Nov 19 (ICG) Gotabaya Rajapaksa's decisive victory in Sri Lanka's presidential election reflects voters' concerns over security, poor economic prospects and ineffective governance - but also indicates the country's dangerous ethnic polarisation. Many worry that Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist, will energise anti-Muslim campaigning and further alienate the Tamil community.
On 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa - who served as defence secretary during the final phase of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war - won a decisive victory in Sri Lanka's presidential election.
Although Rajapaksa's victory was not a surprise, the margin of his win exceeded expectations among many analysts. The candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya (who, like Mahinda, is widely known by his first name) captured 52.25 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Sajith Premadasa, candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP), came in second with 42 per cent.
Gotabaya, who has been linked to atrocities committed at the end of the war, is a polarising figure in Sri Lanka, and Saturday's vote revealed sharp divisions in the electorate along ethnic lines. Although both candidates were from the ethnic majority Sinhalese community, Rajapaksa, who ran a strongly Sinhala nationalist campaign, was the outsize winner among the Sinhalese, securing such a huge majority that he needed few if any votes from ethnic Tamil or Muslim voters. By contrast, overwhelming majorities of Muslim and Tamil voters - who together make up roughly a quarter of the population - cast their ballots for Premadasa.
Of the record 35 candidates on the ballot, two who seemed positioned to command enough votes to affect the outcome did less well than expected. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the left-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, won only 3.16 per cent of the vote, and former army commander Mahesh Senanayake, running as the candidate of a new, civil society-backed political party, won less than half a per cent.
The presidential campaign was one of Sri Lanka's most peaceful, with only a handful of violent incidents. One concern highlighted by Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya was the unprecedented amount of "fake news" spread on social media and in mainstream media outlets as well. Most of the disinformation targeted Premadasa's campaign, including a particularly damaging story reported by pro-Rajapaksa outlets during the final days claiming Premadasa had signed a secret pact with the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, in exchange for its support.
What accounts for Gotabaya's decisive victory?
Voters' security concerns, Sinhalese ethno-nationalism, Sri Lanka's economic straits, the current government's infighting and the SLPP's organisational strength were the main factors driving Gotabaya's victory.
Although Premadasa had a credible shot at winning, Gotabaya was widely seen as the front runner from the start. Backed by his brother Mahinda, who remains popular among Sinhalese voters but was constitutionally prevented from running for another term, Gotabaya faced in Premadasa an opponent who was a senior minister in an unpopular, divided and ineffective government.
Tapping into widespread feelings of anger and vulnerability stemming from the government's failure to prevent the devastating ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches and hotels - notwithstanding advance warnings from the Indian government - Gotabaya put a promise to deliver "security" and "eradicate terrorism" at the centre of his campaign.
The combination of Gotabaya's pledge to prioritise security and his ethno-nationalist message resonated especially with the many Sinhala voters who remember the key role he played as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. Gotabaya enjoyed the active support of influential Buddhist monks who have long promoted the idea that Tamils and Muslims threaten Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist character - a sentiment that has increased among Sinhalese since the Easter bombings. Given the Rajapaksa family's popularity among Sinhalese voters, Premadasa needed overwhelming support from Muslims and Tamils to have any chance at victory, a reality that led the SLPP to argue that a Premadasa presidency would be hostage to minority interests.
The governing UNP's unpopularity also gave Gotabaya a big boost. With economic growth rates weak and debt repayment obligations high, the UNP government has had little revenue with which to deliver significant benefits to poor and middle-income Sri Lankans. The sharp fall in tourism following the Easter bombings added to the difficulty that large numbers of Sri Lankans have had making ends meet.
Moreover, under the UNP, government policymaking, including on economic issues, was confused and often contradictory. The increasingly toxic relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe exacerbated the government's ineffectiveness. In October 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a move that courts ruled unconstitutional but that helped cement an impression of chaos in the country's governing ranks. Premadasa proved unable to separate himself clearly enough from the government's unpopularity.
The SLPP's strong island-wide organisation also benefited Gotabaya. The Rajapaksas and their supporters built up the party methodically since forming it in 2016 to be the political vehicle for the Rajapaksa family's return to power. Big wins in the February 2018 local government elections strengthened the party at the grassroots level. Unlike Gotabaya, who had carefully laid the foundation of his campaign over the previous two years, Premadasa was named the UNP candidate just days before the campaign began, after a bitter struggle with party leader and prime minister Wickremesinghe. From that point on, the Premadasa campaign was playing catch-up while holding a weaker hand than Gotabaya, with flimsier party organisation and less funding and media support (most private media are owned by Rajapaksa allies and backed Gotabaya strongly, and more than a few outlets spread disinformation on his behalf).
What is the Rajapaksa family's return to power likely to mean for Sri Lanka's longstanding ethnic tensions?