The enduring dilemma of dynastic politics in Sri Lanka

By Dr Chulanee Attanayake, Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies – National University of Singapore

The hasty exit of the Rajapaksa family from high political office in Sri Lanka is not likely to spell an end to political dynasties writes Chulanee Attanayake.

The resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 14 July marked the end of one of Sri Lanka’s long-ruling political families. After mass protests over the country’s economic collapse, Gotabaya was forced to leave office. One of his brothers, Basil, retired from politics in June; while his older brother Mahinda resigned as Prime Minister in May; and another brother, Chamal, and son Namal, and nephew, Shashindra, resigned from the cabinet early in April.

Gotabaya, who was elected in 2019 with an overwhelming majority, is accused of misplaced and ill-advised policy implementation and a slow response to the country’s huge international debt and currency devaluation problems. All of which had been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine War.

His resignation, a first in the country’s political history, led lawmakers to choose a member of parliament to serve out the remainder of the term ending 2024. On Tuesday, three MPs; acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Dallas Alapperuma, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, submitted their nominations. On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe was elected as the Executive President from a secret parliamentary ballot.

Until Gotabaya’s departure, the Rajapaksa family had ruled Sri Lanka for more than a decade. But the dynasty goes back to D.M. Rajapaksa who was elected to the state legislature in 1936 from the Hambantota district. Upon his demise in 1945, his brother and the father of Mahinda and Gotabaya, D.A. Rajapaksa, was elected his successor. Since then, the Rajapaksas have held sway over the Hambantota district’s politics and have progressed swiftly, culminating in Mahinda Rajapaksa being elected president in 2005.

Several members of the Rajapaksa family had entered parliament at different times prior to 2005. Chamal, Mahinda’s older brother, was first elected in 1989. Nirupama, Mahinda’s niece, and the granddaughter of D.M. Rajapaksa, was elected in 1994. Yet, it was with Mahinda’s ascent to the presidency in 2005 that the Rajapaksas gained real power and influence at the national level. As the years went by, they became more dominating and powerful, promoting more family members and allies to entrench their ascendancy.

The Rajapaksas and Sri Lankan voters have had a love-hate relationship since 2005. After securing victory against the Tamil insurgency, they attracted widespread admiration and devotion as heroes who saved the country. Mahinda Rajapaksa was revered as an ancient ruler returned. This blinding popularity led the Rajapaksas to increasingly centralise power in the hands of the family and a close circle of allies.

According to some media reports, during Mahinda’s second term, more than 40 Rajapaksa family members were appointed to government posts, not including those in the cabinet. Even as accusations of corruption and nepotism became louder, the family was too conceited to notice, eventually losing the 2015 election.

However, they did not take long to return. In less than three years, a newly-formed political party, Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), backed by the Rajapaksas, gained a majority of local government seats. Within four years, Gotabaya won the presidential election, and SLPP won a parliamentary majority. Their return resulted from the previous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s inability to deliver promised economic development and the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings. While allegations of corruption and nepotism persisted, many assumed the family had learned from their mistakes and, most importantly, would deliver what they promised.

People queue to buy kerosene, 2022People queue to buy kerosene, Colombo, Sri Lanka - May 11, 2022. Image credit: Shutterstock.

But they failed to deliver. Instead of enjoying development and prosperity, people had to suffer never-ending queues for gas and fuel, ballooning inflation, and shortages in essential food and medical supplies. Gotabya’s promise to bring the perpetrators of the Easter attacks before the law took more time than expected. Family members and their close circle started to creep back into the political system. Power was centralised yet again, with the family holding almost all the important positions in government – president, prime minister, and key ministries. The government’s misplaced policies pushed the country to the brink of collapse, prompting mass protests and the ouster of Gotabaya.

Dynastic politics is not new to Sri Lanka. Since independence, political families like the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes have dominated politics at various intervals. The Bandaranaike’s produced the world’s first female Prime Minister and Sri Lanka’s first female executive president. The Senanayake clan included J.R. Jayawardene, the first executive president of Sri Lanka. The newly appointed Executive President, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is his nephew. It is believed that Wickremesinghe will hand over the leadership of the centre-right United National Party (UNP) to his cousin Ruwan Wijewardene upon his eventual retirement.

Moreover, when the dominance of one political family declines, another emerges, as was seen with the Senanayake and Bandaranaike clans. Even outsiders who have attained the heights of political power have spawned dynastic lineage. Sajith Premadasa, the Opposition Leader and the presidential contender of Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in 2019, is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, the third executive president of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan political parties are embedded in a patronage-based system in which political mobilisation and the commitment of voters to parties is secured by state-sponsored infrastructure projects and access to welfare entitlements and rewards. Kinship ties have facilitated a patron-client system infused with institutions and traditions that have both democratic and anti-democratic dimensions.

In the meantime, like in many other parts of South Asia, this patron-client system and dynastic politics are challenged by modernist and democratic ideologies. It is argued that politicians descending from families have a significant advantage in their political careers from the start, increasing the probability of electoral success. Thus, dynastic politics is viewed as a barrier to the entry by fresh and effective politicians.

Moreover, nepotism and family dominance are seen as a cause of political instability.

It is unclear if the departure of the Rajapaksas will mark the end of Sri Lanka’s dynastic politics. Dynastic traditions in Sri Lankan politics run deep reflecting  the hierarchies and structural biases that characterise its society and political environment. Yet, given how the excesses of the Rajapaksa era helped create one of the greatest crises in Sri Lankan history, political families now emerging should know that excessive power might be the cause of their own demise.

Dr Chulanee Attanayake is a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Before joining ISAS, Dr Attanayake served as Director (Research) of the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka – the national security think tank under Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence.

Banner image: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivers speech as then-Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa looks on during ministerial swearing-in ceremony, Colombo, Sri Lanka - November 22, 2019.