South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Frontline by B. SKANTHAKUMAR ::

Rajapaksa, the president who would be king, subverted every democratic institution to serve his personal ends. It took a coalition of ethnic and religious minorities and a substantial section of the Sinhala majority to end his dreams of political immortality. 

Sri Lanka’s seventh presidential election on January 8 was supposed to be a coronation.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa, 69, made his bid for an unprecedented third term barely six weeks earlier, a comfortable victory for the incumbent had been choreographed and projected.

In a pre-election budget in late October, advanced to reap the electoral harvest, his government said it would spend and subsidise more, and invest in water supply projects and public transport, while cutting taxes and utilities and energy bills. The salaries and allowances of public sector workers were increased; as were statutory contributions to the retirement benefits of workers by their employers in the private sector. Motorcycles and scooters were distributed at nominal costs to police officers and other state employees.

Financial support to vulnerable groups was enhanced through a hike in the guaranteed price for paddy, dairy milk and natural rubber; scholarships for undergraduates; and allowances for senior citizens, persons with disabilities, kidney patients, and families of the security forces. Conditional cash transfers to the poor were increased. There was a reduction in electricity, fuel and water tariffs, and in the rate of personal income and value-added taxation.

The opposition was caught on the wrong foot. Sensitive to the public appeal of handouts and populist policies, it was unable to frontally attack the government’s expenditure plans. It directed its fire on the revenue proposals and warned of a ballooning public debt (in excess of LKR 7,000 billion or $55 billion).

It was even compelled to reassure the electorate that in the event of its victory in the presidential election, its government would honour, and even better, its predecessor’s undertakings by, for instance, raising public sector salaries by a further LKR 5,000 monthly.

Supremely confident of his adoration by the Sinhala polity, unembarrassed by his abuse of state power and public resources, and with no credible challenger or cohesive opposition on the horizon, Rajapaksa—and by extension his regime—basked in the near-certainty of re-election.

Indeed, a casual visitor to the island in late November could have assumed all too easily that there was only one candidate in the fray. All senses were assaulted by the omnipresence of the incumbent; as indeed were the lives, liberties, and livelihoods of all those who had stood in his way.

In every direction, giant cutouts of the President towered over his subjects; large billboards identified mega-development projects with him, or joyously proclaimed the adulation of an anonymous public. For a while, no lamppost or wall was spared of posters of his beaming visage.

Television and radio spots insistently reminded their audience of the disastrous 26-year-long internal war that he brought to a brutal conclusion in May 2009; the print media, in Sinhala, Tamil and English, ran pages upon pages of advertisements proclaiming a “Brighter Tomorrow” of security and prosperity.

“Where is my opponent?” he once roared, in the run-up to the election. Giddy with hubris, little did he, or for that matter we, realise how close at hand his nemesis was.

Discarding the script prepared for them, the people wrote their own. Bolstered by a record turnout of over 81 per cent, they voted for the 63-year-old common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who was Health Minister in the Rajapaksa government and general-secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Sirisena secured 51.28 per cent of the valid votes cast (with Rajapaksa getting 47.58 per cent), winning the presidency with a majority of around 449,000. The remaining 17 candidates, some of whom were in the running to either canvass support for one of the main contenders or to siphon off votes from one in favour of the other (there was another Sirisena and Rajapaksa on the ballot paper), cumulatively scored only 1.14 per cent of the total number of valid votes, which is less than the number of spoilt or rejected ballots (which was 1.15 per cent).

What does closer analysis of the results tell us about the regional, religious and ethnic bases of support for the rival camps? How did the seemingly unassailable Rajapaksa regime unravel? What is known of President Maithripala Sirisena?

Minorities and majorities

In a broad sweep, Maithripala Sirisena’s vote base comprised a crushing majority of ethnic, religious, and political minorities, along with a substantial minority of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Mahinda Rajapaksa drew his support from rural Sinhala Buddhist electorates, particularly from the poor who are dependent on state welfare benefits, as well as prosperous sections sympathetic to Sinhala nationalism; and the “new” middle class in satellite towns and suburban areas that emerged after economic liberalisation in the late 1970s.

The sharpest swing away from Rajapaksa (in comparison to his performance in the 2010 presidential election) was in the Western littoral, where the commercial centre of Colombo, with its urban and industrial suburbs, is located; and where religious and ethnic minorities —Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical) of Sinhala and Tamil ethnicity, Hindus of Tamil ethnicity, and Muslims (considered an ethno-religious community in Sri Lanka)—are concentrated.

There was also heavy erosion of support for the incumbent in the north-central Rajarata region, which is predominantly populated by rural Sinhala Buddhists, and particularly in Sirisena’s own district of Polonnaruwa. Likewise, even in the rural areas of the Central Province district of Kandy, which are overwhelmingly Sinhala Buddhist, Sirisena’s score averaged in the mid-to-high 50 percentile range.

Even where Rajapaksa led in the election, the margin of support for him was much narrower than it was in the 2010 election. This was true even in the Sinhala Buddhist home ground of the former President in the deep south of the country, where loyalty to a son of the Ruhuna (the region’s historical name) was heightened by anxieties of its eclipse in the event of his own.

There was resounding support for Sirisena among ethnic minority communities, that is Tamils and Muslims, in the hill country and in the Eastern and Northern Provinces, as evident from his margin of victory in areas where they comprise the “local majority”—Nuwara Eliya, Badulla, Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Jaffna, the Vanni, and so on.

A view based on anecdotal evidence is that first-time voters—the majority of whom are of Sinhala ethnicity—also opted for Sirisena over Rajapaksa; as did groups whose dissenting political opinions have made them marginal in the past decade, ranging from liberals to leftists and including academics, trade unionists, cultural activists, and civil society leaders.

Rajapaksa and his acolytes seized upon the geographical origin of the votes received for both the contenders to stake his claim as the “President” of the Sinhala majority. Toxic in his defeat, Rajapaksa impugned that the victor Sirisena was President only of the minorities, represented as “Eelamists” (that is, Tamils), and the “elite” (that is, rich city dwellers), whereas he was the champion of the rural majority (who comprise around 80 per cent of the population).

This narrative was compounded by a misleading infographic on the post-election results, where the districts that registered a majority for Sirisena uncannily corresponded to the putative boundaries of a Tamil state encompassing the North-Western, Northern and Eastern littoral, in addition to the Tamil-populated areas in the centre of the island.

Wild rumours circulated in the South in the immediate aftermath of the election result, including reports that northern Tamils, emboldened by Rajapaksa’s defeat, had hoisted the flag of “Tamil Eelam”, and that army camps had been stoned. These allegations were promptly denied by military authorities as baseless. Thus, a transparent ploy to stoke Sinhala chauvinism and tarnish Sirisena’s victory failed. The anti-Tamil card did not inflame ethnic and political tensions though anxieties remain among many Sinhalas of a resurgence of Tamil separatism and the threat of backsliding to the years of terror, war and death.

Facts are often of limited importance in tinderbox situations. However, there was no avoiding the stubborn reality that ethnic minority communities only accounted for some 22 per cent of all valid votes cast and were, therefore, unable to elect on their own the President of the republic, even assuming they voted en bloc.

Further, Rajapaksa actually recorded the largest numerical increase of his vote in the 2015 election, by electoral district, from the Tamil-majority Northern Province! This result possibly reflects increased voter registration and networks of political clientelism similar to those in other parts of the island.

If Sirisena’s margin of victory was narrower than his supporters would have wished for, their consolation is that it is still more than double the 180,000-odd margin which Rajapaksa achieved in his first election to the presidency; a victory delivered to him by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when it enforced a boycott of the 2005 election in Tamil-speaking areas under its control.

What is evident from the complex voting patterns in the 2015 presidential election is the coalescing of several political and social groups, associated with contradictory positions on national issues, and for the limited purpose of unseating the incumbent.


The components of this unlikely and tenuous convergence include the United National Party (UNP) faithful in rural and urban areas; a section of the SLFP; a section of Sinhala Buddhists from the urban lower middle class, mobilised by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU); the multi-ethnic urban poor; the organised working class, the Left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP); the former army commander and 2010 presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka; Tamil plantation workers; the multi-ethnic urban middle-class and some professional groups; and minority ethnic and religious communities across the island.

A minimum basis of agreement was hammered out by the common opposition around a 100-day programme for government. The mooted reforms centred on one of the two standout refrains of the contest: “governance” (rendered as yahapalanaya in Sinhala).

As Colombo University academic Jayadeva Uyangoda wryly observed: “A concept which is a part of the neoliberal political discourse has been appropriated in the vernacular, democratic political imagination for the revival of democratic politics.”

“Good governance” became the catch-all term for essentially constitutional, electoral and human rights issues such as abolition of the executive presidency (or at least diminution of its powers); introduction of a mixed electoral system combining first-past-the-post with proportional representation in place of the preferential vote; establishment of independent state agencies for the judiciary, police, elections, auditor-general, and attorney-general’s department, and strengthened watchdog bodies such as the commissions on bribery and corruption, and human rights; a code of conduct for all public representatives; and enactment of a right to information law.

More contentious issues, principally on power-sharing with the Tamil-speaking polity in the North and East regions, were deferred to a time after the general elections scheduled for April 23. This manoeuvre was for pragmatic and tactical reasons: it recognised the divergence of opinion within the common opposition camp on this question while seeking to remove it from play in the election campaign, knowing full well that the incumbent would exploit it to his political advantage before an anti-devolution Sinhala polity.

As worthwhile as the proposed democratic reforms are, they are unlikely to have excited the majority who voted for Sirisena. To a significant degree, Rajapaksa succeeded in planting the notion that it was strong rule at the Centre (in the institution of the executive presidency) that enabled him to win the war against the LTTE, and, in a corollary argument, to maintain the territorial integrity of the country thereafter.

Vote for change

Rather, what glued both the common opposition and the fractious electorate together was a shared antipathy to the Rajapaksa regime as its patriarch (to borrow from Garcia Marquez) “governed as if he felt predestined to never die”.

The most likely explanation for the incumbent’s defeat, and more persuasive than a newfound attachment to liberal values and institutions, was the other buzzword of the campaign: wenasak (or “change” in Sinhala).

Rajapaksa had won a re-election in 2010, surfing on the wave of post-war triumphalism from the year before. He anticipated and was not disappointed by the “gratitude” of the Sinhala people expressed through the ballot box. Acclaimed as a latter-day hero for the bloody and decisive conclusion to the long-running war, Rajapaksa amended the Constitution shortly after his second term began to remove the two-term limit on the presidency, enabling him to stand for a third term, and to repeal the 17th Amendment that aimed at depoliticising statutory and oversight agencies and enhance the independence of the Executive.

Contrary to the expectations of a democratic opening up of institutions at the war’s end, the regime consolidated its national security mindset and ethno-religious majoritarianism, alienating sections of the population once devoted to it.

The military encroached into civil administrative affairs in the conflict-affected areas and intelligence officers conducted surveillance of community-based organisations and monitored lawful gatherings. Agricultural and residential lands of Tamils occupied by the military during the war were not returned, and new lands were forcibly taken for construction of new camps and facilities. Though duly elected, the Northern and Eastern provincial governments did not have the freedom or the finances to manage their own affairs, and were subject to Central government interference.

Hate campaign

Buddhist extremist organisations sprang out of nowhere to mobilise against Muslim and Christian places of worship and religious practices. The hate campaign was accompanied by arson and physical violence aimed at crippling Muslim-owned commercial interests, just as the July 1983 riots had done to Tamil businesses. A climate of fear and insecurity pervaded Muslim communities, particularly in Sinhala-majority areas, where most Muslims live, school and work. Muslim-based political parties within the government could not forestall anti-Muslims riots in the south-west in June 2014, where thousands lost their homes and properties and four Muslims were shot dead.

A pliant Parliament believed that its role was to flatter the President while its members abused their office to reward themselves. Several legislators were implicated in cases of murder and extortion, and were accused of peddling narcotics and unlawful import of ethanol for alcohol production. Governing party politicians in local and provincial governments too routinely engaged in criminal behaviour ranging from embezzlement of public funds and appropriation of state property to sexual assault. With few exceptions, impunity was enjoyed by the perpetrators, as law-enforcement officers took their cue from politicians.

Abuse of power

The Rajapaksa regime went further than its predecessors in using new recruits to the public sector—whether unemployed graduates or school-leavers enlisted to the Civil Defence Force or casual employees of government departments and public corporations—to drum up political support during election campaigns and to turn out for its propaganda rallies. There was a deliberate blurring of the lines between the regime and the state; and state officials at all levels behaved as if they were servants of the government, and not citizens.

Human rights violations had a chilling effect on social struggles and democratic action. Unarmed protestors were killed by state security forces in campaigns of fisherfolk, free-trade-zone workers, and for clean water. The Prevention of Terrorism Act was routinely invoked to detain without charge individuals engaged in human rights documentation, as well as family members of victims of enforced disappearances in the final phase of the war. Killings and threats to media workers drove dozens into self-exile and fostered self-censorship among those who remained.

While state-owned media were used to slander the opposition and for self-aggrandisement of the President, privately-owned media traded editorial independence and journalistic integrity for state licences and advertising revenues.

Large-scale infrastructure projects, often financed by Chinese loans, were celebrated as symbolic of development. Economic rationale and the inability to recover the costs were of no consequence in approval of white-elephant projects such as the international airport and seaport in the Rajapaksa electorate of Hambantota. The outlay on expressways and other road projects was enormous because of alleged kickbacks to the regime.

The concentration and centralisation of executive power in the family members of the former President, such as Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and an inner circle of politicians, bureaucrats and hangers-on, frustrated even regime loyalists. Ministers in the Cabinet discovered that their portfolios were largely honorific, as key decisions were taken by one or the other of the Rajapaksa brothers, and their national budget allocations were reduced. The Secretaries to the Ministries were given direct instructions by the Presidential Secretariat over the heads of Ministers.

Believing himself to be politically immortal, Rajapaksa sowed the seeds of his own downfall. After nine years of unbroken rule, and with the prospect of up to eight years more, it was legitimately feared that he and his family had no intention of relinquishing their grasp on power anytime soon. Both Basil and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa hinted at higher political ambitions, and waiting in the wings was Mahinda’s firstborn and heir apparent, Namal.

Accidental President

Maithripala Sirisena has been presented as the “accidental President”. A man who never hankered for high office or distinguished himself in the ministerial briefs that he once held; thrust by force of circumstance into leaving his own government to defy his former leader in defence of democratic norms.

In the long years of the Rajapaksa presidency, as its aura grew more intense while the fortunes of the opposition UNP dimmed, it was speculated that any credible challenger to the regime could only emerge from within its own ranks.

It was apparent that SLFP leaders resented the nepotistic practices of their leader who openly favoured his kith and kin. Many were uncomfortable with the influence wielded by defectors from the UNP and other shady figures in the government’s economic and foreign policymaking.

In fact, there was nothing accidental about the selection of Sirisena as common opposition candidate. He had to be like Rajapaksa in some respects, and different in others. He had to have the loyalty of SLFP supporters, without antagonising the UNP. He had to be acceptable to ethnic and religious minorities, without being susceptible to charges of being a closet federalist or a secularist. He had to match Rajapaksa’s social origins in rural Sinhala society, without appearing to be a rustic unsuited to business and diplomatic fora.

Colourless and soft-spoken in comparison to the charismatic and pugnacious Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s public persona was well received by a citizenry tired of confrontational and bellicose politics. The simplicity of his oath-taking ceremony on January 9 was widely acclaimed. Two days later, in pointed reference to his predecessor’s style of governance, Sirisena said: “Our country does not need a king to rule. All we need is a human being who can serve the nation.”

Maithripala Sirisena is one of 12 siblings raised in a middle peasant rice-farming household in one of the new irrigated agricultural settlements developed after Independence in the North-Central Province. He was educated locally.

While still in school, he was briefly a youth wing member of the pro-Peking Communist Party of Ceylon. However, by the time he left school, he had gravitated to the youth wing of the SLFP, to subsequently rise in the parent organisation. During the 1971 youth insurrection, Sirisena was among the tens of thousands of activists imprisoned by an SLFP-led regime; he was only released 15 months later.

He trained in agricultural science but never took to farming. Instead, like many other educated rural male youth, he opted for the higher status and more stable income of government employment, working in the local public administrative system.

In 1989, he entered Parliament as a member of the opposition. Subsequent to the formation of the SLFP-led government in 1994, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Irrigation. Thereafter, he variously held portfolios as Mahaweli Development (irrigation and colonisation scheme), Agriculture, and Health Minister: all three of which are of importance to his own electoral district, which is largely agricultural, and where households have been badly affected by chronic kidney disease believed to be caused by agro-chemical poisoning of the groundwater.


The president who would be “king” has been ousted. Only in the weeks and months ahead will it become clear whether the executive presidency, that contributed to his misrule and to which he made his own terrible contribution, will meet the same fate.

The political complexion of the new legislature following the April general elections will be critical; as will the interventions and social weight of progressive forces fighting to ensure that democratic reforms do not fall off the popular and parliamentary agenda.

B. Skanthakumar is with the Social Scientists’ Association in Colombo. His recent publications include Growth with Inequality: The Political Economy of Neo-Liberalism in Sri Lanka (2013).

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