By Chandani Kirinde/in Colombo
India Today, May 13: How the mighty have fallen. For the once politically formidable Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka, the end seems nigh. Their spectacular reversal of political fortunes, triggered by an unprecedented downturn in the economy due to mismanagement, corruption and nepotism, has been swift, but not surprising.
Just two and a half years ago, in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president by an overwhelming majority. It was followed by a landslide victory for his Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) in the general election in August 2020. It guaranteed him a two-thirds majority in parliament and helped him instal his older brother Mahinda as prime minister. But the two top posts in the country didn’t satisfy the Rajapaksas—elder brother, Chamal, was made agriculture minister and younger brother Basil the finance minister. They even installed Mahinda’s son, Namal, seen as the heir apparent, as minister of youth and sports.
For Sri Lanka’s formidable first family, however, things began to go downhill rapidly. Anti-Rajapaksa protests over high inflation and incompetent governance began with candlelit vigils in the suburbs of the political and commercial capital, Colombo. It soon spread across the country, taking the form of an apolitical, peaceful protest movement calling for the resignation of the president, as well as the rest of the first family. The first one to go was finance minister Basil, who faced flak for his handling of the deteriorating financial situation and his prolonged absence from parliament when Lanka was burning. Chamal and Namal followed soon, in a bid to stem the growing criticism against the Rajapaksas.
However, the protesters were not placated—chanting the catchy ‘Gota-go-home’ slogan, they demanded president Gotabaya’s resignation. They occupied the area in front of the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo overlooking the Galle Face Green esplanade. As the protests grew across the country, party members of the ruling SLPP showed their concern. The first salvo against PM Mahinda came from his own party, with a group of dissident MPs calling for his resignation. They now number over 50 in the country’s 225-member parliament, which means Gotabaya Rajapaksa has effectively lost control of support in the legislature. That forced the resignation of Mahinda as prime minister on May 9.
For Mahinda, it was a precipitous fall. As president of the country from 2005 to 2015, he gave political leadership to the armed forces and ensured that they defeated the Tamil Tigers and killed its feared leader, the V. Prabhakaran, in 2009. In doing so, he had endeared himself to the majority Sinhala population who make up around 75 per cent of the country’s 22 million population. The Sinhalese, who are mainly Buddhists, referred to him fondly as ‘appachchi’, Sinhala for ‘father’. But by last week, he was a hunted man, having to quit his job as angry crowds besieged his official residence in Colombo soon after his resignation. Army personnel had to step in to airlift him to safety the next day; he is said to be at a naval base in Eastern Sri Lanka.
Mahinda was also blamed for the escalating violence when he is said to have brought a host of party workers to his Colombo residence to shore up support for him the day he sent his resignation to the president. These workers set upon the peaceful protesters, escalating the situation and triggering sudden violence across the country, in which those linked to the Rajapaksas have been targeted. To control the situation, Gotabaya has imposed emergency rule, giving additional powers to the armed forces, and put a curfew in place. But this has not stopped angry crowds from burning and damaging the homes of politicians and their supporters. One Member of Parliament (MP) of the ruling party is among the nine people killed during the ongoing violence.
The protestors and Opposition parties are now adamant that Gotabaya has to resign. The euphoria around Gotabaya, a political novice but one who was showcased as an efficient administrator, began to evaporate about a year into office, as his much-touted promises to streamline the country’s public sector, stop corruption and revive the economy began to fall apart. A former army officer, Gotabaya was defence minister when Mahinda was president, and was as much a hero to the masses as Mahinda for defeating the Tamil Tigers. But his inexperience in politics and over-reliance on advice from former military colleagues began to show soon after he assumed office.
The reason for the economic abyss the country has fallen into is mainly due to bad policy decisions taken by him. Political expediency overtook rational decision-making soon after his election—the president announced generous tax cuts which he said were aimed at stimulating the economy but were aimed at appeasing voters at the general elections a few months later. By April 2022, revenue losses due to tax cuts stood at a staggering Rs 500 billion (USD 1.3 billion). The country’s new finance minister Ali Sabry told parliament last month that the tax cuts were a historic mistake.
Meanwhile, the outbreak of the Covid pandemic took its toll on the country’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism, tea and garment exports and remittances from Sri Lankan workers employed overseas. Instead of providing relief, the president then went ahead with a ban on import of agrochemicals in May 2020 as part of an ad-hoc plan to move the country towards organic fertilisers. This saw a drop in the paddy crop yield in this year’s harvest by over 40 per cent, turning a majority of rural Sri Lankans from farming communities—and once ardent supporters of the Rajapaksas—against them. It also resulted in soaring food prices that triggered much of the current unrest. According to the country’s Department of Census and Statistics, food inflation is at a whopping 47 per cent triggered by the fertiliser ban as well as a decision to suddenly free float the Sri Lankan Rupee in March 2022. As a result, the currency, which was trading at Rs 230 against the USD, pitched to over Rs 360 to a dollar by this week. The country’s foreign reserves have also declined rapidly, dropping to $1.9 billion by the end of March 2022, but as a bulk of these are not usable to settle USD denominated payments, the country’s coffers are left with only $50 million as usable liquid reserves.
With no money to pay for imports, this has led to rising costs and the country has been gripped by shortage of fuel and domestic gas, which continue till today. Long queues of people waiting to buy gas or fill up their vehicles are commonplace. In addition, there are regular power cuts in a country heavily dependent on thermal power.
For the Rajapaksa-led government, the writing was on the wall for a year that the country was headed for a major economic crisis, but Gotabaya and Mahinda remained complacent, feeding dubious claims to the public that they had the situation under control. It was only when things reached a critical point in April this year that the president sacked his brother and finance minister Basil. He also dismissed the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, a political appointee, who admitted the grave errors but had resisted taking a IMF bailout. By then the political fallout had begun and people had lost their faith in the Rajapaksas, including Gotabaya and Mahinda—the patriarch of the political family from Southern Sri Lanka.
In an environment where there is a trust deficit between the president and the public, Gotabaya has few options. He needs to urgently appoint a new prime minister and cabinet, but unless those he appoints can restore public confidence, such an exercise would be futile. He has been trying to get the Opposition to form a national government of all parties to run the country to address the economic crisis. But so far, they have not agreed, demanding his resignation. In an address to the nation on May 11, the president did promise to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet within the week and bring about constitutional changes that would reduce his powers. He also condemned the attacks on peaceful protestors and called for calm, but did not address demands for him to step down.
The main opposition is led by Sajith Premadasa, son of the late former president Ranasinghe Premadasa and leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya party. Premadasa is seen as the likely successor to Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM in an interim all-party government, but he is insisting that Gotabaya step down first. Meanwhile, Gotabaya has imposed an emergency and deployed thousands of military personnel on the streets with shoot-at-sight orders to stop an escalation of violence. But any high-handed action will further alienate him and only hasten his departure. For now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is confined to his highly fortified office in downtown Colombo. With the exit of his once powerful brother Mahinda and with Sri Lanka’s economic collapse ever worsening in a politically unstable climate, his days in office are likely to be numbered.