25 June, 2022


Mahinda Vs. Maithripala – Strongman Vs. Strong Institutions

By Indi Samarajiva

Indi Samarajiva

Indi Samarajiva

Sri Lanka has a big choice this election. Whatever side you support, it’s just a choice and we can all eat kiribath together. I really hope it plays out that way.

The way I see it, Mahinda Rajapaksa represents a strong man model of governance. Maithripala Sirisena, on the other hand, is campaigning based on a complete reform of Sri Lankan institutions. There’s pros and cons. Personally, think the latter is a better investment in the future of our country.

Mahinda – Strongman Governance

Mahinda is a strongman. He’s a got a strong mustache, he’s got brothers and he’s got sons. As a leader he decisively ended the war and in the 5 years that followed he has pushed through more development than the country has seen in 30 years. He has accomplished more than any President in Sri Lankan history, with the possible exception of JR. I’d honestly say he’s much better than JR.

Like JR, however, he has also crippled institutions to empower himself.

What Mahinda has replaced institutions with what is essentially a patronage system. Power and money don’t flow through laws or institutions, they flow through individuals, namely Mahinda and his family. China is a willing source of this money, but it’s loans and the people footing the bill are ultimately the Sri Lankan people. We pay way too much for stuff and get stuff we don’t need (Mihin, Mattala), but the ‘waste’ is what actually props up the political system (ie, keeps all the Ministers and their voters in line).

mahinda-maithriIf you can live with this sort of system it does get stuff done, but it only really works for stuff you can rip fat commissions from (ie, roads and infrastructure) and not so much for things like healthcare and education. It’s also, insomuch as anyone gives a shit, unethical.

However, they say that behind every great fortune lies a crime, and a lot of countries come up this way, wasteful and corrupt, but developing. It’s a choice. You can often pivot to a liberal democracy later, but if things get bad they get really bad.

Maithripala – Institutional Governance

Maithripala, as the Common Candidate, has to run and govern by coalition. In his manifesto, he is running on a very clear institutional platform. He is talking about reforming the Executive Presidency, establishing independent commissions for the judiciary, police, etc, reforming the electoral system and the elections commission.

Beyond talking, he has to do at least some of this stuff if elected because he’s backed by such an ‘achcharu’ coalition and there’ll be a Parliamentary election soon. If elected he will have a mandate for institutional reform and will be unable to govern as a strongman. He could be ineffective, but he simply doesn’t have the political capital to be as dictatorial as Mahinda.

The choice he’s offering is a very clear reformation of a really messed up political system. It would likely lead to less visible development in the short-term, but would probably benefit average people more and lead to a more stable country long-term. Even countries that boot-up under strongmen evolve into sorta-democracies eventually. Maithripala is offering that evolution now.

This sort of institutional governance would probably see less progress in terms of roads and mega-projects, but more improvements in health, education and things which benefit average people. At least he’s committed more in that direction.


There’s a very clear choice this election. If you like all the stuff Mahinda does and can put up with the corruption, waste and general neglect of law, order and sometimes logic – then vote for Mahinda (the betel leaf). If you’d like to take a gamble on Maithripala reforming all of the major Sri Lankan institutions (starting with the Presidency) and setting the country on a path to slower but more equitable and stable growth – then vote for Maithripala (the swan).

With Mahinda you know what you’re getting, which is a plus, but Maithripala isn’t a loose cannon like Sarath Fonseka either, he’s a pretty normal politician, which is not a bad thing in a post war era.

Me, personally, I’d like to take the gamble on institutions. I do think two terms is enough for a President and as much as I appreciate what Mahinda has done, I don’t like the people around him and I don’t trust him to be a careful custodian of our countries resources. For me the amount of corruption and waste he relies on for patronage is just too much. I’d rather take a chance on fixing Sri Lanka’s institutions so we can have a country of strong laws rather than strongmen.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    People will make a good choice. Of the two main candidates, they are aware of the style of rule by MR, the good, bad and ugly. He has done some very good, some poorly and some badly. Also they are aware of the famiky, kith and kin, who too are involved in the government in various capacities.Hereagain, the people are aware of these individaul’s performance!!!

    On the contrary they know a little bit of Maithree since has been politics for a long time. However, none of us know how he will perform when he gets absolute power. However, majority choice would be with him as we analyse the trend round the country and momentum he has built up in a very short period.
    We will have to wait and see.

  • 3

    Good analysis Mr. Samarajiva. I particularly like your conclusion.

  • 1

    Been watching you for quite a while Indi. Get your act together. Right now you are reaching for stuff you know neither heads nor tails of. Mahinda never ended no war man! He just internationalized it and has almost turned the island into a global battlefield. He may soon be known as the Ravana of modern times.

  • 0

    Institutional reform! Any saronged leader of this country would not do that. MR, we know has not done that. MS, did he do that at least at ministerial level in any of the portfolios he held? None. In fact those in Polonnaruwa know that he behaved like an old village headman. Dictators and those who bark orders don’t believe in Institutional reform.

    Some institutional reform was done in the era when Ranil was PM, such as setting up of independent regulator like the public utilities commission. That was done by a team calling itself the Public Interest Program Unit (PIPU). But PIPU can also stand for Private Interest Program Unit and its doings are well known. Incidentally, its head had the same family name as that of the author of this article, spelt in the same way.

  • 1

    What all you people got to understand is that we have to give MS a chance to prove his capabilities. As a Minister in the MR regime he or any other were not to allowed to perform independantly – that we all know. Further, this achcharu coalition whether in government or opposition will never let any dictator to rise again. Even this achcharu coalition has to be given a chance. Ranil may have his autocratic ways but he was never given a chance for more than 2 years (by Chandrika which she now regrets) to prove himself or his government. Corruption has been a bane of this country but not to this magnitude as today.

    • 0

      Before we give chances, especially for the position of President, one must look into the track record. If we blindly trust and then our choice turns out to be one not worthy of his position, then it is we who are to blame for the choice. Credentials and records are important even in selecting a minor employee for employment and especially these days even before admitting a person inside premises for maintenance work.

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