The ongoing 2022 Sri Lankan Protests, called Janatha Aragalaya, or ‘The People’s Struggle’ in Sinhala, are on the surface rooted in the severe economic crisis in the country that has resulted in debt default and severe supply shortages. However, these immediate issues are tied to long-simmering discontent with the Rajapaksa political dynasty. Members of the family have deep, half-century-long roots in the military, the agricultural industry, finance and banking industries, all of which they manipulated to tighten their grip on the political levers of power. Beginning in early April this year, these unprecedented protests have rocked the political landscape of Sri Lanka, as President Gotabaya was forced to resign and flee to Singapore on July 14th. However, the future of Sri Lanka looks murkier now more than ever, with the previous problems that have plagued Sri Lanka still casting a long shadow in its wake. What do these protests and the demise of the previous regime mean for the future of Sri Lanka?
Retracing the Steps to the Protests
A confluence of events led to the successful candidacy of the election of the Sri Lanka People’s Front (known by its Sinhala initials SLPP) candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa to the positions of president and prime minister respectively in 2019, even though just four short years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the presidential election of 2015. They are brothers who hail from the wealthy Rajapaksa political dynasty, in which Gotabaya was once venerated as the military chief who ended the Sri Lankan Civil War, which lasted from 1983 until 2009.
Another important factor is Sri Lanka’s status as a multiethnic democracy. The Sinhalese Buddhists comprise the majority, while the Tamils, Muslims, and other ethnoreligious groups comprise roughly 20% of the total population. Due to historical tensions, there has been a strong undercurrent of Sinhalese nationalists who believe Sri Lanka should only be for Sinhalas or prioritize Sinhalas first at the expense of other minorities. In the aftermath of the fundamentalist Islamic Sri Lanka Easter bombings of 2019, the Rajapaksas capitalized on the fear of Islam to their advantage. They weaponized their military bona fides to campaign from a strong, national security standpoint and tapped into undercurrents of nationalist and anti-Islamic sentiments against the Moor and Muslim minority.
Nepotism’s Corrosive Effects on Democracy
Once elected, the Rajapaksa brothers wasted no time committing acts that observers of democracy would note as actions that erode democratic norms. These behaviors range from torture and dissolution of Parliament to actions that constitute subtle forms of democratic erosion, such as nepotism. Nepotism is a running theme of the Rajapaksa administration, which is defined as the “bestowal of patronage by public officers in appointing others to positions by reason of blood or marital relationship.” They placed many of their relatives into positions of power, such as Basil and Chamal Rajapaksa as ministers of finance and irrigation, respectively, as well as Mahinda’s son Namal as the minister of sports and youth affairs. In addition, they engaged in practices that erode democratic norms, such as deliberately targeting and jailing members of the media, as well as stoking ethnoreligious tensions at the expense of the country’s minorities.
Although there are no explicit laws prohibiting these actions, existing consensus stresses the importance of an impartial, meritocratic administrative system. In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zeblatt note that anti-nepotism is an “unwritten rule… that [is] essential to the health of democracy (195).” Political appointees for the bureaucracy at the top echelons often reflect the political views of the incumbent administration, but most stop far short of explicitly appointing their blood relatives. This type of corruption infringes on the “rule of law,” which is one of the “three basic predicates of democracy,” along with competitive elections and liberal rights to speech and association. Nepotism is generally connected to an older autocratic system, where the state is not for the people, but for the benefit of a particular family or clan. Even the veneer of nepotism can damage the credibility of the state.
When confronted with these anti-democratic practices, the Rajapaksas merely emphasized that their SLPP party received a clear mandate to continue these behaviors because of their landslide victory. “People keep voting Rajapaksa family members [to power]. What can I do? When they do not wish to see them anymore, they will kick them [Rajapaksas] out,” Mahinda once said during an Al-Jazeera interview.
Other waves of discontent from external issues also worsened the crisis. Rising inflation associated with Covid-19 and price hikes from the war in Ukraine all contributed to the crisis. Internally, long-term financial mismanagement, such as large-scale financial embezzlement, nepotism, and spiraling government debt — meant that Sri Lanka has struggled to import basic essential goods, such as food and medicine. Small candlelight protests began at the end of March, which quickly escalated into large-scale protests blocking Parliament and city roads in April of 2022. Huge demonstrations also led to many members of Parliaments’ houses being burned down, most notably the Rajapaksa’s houses. These months-long protests and demonstrations have caused a seismic shift in Sri Lanka’s political landscape. The Parliament of Sri Lanka has since taken control and replaced Rajapaksa with Ranil Wickremesinghe, an ally of the Rajapaksas who is not particularly well-loved by the protesters (his house was also set on fire by the protesters).
The Future of Sri Lanka Hanging in the Balance
Is this the beginning of further democratic erosion or the beginning of the revival of democratic norms – in other words, a necessary forest fire that revitalizes Sri Lanka’s democracy? Scholars and activists appear divided into two camps. On one side, scholars of democracy remarked that the continuous protests and high turnout, especially among Sri Lankan youth, marked the unprecedented revitalization of democracy. Protesters were united across different socioeconomic groups in the fight for a peaceful transition of government. However, it is difficult to know whether these protests portend democracy’s revitalization, or if it is just a blip in the larger trend of democratic erosion. Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella and Anti-Extradition Protests of 2019 come to mind here. Under the new president, the government has continued to conduct violent raids, in which over 50 civilians and journalists, including one from the BBC, were assaulted. These actions all beg the question of whether the election of the new government signals the end of democratic erosion and backsliding. While it is right to be hopeful, the fact that the new president was an ally of the former president and has taken questionable actions at the beginning of his term does not portend well for the future of Sri Lanka.
Having seen how the collective power of their protests could topple a decades-old political dynasty, the people of Sri Lanka must now continue the hard work of holding the new administration accountable. It is up to them to determine whether their nation will be a remarkable story of democratic revitalization or an ominous addition to the long history of failed revolutions and protests.