Thursday, April 08, 2010

Sri Lankan president eyes new political dynasty

By Amal Jayasinghe - South Asia is no stranger to political dynasties, and Thursday's parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka could mark President Mahinda Rajapakse's first step in securing a legacy for his own "first family".

Rajapakse, 64, has campaigned for his eldest son, Namal, who is contesting the election in the family's home constituency of Hambantota in the island's southern Sinhalese heartland.

Namal, who will be 24 on Sunday, has no qualms about promoting himself as an ideological successor to his father, whose personal popularity following victory over Tamil rebels last year is expected to ensure a resounding poll win for his ruling Freedom Alliance party.

"I want to protect for future generations the freedom won by my father," Namal says on his website, which notes that he hails from "a notable political family."

The president rounded off campaigning on Monday by addressing a rally for Namal, and images of the smiling father-son duo have been prominent in local newspapers and television.

In the past five years, Namal, the eldest of three sons, has been groomed for political leadership, and was made the head of a national youth movement which has a strong network in rural areas.

Several other Rajapakse family members are contesting Thursday's vote, including the president's younger brother Basil, older brother Chamal, who is aviation minister, and his niece, Nirupama.

Austin Fernando, a retired defence secretary-turned-political analyst and author, said Sri Lankan society was generally open to the idea of dynastic politics.

"Since independence from Britain in 1948, most of our leaders have tried to ensure a family line of succession," Fernando said. "Some have had more success than others."

"People anticipate that Namal will one day be the leader of the country," he added.

Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, a nephew of Sri Lanka's first executive president, the late Junius Jayewardene, believes Rajapakse has taken nepotism to extremes.

"Earlier it was Rajapakse brothers' company, now it is Rajapakse and family which is ruling the country," Wickremesinghe said.

The prime minister and speaker of the outgoing parliament also have children contesting the elections, but their political roots are nowhere near as deep as those of the Rajapakses.

Sri Lanka's well-known Bandaranaike dynasty, which is often compared to the Nehru-Gandhi family in India and the Bhuttos of Pakistan, came to an abrupt end in 2005 when Chandrika Kumaratunga stepped down as president after nine years in power.

"Chandrika would have liked to have her son take over from her, but she failed because he was probably too young and there was no time to groom him," Fernando said.

Kumaratanga's father and mother, Solomon and Sirima Bandaranaike, had both been prime ministers and her brother was a speaker of parliament and a minister.

When Kumaratunga became president in 1994, she turned the normal course of dynastic politics on its head by appointing her mother prime minister again -- making them the world's first mother-daughter combination to rule a country.


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