This should have been a time for celebration. Friday marks the second anniversary of Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuming office as the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka. While the Rajapaksa dynasty may indeed be celebrating regaining and consolidating their stranglehold on power, the rest of the nation is not.

Rajapaksa’s two years at the helm has been marked by incompetency, inefficiency and impunity plunging what was a chaotic but still democratic nation two years ago into the clutches of an oligarchy from Medamulana that now controls virtually every aspect of government.


To realise what went wrong, the beginnings of the project to hoist Gotabaya Rajapaksa on to the pedestal of the Presidency must be examined closely. The fact of the matter is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was never the No.1 choice to run for President- Mahinda Rajapaksa was. He had no political experience whatsoever; he was known for outbursts of temper and he had spent his entire adult life thinking in a rigid military way- giving commands and expecting them to be followed without questions being asked. None of these are attributes for a good politician.


As a result, the Rajapaksas were faced with a problem. The ‘Yahapaalanaya’ government had enacted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and Mahinda Rajapaksa couldn’t run for office for a fourth time. Instead of looking at the next best senior politician, the Rajapaksas looked at which sibling was best suited to become the ‘spare wheel’.


That too was a conundrum. Chamal was getting on in years and didn’t have the charisma or the stamina for a presidential campaign. Basil was refusing to part with his beloved United States citizenship- and would have also become an obvious target for allegations of corruption. Namal was, of course, still too young. So, it was a Hobson’s choice: the Rajapaksas had to opt for Gotabaya whether they liked it or not and even he had to part with his American citizenship, which was a saga in itself.


It is not that Gotabaya Rajapaksa wasn’t ambitious. He was already laying the groundwork by setting up organisations such as the ‘Viyathmaga’. Then, the Easter attacks occurred in April 2019 and that provided the ideal launching pad for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to announce his candidacy because a shell-shocked nation, faced with the spectre of terrorism after a decade of being free from it, was ready to turn to the man who was Defence Secretary when the previous war on terror was won.


That is exactly what happened. The fear psychosis generated by the Easter attacks, the mismanagement and chaos of the ‘Yahapaalanaya’ administration and the duplicity of Maithripala Sirisena conspired to produce an overwhelming mandate for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the election.


There are many leaders who are elected unexpectedly because of circumstances that prevail at the time but then rise to the occasion to become politicians of considerable skill, Sirima Bandaranaike being Sri Lanka’s own example. Unfortunately, the past two years have shown that Gotabaya Rajapaksa isn’t one of them.


If one expected Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be a ceremonial President, allowing brothers Mahinda and Basil to ‘run the show’, it was not to be. He could have easily let that happen by retaining the 19th Amendment and allowing the Prime Minister, his own brother, to make all the politically sensitive decisions. Instead, he chose to replace the 19th Amendment with the 20th Amendment investing himself with even more powers than what J. R. Jayewardene had.


Gotabaya Rajapaksa could have succeeded despite that, had he used those powers judiciously. He didn’t. Some of his decisions- the pardoning of Duminda Silva and his appointment to a government institution, the appointment of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasarathero to head a Presidential Task Force and appointing Muruththetuwe Ananda thero as a Chancellor, for example- would have made even JR blush. It shows that, for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, what matters is not history or precedent, just self-interest.


Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s other instinctive response has been to resort to appointing military officers whenever he sees a crisis, believing that this would solve the issue. As a result, the public service is now littered with retired military officers heading government institutions.


When almost all the countries in the world have relied on health experts to lead their battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, Rajapaksa chose Shavendra Silva, his ‘go to’ military Man Friday. It was a decision that cost lives because vital health policy decisions were made on political considerations and not based on scientific evidence. There was a time when medical professionals were begging for a lockdown of the country but none was forthcoming. When it came, it was too little, too late.


Not only is Gotabaya Rajapaksa not politically astute, he is also stubborn as they come. His decision to convert to organic fertiliserovernight without any preparation has caused immense hardship and is threatening his political project, but he refuses to listen to experts or to yield even an inch.


One of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s slogans two years ago was that he would ‘change the system’. Early on in his Presidency, we saw him visit the Department of Motor Traffic in Werahera and telling everyone that the system had to change. Many were impressed and enthused by this straight-talking President. If anyone can do it, it was him, they thought.


No one thinks so now. Rather than change the system, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has surrounded himself with the same acolytes- thugs, chain snatchers, drug dealers, hooch peddlers, convicted murderers- that wreaked havoc when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President. They form a sizeable portion of the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna parliamentary group. If he was genuine in his intentions, he could have insisted that the bad eggs who spoiled Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legacy be kept out of the party’s nomination lists at the general elections last year. He didn’t. Now he is paying the price.


Then there is the Rajapaksa factor. Is the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency about transforming the nation and taking us closer to ‘vistas of splendour’ or is it about keeping the seat warm until young Namal comes of age? Two years on, it is looking less like the former and more like the latter.


Whatever Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s legacy, this much we can be sure of: no one without the Rajapaksa surname will be allowed to run for President from the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna!      



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