Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency has started off predictably and disquietingly. There is no pretence that this time it will not be the Rajapaksa family rule. After Ranil Wickremesinghe stepped down as Prime Minister following the Gotabaya victory, the new president lost no time in appointing Mahinda as the new prime minister of a caretaker government. Another brother, Chamal, has been appointed a minister in the government, which will hold fort until fresh parliamentary elections are held in March 2020, the earliest that the present parliament can be dissolved before the end of its five year term next August. At the height of the previous Rajapaksa rule, there were 40 family members in government. There is little doubt that Mahinda, who was barred from the presidential election because he had already held the office twice, will run the country in close coordination with his brother. At the moment, the parliamentary configuration is not such as to allow the new dispensation to do away with progressive amendments to the Constitution made by the last government to check the powers of the executive presidency, including the two-time bar. But it would surprise no one if the Rajapaksas turned the clock back on these 2015 amendments when the opportunity arises.
That moment may not be far away. President Rajapaksa is confident of winning the 2020 parliamentary election, and that self-belief may not be far off the mark. A divided opposition, engaged in a tug of war between Wickremesinghe and the unsuccessful presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, is unlikely to get its act together to put up a fight to the Rajapaksa purpose built political vehicle, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. In any case, Sri Lankan voters have seen that cohabitation — in which the president and prime minister are from different parties — is another name for paralysis of governance. It happened in 2001, and once again in 2015, although in the second instance, it was dressed up as a “national unity government” and showed some promise before imploding because of irreconciliable differences between former President Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
External affairs Minister S Jaishankar is said to have communicated Delhi’s desire for hastening national reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksas have a poor record on this front. In the post-war years, the first family oversaw an unprecedented militarisation of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Voters from the majority community have not forgotten that it was the brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, who crafted a victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This is what powered Gotabaya’s majoritarian victory in these elections. Nor did Tamil voters forget what it was like in the years following the 2009 defeat of the Tigers. National reconciliation requires statesmanship of a tall order. It would be a pleasant surprise if Gotabaya, the newest majoritarian right wing leader to join the growing ranks of such leaders in the world, can pull it off.