By Rajan Philips –
The presidential election campaign is getting into its final two-week home stretch. The two leading candidates have released their manifestos and finalized their broad alliances. Chandrika Kumaratunga has formalized the trifurcation of the SLFP by pledging her support to Sajith Premadasa. Regardless of whatever electoral effect she may or may not have, she has given the patented SLFP a fighting chance to survive as a political entity after the presidential election. Although presidential manifestos are not likely to excite any significant vote shifts, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s taxation proposals – to abolish the PAYEE system and to maintain Sri Lanka’s regressive taxation regime, should be marked as the final rupture of the Rajapaksa family with the progressive traditions of the SLFP.
It was the first (SWRD) Bandaranaike government that introduced income tax to the island based on the proposals of Nicholas Kaldor, then a young (Hungarian) economist who would later become one of the most celebrated welfare economists in the world. PAYEE was NM’s invention. The system enabled an efficient and steady stream of revenue for the state. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has obviously swallowed the advice of vested interests in proposing to undermine that twin tradition, and reinforce the regressive taxation regime that unfairly puts the onus on the middle and lower classes to pay more for their consumption without distributing the burden of government more evenly.
The second Rajapaksa presidential term (2010-2014) was remarkable for two negative achievements among several others. It achieved the lowest taxation revenue as a proportion of the GDP – 10.14% in 2014, and the made the largest number of Supreme Court appointments and the highest Chief-Justice turnover by any government in a single term. Candidate Rajapaksa has served notice that he is on course to breaking the first (taxation) record, and what is going to stop him bettering the second if he were to be elected president on November 16?
In one reported measure, the campaign expenditure on print and electronic media, the two front runners are said to have spent a combined total of Rs 760 million. The combined total for the remaining 33 candidates is a paltry Rs 2 million. Mr. Rajapaksa is apparently outspending his main opponent by nearly twice as much. But neither money nor presidential manifestos can create genuine mass enthusiasm. The main effectiveness of the manifestos in this election could be in the enthusiasm they might generate in the respective candidates. In that sense, the Sajith Premadasa might be more enthused by his manifesto – Sajith’s Social Revolution, than Gotabaya Rajapaksa would likely be by his version – The Ten Principles of Inclusive Governance, projected as ‘Go for action – Vision Gotabaya Rajapaksa’.
The difference in enthusiasm is palpable. It is not difficult to discern why. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not displaying the authoritarian edge that his admirers thought would be his distinguishing mark in politics. At seventy and in his first ever political campaign, Mr. Rajapaksa looks mellowed and even tired. In public, he always appears under the watchful eye of his 73-year old brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SLPP campaign except for its emphasis on national security is less about Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and more about the family and its spiritual leader for the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The former President is literally telling the country that the family has given Sri Lanka the best candidate it could have. What the former President is also saying is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is only a family nominee, and that as President, his checks and balances will be more a family matter than a matter of constitutional correctness.
On the other hand, Sajith Premadasa has been all energetic, and in two weeks of campaigning he was threatening to trivialize Sri Lanka’s long tradition of social welfarism by promising freebees from school lunches to sanitary pads. With the release of his manifesto, he might be more disciplined against offering unlimited freebees. Although the details of the manifestos do not quite support them, in common perceptions Gotabaya Rajapaksa is associated with authoritarianism while Premadasa is associated with welfarism. It is these perceptions that may ultimately sway the voters than the details in the manifestos or the length of their alliance retinues.
If Mr. Rajapaksa seems somewhat hamstrung by family protocols in projecting his popular authoritarian image, Sajith Premadasa would appear to be putting his thrust on welfare promises while covering all the bases in the manifesto to satisfy his alliance partners. The Premadasa campaign seems to be on a different path from what a Wickremesinghe campaign would have been. Ranil Wickremesinghe was obviously banking on outflanking Gotabaya on a plurality vote, comprising a decent minority of the majority and an overwhelming majority of the minority. RW’s premise was that the UNP cannot win any other way and he is the only UNPer who could win that way.
Sajith Premadasa, on the other hand, seems to be more daring in taking the battle direct to the Rajapaksa heartland without losing his minority insurance. It is a misnomer to call the south Rajapaksa heartland, because it was not such a heartland ten years ago. The UNP had owned it previously and until Chandrika Kumaratunga swept them out of the way. Of the two candidates, Premadasa seems freer and with less constraints. Premadasa has no powerful brothers to answer to and he has indicated he has options when it comes to choosing his Prime Minister if he were to be elected as President.
Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe have asserted that they would be Prime Ministers if their respective candidates were to win the election. Sajith Premadasa has politely contradicted Mr. Wickremesinghe and he has opened the door for more changes in the UNP and the government if he were to win the presidency. That in itself should excite UNPers and stir them to vote as they haven’t done in a long time. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has no such option. The family has turned him into s sheep in wolf’s clothing.
The Rajapaksa Family
In an interesting essay, that appeared in The Island on Monday, October 28, its author, DCP Amarasekere, chastises the “droning among Liberals about the ‘return of the Rajapaksa family’ (as) rather stale”, because Sri Lanka is “a country with a heavy feudalistic hangover … (and) a history of ‘family cartels’ capturing the power of the state.” The dictionary meanings of ‘cartel’ are quite innocuous, but it is a tainted word after its long association with the drug cartels of Central America. Even Pieter Keuneman, who apparently started calling the UNP, the Uncle Nephew Party, would not have called the Senanayakes a political cartel. And the Senanayakes were gone by the time Bandaranaike family bandyism, and the Sri Lanka Family Party, became the political football in 1977. The Bandaranaike family is now gone as well, and it was never a cartel either.
What makes the Rajapaksa family a special target for concern and criticism (and this is not peculiar to some species called Liberals), and even qualify it for the cartel label, is its convergence with the executive presidential system and its brazenly dogged determination to take over that system. Not once, not twice, and not only thrice but potentially over interminable terms. The country seemed set up for a 99-year lease to the Rajapaksa family until Maithripala Sirisena momentously broke ranks, after literally breaking hoppers, with Mahinda Rajapaksa on an auspiciously ordinary November night in 2014. No other Sri Lankan political family has become so intertwined with the executive presidency. No other political family has ever campaigned as a family unit to win a national election. And no other Sri Lankan (executive) President, since 1978, has come anywhere near what the Rajapaksa family would appear to be bent on accomplishing.
It is rather facile, if not farfetched, to suggest that the Rajapaksa family is satisfying a new or growing demand for authoritarianism in Sri Lanka. If at all, they are ‘supplying’ a hotchpotch brand of authoritarianism without any tender, per usual, and even without transparently credible prequalification in the current election. To their credit, they have been making a remarkably good job of marketing authoritarianism, and might even close the deal far better than Ranil Wickremesinghe has been able to close any of his many free trade deals. But, if you don’t like authoritarianism, blame marketing, and don’t blame the masses for any newfound fancy for authoritarianism.
Felix Dias was not echoing mass sentiment when he mused about a “little bit of totalitarianism” in the 1960s. While the epigone (Felix) could not do anything about power on his own, the master (JR Jayewardene) delivered authoritarianism in full and with all the constitutional trappings. Even so, Mr. Jayewardene’s executive-presidential accomplishment was in every way idiosyncratic and accidental, and in no way organic and evolutionary. Anyone familiar with President Jayewardene’s life and politics will admit that the presidential system he created was not a response to any mass desire. It was anything but, because JRJ despised mass politics to the marrow of his bone.
Not accidentally, therefore, the opposition to the executive presidential system was born even as Prime Minister Jayewardene transubstantiated himself to become President Jayewardene through a constitutional amendment. It was the OLD LEFT, and not any Liberal, who fired the first warning shots against the executive presidential system. Abolishing it became an axiomatic promise for every presidential candidate in every presidential election after 1994. Twenty years later Sobitha Thero bought on to the idea of abolishment as a single election issue and turned into a national campaign.
Quite coincidentally, then, the campaign against the presidency in 2014/15 turned into a campaign against the Rajapaksa family because Mahinda Rajapaksa was the incumbent president, and there was no separation (of powers) between the presidency and the family. This was not without some irony, if not hypocrisy, because Mahinda Rajapaksa was himself promising to abolish the presidency while seeking a third term, and after breaking the same promise in his first two terms.
As well, the January 2015 presidential election became a referendum of sorts – not just on some abstract opposition to the system of executive presidency, but on the concrete experience of corruption and abuse of presidential power. The election was also remarkable because for the first time an incumbent president was defeated. And thanks to the joint failures of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Rajapaksa family would now seem to be well on the path of return.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has gladly picked up for the family, in 2019, from where Mahinda Rajapaksa left in 2019, all the while blaming the 19th Amendment for disabling the former President from running again. But the former President doesn’t have to run to be president again, he only needs to get his brother to win the election and he (MR) would be the newly powered Prime Minister under the same 19th Amendment.
Victor Ivan has provided an interesting anecdote (Daily FT, Friday, November 1) about an interview with Gotabaya Rajapaksa shortly after the January 2015 presidential election. When Mr. Ivan asked him (GR) if the “rampant corruption of his brother and his rule (that) had caused the people to reject his rule,” Mr. Rajapaksa “did not try to deny the corruptness of his brother’s regime”. On the contrary, he agreed that it was so and that “the mistake would have gone too far”, and “the situation would have got worse,” if the people had not rejected Mahinda Rajapaksa.
That was in the sober aftermath of a defeat. The narratives are different in the throes of an election. As I noted at the outset, the authoritarian edge has gone, or has been put out away until November 16. At the same time, as I have also been repeatedly saying, there has never been any regret or remorse from anyone in the Rajapaksa family for anything that they did as a government and for which the people defeated them in 2015. True, you can pull fibre from a stone before getting Ranil Wickremesinghe to apologise for the bond scam or anything else, but the UNP has seen to it that RW is not on the UNP presidential ticket. Not so with the Rajapaksas. They are the SLPP ticket.
But the ticket is not without its problems. Candidate Rajapaksa is not out of the legal woods yet, although his intrepid lawyers are managing to keep him out of serious trouble. The notion of public interest has been judicially turned on its head. Somehow it is not in the public interest to question the legal credentials of a presidential candidate, to presume that a political party would make sure that its candidate is in conformance with the laws of the country, or to inconveniently summon a presidential candidate to an inquiry as grave as the habeas corpus. The political corollary of it, as claimed in Trump’s America and Duterte’s Philippines, is that a presidential candidate who wins an election should automatically be absolved of any and all pre-existing legal jeopardies. In Trump’s constitutional understanding, he can even pardon himself for anything. Is that going to be the future standard for Sri Lanka?