Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The Fall of Rajapaksa: Why Democracies Fail Strongmen

19 Jan, 2015    ·   4809

D Suba Chandran writes why leaders must not take the ballot for granted in complex democracies like in South Asian countries

Last January in 2014, none would have predicted the fall of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. At that time, he was gathering momentum politically every passing day; political opposition within Sri Lanka – both inside and outside the Parliament was perhaps the weakest; and he had earlier vanquished the LTTE, the biggest threat to Sri Lankan polity until then.

There was no opposition to him; none of the leaders from the opposition party, including Ranil Wikramasinghe was confident of fighting against Rajapaksa at that time. There were no threats from any of the sub-regions in Sri Lanka – either from the east or the north politically or otherwise. There was no non-State actor that could even remotely pose a challenge to Rajapaksa. His family had by then taken absolute control over the entire State. From the Parliament to media, not many dared to question Rajapaksa and his family. In fact, he felt so strong, that he even preponed the election schedule.

And what an election it turned out to be, strengthening the very core of democratic ideals in South Asia! In retrospect, he is not the only leader in South Asia, who got elected to power democratically by the people, and further got elevated almost into a demi-god or a messiah, only to be dethroned subsequently by the same people who elected them. The list in India alone is long enough; it includes Sheikh Abdullah, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mamta Banerjee, NT Ramarao, Jayalalitha and many others. While some like Jayalalitha have bounced back electorally, others like Laloo are still trying to float. What causes the rise and fall of these strong men and women? What makes the democracies to elect them strongly, and also make them fall?

Revenge of Minorities?
For the fall of Rajapaksa, the simplest explanation provided so far is too simple to agree with. It talks about the revenge of minorities in Sri Lanka, meaning, the Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims voted completely against Rajapaksa. Perhaps, the minorities did not vote for Rajapaksa; but the minorities in Sri Lanka put together do not constitute an electoral majority! This means, a substantial section of the Sinhala community have also voted against Rajapaksa.

Ethnically, the Sri Lankan Tamils (a section of them being Muslims) constitute less than 12 percent and the Sinhalese constitute close to 75 percent. In religious terms, the Buddhists constitute 70 percent, while the Hindus, Muslims and Christians form the rest. Revenge of minorities’ theory may not do justice to the larger aspirations and anger within Sri Lanka against Rajapaksa, his family and their naked pursuit and abuse of power.

Over Confidence and Arrogance of Rajapaksa Family?
Second, perhaps Rajapaksa’s arrogance and over confidence brought his downfall. From the Airport to the rural areas, one could see huge banners of Rajapaksa, a problem afflicted with political leaders starting from South of India. The banner culture reflects a particular attitude of the political leadership, bordering megalomania. In Tamil Nadu for example, one of the previous losses that Jayalalitha suffered was attributed to this attitude.

Democratically elected leaders, in certain cases get themselves alienated from the very people who have voted them to power. When sycophants’ takeover and build a wall between the leader and people, and when the former get carried away and start listening to a self serving cabal, it is an invitation to disaster.

Added to the above problem is allowing one’s family to abuse the system. This has become a South Asian trait and a bane to democracy in the region. The “Rajapaksa brothers” have become a governance issue and even dynastic; the general perception in Sri Lanka about Rajapaksa, his brothers and wards has been highly negative – not only amongst the minority communities, but also the majority.

In fact the recent Sri Lankan Presidential election concluded was not about electing a new leader. It was all about dethroning Rajapaksa and his family members. The new President Maithripala Sirisena was an unknown name, even within Sri Lanka; by no stretch of imagination, even his own family members would vouch that his popularity carried the day for him. Not many Tamils and Muslims who had voted for him in the elections had actually heard his name before or seen his photograph. Nor the UNP, the main opposition in Sri Lanka was so strong, that it factored substantially in the electoral result. It was Rajapaksa’s unpopularity that elected Sirisena.

Rajapaksa’s decision to prepone the election presumably based on the advice of an astrologer – Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena and invite a Bollywood Star – Salman Khan to campaign for him defeats all political logic. What went wrong with a towering political leader, who was shrewd enough to defeat the LTTE? At the end, it is neither star power of one’s own, or imported from Bollywood that secures the win. It is people and democracy.

Development vs Devolution vs Decentralization: It’s the Combination Stupid
Third, the most important issue that the democrats in South Asia should understand is relating to good governance, efficient administration and decentralized power. What makes men and women as “strong leaders” is not their charisma, but their ability to make positive use of the same to deliver goods to people. True, Rajapaksa had vanquished an enemy and won the War. True, Rajapaksa restored the road and rail networks. But development has to go along with democratic governance and political decentralization. Rajapaksa’s fall should be a big lesson to all the strong men and women in South Asia.

Despite their individual popularity and even an emphasis on developmental projects, what people need is a clean government, good governance and corruption free administration. Rajapaksa may have restored the Yal Devi, the famous and historic train service linking Jaffna with Colombo; and reopened the A-9 Highway after the Civil War and necessary demining, linking the Northern Province with the rest of Sri Lanka. But, this has not cut much ice amongst the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka. In South, Rajapaksa may have built a huge international airport in Mattala and a deep sea port in Hambantota. And a super expressway connecting the Kattunayake international airport with Colombo city. But that has not resulted in Sinhalese voting for Rajapaksa. People in north and south, cutting across ethnic divides, were expecting not just developmental projects, but good governance, devolution of powers and corruption free administration.

Unlike the predominant perception outside Sri Lanka, not all Tamils in the island are pro-LTTE. In fact, the mainstream Tamil leadership was equally targeted by the LTTE during 1980s and 1990s. There were/are genuine political grievances, which Rajapaksa ignored completely; overwhelmed with the military victory over the LTTE, he ignored the mainstream. Perhaps his advisors questioned the need to devolve political powers, after the LTTE had been militarily defeated. The 13th amendment could have been a starting point, totally sidelined unfortunately.

A substantial lesson that the big leaders have to learn in South Asian context is the need for empowerment of the regions and providing adequate space for political voices from different spectrums. Beating one’s own chest about winning the war or vanquishing an enemy will yield fewer dividends in the long run. As a political turning point becomes history, people start living in their present. Democratically elected leaders will have to understand that the people want a better future and a comfortable present and hardly have time to bask in the glory of a past, how much ever glamorous it was.

The new President today has more challenges to address. But there is enough for him to start with. The fact that the election was violence-free and there was a smooth transition underlines the fact that the democratic institutions are still intact. Perhaps, one should also credit Rajapaksa for accepting the defeat and ensuring the smooth transfer of power. Well done and congratulations Rajapaksa. Whatever may have been your flaws while in power, you have accepted its loss with so much grace. You may have missed a huge opportunity to build the nation, after the military defeat of the LTTE; but by peacefully handing over power to the next President, you have earned some credit. Perhaps, the Begums of Bangladesh have something to learn from Sri Lanka on this issue. Perhaps, the other strong men and women who have been elected by the system, should also learn from Rajapaksa’s defeat. Democracies in South Asia may elect strong leaders, but will also not hesitate to throw them out, using the same ballots.

All the best Sri Lanka. 2015 should be a new beginning.

Originally published in Rising Kashmir on 14 January 2014