BANGKOK — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is enjoying an extended political honeymoon in Sri Lanka with his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — his first major test five months into his inaugural term.
The health crisis is a political shot in the arm for Rajapaksa, who hails from the country’s most influential political clan. The pandemic continues as the merits of conducting parliamentary elections on June 20 are being considered for the strategically located island in the Indian Ocean.
The national election commission has not ruled out postponing the poll if COVID-19 infection rates worsen. A delay would benefit the hawkish Rajapaksa since his political opponents have limited influence shaping the country’s response to the pandemic following parliament’s dissolution in early March. Political insiders say his military-style response to the pandemic has produced a clear pro-Rajapaksa tilt.
There have been over 600 reported infections and seven deaths since the first case was reported in the South Asian nation on Jan. 27. Most reported cases have been concentrated in just four of the country’s 25 districts.
Himself a former lieutenant colonel, the blunt-talking Rajapakasa introduced a curfew regimen on March 20 to lock down the public. He has deployed military-intelligence networks to trace people who have been in contact with identified carriers, and has appointed a military ally, Lt Gen. Shavendra Silva, the army commander, to run the National Operation Center on Coronavirus.
Both Rajapaksa and Silva played leading roles in the final stages of a nearly 30-year ethnic conflict, which pitted government troops against the separatist Tamil Tigers and ended bloodily in May 2009. Rajapaksa was the hawkish defense secretary at the time, and his older brother, Mahinda, was president. Silva commanded an elite division that was pivotal in the last stages of the civil war. Over 100,000 people were killed during the conflict.
“There is hardly any public criticism of the way Gotabaya has used the defense forces and the police among frontline staff to help the medical community combat the pandemic,” a veteran political insider in Colombo told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Many people believe he will succeed in this battle the way he did during the ethnic conflict — even if there is a spike in infection rates.”
Consequently, trenchant criticism about Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response from a new network of 22 Sri Lankan professionals and academics, drawn from both the private and public sectors, has had little impact on public sentiment. The Alliance of Independent Professionals reported this week a very low rate of 0.05 tests per 1,000 residents in Sri Lanka. This compares to 0.19 in Indonesia, 0.45 in India, 6.87 in the Maldives, and 11.55 in South Korea.
“As a result of the failure to ramp up testing, independent public health experts have deemed the month long islandwide curfew in Sri Lanka a failure,” the alliance said. “The criteria for testing a suspected patient remained a closely guarded secret marred by political objectives.”
According to diplomats in Colombo, the strong hand Rajapaksa enjoys has emboldened him to stare down his political opponents, who are now on the margins after he dissolved parliament on March 2, six months before its term ended, for a general election then slated for April 25. But that was not to be, because the outbreak of the pandemic forced a postponement.
Rajapaksa won the November 2019 presidential race with a convincing majority, and is seeking a landslide for his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, to strengthen his hand.
“The coronavirus appears to have changed Gotabaya’s calculations from the initial rush to conduct the polls,” a Western diplomat told Nikkei. “He appears to be weighing new options, but what is certain is his reluctance to summon the old parliament since his party was in a minority.”
Unsurprisingly, an offer by opposition parties to join forces with Rajapaksa to overcome the pandemic has not made headway. “It was more an act of desperation by a fragmented opposition who are coming out badly in this new ground reality,” a Colombo-based businessman told Nikkei, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are acting defensively and are not in touch with the political pulse.”
But the implications have not been lost on seasoned analysts: Rajapaksa governing Sri Lanka with executive powers without checks from a sitting legislature because of the poll delay. “Sri Lanka is in a peculiar constitutional crisis, where the president may be tempted to disregard constitutional barriers and move toward unilateral presidential rule without a parliament,”said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former professor of political science at the University of Colombo.
Some Sri Lankan newspapers have cautioned Rajapaksa’s political allies against promoting a so-called “doctrine of necessity” in the looming political crisis. Such ideas have been used in other countries to justify special powers that exceed constitutional bounds in extraordinary circumstances.
“This doctrine has very bad precedents,” Sri Lanka’s Sunday Times newspaper commented in an editorial, referring to democratic setbacks in Pakistan and Fiji where it has been used to legitimize extra-constitutional acts. “The people of Pakistan have struggled ever since to restore democracy in their country.”