Since 2005 he has taken Sri Lanka on a rollercoaster ride of extreme highs followed by unbelievable lows. He presided over an impressive military victory partially brought about through his uniting of key international allies behind Sri Lanka’s military campaign. But then, in subsequent years, he seemed dead set on making Sri Lanka an international pariah, and indeed ended up alienating each and every ally with the exception of China. At the time of his election he seemed to represent a break from the Kumaranatunga/Bandaranaike dynasty’s grip on Sri Lankan politics, and yet he also seemed intent on setting up an even worse dynasty of his own – appointing several incompetent members of his own family to important cabinet and political posts.
Ditto for the economy. He has presided over Sri Lanka’s stockmarket (the Colombo Stock Exchange) going from a global non-entity when he took office, to the best performing stock exchange in the world in 2010, before sending it plummeting to previously unknown lows as the fourth worst performing stock exchange in the world in 2013. If Sri Lankan political commentators are to attach an ‘-ism’ to Rajapaksa in the same way Western commentators routinely attach them to their own leaders, then Rajapaksa-ism would surely represent a belief in letting the wheels fall off a newly refurbished rollercoaster carriage several minutes after it has successfully conquered a seemingly impossible corkscrew.
Still, with the collection of achievements he has accumulated over the years – notably ultimate victory in a 30-year civil war – it would be difficult to imagine a leader like Rajapaksa losing an election in any State, let alone a poor one that has traditionally been even more poorly served by its democratically elected leaders than it was by Rajapaksa.
Indeed it is somewhat ironic that the tactics that Mahinda Rajapaksa used to win the war ended up being the same tactics that saw him defeated democratically. In 2004, just before Mahinda took office, Colonel Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan – better known as Colonel Karuna – defected from the LTTE rebel group, taking rebels under his control with him. His forces would eventually end up co-operating with the Sri Lankan government to completely clear the East of Sri Lanka of the LTTE in 2007 (almost two years before the conflict as a whole ended).
This election another high-ranking Colonel – from the Rajapaksa regime this time – Maithripala Sirisena, a respected former Health and acting defence minister, would be the one to defect unexpectedly to the opposition. Only on this occasion the defection dis-unified government forces and reunified the ‘rebels’. The results, thankfully, were a victory against the government. Karma is alive and well in Sri Lanka it seems.
Then again, the somewhat erratic forces of karma can’t claim all the credit. The biggest surprise in this whole affair has been Sri Lanka itself. The country voted against majoritarian rule, against autocracy, against a leader they loved, against facile arguments to vote for the devil they knew rather than the didn’t, nepotism, and international isolation. While all of these might seem like obvious things to vote against, this is a time where ostensibly democratic leaders everywhere from Thailand to Venezuela are being encouraged by their populations to turn to increasingly autocratic methods, where only 16% of Russians believe democracy is important, and the Arab Spring is increasing looking like an autocratic winter.
The New York Times is portraying this return to democracy as Sri Lanka playing its part in a South Asian democratic revival, but Sri Lanka’s vote for change was not a regional phenomenon like Pakistan’s. Sri Lanka didn’t vote for a leader who said he felt pity for Muslims in the same way one might feel pity for a dead puppy – as India did. And they certainly didn’t vote for a leader who won by default because 21 other political parties boycotted the election (as happened in Bangladesh). The much maligned Sinhalese heartland voted for a candidate who promised to curb the powers of the presidency, investigate corruption, pursue friendly relations with allies, as well as protect minority religions and interest groups. In other words, in a world that seems increasingly happy to ride democratically-challenged rollercoasters – either in the name of the tried and true status quo or the illusory hope of future prosperity – Sri Lankans seem to have been one the few people to have voted to get off of theirs.