Photo courtesy Foreign Policy
In the aftermath of the 2019 Presidential Elections which concluded another era of the Sri Lankan political journey, it is necessary to delve into the fragility of the Sri Lankan State. The results of this election depict that the Sri Lankan State continues to be aversive to the “One Nation – One State” concept, signifying further polarization within the voter base and questioning the efforts of nation-building and reconciliation in the recent past.
Having won the election with a significant majority, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa represents more than the stronger sentiments of the ethnic majority, the Sinhala-Buddhist camp; he now represents the entire Sri Lankan population. Significantly, the President-elect failed to secure the vote of the minorities in not only the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka but also in the upcountry region. Despite the lapse of a decade since the conclusion of the 30-year civil war, the Rajapaksa regime has repeatedly failed to secure the trust of the minorities since 2010. This, however, is not a surprise given the nature of their campaign, which carries deeply problematic political implications for the country in the long run.
Populism and the tyranny of the Majority
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign was founded upon two populist notions: the Sinhala-Buddhist ethnic identity, and the idea of strengthening national security in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks.
Populism is a form of politics which creates an “us against them” distinction and seeks to mobilise the “general will of the common people” against the “corrupt elite”. Ideally, the general will of the people represents the majority. This is a democratic feature because democracies function on the will of the majority. However, the idea of populism and its compatibility with democracy is debatable (this is a wider debate that the author will not delve into in this article).
Since populism can take various forms at the outset, it can look and feel democratic but can result in democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism, both innately inconsistent with the principles of liberal democracy. In fact, populism is aversive to liberal democratic principles where it erodes respect for reason, liberal institutions, and minority populations. Further, it can be hostile to liberal democracies when accompanied by ethnonationalism and authoritarianism, bequeathing the ultimate danger of a “tyranny of the majority”. A tyranny of the majority arises when the majority of a country (in the case of the Presidential Election 2019) quest exclusively after its own interests at the expense of those representing the minority (in numbers as well as ideology). This is a problematic implication for Sri Lanka, which has already suffered long-standing consequences of the majority-minority divide inherited through the colonial legacy of divisive ethnic politics between the majority and minority populations.
In a global context where identity politics and its populist frenzy have emerged attractive and successful in various parts of the world such the United States, India and the United Kingdom, it is not a surprise that Sri Lanka is no different. Particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, where ethnicity is at the very heart of nationhood and statehood debate, the legitimacy and acceptance of the State, as well as its political leaders, is woven around these ethnic identities.
Populist implications on the political will to strengthen Sri Lankan statehood
This results in the fragmentation of the idea of “a nation”, an essential factor in demarking statehood. What is generally understood as a legitimate state is a territorial entity which is comprised of a distinct population identifying itself as a nation and a government which holds the monopoly over the territory and its people. In such a context, friction on what constitutes the “Sri Lankan nation” fragments the foundation of the “Sri Lankan State.” When the election results were released several distinctions concerning the voters in the North and the South as well as voters belonging to different ethnicities were made by the general public. Theoretically, whilst a division of this nature should not exist in a stereotypical western model of a nation-state, in practice it was apparent that the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the South were questioning the political will expressed by the people who did not belong to their camp.
It was interesting to observe how the Tamil ethnic group in the North and the East despite having cast their vote for a non-Tamil leader, Sajith Premadasa (as opposed to M.K. Sivajilingam, a prominent member of Parliament representing the Tamil National Alliance- TNA), were still labelled “separatists”, and in certain extreme cases as “terrorists” by the Majority camp residing in the South. The sentiments shared towards the Muslim ethnic group was no different, especially given the xenophobia following the national security argument of the aforementioned populist campaign. In light of this observation, even though the minority populations seem to be trying to get involved in national politics in spite of the leaders’ ethnicity, the Sinhala-Buddhist camp in the South continues to voice against such inclusivity within the national political discourse.
Perhaps, the reason underlying the trust placed in Sajith Premadasa by the minority ethnic groups was his sentiments towards eliminating poverty, a problem that relates to everyone. On the other hand, it can also be a result of the lack of trust placed in the new President by the minority groups, given the blatant exclusion of their interests in his political campaign. In the case of the latter, the continuation of this exclusion furthers the deeply fractured notion of the Sri Lankan national identity and is a canary in a coal mine, signalling at the continuing dissatisfaction on the part of the minority ethnic groups with regard to the Sri Lankan political leadership eventually leading to another ethnic conflict lingering at dusk.
Alas, given that national security is at the heart of President Rajapaksa’s victory, in theory, it is vital to strengthen the identity of a “nation,” one of the key foundational factors of the “Sri Lankan State.” National security in Sri Lanka then becomes more of a political question as opposed to a wholly strategic and military one. However, given that President Rajapaksa’s campaign sought to solidify the identity politics of the ethnic majority, a factor which bore dire implications on the island in the past, the real question now boils down to the political will of the new Sri Lankan president as well as his regime to create an all-inclusive national identity. Without such a sense of national identity, realising national security will be quite far-fetched.