As the island heads to the polls today, a victory for the Rajapaksas seems almost inevitable. Their brand of militarised Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, which has always held support amongst the southern polity, has taken their popularity to new heights with a simple majority all but assured. Indeed, a two-thirds majority, which would grant the regime the power to make constitutional amendments, is now within reach. Regardless of whether that is achieved today or not, the polls will nevertheless see the Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala supremacy on the island strengthened.
With the prospects of a cemented Rajapaksa rule ahead, it may be tempting to look for the silver lining to their governance, as many in recent days have done with some even referring to the possibility of ‘political calm’. However, there can be no illusions as to what even a simple majority under Gotabaya Rajapaksa means for the island. Since taking office in November, he has swiftly gone about establishing his vision of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Guided by the powerful Sinhala Buddhist clergy, he has granted the military a host of new roles and established mono-ethnic task forces, alongside ramping up attacks on civil society activists, journalists and lawyers - particularly Tamils and Muslims. The reinforcement of this oppressive rule will not bring about any political stability. Instead, the reverse will take place, with emboldened Sinhala extremism creating a climate for more violence to be stoked. This is true not just in the North-East where tens of thousands soldiers remain stationed, but in the South too, where anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric have reached alarming levels. As ten international human rights organisations stated last week, “a campaign of fear has intensified”. By the end of this week, it is likely that campaign will be strengthened. There is no sense of ‘calm’ about any of this.
Even if the Rajapaksas fail to capture a two-thirds majority at the polls, it will be no victory for liberalism or plurality. Mahinda Rajapaksa did not require such a majority during his tenure as president, which saw the massacre of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians and muzzling of the press. The clan has enough control of the state apparatus already to ensure that its Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist agenda continues undisturbed. Nonetheless, with Sri Lanka’s notoriously fickle politicians and their history of crossovers, the polls will not necessarily be the ultimate determination of whether the Rajapaksas can achieve a two-thirds majority or not.
Regardless, the prospect of a strengthened Rajapaksa rule should make all those who believe in building a sustainable peace deeply uncomfortable. International actors, in particular, must take heed. Their engagement cannot legitimise the state’s actions. As we have said before, those accused of the atrocity crimes the Rajapaksas stand accused of should be in the dock - not in presidential or prime ministerial offices.
Though the Tamils will be unable to stop the Rajapaksas sweeping the South, in the North-East there are glimmers of hope for increased plurality in Tamil politics. Over a decade on from the massacres at Mullivaikkal, there has been growing frustration with the Tamil political leadership. The hold that the TNA has had over the North-East has weakened significantly. Wrought by infighting and more than a decade of what the Tamil populace has seen as a failure to deliver on a range of issues - from accountability for disappearances to uplifting livelihoods - other Tamil nationalist actors have come into the fray, including some with more progressive and radical ideals. While there is little doubt that the TNA will continue to hold a majority of seats, a possible increase in the plurality of voices is welcome, as it will hopefully prompt long-overdue debate about the ideologies and strategies of Tamil political parties.
Perhaps most indicative of the bleak outlook for the island is the fact that the election arrives as Tamil families of the disappeared pass the 1,250th consecutive day of their protests across the North-East. Truth and justice remain as elusive as ever, while the island looks to enter a new period of bolstered authoritarian Sinhala supremacism.