Thursday, October 01, 2009

A political dynasty rises in Sri Lanka

Feizal Samath - With Sri Lanka heading for a prolonged bout of elections in the next six to eight months, a new political dynasty is in the making with more members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s extended family taking to politics.

Parliamentary polls are due before April and the government has said it would call a presidential poll by the end of December or early next year.

Some local council elections are also on the cards. According to the country’s constitution, Mr Rajapaksa can call a presidential election after he completes four years of his six-year term. This happens next month.

Government ministers have repeatedly said the president will call an election in the next six months to take advantage of his huge popularity following the success of the military in crushing a 25-year insurgency by Tamil separatists, a battle no one thought could be won by government forces.

Mr Rajapaksa, 64, has two brothers, Chamal and Basil, who are influential ruling parliamentarians while another, Gotabhaya, is the powerful defence secretary.

According to newspaper and website reports, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s eldest son, and Shashendra Rajapaksa, Chamal’s son, will probably contest the forthcoming parliamentary polls, and if they succeed, the Rajapaksa clan would extend to six members in politics at the same time. President Rajapaksa’s cousin, Nirupama, is also a parliamentarian.

Shashendra Rajapaksa, the nephew, led a highly successful campaign for the ruling party during a regional council poll in Uva province. He won 85 per cent of the vote in August. The parliamentary elections is a bigger stake for him.

According to Sirisena Hettige, the head of the sociology department of the University of Colombo, political dynasties in a country such as Sri Lanka are a problem because “we have not moved to a society where there is a balance between traditionalism and modernisation”.

India, he said, was a good example of how societies were able to manage tradition vis-√†-vis modern times. “In India, intellectual capability is recognised by the people side by side with traditional values and that’s why you have an eminent economist, [who is] also a member of the minority community, as the prime minister,” he said. Manmohan Singh is a member of the Sikh community.

“Intellectuals … don’t appeal to the masses, unlike in India,” Prof Hettige said.

Apart from President Rajapaksa, who is likely to win re-election based on his popularity and lack of a strong opposition candidate, the widely accepted view in Colombo is that his brother Basil is a potential presidential candidate in a future election or could take a powerful post in government, a member of the Rajapaksa family said in an interview.

Basil is a parliamentarian and powerful adviser to his brother, and is tipped to be appointed prime minister or foreign minister in a future cabinet, the family member said on condition of anonymity.

Such a dynasty-in-the-making is not a rarity on this island nation. The Bandaranaikes saw its patriarch, Solomon Dias, become prime minister in the early 1960s followed by his wife, Sirima, after the former was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.

In the mid-1990s, their daughter Chandrika was elected president in a cabinet where her mother served as prime minister. The Bandaranaikes’ son Anura was also an influential politician and served as foreign minister before his death.

Most political families in South Asia emerged from a background of wealth, aristocracy and feudalism, but the Rajapaksa clan is from a middle-class background as, the member of the family described, “those owning land in villages”.

© The National

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