External Affairs

Putinization Has Been Stopped but Sri Lanka Needs a New Ideological Project

The possibility of the Rajapaksa-led opposition using Sinhalese communalism to unsettle and undermine the new government of moderates is actually very real

Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe walks past former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the ceremony to swear Ranil Wickremesinghe in as Sri Lanka's new prime minister in Colombo on August 21, 2015. Wickremesinghe secured formal support from sections of the main opposition Friday for a broad coalition shortly after he sworn-in for a fourth-term. Wickremesinghe took his oaths before President Maithripala Sirisena at his office in Colombo over looking the Indian Ocean at a simple ceremony telecast live on national television. Shortly after the brief ceremony, a powerful section of opposition MPs loyal to President Sirisena entered into a formal agreement with Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) to work together. Credit: Ishara K.

Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, walks past former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo on August 21, 2015. Shortly after the brief ceremony, a section of opposition MPs loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP entered into a formal agreement with Wickremasinghe’s United National Party to work together. Credit: Ishara K.

The most important consequence of Sri Lanka’s recent parliamentary election is that voters have prevented the Putinization of their country and its politics.

The August 17 election brought Ranil Wickremasinghe’s UNP-led coalition government back to power with an increased tally, though its 106 seats leaves it seven short of a majority in the 225-member parliament. It also prevented “strongman” Mahinda Rajapaksa from becoming prime minister in the style of Vladimir Putin. After two terms as Russia’s president, Putin became prime minister for one term in 2008, and then president after that. He continues to preside over a specific political order of autocratic authoritarianism that has taken hold in after the collapse of Gobrachev’s perestroika experiment.

Putin chose to become prime minister in order to overcome the constraints of term limits. For Rajapaksa, the prime ministerial race was a chance to undo the January 8 presidential verdict and return to power. Had he succeeded, he would likely have marginalised President Maithripala Sirisena in the same way that Putin as PM sidelined President Dmitri Medvedev.

What Putinization involves

A key feature of Putinization is the capture of the state by a cartel of political, business and bureaucratic elites, led by a strongman-ruler. The cartel’s grip is maintained through violence, coercion and relentless attempts at monopolisation of economic and political power. Putinized politics is leader-centric. The leader is presented to the people as the indispensable and single most important factor for national unity, political and economic stability, development and prosperity, and state security.

The deployment of repressive state machinery to control citizens into submission, silence the opposition and erase any threat to the regime by means reminiscent of the role of the secret police during the Stalinist era is another feature of the Putin model. Employing state repression as a political weapon, Putin has made life extremely difficult for all those who dare to oppose or even challenge his power. It is with considerable justification that a few years ago, some Russian academics used Charles Tilly’s well-known thesis of ‘the state as a protection racket’ to explain the political change in Russia under Yeltsin and then Putin.

Rajapaksa’s presidential election campaign last year and his prime ministerial campaign—which ended in failure on August 17—offered Sri Lankan voters a Putinesque promise. Rajapaksa was president for two terms beginning 2005. He got the country’s constitution changed in 2010 to enable him to run for the top job any number of times. He genuinely believed that the office of the president was his personal entitlement for life. And he also believed that Sri Lanka’s politics should revolve around him and his family and, therefore, that the office of the president of the country should be inherited by one of his brothers or sons. Rajapaksa also cultivated a large group of political cronies, some of whom came from the Left parties, to propagate the doctrine, or rather the scare, that without him Sri Lanka could only descend into chaos. This propaganda had many takers, particularly among the Sinhalese electorate.

Reasons to be cautious

With their uninterrupted legacy of democracy over eight decades, the majority of Sri Lankan voters have wisely rejected the Rajapaksa project of autocratic authoritarianism twice within a space of seven months. This is no ordinary news from a country which has struggled for five years to chart a path of democratic political transformation after a protracted and violent internal war. Sri Lankan politics is now in the hands of moderate political forces led by two individuals with restrained political temper—President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. During the election campaign, they were in fact taunted by Rajapaksa propagandists as weaklings, men who were no match for their strongman who possessed a muscular physique and thick moustache.

But has Sri Lanka’s drift to authoritarianism actually been halted? The election results provide grounds for only cautious optimism. Rajapaksa’s UPFA managed to secure 95 seats in parliament, just 11 short of the winner’s tally, and 18 short of a parliamentary majority. Thus, although Sri Lankan voters have said ‘no’ to the Putinesque promise, it is not a decisive rejection. It shows that in the majority Sinhalese society, from where he and his loyalists got almost all their votes, there is still considerable space for majoritarian nationalism—as well as support  for an authoritarian “strongman”.

The fact is that close to half of all Sinhalese voters responded positively to the Rajapaksa camp’s propaganda that the safety, security and political power of the majority Sinhalese community was at risk in the hands of those political forces that presented even a watered down and cautious vision of inter-ethnic reconciliation. During the election campaign, the UPFA-Rajapaksa-led coalition returned to the old tactic of exploiting the majoritarian fear of the minorities—in the belief that ethnic polarisation of the electorate would pay political dividends. This poses a challenge to those who have been elected to manage the post-Rajapaksa political order in Sri Lanka.

The battle for new ideas

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena . Credit: Ishara K.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena . Credit: Ishara K.

The possibility of the Rajapaksa-led opposition using Sinhalese communalism to unsettle and undermine the Sirisena–Wickremasinghe government of moderates is actually very real. The fall-out of the much anticipated UNHRC report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka might offer them an opening, precisely because the report is likely to give a detailed account of the responsibilities of the government as well as the LTTE concerning the grave excesses and human right violations that occurred during the last phase of the war. It will be a time for the impassioned politics of narrow patriotism, ethno-nationalist heroism, majoritarian victimology, and Western conspiracies. This makes it necessary for the new government to turn to the ideological front as well.

An ideological alternative to the insecure and isolationist majoritarian nationalism is indeed already there in Sri Lanka in the form of pluralistic democracy and moderate nationalisms evolved in the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim social formations.

The overwhelming electoral victory of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi—earlier known as the Tamil National Alliance—over hard-core Tamil nationalist parties in the Northern province shows that Sri Lanka’s Tamil society has begun to settle accounts with its past civil war and has opted for a politics of moderation and accommodative nationalism. In Sinhalese society too, this process has begun, but it has not yet been articulated in a manner that makes inclusivist, moderate, pluralist and accommodative nationalism the dominant discourse. It still remains largely confined to the political discourse of democratic civil society.

The fact that both Wickremasinghe and Sirisena are less ideological as politicians than Rajapaksa is both their strength as well as weakness. It is their strength because by de-emphasising ideology and advancing a project of pragmatic accommodation, they could appeal to the ethnic and cultural minorities as well for their support. It is their weakness because their project has not yet been articulated into a political consciousness that can by equally shared by all ethnic communities. It is a political project waiting to be presented to the masses across ethnic and cultural identities as a shared ideological bond.

Similarly, Rajapaksa’s strong ideological orientation combined with Sinhalese nationalist appeal is also a source of  political strength as well as weakness. He still presents himself to Sinhalese society as their savior, hope and national hero. However, that appeal has led to his total alienation from the minorities, preventing him from continuing in power. It is thus up to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government to offer a better ideological alternative — democratic, inclusive and pluralistic — to the Sinhalese masses.

The success of Sirisena-Wickremasinghe project for the multi-ethnic and democratic transformation of post-war Sri Lanka will depend on many factors. Key among them, of course, is ideology. Two politico-ideological projects now embedded in the politics of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese society are set to fight with each other in the months to come. The directions along which that struggle unfolds will help determine the immediate future of the country.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is a political scientist in Sri Lanka

  • Kailas Pillai

    The appropriate title is “Setback for Mugabization but Egyptization of armed services intact”

  • srivanamoth

    To a more intelligent audience all this “Putinisation” is in reality “Rajapaksation” of the “Siisena-Ranil” axis is in reality a Sinhala nationalistic plot to save Rajapakse from peril against the background of the last genocidal war against Tamils ending in war crimes etc in 2008, which Report is due to be published next Sept. by aligning themselves with USA to save the Sinhala plot at the expense of China now that they have secured a few billions of $ to keep the economy going for at least 2 more years! So its a win-win Sinhala solution at the expense of the Tamils and of course China which may not have a free ride as under Rajapakse regime. Even the UNSG seems to fall in line with this complex plot and forgotten all about accountability! Little wonder he has yet to reveal the contents of that piece of paper he secured from then President Rajapakse in May 2008! No wonder too the Chief Minister of the North who has to face the problems locally got nowhere on his recent mission abroad.

  • Dias

    A perceptive piece by Uyangoda that reminds us not to take the recent shifts for granted. However, at the current state of evolution, with Prabakaran and Rajapaksa both out of the way, any real “unsettling” can occur only if the new moderates are not capable of advancing the economic welfare of the people: the single biggest complaint of the ordinary person. Thus the challenge
    of the moment: is rapid economic development so that all citizens of all provinces – after decades of living in fear of bombs or white vans – can finally look forward to a free, bright and prosperous future. And the decades old ethnic differences are bound to progressively dissipate – as in the US (Blacks and Whites) over the last 50 years. The recent election outcomes are a tribute to the intellect of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people – who collectively have rejected all extremist parties including those heavily funded by wealthy Sinhalese and Tamil Diasporas. (The blogger is a Sri Lankan American)

  • Lord Shiva

    All Sinhalese leaders since independence including the current ones have been failing on rule of law, accountability, independent judiciary, human rights and justice as they have been going to Sinhala voters trumpeting Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism to get elected.
    Can anyone to change the Sinhala leaders and hard-core Sinhalese saint today when they have been committing crimes against humanity, treating minorities as second class citizens, denying democratic rights to the Tamils, attacking and demolishing Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples and putting up Buddhist temples after evicting the Tamil land owners?
    Eelam Tamils are hard working, disciplined, motivated, with full of determination (See book – The Hard Truth by Hon Lee Kuan Yew) and also in public life in Singapore, Malaysia and now prospering steadily in many nations around the globe after they were denied in their homeland. For the victims, already many years have gone without justice and they need to wait few more years as US proposing another strategy. This should not be a delaying strategy but genuinely give a last opportunity to the Sinhala leaders to act firmly, decisively and lawfully to investigate, deliver justice and bring true reconciliation. When delays in the delivery justice goes on, if the US administration change at the next US election, the victims will be pushed back for more sufferings and probably they perish without seeing justice during their life time. What a human tragedy in the 21st Century!