choice for free thinking without instilling fear by rulers we may see a better country. Real history is hidden. So how can we achieve? It is useless making the country to appear like singapore only in architecture, we too should have the same feelings as the Singaporeans. This is a land of labour class exporting them without proper knowledge. This is a cursed island. Very soon the teaching will be that Lord Buddha was born in Sri Lanka and our new generation will believe this too.

  • 9

    “We presently have a President who is perceived to be a doer, a tough guy, a no-nonsense man. He is ably supported by his brother who is now Prime Minister, one of the most shrewd and charismatic political operators Sri Lanka has ever seen.”
    This is real talk. People know about what they did on the 16th of November 2019. Don’t think that they didn’t know what they were doing.
    The collective psyche of the Sinhalese was demonstrated in a democratic manner and people expected a secured country first. The rest was secondary.
    Do you know how many Sri Lankans flew to SL to vote for Gotabaya; I met probably hundreds of them and found out their collective psyche was exactly what you found within the Sri Lankan masses. These overseas Sri Lankans changed the minds of many of their UNP relatives too so that either their relatives remained home on the election day or voted for Gotabaya. The main reason, as you say is the country’s and nation’s security and integrity, nothing else. The rest was secondary to most of them.

  • 5

    This old Sinhalese folk melody which states the absolute truth –
    Sinhala modayo kawun Kanda yodayo.
    A translation to English clearly states –
    The Sinhalese are the world’s greatest fools, they are only good at greedily eating kawun their national sweetmeat.
    With the help of the thuggish disgusting, disgraceful IRC titled Buddhist monks who frightened the foolish mutts belonging to the majority race that the island has been sold to the Muslims and the Tamil’s.
    Through fear in their jungi’s [ ladies knickers] they voted en masse for the much-tainted war criminal who despite still being an American citizen whose mere appearance anywhere brings fear to the ordinary masses.
    30 days have passed by the only happenings in the kakka bakki island has been the appearance of the dreaded white van who in their bravo could only kidnap an innocent Swiss embassy lady visa officer.
    She was driven round and round the city of the mulberry bush sexually molested, assaulted and all the data on her personal mobile phone compromised.
    Various media groups that were against the SLPP / SLFP combinations had their offices raided, their computers raped and a lady editor of that media unit ordered to appear before the notorious CID which has an unsavory reputation of the human killing department where humans are thrown to their death from the notorious 4th floor.
    Other than that nothing of importance has occurred.
    Will during the next 5 years will the country become the next Mecca of a Singapore or will it slide deeper and deeper down the khakki bakki.
    The military type unruly family are sealing and seating themselves into the royal bog.
    Your guess is as good as mine.
    Cheers, R. J.

    • 1

      Remember the Baila song that told Prabhakaran not to divide the country (eppa eppa, rata bethana). Fast forward to 2009, Nanthikaddal. There is a game which children play called “musical chairs.” When the music stops, everyone must sit down. Of course, there are more chairs than people. Those without chairs are white-vanned. This is what happened to VP; he waited too long for the music to stop and wound up eating kavum in the mud.

  • 2

    Nayantha: Only the president changed and he is not a Career politician. the same old 225 are with him. In other words, until the parliament is restructured, it is difficult to expect from the president. Maithripala sirisena also made the same complaint. So ,we thought MS to be weak. Now, we see same things are happening. That culture need to be changed. Anyway, It looks voters are alert, if changes are needed again.
    President told, this to be a Temporary govt. Even then some escaped from the bribe prosecutions. Some wait until the General election passes to get freedom. some already began world tours. They all have SEEM TO BE VALID EXCUSES. In Sri lanka, even the thief went to the tree had excuses. Govt Ministers and MPs are talking thinking they did it. IT looks they are really confused.

  • 2

    The best thing that happened, with the Gotabhaya Rajapakse election, is that Dumb politicians who thought that they are the CHOSEN ONES found how dumb they were. They never thought Sinhala buddhists would gang up again to defeat them. This is after 71 years of or more trying to defeat Sinhala buddhists. Leading Politicians from major parties were buying and trading three wheeler parties and National List MPs. Now, every body found the Reality is not so. People voted Gotabhaya Rajapakse. Now, every body in the parliament are trying to take him hostage. But, Voters expect the reality to be different, It looks New president is well aware about it.

  • 4

    You are right on the money , why 7 Million voting age Sinhala People stood up to Dr Ranil and his Rainbow Cabinet with one Voice.

    Dr Ranil’s agenda was visible as a Dog’s Balls to the intelligent people who didn’t belong to UNP.
    Change the Constitution to create Separate Homeland for Tamils.
    And also Muslims by default ,

    Divide the Sinhala people in to 7 Homelands , so they can fight each other.
    This was all aimed at finishing off Sinhala Buddhist influence.
    Remove Buddhism from the Constitution.

    Then there were other agendas of UNPers and ther supporters like the TNA who were hell bent on exacting revenge.
    And finish off Rajapaksas and the power of the Srilankan Military Forces.

    Also they had the UNP Business and their Cohorts in Parliament who have been starving for nearly 20 years. while Dr Ranil was in the wilderness.

    After what the UNP did to the Country for 4 and a half years, you do not need to study Hobbean or Lockean Philosophies to put the things right.

    Not even one month under Nandasena, the Intelligence Network is back in force.
    No defenders , No Road closures and no Security Entourages for even the President.

    And no Dr Ranil and My3 Sira in Katunayaka greeting the Tourists with their silly faces..

    UNP is in such disarray that Dr Ranil is back to his best to control the Party until he dies.
    Thank God for it..

  • 6

    The war would have been over by 1990, had foreign forces not interfered. JR was ready to commit all the country’s resources towards defeating terrorism. Unfortunately, India intervened and then CBK, who did not have any experience with military affairs, led the country into a downward spiral for 15 years with her mismanagement. The LTTE was able to conquer so much territory that many Tamil and Western observers started giving credence to the Eelam project. Mahinda was able to put a quick end to all this nonsense in just 5 years by fully re-quipping the armed forces and giving the commanders free reign. Gotabaya was also part of this effort. So his election makes sense, especially in the context of the Easter attacks.

  • 2

    The key point is managing the expectations and delivering on it. Deliver the low hanging fruits sooner. Be transparent about the harder ones. Continuous messaging and engagement with the voter base is vital to keep them on side.

  • 3

    “In the three decade effort to win the war, the most who died and were maimed for life were Sinhalese.” says Nayantha. Really, young man?
    You seem to believe the very “facts” that the “patriots” have been hammering into Baiya heads for years.
    But just look at official govt. statistics.
    About 30,000 soldiers killed, and about 3000 Sinhala civilians. Against that, there are 80,000 widows heading families in the North.

  • 3

    Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa might be many things to many , but in the long run he is a liabilty to Sinhala Lanka. He has been shunned by the Civilised World and no civilised country will engage with him. This includes India and the only reason he was summoned was to push 5 year old LADDU down his throat. “Poga Poga Therium”

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