As Sri Lanka defaults for the first time, what’s next for the Rajapaksa family?
- The clan that has dominated politics for some two decades has fallen from grace, with Mahinda replaced as PM and his president brother facing calls to resign
- As new PM Ranil Wickremesinghe seeks to restore short-term stability, analysts say a political overhaul and fresh general election are needed to steer the country back to normalcy
Nonetheless, restoring political stability in the medium term is key for the island nation to pull itself of its current mess, political observers say.
While short-term deal making – which has seen the reappointment of five-times former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – may pause political turbulence, public sentiment remains tense.
Given the national mood, political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar from the University of Jaffna said a restructuring of the political system may be needed to ensure the country was not afflicted by “a revolving door of governments” in the midst of the crisis.
For months now, the country has been reeling from a national debt crisis that this week culminated in its first default in history. Its total foreign debt stands at US$51 billion, and Wickremesinghe this week said the treasury was struggling to source even $1 million – a state of affairs that has limited imports.
Amid the turmoil, the Rajapaksa clan that has dominated politics for the better part of two decades has fallen from grace.
In April, Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to quit as prime minister – in his third tenure in that job – while his brother Gotabaya, the president, remains under intense pressure to quit from protesters fed up with the country’s economic peril.
Mahinda has been holed up in a naval dockyard after being evacuated from his official residence by soldiers last week following attempts by anti-Rajapaksa protesters to break into the property. That agitation was in response to violent attacks against anti-government protesters by the political family’s supporters.
Three other family members who were part of Mahinda’s cabinet also resigned their cabinet posts in April.
In place of Mahinda, veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minister five times in the past, has been sworn in.
He is viewed as having a decent chance of restoring short-term stability amid signs that he may be able to cobble together a unity government.
One indication of that was JP Morgan Chase & Co on Wednesday turning overweight on Sri Lanka dollar bonds, saying recent events point towards political stability, which could pave the way for discussions with the International Monetary Fund and debt restructuring talks.
Still, several political analysts say the status quo remains too precarious, and that a fresh general election is the only course of action to steer the country back to normalcy.
One reason for this is the view that much needed reform can only take place if the so-called “executive presidency” powers held by Gotabaya are removed.
After his election victory in 2019, he restored and enhanced the wide-ranging and decades-old presidential powers that were clipped during the term of his immediate predecessor Maithripala Sirisena.
Among other things, the powers passed under the 20th Constitutional Amendment allow the sitting president to dissolve the 225-seat legislature any time after the halfway mark of its electoral term.
Earlier, these powers were clipped, with the prime minister given more sway than is the case currently.
“It’s becoming clear that the demands of the unprecedented protests of the past weeks – especially the resignation of the President and the passing of the Twenty First Amendment to abolish the executive presidency, along with any difficult economic reforms needed – will not be possible with the current parliament,” said Asanga Welikala, a constitutional law scholar.
“We have to think seriously not just about President Gotabaya resigning, but also about whether we want any executive president in the future – because part of the problem is that there is so much power in one individual, and in one office,” Kadirgamar said.
Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher for the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka, said the island nation’s ongoing “democratic decay” was attributable to the office of the executive presidency.
For his part, Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in on May 12, has said his government is moving forward with a plan to curb President Rajapaksa’s executive powers – with a draft on the constitutional amendment set to be finalised next week.
Could a general election still take place?
While there is no immediate indication that any major player will move to trigger fresh polls, lawyer and political analyst Javid Yusuf said “if the decisions taken by the government do not command the public trust, then the process will be pushed to a point where election is inevitable”.
For Kadirgamar, the timing could not be worse for the country to have a fresh vote, just two years after the last general election that the Rajapaksa clan’s party won by a landslide.
“Right now, people are only thinking about their next meal, and of getting rid of the Rajapaksas. So if we rush into the elections, one year down the line we might have to go for another,” said the University of Jaffna senior lecturer.
But one thing is clear, according to Kadirgamar – the “unprecedented social uproar” had delegitimised the Rajapaksa clan that had governed the island nation with an iron fist since 2005.
While the brothers were previously hailed for their role in ending a three-decade civil war with separatist Tamils, that lustre is seen as long gone.
“The people see them as having really destroyed the country,” said Kadirgamar.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg, AP