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The Case of Sri Lanka

Authoritarian Populism, Illiberal Democracy and the Making of an Economic Crisis

The authoritarian populist tendencies of an excessive personalisation of power, curtailment of civil liberties, circumvention of the rule of law, and increasing militarisation of state apparatus have exacerbated Sri Lanka’s lurch towards illiberal democracy, thereby precipitating the grave economic and humanitarian crises.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his presidency has been the subject of much contested debate, and many argue that he ushered in an aut­hori­tarian populist regime that upholds a form of ethno-religious nationalism (Jayasuriya 2019). Sri Lankans elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their president (16 November 2019) in the aftermath of the deadly Easter Sunday blasts. The Rajapaksas were ousted in 2015 when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa first came to power in 2004, first as the prime minister and then as the president. It was under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya, the defence minister, that Sri Lanka in 2009 finally crushed the insurrection of the Tamil Tigers.

It is important to underline that the making of the current economic crisis is not hinged on short-term triggers alone, but also in the pitfalls of authoritarian populism marked by unfe­ttered powers to executive presidency and nepotism and corruption that follo­wed from it. It can be stated that the transition of a rule-based order to one of family networks goes back to the period of Mahinda Rajapaksa (Jacinto 2022). During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term as president from 2010–15, there were said to be more than 40 Rajapaksa family members in government posts, apart from the cabinet (Subramanian 2022). The Rajapaksa clan also dominated the Gotabaya cabinet holding key ministerial portfolios.

I argue that while the short-term triggers of the current economic crisis may be ill thought through decisions like populist tax cuts, switch to organic farming, and the impact of COVID-19, but the making of this economic crisis needs to be understood through the frames of authoritarian populism and transition of the island nation to what can be classified as a case of illiberal democracy. In the following section, first, I explicate the case of authoritarian populism, second, I highlight the transition of Sri Lanka to an illiberal democracy under an authoritarian populist regime—the Rajapaksa’s. I explicate this argument using insights more specifically from Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, and more broadly from the period of Mahinda Rajapaksa since 2004.

The Analytical Framework

So, what makes Sri Lanka a case for autho­ritarian populism and illiberal democracy? How is it different or similar to mainstream strands of populism? What are the clear linkages between authoritarian populism and illiberal democracies? What is specific in the case of Sri Lanka? Does one see a parallel between populist politics, for instance in Eastern Europe (Poland, Hun­gary), and Sri Lanka? What insights does the case of Sri Lanka offer, when we read the surge of populist politics, and slip towards illiberal forms of democracy in South Asia?

It can be stated that Sri Lanka as a case of populism differs from other populism as it combines the elements of populism, ethnonationalism and authori­tarianism. The term populism stands highly contested in both academic and policy literature. The contestation stems from different scholars “emphasising div­ergent attributes to the concept of populism” (Weyland 2001: 1). Most debates centre around whether to conceptualise populism as a thin-centred ideology (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2015: 17; Mudde 2004), a structuring “political logic”—to be precise, the logic of “the people”—rather than an ideology” (Laclau 2005: 117), where the category of people are constructed through intersectional filters (Singh and Feron 2021), or populism as a strategy (Weyland 2001: 14) or a political style (Moffit and Tormey 2015). From the standpoint of Sri Lanka, I adopt a view of populism as a structuring political logic; to be precise, the logic of “the people” rather than an ideology” (Laclau 2005: 117). Taking clues from the scholarly writings on aut­ho­ritarian populist politics (particularly the work of Bojan Bugaric [2019a, 2019b]) on Eastern and Central Europe), I argue that authoritarianism in the case of Sri Lanka does not mean only the “adoption of certain authoritarian values” (Norris and Ingle­hart 2019), such as “stringent security, intolerance for multiculturalism, and pluralism” but also a style of governance that attempts to circumvent the rule of law, and democratic norms in favour of centralised authority and limited political freedom (Bonis­kowski 2017). What is interesting in this variant is that authoritarian populists embrace a “form” of democracy and claim to speak for the people themselves, but at the same time by undermining its liberal constitutional foundations, they erode the substance of demo­cracy and gradually transform it into various forms of illiberal and autho­rit­arian regimes (Muller 2016: 60–64, as cited in Bugaric 2019b: 599).

This version of authoritarian populism consists of certain core elements. The first element is what Jan-Werner Muller (2016) calls moralised anti-­pluralism. For instance, both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa claim that they alone represent the people; in their world view there are no opponents only traitors. Further in this version of moralised anti-pluralism Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays on the threat from Islam, particularly against the backdrop of the Easter Sunday attacks. In a comparative perspective, Roger Brubakers (2017) highlights how ethnonationalism in Nor­thern and Western Europe has shifted from nationalism to “civilisationism.” This is very much evident in the case of Sri Lanka, as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s win can be attributed to the mobilisation of Sinhala–­Buddhist fears and anxieties, hinged on civilisational threat from Islam, in the wake of Easter Sunday attacks. It is interesting to note that one can find interesting similarities in populist politics, for instance between Hungary and Poland, and Sri Lanka, though these are completely diff­erent geographical/regi­onal, and historical contexts. Yet this is pertinent as it offers insights on the surge of authoritarian populism, and sliding towards illiberal democracies.

The second element, the non-institutio­nalised notion of the people, means “that the populists asserts or assumes that there is singular and morally privileged understanding or will that has not been manifest through the formal structures of democratic choice” (Huq 2018, as cited in Bugaric 2019: 393). The writings of scholars like Bugaric (2019), are quite instructive in the case of Sri Lanka. He underlines that in this version of authoritarian populism, a populist leader claims to do what the people want. So, the argument that “formal structures of liberal democracy have to be put aside if they are preventing the populist leader from fulfilling his role” (Bugaric 2019: 393). So for instance, in the case of Sri Lanka, the rollback of the 19th Amendment (19A) that was introduced to curb presidential power. The key point being that there were strong moves towards centra­li­sation and personalisation of power, and this was done through both extraconstitutional and extrajudicial means—a move that clearly explains the slide towards illiberal democracy.

The third element is marked by cons­ervative and authoritarian ideology, combined with the absence of a strong opposition. Iván Szelényi and Tamás Csillag (2015) argue that this drift to illiberalism and authoritarianism also has a legitimating ideology, a traditionalist/neoconservative ideology, which empha­sises the value of patriotism, religion, and traditional family values. And this is very much evident in the case of Sri Lanka; for instance Mahinda Rajapaksa’s construction of a metanarrative hinged on ideas of a civic nation, patriotism and sacred religion—Buddhism. Thus it can be stated that three combined core elements of this version of authoritarian populism ex­plains the clear linkages between populists and the advance of illiberal democracies—in this case for Sri Lanka. Further. borrowing from Zakaria (1997),

illiberal democracies can be classified in opposition to liberal constitutionalism: weak protection of human rights, an absence of checks and bala­nces, weak rule of law, insecurity of property rights and repression of civil society.

All exemplified through the politics of moralised antipluralism, the claim to be the sole representative of the true will of the people, all packed and sold in a conservative, and authoritarian ideology. The next section will explicate how each of the three elements played out in the case of Sri Lanka.

Authoritarian Populism and Economic Crisis

On the first point on “moralised anti pluralism” (Muller 2016), both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa claim that they alone represent the people—in their world view they are no opponents only traitors. Scholars like Muller (2016: 3) rightly underline, “populists claim that they, and they alone represent the people … The populist claims that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people.” In the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s discourse, it is pertinent to flag that the construction of the political logic of the people is rooted in the idea of citizen/patriots.

For instance, Mahinda Raja­paksa (as cited in Wickramasinghe 2009) states, “There are only two people in the country. One is the people who love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth.” What is pertinent to underline in this structuring of the political logic of the people—the citizen/patriots is that this category of “people” are ethnically undifferentiated ­(Wickramasinghe 2009). The idea of a civic nation as empha­sised by Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly exem­plifies the politics of moralised anti-pluralism. Further this coup­ling of the state and nation in this new patriotism, allowed Mahinda Rajapaksa to incapacitate his two political challengers: the United Nati­onal Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) (Wickrama­singhe 2009).

This political logic for the construction of the category of people continued to find relevance in the discourse of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Further, this emp­hasis on moralised anti-pluralism weakened the foundations of democratic institutions, as time and again, there was circumvention of the rule of law, dwindling of citizen’s liberties and militarisation of the state apparatus. And thus began the sliding of Sri Lanka towards what can be classified as illiberal democracy.

Further, the element of moralised anti-pluralism was further validated through what can be classified as the manufacturing of Rajapaksa myths. This in many ways also provided the legitimating ideo­logy (as put forth by Csillag and Szelényi 2015) to further the cause of authoritarian populist politics. Scholars like Gunasekara (2014) very rightly underline that “myths can can be extre­mely effective in creating and maintaining a sense of identification between a political group and a community of people.” A point well harnessed by the Rajapaksas, who constructed a metanarrative that established the connection between the majority ethno-religious community and the country’s new rulers. Guna­sekara (2014) argues that this metanarrative was premised on “three main myths—the myth of eternal nati­onal insecurity, the myth of miraculous development and the myth of the infallible hero-king.” He further argues that “three myths reinforce each other; in confluence they create and sustain the socio-psychological soil necessary for the new Rajapaksa dynasty to take root and flourish” (Gunasekara 2014).

The first point on the myth of eternal national insecurity can be clearly seen in the politics of both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For instance, in the case of Mahinda, it was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that was the trigger factor, and in the case of Gotabaya, it was the threat to national security from Islam, in the wake of Easter Sunday attacks. Second, both Mahinda and Gotabaya have been selling the white elephant projects, as the myth of miraculous development, though in reality all this was premised on an already cash-strapped economy, waiting to collapse. Third, what is very unique to the case of Sri Lanka is how the Rajapaksas constructed the political logic not just for the people but also for themselves as rulers who have been divinely ordained to represent the true will of the people. There was consistent propaganda by the state machinery to discursively build a narrative that hailed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the “High King of Sri Lanka,” divinely blessed and infallible hero-king, particularly after the military defeat of LTTE. Further there was consistent efforts to not just depict Rajapaksa as infallible hero king, but also attempts to create a mythical pedigree for the Rajapaksas, which connects them not just to King Dutugemunu but also to the Buddha (Gunasekara 2014).

The second element is the non-institutionalised notion of the people which allows populists to assert themselves as the true representatives of the people. Further this gives them the moral validation to put aside formal structures of liberal democracy if they are preventing the populist leader from fulfilling their role. It leads to greater personalisation and centralisation of power, and all this is attem­pted through both extraconstitutional and extrajudicial measures. Fur­ther, it is important to note that the executive presidency, and the nepotism that has arisen from it has played a huge role in pushing Sri Lanka towards the current economic crisis. As per conservative estimates, nearly 75% of the total budget of Sri Lanka was dire­ctly under the purview of Rajapaksa ministers in the government (Bhatta­charyya 2021). In this context, there is a need to pay attention to the spate of constitutional amendments unde­rtaken by both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa under the garb of people’s will, but basically to subvert democratic institutions and the rule of law.

It is pertinent to underline that the 19A in April 2015 was pushed by the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was an important amendment that checked the powers of the executive presidency. It was argued that the 19A was needed to correct the power imbalance created by the 18th Amendment (18A), which the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 had introduced. The 18A lifted the two-term bar for a president to run for office. The 19A brought in the reversal bringing back the two-term bar and reducing the presidential term from six to five years. It pruned the powers of the presidency and empowered Parliament. The 19A adopted in 2015 pruned presidential powers by empowering the 225-member Parliament above the executive president. However, the 19A was scrapped after Prime Minister Mah­inda Rajapaksa’s younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the November 2019 presidential election.

The controversial 20th Amendment (20A) to Sri Lanka’s Constitution that envisages expansive powers and greater immunity for the executive president was passed in Parliament with a two-thirds majo­rity. The 20A rolls back Sri Lanka’s 19A, a 2015 legislation passed with wide support from the Rajapaksa camp. The new legislation in turn reduces the prime minister’s role to a ceremonial one. The 20A was adopted by the Sri Lankan Parliament on 22 October 2020, and removed the checks on the president’s power by dissolving the constitutional council, giving the president total control over the appointment of the senior judge (Basak 2022). The president was also given unrestricted control over the Human Rights Commission, Election Com­mission, the Police Commission, and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. He could also use his powers to pick important legal officers like the attorney general, the auditor general, and the inspector general of police.

Thus it can be argued that in the name of the will of the people, and with a claim to being the true representative of the people’s will, buttressed by a legitim­ating ideology, the Rajapaksas left no stone unturned to push Sri Lanka tow­ards illiberal democracy. The marked features of this move were excessive personalisation of power, curtailment of civil liberties, circumvention of the rule of law—all marked by both extraconstitutional and extrajudicial means. Furth­ermore there was greater militarisation of the state apparatus, to such an extent that the military even ventured into civilian commercial projects in ways that undermine fair business practices. All this explains, how and why this version of authoritarian populism centred on the Rajapaksa clan pushed Sri Lanka not just to this point of grave economic and humanitarian crisis, but also towards illiberal democracy.

In Conclusion

To sum up it can be argued that there is a need to pay greater attention to the surge of this particularistic populist poli­tics, most evident in Eastern and Central Europe and now in South Asia, which can be classified as authoritarian populism. The dangers of this version of populist politics are that it morally legitimises the character of illiberal democracy in the name of national security/insecurity, religion and patriotism. This is also characterised by harking back to the politics of “civilisationism” centred around a threat from Islam, most evident in the populist-right discourse, both globally and regionally. South Asia stands at a critical juncture, with alarm bells ringing on the economic front from Pakistan after Sri Lanka. So, there is a need to move away from a myopic analysis of this current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, and the need to view it through the filters of authoritarian populism, and its ramification for constitutionalism and democracies.


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Updated On : 9th Jul, 2022
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