By 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?
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.